Barbecue is messy eatin'. The fewer people to see you go ballistic on ribs, the better. Even though Houston is a drive-thru town, most of us aren't aware the ubiquitous Pappas restaurants offer window service. Try the daily special choice of three meats and two sides for $8.99, and you'll get the sauce and bread alongside, but if you ask nicely, they'll also be happy to pass you pickles, onions, jalapeños and anything else from the condiment bar. You get all the benefits of visiting a barbecue joint without the unseemly public scarfing.
Just as there are food stalls in the mercados in Mexico, there are taco trucks in the parking lot behind the Farmer's Market on Airline Drive. The one in the middle is crowded with well-dressed Mexican-Americans at 1:30 p.m. "Taqueria Tacambaro," it reads in painted letters on the roof. There are stand-up counters mounted on three sides of the back of the truck. They all face a short-order cook named Maria Rojas, who is stuffing gorditas, frying tortillas and chopping meat all at the same time behind sliding glass windows. The taco al pastor is made with spicy pork that is crisped in a skillet and put into two folded-over corn tortillas, which are toasted on the griddle. Roasted jalapeños are a specialty of the "house." Maria Rojas is from Michoacan, and she cooks here just like she would in a stall in the produce market in her hometown.

Yes, it's loud and gimmicky, but they season the food well. The family-style servings, plus the mix of old favorites with moderately interesting dishes, guarantee an option to make almost any palate happy. Finicky kiddies who like their food simple can have the spaghetti bolognese; grown-ups who prefer a little more complexity can try the lemon chicken. And your kids couldn't be any more welcome here, no matter how boisterous they may be. God knows nobody will be able to hear them over the din anyway.

6510 Del Monte, 713-268-1115Nowhere in Houston will you encounter so many deutsch speakers. The daily specials are the thing to order, especially the long-simmered meats. German food usually doesn't sound appealing in the hot summer months, but the cold dishes here are exceptional as well. AnneMarie, the German-born proprietor and head chef of this little eatery next to Roland's Swiss Bakery, makes her own herring salad with a German-style sour cream, apple and onion dressing. Eat it on a slice of chewy sourdough rye bread some steamy afternoon, and then wash it down with a stein of Paulaner Salvator, the dark sweet beer from Munich. You'll think a snowy breeze has blown in from the Alps.

There are several sure signs of a great greasy spoon: Pickup trucks outnumber SUVs, "Texas toast" is a staple food, you feel the need to check your fork for stray remnants; and you leave feeling guilty yet satisfied. The Pig Stand easily meets all the criteria. Piggy No. 7 (yes, others do exist, just not in Houston) opened in 1921. Since then it has served up chicken-fried steak, liver and onions, and Pig Sandwich combos to all walks of life, be they lawyers, Sixth Ward bohemians or visiting executives escaping downtown for a dirty pleasure. Should the restaurant's name ever escape you while slurping a perfectly made chocolate malt, you can simply look around at the numerous pig pictures, figurines and collectibles. Homegrown kitsch is another solid indicator of a true greasy spoon.

"Colorful" is perhaps the best word to describe the offerings served at Café Red Onion, a blend of foods from Mexico and Central America. The culinary melting pot begins with the one-of-a-kind pineapple salsa and plantain chips and ends (at least it should) with the chocolate empanada. Owner and chef Raffael Galindo, a native of Honduras, not only melds many different Latin cuisines but he's also a master of presentation, using strips of red tortilla as a decorative, edible confetti and stacking everything so neatly on the plate that you almost want to leave it undisturbed. Some of the many signature dishes include the medallions of beef Colombia, which have been encrusted with coffee beans, giving them an unusual smoky, roasted note, and the cream of roasted poblano and chicken soup, thick with large chunks of chicken and kernels of corn. Each dish is so different in taste and presentation that it makes for an extraordinary culinary adventure.

Okay, so there are only two Malaysian restaurants in town. But at Malaysia Restaurant, the food is great and the prices are low. Malaysian food is the original fusion cuisine. The strategic peninsula has been ruled by countless colonizers. And every one of them brought along something to eat. There's curry from the Indians, noodles from the Chinese, roti from the Muslims, coconut milk from the Thais, fish sauce from the Indonesians, and shrimp paste hot sauce from the Malaysians. On the dinner menu, don't miss the stupendous fried crab -- a whole Dungeness crab cracked into pieces and stir-fried with a coating of the dried shrimp paste sambal. Get the chicken with orange redang curry on the lunch special menu. Redang tastes something like the spicy peanut stuff you slather on sate, only here it's used to smother noodles tossed with bean sprouts and green beans. Bite-size chunks of fried chicken, tofu and roasted eggplant are served over the top.
Houston is a Mexican food town. And Hugo's Mexican food is among the best in the nation. Rick Bayless in Chicago and Zarela Martinez in New York are chef Hugo Ortega's main competitors -- few others come close. As a native of Puebla who received his culinary training here, Ortega has a big advantage. His grasp of Mexican flavors is so confident that he doesn't feel the need to prove himself all the time. While others slavishly imitate out-of-date Mexican culinary concepts in the name of authenticity, Ortega cuts loose with new American abandon. His roasted rabbit in guajillo sauce with yams and jicama salad seems like a cross between Mexican and American Southern cooking. The tacos al pastor have so much pineapple mixed in with the crunchy pork, they taste Hawaiian. Meanwhile, there's no chips and salsa on the table, no fajitas on the grill, and no compromising to our usual Tex-Mex expectations. It's a brilliant balancing act: Ortega is upholding Mexican culinary integrity and charming the Houston fine dining audience at the same time. If you're looking for a restaurant that will blow away your food snob friends from New York or California, this is the place.
Chef Hugo Ortega, long the top toque at Backstreet Cafe, is now turning out cutting-edge Mexican food at this stunning new spot on Westheimer's restaurant row. You won't find any nachos, fajitas or chips and salsa here. What you will find is roasted rabbit in guajillo adobo with mashed sweet potatoes and jicama-radish salad, and quesadillas stuffed with mushrooms and huitlacoche. Chef Hugo is smart enough to call his cooking "original Mexican food" rather than fall into the authenticity trap. Instead of sticking to outdated regional Mexican recipes, he wisely invents his own combinations and presentations. Still, the restaurant lovingly showcases traditional Mexican ingredients and preparations, grinding its own chocolate, making its own tortillas and offering unusual specialities like cabrito, nopales and squash blossoms. This is the best Mexican food to be served in Houston in years, but it's also the most expensive.
Michael Cordúa's best dishes are shockingly imaginative combinations of bold flavors presented in wild new ways. And there has never been a better stage for Cordúa's brilliance than Artista, his extraordinary new restaurant in the Hobby Center. The location in the performing arts center has inspired everything about the restaurant, from the name to the menu design to the theatricality of the decor. The Hobby's soaring roofline creates a three-story-high space inside the restaurant. And the enormous windows frame the downtown skyline. Wacky overstuffed modern chairs surround the tables, red oval-shaped booths line the back walls, and the romantically lit bar is two stories tall. It's a treat just to walk into this place.

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