This is a story about Texas restaurants and the dishes they’re famous for. You find yourself daydreaming about these specialties when lunch or dinner rolls around: “Wouldn’t it be nice to have that great chile relleno tonight?” Or: “I sure could use some of that chocolate cake about now.” Some of these restaurants are temples of high cuisine; others are holes in the wall. Some have been around forever; others are newly minted. The one thing they have in common is a dish that customers crave—and come back for again and again.
Every Saturday morning, folks from all over San Antonio fill the entryway of this tiny Mexican cafe. They have come for a religious experience: the offering of sopa azteca to the faithful. Starting with basic chicken broth, the kitchen adds chicken chunks, fresh spinach, strips of corn tortilla, chiles, sliced avocado, lush dollops of melted cheese, crisp zucchini, carrots, and potatoes. Seasonings give a dusky, fascinating quality to what in other hands would be plain old chicken-vegetable soup. Served Saturdays only from 11 to 3. $4.25. 722 S. St. Mary’s (225-9444).
Forget that shrimp Paesano is hardly Italian (the restaurant invented the dish in San Antonio ages ago). Forget that it’s so absurdly rich that your arteries will be secretly phoning 911. Just keep on eating those chubby sautéed shrimp and sopping up that unbelievable lemon-butter sauce. Co-owner Joe Cosniac says he uses one hundred pounds of butter a day. Believe him. $13.50. 1715 McCullough Avenue, at Locust (226-9541).
Eight fat crescent-shaped Japanese dumplings (gyoza) come arranged just so on a square white serving plate with a blue bamboo pattern. Dip one in the scallion-spiked soy-and-vinegar sauce and lean over the plate when you bite into it so the juice doesn’t run down your chin. Finely minced pork and sweet cabbage are the dominant flavors; the fried wonton-type wrapper is still light and delicate. The pristine presentation and Japanese music help you ignore Niki’s down-at-the-heel decor and seedy neighborhood, in a sea of body shops and asphalt. $5. 819 W. Hildebrand Avenue (736-5471).</p>
You can hardly see the romaine lettuce for the drifts of toasted pine nuts and crumbly blue-veined Gorgonzola on this king of salads. Balsamic vinaigrette dressing unifies the disparate parts, and a dusting of freshly grated Parmesan adds a final touch of class. Have it with a glass of red wine such as Barbera and bask in La Buca’s romantic lighting and stylish cavelike rooms. $4.75. 7720 Jones-Maltsberger Road (826-2397).
What could be less pretentious than a flour tortilla rolled around melted whit Oaxacan cheese studded with morsels of chorizo? Yet this supremely simple dish is high cuisine. The tortilla has more layers than French pastry, the cheese is silken, and the fried chorizo adds salt and savor. As for calories, don’t ask. Now that October is here, diners happily eat alfresco amid La Fogata’s quirky profusion of fountains and awnings. $2.99. 2427 Vance Jackson Road (340-1337).
The Italian peninsula is merely a jumping-off point for Luna Notte’s up-to-the-nanosecond recipes, such as pork in Madeira sauce. The meaty pork tenderloin is lightly smoked, the sauce smoothly rich, with mingled hot-sweet flavors of cracked red chiles, Madeira, molasses, roasted garlic, and sun-dried cherries. The restaurant’s subdued high-tech setting, with acres of galvanized steel and commercial carpeting, provides a spare contrast to the rich dish. $9.95. Sunset Ridge Shopping Center, 6402 N. New Braunfels Avenue (822-4242).
From the Yucatán comes this homey little restaurant’s signature dish: cochinita pibil—pit-roasted pork. It’s exotic enough to titillate but not so strange that it alarms. Shredded pork is first marinated in a homemade sauce that includes lime, lemon, and orange juices and achiote powder (based on the red, faintly herbal-tasting seeds of the Mexican annatto tree). Then the meat is baked in a clay pot until it falls apart. Tangy marinated purple onions are heaped on top, and to eat it, you roll everything together in a steamy hot tortilla. $6.25. 2103 E. Hildebrand Avenue (822-4475).
Onion Rings With Habanero Ketchup
These onion rings are to ordinary onion rings as a Lamborghini is to a tank. They are cut from sweet 10/15 or 11/05 onions, then dipped in a batter of flour, beer, ancho powder, and secret ingredients, and fried to a crackly turn. A precarious mountain of the rings is served with bits of pickled serrano and onions and a cup of homemade habanero ketchup, which leaves a velvet afterburn and a profound desire for ice water. The restaurant’s rather stuffy columned rooms have been brightened with splashes of fresh paint. $5. 206 E. Locust, at McCullough Avenue (225-0722).
Scallops and Shrimp Hunan Style
Nothing about the perfectly ordinary name of the dish prepares you for how delicious it is. The marinated, touch-fried scallops are like clouds, the shrimp crisp as a fall day, the peppercorn sauce that covers them a miraculous balance of sweet and hot. Carrot strips and snow peas look pretty and add crunch. The restaurant’s suburban shopping-center location, though not particularly Chinese, is still attractive and comfortable. $9.95. 7959 Fredericksburg Road, at Medical Drive (615-1288).
Quail and Spinach Salad
People flock to the Fairmount specifically to feast on this cosmopolitan salad, with its morsels of grilled quail, oyster mushrooms, black grapes, cherry tomatoes, radicchio, and a mysterious smoked sesame-seed dressing. With the accompanying fried Muenster cheese cakes, you won’t need another thing to make a light meal—and the hotel’s elegant, hushed dining room makes you feel like visiting royalty. $9. 401 S. Alamo (224-8800).
