Panera Bread Company The croissants at Panera Bread Company look like they're on steroids -- almost twice the size of normal ones, they dwarf the side-dish plates they're served on. When you bite into one, you can immediately tell that it's made with real butter. A second bite reveals that it's very fresh, since flakes of pastry go everywhere (trust us, you'll be so busy enjoying it, you won't stop to care). The croissants at Panera are so fresh because they're baked throughout the day, not just first thing in the morning. Croissants like these are best enjoyed naked -- they need absolutely nothing on them.

Rosemary-and-olive-oil focaccia was the bread special the last time we stopped by Whole Foods on Kirby. The flat, crunchy Italian bread dripping with olive oil didn't make it out of the parking lot in one piece. Day in and day out, Whole Foods stocks excellent European artisanal breads. The chewy Prussian rye is our favorite for ham sandwiches, and the pecan raisin bread is perfect for serving with gooey French cheeses. But the biggest sellers at Whole Foods are the large crusty ciabatta loaves. Ciabatta means "slipper" in Italian; the name refers to the flat shape of the bread, which gives it more crust area and makes it ideal for oversize sandwiches. The half-size ciabatta loaf is nice for smaller households (and smaller sandwiches). All three Whole Foods locations in Houston are supplied by the same central bakery, which is known as the Whole Foods Bakehouse.
Giannotti's Pasta Factory Fresh pasta is common at upscale Italian restaurants and in Italian family homes, and it's easy to see why. One taste of the stuff at Giannotti's Pasta Factory is enough to convert anyone from the dry boxed kind. The beauty of fresh pasta, apart from its incredibly clean taste, is its speedy cooking time -- only three to four minutes. Giannotti's specializes in standards like spaghetti, capellini, fettuccine and linguine, which you can buy plain or in spinach or tomato flavors. They also make some incredible manicotti and cannelloni, and plain sheets of pasta for lasagna are also available. Best of all, the pasta can be sampled with a comforting home-style tomato sauce any day of the week at Giannotti's restaurant.

Goode Co. Texas Seafood Come crawfish season, this fixture on the Houston dining scene is packed with cravers awaiting bright red piles of mudbugs. It's no wonder: Goode Co.'s homemade fresh Creole seasoning of garlic, onions, celery and dried chiles is hot and flavorful. And these crawfish are big enough to win a fight. They're served with homemade smoked sausage, boiler onions and -- this is important -- corn and potatoes that have been boiled with the crawfish (not separately, the way many other establishments prepare them).

Edloe St. Deli This club sandwich is the best because it's the plain-Jane real deal. And you can only find it inside the ever-so-quaint, breakfast- and lunch-only Edloe St. Deli in West U. Served up with a fruit bowl or an onion-y scoop of creamy potato salad, the traditional double-decker sandwich at the Edloe is served on fresh and chewy egg bread, very lightly toasted. It's nothing fancy -- just tender turkey slices, extra-crunchy bacon, Monterey Jack, thick mayo, juicy tomato slices and frilly green lettuce leaves. This is a comfort-food junkie's ideal lunch.

One of the last of Houston's old-time tamale men was an American Indian named Walter Berryhill. Dressed in a white jacket and top hat, Berryhill sold tamales from his pushcart in River Oaks. He rigged the cart with a propane burner in order to comply with health department regulations and kept selling tamales long after most tamale men had disappeared. Berryhill's tamale cart is now chained to a pole at the corner of Westheimer and Revere in front of Berryhill Hot Tamales. The tiny restaurant sells five kinds of tamales based on Walter Berryhill's recipes: beef, pork, chicken, bean and spinach. These unique East Texas tamales are made with cornmeal, and they have a Southern corn-bread stuffing flavor and a satisfying heaviness. The bean and spinach tamales are both vegetarian, made without any lard. The beef, pork and chicken tamales have lots of meat, and Berryhill's chili gravy is served on the side.

Fleming's Prime Steakhouse & Wine Bar These ain't your Jack in the Box fried rings. Fleming's stacks a towering plate about six inches high with fresh, thick slices of white onions fried lightly so they're crispy on the outside and juicy inside. The golden batter -- made from Japanese bread crumbs, garlic, salt, pepper and parsley -- offsets the sweetness of these choice onions. A chipotle mayonnaise dipping sauce adds a tasty zip to the rings, which are so big you'll need a knife and fork to eat them -- or you could just wear them as a bracelet. At $6.95, they could be a meal on their own, so order these rings as an appetizer only if you've got a big appetite or several friends with you.

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.

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