100 Favorite Dishes

100 Favorite Dishes 2014-15: No. 87, Calamari at Lillo & Ella

Once again, Kaitlin Steinberg is eating her way through Houston and counting down her 100 favorite dishes as we work our way toward our annual Menu of Menus® issue and culinary extravaganza. She'll compile a collection of the dishes she thinks are the most delicious, most creative and, of course, most indicative of our ever-changing food scene. It's a list of personal favorites, things she thinks any visitor or Houstonian ought to try at least once and dishes that are uniquely Houstonian.

Though it's only been open a few months, Lillo & Ella is already drawing a crowd to the space that was formerly El Gran Malo in the Heights. The colorful building is now a "Pan-Asian" bistro of sorts featuring the same thoughtful food that made a name for chef Kevin Naderi at his other restaurant, Roost.

Because I love Roost so much, I was reluctant to go to Lillo & Ella for fear that I wouldn't enjoy it as much as Roost. The two places are so different, though, that they're hard to compare. Roost is small, dim and intimate, serving creative riffs on classic comfort foods. Lillo & Ella is bright and airy and focused on the type of Asian food that Naderi likes to eat, having grown up with a wealth of Asian cuisine here in Houston.

The dish that, to me, most clearly straddles the divide between Roost and Lillo & Ella is the calamari--a traditional dish with a unique Asian flair.

Calamari is an Italian restaurant staple, often chewy and greasy and served with a seemingly unnecessary side of overly sweet marinara sauce. At Lillo & Ella, the fried squid dish is fresher, livelier.

Crunchy, bite-sized pieces of squid--tentacles and all--are fried and piled high on a plate with a slew of contrasting textures. The squid itself is tender in the middle and crisp on the outside, while tart chunks of sautéed pineapple nearly melt in your mouth. Cherry tomato halves pop with acidic juice when you bite into them, and toasted cashews add a rich crunch to the dish. Slivers of fried glass noodles with the texture of potato chips jut out at angles from the rest of the pile, daring you to eat them with your fingers.

The whole plate is topped with green onions and basil and drizzled in a bright, acidic miso dressing that pairs much better with fried seafood than tired marinara dressing.

"I don't even like calamari," my friend whispered to me during one visit as she dug in for more. "This is weird."

I suspect people will have some of the same reactions at Lillo & Ella as they did at Roost, upon first discovering dishes like Naderi's now famous cauliflower. They'll tell themselves they don't like calamari or tofu or brussels sprouts, but after some prodding by the charming waitstaff, they'll go ahead and try it anyway.

And they'll be mighty glad they did.

The list so far: No. 88, Pulled Pork Nachos at Way Good Food Truck No. 89, Garden Sammie at Local Foods No. 90, Barbecued Salmon Salad at Brooks Family BBQ No. 91, Smoked Salmon Waffle at The Waffle Bus No. 92, Chirashi Lunch at Sushi Miyagi No. 93, Finocchiona Sandwich at Siphon Coffee No. 94, Combo Catracho at Mi Bella Honduras Restaurant No. 95, Tamal de Puerco at Andes Cafe No. 96, Cheeseburger at Sparkle's Hamburger Spot No. 97, Mi Quang at Simply Pho No. 98, Helado de Lúcuma at Pollo Bravo No. 99, Fat Fries at Fat Bao No. 100, Fish Bánh Mì at La Baguette

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Kaitlin Steinberg