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Dining — The ABC's of Dining

The art of cooking - and enjoying the results - is an area in which Houston truly shines. Use "The ABCs of Dining" to help track down Houston's culinary treats, from four-star meals to down-home favorites. A handy list of some popular spots is included to help guide the way.

Because of the overwhelming number of quality restaurants, choosing where to eat in Houston is a challenge. Zagat's restaurant survey often has noted that Houstonians eat out more often than residents of nearly any other metropolitan area. With more than 6,800 restaurants in Houston, this is not surprising. A person could eat at a different restaurant every day for the next 30 years! Also Houston's wide variety of available cuisines reflects the more than 100 ethnic groups in Houston's metropolitan area. The following primer gives a taste of what Houston has to offer, but it's like an appetizer - just enough to get the meal started.

A - Always come hungry

Texas is known for believing bigger is better and serving up food is no exception.

B - Barbeque

Barbeque means beef in Texas - slow-smoked beef brisket - even though chicken, ham and pork ribs can be found on most barbeque restaurant menus. Three local favorites are Goode Company Barbeque Grill, serving up mesquite barbeque in a casual atmosphere, Otto's Barbeque and Hamburgers, a Houston institution for more than 50 years, and County Line, where the meat falls off the bone.

Another place to find good barbeque is the Texas-hosted World's Championship Bar-B-Que Contest, which kicks off the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo.

C - Chinese and other Asian cuisines

The Asian population accounts for about 7 percent of the city's 2 million residents and, as a result, Houstonians have a wide variety of choices when it comes to Chinese, Indian, Thai, Japanese and Vietnamese food (just to name a few). For example, Shanghai River helped introduce China's spicy Hunan and Szechwan cuisines to Texas.

Auntie Chang's Dumpling House serves Cantonese-inspired food (and dumplings, of course). Khyber Restaurant offers Northern Indian food, while Madras Pavilion serves spicy, all-vegetarian cuisine featuring the flavors of Southern India. Nit Noi and Thai Spice offer Thai specialties. Mo Mong and Vietopia Vietnamese Cuisine dish up Vietnamese fare.

D - Delis and Diners

Kahn's, located in Rice Village, offers a variety of Ruebens as well as deli sandwiches. Katz's Delicatessen in the Montrose area is open 24 hours a day and has an extensive menu that includes breakfasts and desserts. Kenny and Ziggy's Delicatessen on Post Oak Boulevard offers true Jewish deli fare. For a real diner feel, Avalon Diner offers a setting reminiscent of drugstore diners from the 1940s. The 59 Diner has the feel of a 1950s malt shop and serves hearty breakfasts as well as plenty of comfort food, such as chicken-fried steak smothered in country gravy.

E - Elvis Spotting

At Chuy's, Elvis is the patron saint of Tex-Mex (e.g., fajitas) - there are even dishes named after him.

F - Families with restaurants in their blood

When a name such as Pappas or Mandola is put together with an area restaurant, Houstonians know to expect quality. The Pappas family of restaurants is currently operated by grandsons of H.D. Pappas who left Greece in 1897. Based in Houston, but with a national presence, the restaurants include Pappadeaux Seafood Kitchen (Cajun cooking), Pappasito's Cantina (Tex-Mex), Pappas Seafood, Pappas Bros. Steakhouse and Pappas Bar-B-Q.

The Mandola family ancestors came to the United States from Sicily. From Tony Mandola, with his Blue Oyster Bar and Tony Mandola's Gulf Coast Kitchen, to his brother Vincent Mandola, with his Nino's Italian Restaurant, Vincent's and Grappino di Nino, and from Damian Mandola, with his Damian's Cucina Italiana, to his nephew, Johnny Carrabba, and their co-founded Carrabba's Italian Grill, the Mandola family has made its mark on the city's restaurant scene.

G - Gaucho-clad waiters

At Fogo de Chäo, gaucho-costumed waiters bring a variety of meats to the table on skewers and keep it coming, until patrons cry "uncle."

H - Haute Cuisine

Recent additions that have made reviewers take notice include Hugo's Restaurant, which serves sophisticated, modern Mexican food.   Located in a converted plumbing supply store, circa-1925, Hugo's was voted best new restaurant by My Table in 2003.

Restaurant Indika sits in what has been described as a cuckoo-clock cottage at the back of a shopping center off Memorial Drive and focuses on North Indian cuisine, with flatbreads and meats. Indika's chef-owner, Anita Jaisinghani, worked most recently at Café Annie, and has carved out a respected name for the restaurant, winning the Houston Press award for best Indian restaurant in 2003 and 2004 and best new restaurant in 2002.

Mockingbird Bistro Wine Bar, voted best new restaurant by My Table in 2002, serves Mediterranean-American eclectic food in a restaurant with a wacky medieval atmosphere.

I - Italian: So many choices, so little time

Nino's and Vincent's both offer the finest in regional Italian cuisine. The spit-roasted lemon and garlic chicken from Vincent's wood-fired rotisserie is a house specialty.

