Cali Sandwich It's not uncommon to wait for a table at this Midtown eatery. That's because of the sheer variety of Vietnamese food served here, all of it authentic and made with fresh ingredients. Bahn mi (sandwiches), pho (soups) and bun (noodle dishes) are all served here, and nothing costs more than a few bucks. Vegetarians will appreciate the extensive array of meat-free dishes, such as the fragrant, steamy stir-fry or the vegetable fried rice (to which you can add tofu). For carnivores, the chargrilled pork chop ($4.75), served with shredded pork and a fried egg on top of crushed rice, is one hearty meat dish.

When the original owners of Nielsen's first came to Houston from Denmark, they tried to sell the famous Danish open-faced sandwiches called smorrebrod. But customers didn't know how to eat the messy sandwiches (Danes use a fork and knife) and the health department wouldn't let them be displayed without some kind of covering. So Nielsen's gave up and started serving American-style overstuffed sandwiches with cole slaw, potato salad and deviled eggs on the side. Fifty years later, Nielsen's Danish deli on Richmond is a Houston landmark. But what made the place famous is a bit of a surprise: Houstonians come from far and wide to buy the homemade mayonnaise. While the thin-sliced pastrami on rye is excellent; and the corned beef, liver paste and Swiss sandwich is a work of art; it's the homemade mayonnaise-laden potato salad that caused Gourmet magazine to ask for a recipe. Nielsen's sells its mayo by the pint, too, so when you stop by for a sandwich, you can get some to stick in the fridge.

Best Neighborhood Spot in Bellaire

Bellaire Coffee Shop The coffee's always hot at the Bellaire Coffee Shop -- God knows how many pots they make each day. The Mayberry-esque '50s atmosphere is authentic here: The waitresses call their customers "hon," and there's a constant hiss from the griddle as the fry cook shoves breakfast and lunch orders along, somehow never mixing them up even during the busiest times. The coffee-shop faithful -- from the morning parade of breakfast customers to the mid-afternoon regulars who gather to chat about the day's events -- have a deep love for this eatery. The buzz of good-natured gossip is as much an ingredient of this experience as the steamy joe and homey recipes.

Owner Jorge Fife is the chef, bartender and occasionally the waiter. He also provides the entertainment at this wacky little joint in the northern suburbs. Fife isn't from Portugal -- he grew up in Mozambique, one of its former colonies. So while there's Portuguese chourico and feijoada on the menu, you'll also find curry from Goa, a Portuguese colony in India, and piri-piri sauce from Mozambique. The decor includes a simulated African hut and a giant map charting the travels of Vasco de Gama and other Portuguese explorers. The restaurant might as well have been called A Taste of Portugal and Its Far-Flung Colonies. But whatever you order, the sparkling hospitality shines. Eating here is like going to a dinner party at a friendly stranger's house.

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.

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