"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.

The junk-store decor of this waterside burger bar draws an odd mix of bikers and moms with toddlers. Seabrook is a scenic drive down Highway 146, past the majestic bayside refineries whose smokestacks stand as straight and tall as palm trees. You forget all about alfalfa sprouts and textured tofu here in the greasy heart of the petroleum industry. Tookie's best burger is called the Squealer. It's sort of like a bacon cheeseburger, but instead of frying the bacon separately so the grease can be drained off, they grind it up with the beef. The genius of this concept is that the bacon fat bastes the patty while it cooks. The result is a salty, greasy burger that stays juicy even when well done. When good cooking revolves around a soluble-grease diffusion problem, it's no surprise when Texas oil field ingenuity comes shining through.

Fung's Kitchen Canton Seafood on Richmond, Ocean Palace in the Hong Kong City Mall and Peking Cuisine just down the Southwest Freeway from Fung's Kitchen are all rapidly gaining on the grandfather of Houston Cantonese restaurants. But Fung's remains at the top of the heap, primarily for its 400-item menu and because it's still the best place for exotic dishes such as whole ling cod and fresh scallops and oysters. They don't shuck the shellfish or kill the fish until you order them here -- and it doesn't get any fresher than that. The seaweed salad, crispy eggplant, stuffed tofu, Peking pork and snow pea shoots with tofu are all brilliantly executed. Although the service isn't what it used to be and the prices are considerably higher than at the dozens of Chinese restaurants, noodle shops and dumpling houses a few miles down Bellaire Boulevard, the palatial red-and-gold dining room and elegant ambience still make Fung's Kitchen a special treat.

When you sit outside at El Pueblito Place, you'll start believing you're on vacation in a foreign land -- especially after a couple of margaritas. Palm trees with Christmas lights, tiki torches and candles give the expansive patio a romantic feel, and there's always live music, usually Latin. If you're with your harem, you can sit in one of the raised platforms draped with white cloth and made cozy with couches and pillows. It's a nice respite when it seems that the whole world is flocking to El Pueblito's patio. Even on stiflingly hot nights, the place is packed.

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