Damian's Cucina Italiana created by Damian Mandola, offers Italian food in a formal but welcoming setting. For a romantic and intimate dinner, Damian's also offers a Chef's Table, tucked away in a corner of Damian's main kitchen. A shuttle service offers theater goers a lift to and from their shows.

Arcodoro reflects the Sardinian heritage of owner Efisio Farris. The menu includes homemade pastas, pizza made in a wood-burning oven, baked whole fish, steaks and hearty Sardinian fare - described as a simple, rustic cuisine, rich in flavor and texture.

J - Just about everything else

Houston has it all when it comes to variety, and even though not highlighted elsewhere, the following cuisines (among others) can be found: Argentinean, Belgian, Cajun, Caribbean, Chilean, Columbian, Ethiopian, Guatemalan, German, Greek, Indonesian, Korean, Middle Eastern, Moroccan, Persian, Pakistani, Polish, Russian, Salvadoran and Turkish.

K - Kemah

Twenty miles from downtown Houston, the 30-acre development called the Kemah Boardwalk resembles an amusement park and hosts some of the most recognized names in the restaurant industry -- Joe's Crab Shack, Landry's Seafood House, The Cadillac Bar and The Crab House.   It also is home to the Aquarium Restaurant, where diners sit near a 50,000-gallon aquarium brimming with marine life.

L - Lunches and Brunches

Between the hours of 11 a.m. and 2 p.m., 143,000 of Houston's downtown workforce go underground in search of food from one of the 100-plus restaurants in the Downtown Tunnel System, where anything from deli sandwiches to haute cuisine can be found. Above-ground, weekend brunch spots also are in abundance throughout the city. Benjy's Restaurant in Rice Village is one such spot, as is Quattro, located in the Four Seasons Hotel downtown. The Sunday fare at Quattro includes an extensive appetizer buffet, a dozen different entrées and a chocolate dessert bar.

M - Mexican and Tex-Mex

Mexican food and Houston go hand-in-hand. At least three "institutions" bear notice.   Ninfa's, with several locations around town, was originated by the late Ninfa Laurenzo, affectionately known as Mama Ninfa. The original Ninfa's is still located at 2704 Navigation.   Mama Ninfa is credited for making fajitas a popular staple of Mexican restaurants.

Tex-Mex is the cultural blending of Southern Texas and Northern Mexico flavors

According to an article in Texas Monthly , the three things that put the Tex in Tex-Mex are American yellow cheese, chile con carne (e.g., chili) and the infinite malleability of the corn tortilla (such as its ability to be turned into a tortilla chip, and hence, the nacho.)

Molina's, with three locations, serves up flavorful, straightforward Tex-Mex. Open since 1941, it is now run by the third generation of family restaurateurs. At Irma's, tucked away in downtown near Minute Maid Park, home to baseball's Houston Astros, there are no menus; the waiters recite the day's freshly prepared options, but the signature fruit-packed lemonade is always available.

N - New Orleans-inspired, dahlin'

For more than 30 years, Brennan's of Houston has brought the flavors of New Orleans to Houston.   Opened by Alex Brennan-Martin of the famed New Orleans family, upscale Brennan's blends the best of continental Creole with a Texas twist, or as they call it, "Texas Creole." Reminiscent of Café du Monde in New Orleans, Crescent City Beignets serves up piping hot beignets and cafe au lait.

O - Only in Houston...

... will a restaurant open in three locations within a two-mile radius. Barnaby's Café did so, and quite successfully judging by the crowds. Located on Fairview Street, West Gray Street and Shepherd Drive, the restaurants offer well-prepared American food in generous portions -- salads, burgers, sandwiches and dinner plates, including favorite comfort foods such as meatloaf with garlic mashed potatoes.

P - Pizza

No food map is complete without giving pizza a mention. Star Pizza serves Chicago-style pizza with thin and thick crusts (white or whole wheat) using dough made daily on the premises. One of former President Bush's favorite pizza restaurants is Fuzzy's Pizza and Italian Café. Antonio's Flying Pizza lives up to its name with hand-tossed pizzas.

Q - Quench your thirst at a local brewpub

At TwoRows Restaurant and Brewery in Rice University, there are generally eight beers available from a rotating list. They also brew their own root beer.

R - Restaurants for Romance

A list of restaurants for special occasions would have to include La Colombe d'Or on Montrose Boulevard.   Located in a restored mansion known as the world's smallest luxury hotel, La Columbe d'Or serves continental and modern French cuisine. The Rainbow Lodge, situated in a secluded, woodsy setting on the banks of Buffalo Bayou, and Vargo's International Cuisine, located on eight acres of gardens, including a private lake with swans, ducks and peacocks, also are popular choices.

S - Steaks and Seafood

Texas is the largest producer of cattle in the country, and not surprisingly, Houston has a number of excellent steak restaurants. The Taste of Texas allows patrons to select their steak and instruct the butcher on the thickness of the cut of a rib-eye. Other options include, but are not limited to Pappas Bros. Steakhouse, Old San Francisco Steakhouse, Ruth's Chris Steakhouse, Vic and Anthony's (downtown), Capital Grille, The Palm and Outback Steakhouse.

