If ever there was a "temple of cuisine," this cutting-edge American restaurant located in a former church must be it. There are stars painted above the former altar, and the bar runs where the communion rail used to be. Here, in this Montrose church-turned-restaurant, an un-solemn congregation of convivialists meets nightly to enjoy the culinary inspirations of chef-owner Mark Cox. Cox, a former chef at Tony's, has paid his dues. Now, at the peak of his career, he has his own restaurant and enough experience to know what to do with it. Cox is the rare chef who has attained an equilibrium in which imagination, enthusiasm and skill all work together in a perfect balance. American food is Cox's genre, and his dishes are bold statements. A stunning appetizer of air-cured venison and raw, thin-sliced buffalo steak drizzled with olive oil is an ingenious American answer to Italy's bresaola and carpaccio. Seafood entrées the night we visited included such rarities as ivory salmon (which lacks pigment), black sea bass from Virginia and gulf soft-shell crabs, each served with a vibrant sauce and spectacular garnish. An excellent wine list includes top wines by the glass, so diners can get different wines without sacrificing quality. The knowledge of the waitstaff is the restaurant's only flaw. While the service is excellent, the waiters we encountered all had a propensity to bullshit when they didn't know the answer to a question. Nobody's perfect. But Mark's comes close.
This is a no-frills experience all the way. These two little Heights-area huts have been around forever and, despite occasional turnover in staff, continue to serve up the best greasy burgers in town. You can either walk up or phone in your order. Most people get their food to go, as there's no place to dine inside. If you feel like eating outside, picnic tables are available.
This cozy cafe, named after a Slavic witch, has been a favorite for locals ever since Montrose became the capital of the bohemian culture. Now, the homey converted bungalow -- with patio seating and a lush herb garden, complete with trilling birds -- serves Houston's largest gay population, as well as artist types, workers and even families. Like its clientele, the food is a mixed bag of deli, home-cooking and vegetarian cuisine -- all prepared simply but deliciously. Winners include the Baba Yega Caesar, a creamier version of the classic, topped with grilled chicken and charred red peppers, and the skewered grilled vegetables over herbed brown rice. There are even tuna, trout, salmon and rib-eye dinners for heartier appetites. The best bet, however, is the huge, perfectly char-grilled burger, served with a side of Baba Yega's famous dill potato salad. Paired with a Bloody Mary from the full bar, it's the ideal cure for the common hangover.
Given that the historic Avalon Drug Co. and Diner is more authentic -- even if it, too, is in a newer spot -- many Houstonians consider it blasphemous to name the also-ran as the best diner. After all, what says "diner" more than screaming fry cooks and surly, seasoned waitresses? Well, let's review. Avalon II has all the right decorative touches: swivel stools, vinyl booths, checkered floors and vintage soda-fountain art, mixed with cheerful new snapshots of the local clientele (apparently a lot of families and cheerleaders). The faithful food consists of eggs scrambled on the grill, fluffy hotcakes, old-fashioned burgers on a buttered bun, fat fries, homemade onion rings and, of course, shakes, sodas and malts, made right before your eyes and delivered with the mixing canister. Blue-plate specials include meat loaf, chicken and dumplings and chicken-fried steak, though it's a shame to use fake gravy on real meat. Add to all that friendly waitresses, ready to treat your kids like royalty, and you have a diner deluxe.
Sure, the local institution that once sported a retro, school-cafeteria feel has given way to the neotraditional design trend of West University Place. But the food is still good, and the company is even better. Cafeteria standards like roast beef, chicken-fried steak and a really tasty piece of fried fish are joined by Greek fare, like pastitsio and moussaka, thanks to the native land of the owners. Enjoy the entrées, but don't forget to eat your vegetables, especially a sweet cracker-topped version of yellow squash casserole and America's favorite comfort food, macaroni and cheese. It's loaded with real cheddar cheese that globs in a heavenly mess on your fork and in your mouth. If we had one complaint, it would be the refusal to offer smaller, more economical plates, like the Lu Ann Platter at Luby's. Judging by the line that snakes out the door for lunch and dinner, it's a good guess that Cleburne doesn't need to offer any specials to attract more guests. Besides, the cafeteria makes up for it by offering every kid a goodie bag stuffed with toys and trinkets, as well as those old-fashioned mouse balloons.
