Barbecue Inn The batter-fried steak at this fabulous old Houston dining institution features the crunchiest crust and juiciest meat combination imaginable. The bright white cream gravy might be a tad sweet for some. It's that old-fashioned variety that tastes like it was made with evaporated milk. The standard order comes with two chicken-fried steak patties, a salad and your choice of hand-cut fries or a baked potato with sour cream, cheddar, chives and bacon bits, served from a spinning stainless-steel carousel. The fried shrimp and fried chicken are also incredible. For a Barbecue Inn surf and turf, ask for a half-order of fried shrimp with a single chicken-fried steak patty on the side. Get a bottle of Tabasco and some extra horseradish to spice up the bland cocktail sauce.

First, you need to take into account the logistics of eating while driving. For the record, a car with a standard transmission is not the most desirable drive-thru vehicle, unless you have someone in the passenger seat to help out. Shifting gears complicates unwrapping and eating your dinner, and may even offset the benefit of efficient drive-thru food -- that is, food with a low soilage quotient. Okay, we made up that term, but we mean food that isn't likely to land on your lap, your tie, your blouse or your passenger (gotta watch those turns!). For years, the most efficient car food was the burger (and if you ever find yourself in Manvel, do not pass up the little shack with the orange roof that is Dilly Burger), but we have found a delicious Mexican twist to the meat-between-bread concept. The chicken torta from Taqueria Fiesta Guadalajara is held together with just the right combination of lettuce, tomato, guacamole, chicken and crema (glorious crema!). The fresh bolillos put a sesame-seed bun to shame. Taqueria Fiesta Guadalajara has been open just five short months, and there's no menu board or speakers to cut in and out while you place your order. You drive up to the window, a beautiful young woman hands you a menu, and you make your selection. The food is made to order and piping hot. The licuado de plátano hits the spot as you drive off -- searching the radio dial for some Tejano dinner music.
Nundini Food Store At Nundini Food Store, $1.50 will get you a scoop of real Italian gelato. Gelato has less air churned into it than ice cream, so it's creamier and a whole lot denser. It also stays cold longer and doesn't melt as quickly as its U.S. cousin. At Nundini, it's hard to recommend one flavor over another, since they change every week. But if you come across zuppa inglese (English soup), try it: Made with vanilla gelato and brandy-soaked pieces of cake, it isn't available anywhere else in Houston. Traditional flavors include nocciola (hazelnut) and that all-time Italian favorite, the soft green-colored pistachio gelato. Its subtle, nutty spice goes down oh-so-easily.

Cotton Exchange Bar We like toasting our balmy weather with a light beer in a cheap koozie. But sometimes we feel more genteel, and that's when we head to the Cotton Exchange Bar for a mint julep. A true speakeasy marked only by the "808" on a black awning, the bar/lounge is housed in the historic building of the same name, a once-bustling center of trade and commerce in 1890s Houston. The Exchange's julep harks back to those older days, when sweaty businessmen would simmer down over the minty, icy bourbon cooler. Watching its creation is a lesson in bar science: Bartenders here muddle huge mint leaves and then add crushed ice and Maker's Mark bourbon to a silver cup. (The silver creates a chemical reaction with the whiskey, igniting a one-of-a-kind flavor.) Sip from the icy, frosty silver tumbler and you're suddenly more relaxed, more refined, more...Southern. All that's missing is the seersucker.

Pezcalato Peruvian Restaurant If you think ceviche means rubbery chunks of mystery fish in a lime juice marinade, Pezcalato is going to spoil you. When you order ceviche at this mom-and-pop Peruvian restaurant on Richmond, you have to specify your fish. There's grouper or snapper ceviche ($14 a plate) or tilapia or catfish ceviche ($12 a plate). The fish tastes like it's been tenderized; it literally melts in your mouth. Every order comes with plenty of mixto, a delectable mélange of tender octopus, squid and mussels in a lime juice marinade. The seafood is covered with flecks of fresh cilantro ground so finely it resembles a pesto, and it comes to the table South American-style with a slice of cold, cooked sweet potato and a little round of corn on the cob. When you're done with the ceviche, drink the marinade. Called tiger's milk in South America, it's said to be a hangover cure.

