A fusion restaurant that brings together Persian, Indian, Mediterranean and American dishes, this place serves the most ferociously seasoned Middle Eastern food you've ever eaten. All the meats are halal, the Muslim equivalent of kosher. Standouts include the Mix Grill Dos, with two kinds of tandoori chicken; a half skewer of jujubideh, a Persian chicken kabob seasoned with saffron and lemon; and a full skewer of koobideh, a highly seasoned Persian ground-beef kabob. The menu also includes a Greek shawarma wrap and bakra ke korma, a fabulous slow-cooked goat curry. "The animals sourced for halal meat are not fed hormones of any kind, so you can be assured of receiving healthier, better-tasting meat for your dining experience," claims the menu. Don't miss the fiery halal hamburger! Unfortunately, tencafé's halal status also means that you can't get any beer with your spicy food.

Best Neighborhood Spot in the Village

El Meson Assuming you can find a parking spot in the Rice Village, you'll find the air-conditioned cave that is El Meson a most relaxing treat. Always start with a tangy margarita (they go like gangbusters at cocktail hour). Then decide what you're in the mood for: Cuban? Spanish? Mexican? Here they have them all. There's always a relaxed vibe from the mostly young, professional patrons, even during the time-crunched lunch hours, and El Meson's funky interior -- along with the cushy booths and a second margarita -- will transport you right out of the Village. For a while, you'll inhabit an oasis steeped in delightfully sweet plantains, homemade salsa and the strong aroma of garlic from the kitchen.

Dim the lights and let the show begin. The cast of characters in this cozy nook of The Lancaster Hotel ranges from the elegant to the occasionally eccentric. The richly hued set reflects the intimate, refined taste of a real Broadway in the heart of the Theater District. While the city shells out millions in tax breaks for hotel and restaurant newcomers, Bistro Lancaster is the proud experienced veteran from the lean years of downtown. The always efficient waitstaff serves up simple but savory full-course meals and spectacular appetizers and drinks. Savvy patrons of the arts know that this spot, at the corner of Louisiana and Texas, has become as much a part of Houston's theater scene as any performance hall. Shows come and go -- the Lancaster's excellence proves it's here to stay.

Bank Jean-Georges Hip, Manhattan-based Jean-Georges Vongerichten is to eateries what Carrie Bradshaw is to shoes. Both are on the cutting edge. We had high expectations when he brought his culinary charms to Houston with Bank at the Hotel Icon, and Jean-Georges has delivered with his artful combinations of fine ingredients. With its high, vaulted ceilings, opulent decor and white tablecloths, Bank tailors to an elegant downtown clientele that descends to feast on Jean-Georges's fish dishes, which blend perfectly cooked tuna, salmon and snapper with orange juice, cumin and chiles. Popular appetizers include the Asian pears, chili tapioca pudding and ribbons of tuna sashimi. Not in the mood for fish? The steaks at Bank are big and bold.

The decor is romantic excess, the oversize chairs are well upholstered, and the carpets are extra-plush. Once you get seated, you know you're going to be here awhile. There's no menu. There's no waiter, either. There's just Aldo Elsharif. The talkative chef comes to your table in his sauce-stained whites and spouts poetry about his fish of the day, his fabulous veal and rare exotica, including ostrich and zebra. Aldo will convince you that everything you know about Italian wine is wrong and that you simply have to try his special of the day. The prices aren't low, and without a menu, it's easy to get surprised by the bill. But the food is wonderful and the little dining room is one of the most intimate in the city. By the time you leave, several hours will have gone by, and Aldo will seem like an old friend.

Besides the fact that the orange building with hammered-tin ceiling and yellow-stucco interior is pretty retro in itself, the food at Maria Selma harks back to bygone times. Traditional enchilada dishes feature the meat and sauce on top of the tortillas, not rolled up inside. And the old-style Mexican flavors mingle in such soft tacos as carne asada con nopales (marinated beef steak with grilled cactus) and the tender pork loin in green mole. Comfort food doesn't get much better than the hearty caldo pollo and the pastor (pork) tortas made with thick telera bread. It's a Ret-Mex spin on soup and a sandwich.

Avalon Diner "Justly famous since 1938" isn't just a marketing phrase for this classic River Oaks joint, which has spawned two offspring. The food here is just like Mom's, and it will fill your tummy. Old-style drugstore hot dogs and hamburgers (the drippy kind) crowd the menu, along with thick club sandwiches, salads that are a meal on their own and Texas treats like Frito pies. Avalon also serves farm-fresh breakfasts -- heaping plates of eggs, toast and potatoes, or homemade biscuits smothered in cream gravy made with chunks of sausage. And don't forget the fountain drinks: The limeades and cherry Cokes complete the flashback to another, simpler time.

Tucked away in a corner of the Heights, this all-night Tex-Mex mix offers fantastic, affordable food to all walks of life. Wander in around 3 a.m. You'll see barhoppers getting that fatty high-protein burrito fix necessary to whittling away the effects of too many martinis. You'll find artists taking a break from their creative woes, seeking solace in perfectly spiced mole enchiladas. You'll find a table of police officers enjoying a moment to socialize with their comrades over coffee and sopaipillas. What we like most about the Flower are the freshly made tortillas. Anytime from four in the afternoon to four in the morn, a waiter will approach your table with the hot bread, fresh off the mechanized comal to accompany your meal. Spanish Flower will satisfy, whether it's an eye-opening breakfast or that last taste of heaven before stumbling off into dreamland.
The Russian Bear is actually two dining establishments in one. The front room is a charming little cafe with excellent Russian food -- a wonderful place to take the kids. But on the other side of the room divider, there's an exotic-looking nightclub with red velvet curtains, huge mirrors and crystal chandeliers that serves up dinner and Russian entertainment on Friday and Saturday nights. If you're a collector of bizarre dining experiences, don't miss the Russian Bear nightclub dinner. Make a reservation, gather six or eight of your strangest friends, and come prepared to party. When the folk dancers, the belly dancer and the singers are finished, the crowd takes over the dance floor for some swinging Slavic disco.

With close to 200 items on the menu, if you can't find something to eat here, there's something seriously wrong with you. It's the largest menu in town. Fortunately, they've organized the menu into logical sections; nevertheless, it will probably take you longer to decide what to eat than to eat it. There is so much to choose from that picking just a few items to highlight is almost a futile task. Favorite appetizers include the avocado egg rolls, Thai lettuce wraps and California guacamole and Brie melt. There are 11 different pizzas and 13 different pastas, the standouts being barbecue chicken pizza and Louisiana chicken pasta. The house specialities include a grilled tuna burger, orange chicken and chicken marsala, and the entrées range from seafood to steak to pork, in varieties too numerous to mention. With 34 different cheesecakes, it might take some parties a long time just to do dessert. The portions are big as well.

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