Late at night, downtown Houston is awash in lights, a nonstop fashion show of men in black and women in too-high heels and drop-dead dresses. For this crowd, only the wildest, most electrifying dining experience will do. And Saba rises to the occasion. The Small Plates menu is a list of stunningly original dishes such as shrimp and pork pot stickers, crawfish cakes with daikon salad, and coriander calamari with smoked tomato aioli. Dinner items include dishes such as herb-crusted tuna, medium rare sushi-grade tuna topped with soy paste, wasabi and sesame seeds on a bed of slick udon noodles and tender wilted greens tossed together in a ginger shallot vinaigrette. Chef Larry Perdido and his staff have figured out how to handle the fusion challenge. They start with a single focus -- seafood -- and then they improvise. They mix. They match. They combine seasonings and sensibilities from various cultures and come up with some very bright ideas of their own.
Diners know the regrettable cycle all too well. A restaurant invests a fortune in fancy furnishings, fine food and a gourmet chef. Then an unfocused waitstaff spoils it all. The only spoiling to be found at Resa's Prime Steakhouse is the pampering of customers. Crowds regularly fill this Champions-area restaurant, attracted by a simple menu that boasts some of the best steak and seafood around. But it's the service that outshines even those amenities. Credit 18-year owner Resa Kelly, who worked her way up from waiting tables. Diners may examine the unprepared entrées tableside if desired. Briefings are unhurried; the expertise, even about the superb wine list, is an educational experience all its own. This crew has been by Resa's side with a kind of loyalty that only became stronger during her more recent and prolonged name-rights battle with a behemoth restaurant chain. In a time of ever-changing staffs and job-hopping in the service industry, Resa's is a return to an old-fashioned era of solid stability, where servers carry a refreshing sense of professional pride. If there are any doubts about just how seasoned this crew is, listen to them tease the latest addition about being the new kid on the block. He was hired only ten years ago.
When you're sad and lonely and nothing seems to be going right, you want to eat something that satisfies more than the emptiness inside. Comfort foods have a connection to warmth and safety and days when you had nothing to worry about. Fifth grade, when you came home from school and you could smell Mom's meat loaf in the oven and knew it'd be served up soon with thick mashed potatoes. Sunday dinner, when Grandmother fried up a chicken and a heaping plate of greens. If you need a lot of comforting, this is where to go, because This Is It will serve you up enough to feed a small army, and you'll be too satisfied to be sad.

Tucked out of the way in a shopping center just off the Southwest Freeway, Vietopia is a haven for lovers of upscale Asian food. The elegant two-story dining room recalls Indochina's French colonial era with bamboo mechanical fans, tropical greenery and waiters in long white aprons. The food is far more sophisticated than the pho noodle soups and seafood hot pots found in typical Houston Vietnamese restaurants. Instead, Vietopia presents such classical Southeast Asian creations as its clay pot dishes. These sublime risottolike rice casseroles are sealed in orange crockery, baked in the oven and then presented at the table in the cooking vessel. Vietnam is particularly noted for its hot weather fare, and Vietopia's main-course salads are an excellent case in point. The cold beef salad, a pile of lettuce, herbs and other greenery topped with thin strips of savory beef and wafer-thin slices of lime, is a hearty meal that still manages to be cool and refreshing.
Walls of shimmering glass beads separate intimate booths. A chef kneads dough and fires up the traditional tandoori clay oven right before your eyes. The food makes you love vegetables you used to hate. And the chef- recommended combinations serve up just the right variety of tastes for the novice. But most impressive at Shiva is the quaintly solicitous service. "We never leave our restaurant, day or night," proclaims the menu. "We cut and chop and boil and bake, stir and shake just for you, our dear customer, because we want you back with your friends -- even dragging them in by force if you have to -- we will be gentle with them."

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