Being in such close proximity to the Gulf also gives Houston an abundance of fresh seafood and, hence, plenty of seafood restaurants. Massa's Restaurant and Massa's Seafood Grill, both located downtown, are favorites with the downtown lunch crowd for their selections of seafood and pasta. McCormick & Schmick's in Uptown Park prints menus daily based on product price and availability, featuring freshly prepared seafood as well as meat and poultry, salads and pasta.

For a different twist, El Pueblito Place on Richmond Avenue near Montrose Boulevard serves popular Mexican dishes, many of which are imaginative seafood entrées.

Truluck's Steak and Stone Crab on Westheimer Road receives a nod because of its fresh crab selections, romantic ambiance and excellent service.

 

T - Toddler-Friendly Dining

Where are the best restaurants to find both good food and more than crayons to keep the little ones happy? Try a local Houston favorite with families, Lupe Tortillas. This restaurant typically tops the list because of its sandbox, playground and truly unique decor as well as excellent fajitas and creamy handmade guacamole. They even offer low-calorie options for those watching their weight.  

For 1950s fun, try 59 Diner.   This retro diner offers up great kid-friendly food from chili-cheese fries to hamburgers, but parents beware, everyone is there for the old-fashioned malts.   These fabulous ice cream concoctions attract the kid in all of us.   They are even served in a parfait glass.

U - Upscale Dining

Numerous restaurants have $$$$ next to their names in the various dining guides, but the food is generally worth the price tag. Ask any Houstonian to name a few "choice" restaurants and Café Annie, Aries and Mark's American Cuisine might come to mind. Another find is La Réserve, located in the Houston Omni Hotel, one of Houston's most luxurious hotels. Offering plush comfort and indulgent service, La Réserve dishes up French cuisine to many Houstonian diners.

Ranked one of the top new restaurants in 2003 by My Table , Sorrento Ristorante Italiano offers an excellent dining experience. Everything from the service to the presentation to the fine desserts adds to the wow factor that diners enjoy at this intimate and romantic Italian restaurant.

V - Vallone, as in Tony's

Speaking of upscale, to many, Tony's is the place for luxury dining. Founded by culinary icon Tony Vallone, the restaurant is situated in the heart of the Galleria area and is one of Houston's see-and-be-seen places.

W - Wine Lists

With a constantly changing wine list, Laurier Café and Wine offers wines at sensible prices, half bottles and wine by the glass to encourage experimenting. DaMarco's has an exceptional Italian wine list. Open since November 2002, Fleming's Prime Steakhouse & Wine Bar offers 100-plus wines by the glass and in 2003 was voted as having the most outstanding wine service by My Table .

X - "Xtraordinary" Chefs

Michael Cordúa has been called a pioneer of South American cuisine in America. His restaurants include Churrascos, with its signature dish of tenderloin sautéed with lime, roasted peppers and scallions, along with Américas, Amazon Grill and the new Artista, located in the Hobby Center for the Performing Arts.

Robert Del Grande, one of the founders of southwestern cuisine, is another culinary legend. After the success of Café Annie, Del Grande and his partners wanted to offer an alternative to the upscale restaurant and Café Express was born. Café Express is what is known as "fast casual," serving a variety of salads, sandwiches, burgers, soups, pastas and chicken dishes. The group also opened Rio Ranch, a Texas Hill Country-style steak and seafood house, and Taco Milagro, another "fast casual" restaurant with a Tex-Mex theme.

 

Y - Yummy Finishes

Always save room for dessert, or eat dessert first at Dessert Gallery or The Cheesecake Factory, which many Houstonians do. Those who dine at Ruggles Grill are well advised to save room for pastry chef Susan Molzan's sweet sensations.

Z - Zero Calories in Everything

Just kidding, but Houston does offer choices for the health-conscious diner. Ziggy's Healthy Grill, a gourmet health food restaurant owned by three local physicians, serves such items as low-fat pizza, lean meatloaf and wild-game burgers. At the Hobbit Café, specialty sandwiches for vegetarians and meat-eaters alike are named after favorite J.R.R. Tolkien characters.

The restaurants listed reflect merely a tip of the vast iceberg. To do more research before setting out, fork in hand, two local newspapers - the Houston Chronicle (www.houstonchronicle.com) and Houston Press (www.houstonpress.com) - and My Table (www.my-table.com), Houston's dining magazine, have regular restaurant reviews, keeping local foodies apprised of the new happenings on the dining scene. For the budget conscious, Mike Riccetti's book, Houston Dining on the Cheap: The Guide to the Best Inexpensive Restaurants in Houston is an excellent source. Another valuable source focusing on business dining is the Greater Houston Partnership's Business Meetings Houston . Also, Houston's Visitor Center located at 901 Bagby in the first floor of the historic City Hall, open daily 9 a.m. to 4 p.m., provides visitors with information about Houston, including the restaurant and shopping scene, and it's a fun place to browse and shop for uniquely Houston souvenirs.

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