Kanomwan It's like stumbling across a great noodle shop in the middle of Mexico. This East End legend offers no finery (plastic tablecloths, bare-bones walls) and barely there service, but the gai pad prig phao is some of the spiciest chicken and rice you'll find anywhere. Stir-fried chicken breast slices in chile paste and hot cashew nuts will light a fire in your belly, even if you eat it with the mounds of sticky rice. And the gang ped (choice of chicken or beef) swims in a sauce of Thai red curry, coconut milk and bamboo shoots. And Kanomwan's delicious cha yen (Thai tea with milk over ice) washes down the heat and keeps folks all over the city coming back for more.

The best thing about Mockingbird Bistro is the unpretentious menu. This is the perfect place to enjoy a big fat steak with french fries and an earthy Rhône red wine or a hamburger and a cold beer. In many cases, the quality of the ingredients elevates simple dishes to unexpected heights. A roasted beet salad with goat cheese, walnuts and greens is a humble masterpiece. The moules frites, a European cafe favorite that consists of a bucket of mussels in broth with french fries, may be the best in the city. Mockingbird serves their fries in a paper cone with mayonnaise on the side, Benelux-style. The french fries are good -- when they're freshly fried -- but it's the fat, grit-free, cultivated pei (Prince Edward Island) mussels that are really exceptional. The wine list here is well suited for those with limited budgets and adventurous tastes.

Caribbean Cuisine When the kitchen door swings open and a cook carts out another tray of patties, all eyes are on the pies. The golden-brown pastries with pungent meat-and-vegetable fillings are as much a staple of the island nation as is reggae music. Patties come with every dish at Caribbean Cuisine, a casual spot in an unassuming strip center where the food is authentically Jamaican and so are the accents. The cook makes a searing jerk sauce that's served with chicken, goat and pork dishes. Grab a Red Stripe from a cooler along the wall and tap your foot to the Rasta beat. Or peruse the mini-Jamaican grocery store in the corner -- anything to pass the time until the kitchen door swings open again.

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.

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