Ragin' Cajun It's only right that our best Cajun restaurant has a giant fiberglass crawdad on its roof. The Ragin' Cajun revels in its Southern shtick -- from the newspaper place mats, to the heaping buckets of spicy mudbugs, to the just-crispy hush puppies and corn bread in red plastic baskets, right down to the bibs and cafeteria-style line. And although the line is sometimes pretty darned long, there are always the sprawling walls of kitsch to keep you entertained; they're hung with snapshots of happy folks chowing down, license plates, jokey posters and old beer ads. It's comfy and a little backwoods too, with brisk zydeco in the air and a rickety bar out back. For a real Southern-style experience, chow down on some crawfish pie, barbecued crabs or stick-to-yer-bones red beans and rice, and then wash it all down with a Dixie beer.

If you're bored with the minimalistic architecture and uncluttered decor of Japanese restaurants, you'll find Sasaki refreshingly bizarre. The place goes overboard on goofy serving contraptions and Japanese tchotchkes. But Sasaki is on the opposite end of the hipness spectrum from popular sushi restaurants like Coco's and The Fish. There aren't many guys with piercings or babes in little black dresses eating here. Nor are there any Godzilla rolls, jazz rolls or crazy rolls on the menu. But if you're looking for a Japanese sushi guru, someone who takes the time to talk to you and who really cares about your individual tastes, chef Toda is your man. His sweet and salty eel and rice rolls (unagi) are best saved for dessert. They're so addictive that, otherwise, you wouldn't be able to stop eating them.

Best Place to Turn Back the Hands of Time

James Coney Island

People say we're elitist. Oh, sure, we only eat our steaks Pittsburgh-style and drink our Russian vodka chilled. But dammit, we also go to James Coney Island, just like everyone else in Houston. Why? Because it's a slice of Americana. It's a captured childhood moment. Remember those summer days of grilling hot dogs in the backyard? Remember eating Frito pies right out of the bag at Friday-night high school football games? Since 1923, James Coney Island has been serving up smilin' wienies and sides. Now that JCI has 24 locations all over town, you're only a hop, skip and a jump from feeling like a kid again. Go ahead. Get the chili dog smothered in onions (still just $1.29). Those cheese fries 'n' tater tots taste just like the ones Mom used to buy. Oh, memories…Sigh.
Felix An easel and a poster board have been set up in the lobby of Felix Mexican Restaurant at Westheimer and Montrose. Polaroids of loyal customers and their families are tacked up on the board, and each is accompanied by a caption that tells how many years they have been coming to the restaurant, which opened in 1948. Quite a few Felix regulars have been eating there for 55 years. Some are fourth-generation fans. And while the price of the Mexican Dinner has gone up a bit from the 50 cents they charged in 1948, the flavors are the same. The chile con queso still tastes fabulous -- until it cools off and clots up. The awful spaghetti with chili gravy is still on the menu. And the combination plates, the enchiladas, and the chicken taco salad are just as wonderful as ever. So is the incredible 1940s Tex-Mex ambience.

The two-plate Mexico City dinner at Molina's is a classic of the genre. The salad plate includes a beef taco, a bean tostada, a puffy tortilla with queso and a guacamole salad. And on the hot plate, there are gooey cheese enchiladas in chili gravy with onions, a tamale with chili con carne, and rice and beans. A pecan praline is included with dinner, just like in the good old days. But if you think the Mexico City dinner has something to do with the Mexican capital, guess again. The name refers to the Mexico City Restaurant, a once-popular Tex-Mex joint on South Main that the Molina family purchased in 1940. "Restaurants were run by families then. Mom cooked, Dad waited tables, I washed dishes," remembers Raul Jr. of the early years. The Molina's Mexican Restaurant operation is now run by the third generation of the Molina family, including Raul the third.
The martini is icy, the club chair is plush, and Frank Sinatra is crooning on the sound system in the cushy lounge at Vic & Anthony's, the opulent new steak house across the street from Minute Maid Park. On the back wall of the bar is a small black-and-white photo of a smiling Old Blue Eyes posing with owner Tilman Fertitta's cousin Anthony. It's a nice touch. What a joy to have a steak house with a Houston atmosphere. The Morton's chain builds shopping center clones of their original Chicago steak house; Capital Grille builds imitations of their Washington, D.C., operation; and Palm apes a chop house on Second Avenue in New York. At Vic & Anthony's, the exterior architecture matches that of Union Station and the baseball park down the street, and the interior is decorated with old photos documenting the history of downtown Houston and Fertitta's colorful Italian family. What a difference a little local pride makes.

Heading west on 610 from Reliant Stadium, you'll see J&J's "fresh seafood" sign poking up over the elevated section of the highway. Unfortunately, by the time you see the sign, it's too late to get off at the Stella Link exit, where this classic "you buy it, we fry it" fish market is located. But the Gulf Coast-style fish and chips are certainly worth a U-turn. No frozen fillets here. Order a fried fish dinner and not only will you get your choice of redfish, trout or drum, but you'll also be able to help them pick out the fresh fish from the seafood case and watch them clean it. And along with your fish and chips, you can choose from a wide selection of extras, including perfect fried oysters, huge fried shrimp, hush puppies, fried okra, onion rings, egg rolls, clam strips and fried mushrooms. One big piece of fried fish with french fries and three shrimp will cost you a whopping $4.29. Bet you're glad you made that U-turn now.
Mai's The bars have closed, and the munchies have your stomach growling -- roaring -- for something more than just a burger from a drive-thru window. Although late-night dining used to be an oxymoron in Houston, now there are a bunch of spots in the downtown area. Judging by its loyal and lively wee-hours crowd, unpretentious Mai's seems to be a favorite for bleary-eyed party animals. On the southern end of downtown, Mai's stays open until 3:30 a.m. on weekends and 3 a.m. on weekdays, serving Asian fare such as soft spring rolls, light choose-your-own-topping vermicelli and savory stir-fry vegetables with noodles. You'll dine among folks in dinner jackets, jeans and tattoos, and just about everything in between.

Reid's Bar-B-Que Eddie Reid opened this place with her husband, James Reid, in 1968. James passed away nine years ago, and now Eddie runs the establishment with her son, James, who learned to cook at his father's side. The brisket and ribs are smoked in the classic East Texas African-American style, so the meats are very moist and extremely tender, with a huge smoky aroma. In keeping with the style, everything is drenched in a sauce that's too sweet for some palates. Ask for yours on the side. The mashed potato salad is homemade and seasoned with a little pickle juice, and the pinto beans are served plain. If you order a brisket sandwich, what you get is a generous pile of falling-apart beef and a couple of slices of white bread. Pickles and onions are 50 cents extra. You assemble your own sandwiches when you get home -- that way they

don't get all soggy.

Legend has it that the word bistro comes from a Russian word for "quick," or "hurry up!" How fitting that one of the best restaurants in the Theater District should be a bistro, since speedy service is exactly what theatergoers are looking for. The menu at Papillon features lots of dishes that French bistros have made famous (steak frites, roasted chicken and mussels in broth). But few restaurants that call themselves bistros reach for the stars with ambitious dishes like Papillon's duck breast with foie gras. The decor is dramatic, too. Located in the Hogg Building, around the corner from the Alley Theatre, the restaurant gains instant character from the space. Exposed ductwork and raw brick walls are softened by refinished wood floors and green and purple chiffon drapes -- it feels like a dressy dinner party held in a warehouse.

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