We should be up front and say that there are plenty of other reasons to visit Istanbul Grill and Deli besides the fine-looking staff. They have amazing stuffed mushrooms, soft bread that melts in your mouth and a wonderful Rice Village setting that includes outdoor dining. But what's wrong with wanting a little something nice for the eyes to digest as well? All of the staff members at this Turkish restaurant -- the men and the women -- have quite an appealing look. Maybe it's the pleasant foreign accents or the striking dark complexions. Maybe they put a secret aphrodisiac in the hummus. Either way, who cares? This staff will have you drooling over your tabbouleh.
When you walk in the front door, the scent of mutton commands your attention. Or is it goat? The restaurant's specialties are barbacoa de borrego estilo Hidalgo (Hidalgo-style lamb "barbecued" in maguey leaves) and chivito asado al pastor (charcoal-roasted kid goat). For a weekday lunch try the fabulously decadent tulancigueñas, three thick flautas stuffed with ham, jalapeños and mayonnaise, sprinkled with cheese and topped with cold avocado slices. There are no concessions to Tex-Mex here -- no chips and salsa on the table and no frozen margaritas. This place is dedicated to providing folks from the Hidalgo region of Mexico with a place to eat their favorite foods, listen to Huatecan music on the weekends, and hang out with their fellow expats. If you're looking for gringo-friendly Mexican, try Otilia's or Pico's. But for the real thing, check this place out on a Saturday.

Best Middle Eastern Restaurant

Cafe Lili Lebanese Grill One reason we like Cafe Lili better than the strictly halal Middle Eastern restaurants over on Hillcroft is that you can get a Heineken or a glass of wine with dinner. But that doesn't mean that the food is any less delicious. In fact, there is a homemade quality about the cooking here that puts it a step above most others. And the place is run under family ownership, not by a bunch of hired hands. Lili and her husband, Elie Sr., are usually on the premises. You might see Elie out front in the parking lot kissing babies, or you might meet him when he brings a free shot of thick cardamom-scented coffee over to your table. You can't help but be charmed by the genuine interest these folks take in their customers.

"It's such a nice night, why don't you have a seat on the patio and have a glass of wine while you look at the menu?" the kindly old man advises as you walk up the front steps. If owner Sammy Patrenella seems at home here in this big old house in the Heights, it's probably because his parents built the place. Eating here still feels more like visiting an Italian neighbor's house for a plate of spaghetti than going out to dinner. The front yard is a bocce court, and there's a garden over in the parking lot. Sammy grows peppers, tomatoes and Italian squash over there, all of which he proudly parades through the dining rooms every time he picks some. You can't help but love this place, even if the food is a throwback to a simpler time.

Mockingbird Bistro and Wine Bar Fresh Texas ingredients meet French Provence recipes at John Sheely's neighborhood eatery. Inside the eclectic yet comfy confines of this restaurant, you'll find some of the heartiest and tastiest choices around. "Bistro" generally implies a small cafe serving down-home food, but these eats aren't Mom fare. The menu changes seasonally, but the consistent onion soup is warm and delightfully filling, as are the pan-seared mussels and the fresh bread, baked twice daily. Only-in-Houston entrées include a grilled buffalo burger with seared foie gras, brioche bun and white truffle frites. Popular plats du jour include the slow-braised short ribs, which are so tender you almost have to spoon them up, and grilled prime rib eye with potatoes pont neuf, another Texas-sized meal with a real bistro twist.

Catfish and grits may sound odd to you, but it's a popular breakfast dish in the Southeast, particularly in Georgia and the Carolinas. And while Roscoe's House of Chicken and Waffles in L.A. made that kooky combination famous, it was actually invented by jazz musicians in New York during the Harlem Renaissance. Whether you're partial to unusual breakfasts or ordinary ones, the Breakfast Klub has got you covered. Ham, eggs, sausages, breakfast chops, hash browns, grits, toast, biscuits and, of course, cream gravy are all available. Both the patty and link sausages come from Burt's Meat Market (5910 Lyons), one of the city's most serious sausage makers. Omelettes are cooked thin then rolled up in a tight cylinder. "You can tell a lot about a person by how they eat their breakfast," says owner Marcus Davis. "Some people put jelly in their grits. Some mix their grits and eggs up together. We got one guy spreads his grits in a layer on top of his toast. It's a meal that encourages improvisation," he shrugs.
The mom-and-pop team of Teo and Carmen Gonzales has been running the funky-looking Tex Chick restaurant since 1982. The food is a schizoid mix of burgers, chicken-fried steaks, tacos and other Tex-Mex dishes, along with the only Puerto Rican food to be found in Houston. The mix owes itself to some shrewd thinking on the part of the owners, who bought a going concern and decided not to change the menu but rather add to it. Still, the food that makes the Gonzaleses beam with pride is that of their homeland, and they'll serve it to you as if you were family, which is appropriate since the place has only four tables -- it's like eating in their kitchen. Traditional foods like their arroz con pollo, carne frita or even the salt-cod specialty, bacalao, will be a welcome addition to your Latino dining experiences. And they're all served with rice and beans and a smile.
Turtle soup, champagne and gospel music; it's a heady combination on an early Sunday afternoon. You can't help feeling like you're in New Orleans when you walk in the front door, and Brennan's plays the Crescent City card for all it's worth. The Houston outpost of that legendary New Orleans restaurant-family empire is housed in an old brick mansion that would be right at home in the Garden District. If you're a fan of all-you-can-eat buffets, cross this place off your list. Except for the addition of some egg dishes, the Texas Creole menu Brennan's offers at brunch is just as serious as the dinner menu. But many regulars like the brunch here even better, especially when it's a beautiful day out and there's a table available on one of the most handsome patios in the city.

Express Grocery and Deli Don't look for red-checkered tablecloths or "Mom's Home Cooking" signs at the Express Grocery and Deli -- the family feeling runs far deeper than that at this delightful quick-order grill and convenience store in a corner of the Houston House apartments. Mike Baba set up shop here nearly two decades ago, weathering the then-desolate downtown area with the same genuine good cheer he dispenses to the expanding base of eclectic and ever-loyal customers. His longtime cook Margaret -- as well as his cousins, son and daughter, who work there too -- serve up respectable meals with good vibes and home-style charm.

You expect fiery curries and hot masalas in the Little Karachi neighborhood around Bissonnet and U.S. 59, but La Sani is something special. The food here is spicy in every sense of the word. Whole ginger, fenugreek seeds, chiles, garlic, cumin seeds and coriander come blaring at you in concentrations so intense that you can barely tell what you're eating. Few restaurants cook with whole cardamom pods and whole pieces of cinnamon bark, because average restaurant customers freak out when they find such objects in their mouth. La Sani, a halal restaurant whose patrons are mostly Pakistanis and Muslim Indians, pays little attention to such mainstream inhibitions. Imagine producer Phil Spector's "wall of sound" recording technique transmuted into a cooking style, and you have some idea what to expect from La Sani's wall of flavor.

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