After five years of satisfying customers with his famous black-pepper crabs ($11.95), Kim Son owner Tan La became concerned that the restaurant's most spectacular menu item was becoming passé. So he sent his mother back to Vietnam to find another crab recipe. She returned with one for tamarind crabs ($11.95), a dish introduced last year that marries Kim Son's plump, succulent crabs with a sweet and tart sauce rendered from the fuzzy, knobby tamarind bean. The crabs are stir-fried in the oh-so-sticky sauce and served up, usually four to a platter. No matter how many extra napkins they provide, it's not enough. You don't want to miss any of the sweet meat tucked strategically inside the crustacean, but the sauce itself is so good you may find yourself licking the shells -- and your fingers, again and again. After a meal of these, you'll find yourself wishing Kim Son had just one more thing: a shower.
Wing Stop Chicken wings fly out of this Dallas-based franchise. After placing your order at the counter, be prepared to wait precisely 14 minutes, since everything is cooked fresh. Their original wings are similar to those at the Anchor Bar in Buffalo, New York (which purportedly invented buffalo wings in 1964 and made them a part of our national culinary heritage). But even though the wings at Wing Stop are authentic, they're nowhere near hot enough to make us Texans break a sweat. The atomic wings, however, are coated in a habanero-pepper sauce and should come with a fire extinguisher. Nontraditional flavors worth exploring are the garlic-Parmesan wings and the lemon-pepper wings, along with the homemade ranch and blue cheese dressings that accompany the celery sticks.

Rudyard's A few years back Rudyard's Pub was given Best Burger honors. This year we salute their burger sans viande. The generous, tasty and never-dry patty made from nature's goodness sits on a perfectly toasted bun alongside crisp lettuce, ripe tomatoes and thin slivers of red onion. You call the condiments. One bite of this delicious, no-cholesterol stomach-stuffer might make you forget meat for good. Eat upstairs during happy hour to take advantage of cheap drink prices and avoid all the cigarette smoke.

Christian's Tailgate Bar & Grill Swaddled in tissue paper and laid in a plastic cradle full of french fries, this burger seems to glow. Maybe it's just the grease sheen on the upper bun reflecting the fluorescent lights. Or maybe there really is an aura surrounding the burgers at the convenience store called Christian's Tailgate Bar & Grill. The sandwich perches on the side of the basket, awaiting your grasp, its tissue paper tighter on the well-wrapped downward side so the top and bottom buns part slightly to reveal colorful lettuce, tomato and jalapeños within. The tissue-paper corners face forward and then double back so that the burger seems to be emerging like a flower blossom. If you pull up the top bun, you will notice a dark char circle surrounding the golden interior -- the mark of a perfectly toasted bun. Inside, the hand-formed patty is made from a half-pound of never-frozen, freshly ground beef. This is it: All hail the perfect burger.

Kim Son When you crave steamed pockets of Asian goodness, a drive to Kim Son's Stafford location is more reasonable than a 14-hour flight to the Orient. Truth is, once seated and eating at Kim Son, you might start believing you've left the United States. The palatial neo-Chinese-style restaurant and banquet hall adorned with a dramatic goldfish pond looks like the real deal. At $3 to $5 a pop, the 30-plus-item menu is so diverse -- pan-fried, stuffed bell peppers, beef or shrimp noodles, savory wrapped tofu, chasu bao, ha gow (shrimp dumplings), sticky rice and mixed meat in lotus leaf, to name a few -- everyone is bound to find something they like. The dim sum is offered only on weekends from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m., so save yourself the jet lag and drive on out to Stafford.

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