Bo Nuong Xa
Otherwise known as Number One, the zesty Vietnamese dish consists of sliced charcoal-broiled flank steak marinated in lemongrass. Sprinkled with peanuts and white radishes and served with bits of pineapple, plantains, mint, cilantro, cucumber, bean sprouts, and slivered carrots, the grilled meat is wrapped with all the above in lettuce and rice-paper crêpes and dipped in vinegary fish sauce. The hopping restaurant is also a top multiethnic-people-watching place. $8.95 (serves two). 1801 St. Emanuel, at Jefferson, downtown (222-2461), and 8200 Wilerest, at Beechnut, in far southwest Houston, where the clientele is more uniformly Vietnamese (498-7841).
Brennan’s of Houston
If you eat only one praline in your life, eat it in Brennan’s romantic courtyard, Sous-chef Gary Tottis generously reveals the whole recipe for these criminally rich candies. Alas, there is only space to repeat that it involves heavy cream, lots of sugar, orange zest, corn syrup, pecans (of course), waxed paper, patience, and perfect timing. Complimentary with meals; $7.95 for a box of seven. 3300 Smith (522-9711).
Tortelli al Burro e Salvia
La Mora Cucina Toscana
Better known as half-moon pasta with sage-butter sauce, this dish is the latest obsession of Houstonians who have discovered the pleasure of Tuscan dining at Lynette Hawkins’ elegant new restaurant. Raised in Florence, Hawkins knows what she’s doing. She stuffs these little pieces of heaven with spinach and ricotta and bathes them in butter and sage. Food of the gods. $9.50. 912 Lovett Boulevard (522-7412).
Mussel Soup With Serrano Chiles
Cafe Annie owner-chef Robert Del Grande says customers “get really mad” if he’s out of this bright-green soup that explodes like fireworks on your palate. The simple secret is a potent blender-paste of raw serrano chiles, cilantro, onion, and garlic. A heaping spoonful of this fresh concoction is added to a hot, creamy mussel broth and heated for less than a minute to bring out flavors that—says Del Grande—“just ricochet around your mouth.” $6.50. 1728 Post Oak Boulevard (840-1111).
Goode Company Hamburgers and Taqueria
Fresh filets of humble catfish are marinated in something that co-manager Bob Gazdek is “not allowed to say.” Then they’re basted in butter and thrown on the mesquite grill by specially trained cooks, who almost always manage to make them come out moist, flaky, and irresistible. Served with homemade tortillas, rice, pinto beans, a dollop of guacamole, roasted onions, and roasted red and green peppers, the catfish dinner is so high class that some customers don’t even recognize it as catfish. $8.95. 4902 Kirby (520-9153).
Tony Mandola gets his acclaimed crawfish from a farm in the Atchafalaya River basin and boils them in cayenne, chile powder, lemon and orange juice, black pepper, garlic powder, and other things. He says he got the recipe from a mysterious Louisiana horse trainer who wandered into the kitchen one day. “I wish I could remember his name,” says Mandola. He serves these fabulous critters only in crawfish season, between November and May. $11.95 for three pounds. Gulf Coast Kitchen, 1962 W. Gray (528-3474), and Blue Oyster Bar, 8105 Gulf Freeway (640-1117).
House Special Sandwich
Givral’s Sandwich Shop
Called banh mi, the Vietnamese sandwich puts ordinary sandwiches to shame. The house special consists of a crusty French roll spread with homemade mayonnaise and stuffed with pâté, barbecued pork, fried chicken, slivered carrots, sliced cucumbers, jalapeños, and cilantro, and finished with a splash of soy sauce. $2. 2704 Milam (529-0462).
Chile Con Queso
Felix Mexican Restaurant
Don’t snicker—this cheese dip is a classic. “I don’t know why we don’t bottle it,” sighs Mrs. Felix Tijerina, the widow of the founder. Probably because she’s the only one who knows how to make it. A staple for generations of clients, the fluffy, surprisingly complex cheese goop is made with Kraft American cheese, ancho chiles, and three very expensive ingredients that Tijerina declines to reveal. Houstonians buy it in bulk for parties. $2.15. 904 Westheimer (529-3949).
Chinese dumplings are, in themselves, must-have dishes, and for those who’ve tried them all, the best are to be had at popularly acclaimed Dong Ting. The fragrant minced-lamb stuffing is savory and flavorful, and it comes packaged in a delicate crêpelike dough. There are many memorable dumplings in Houston, but none are better than the dumplings at Dong Ting. $4.50. 611 Stuart (527-0005).
Avalon Drug Company
The best thirst-quencher in Houston is the fresh-squeezed limeade at the Avalon Drug Company and Diner, the dump with the most elegant clientele and the worst bathrooms in the city. It’s made with fresh lime juice (ask for extra), sugar syrup, carbonated water, and a cherry. $1.50. 2518 Kirby (529-9136).
Amor di Polenta
The attractive, youthful staff at this noisy espresso bar changes so fast that even your waiter may not know about amor di polenta, which means “love of polenta.” Made of cornmeal and powdered sugar, these humble little confections help keep the place in business. $1. 2407 Rice Boulevard (526-4200), with three downtown locations and one in the Galleria.
Just about everybody in Houston has a different favorite dish at Carrabba’s—if only they could get past the crowds to order it. Undeniably, though, the grilled quail is worth waiting in line for. The plump little brown birds, lovingly wrapped in pancetta, look so delicious lying these on a bed of polenta that you could eat them bones and all. $10.95. 3115 Kirby (522-3131) and 1399 S. Voss (468-0868).
Roasted Turkey Sandwich
This genteel nonprofit tearoom, staffed up front by eager Heritage Society lady volunteers, serves the best American sandwiches in town. Fresh roast turkey on homemade honey-wheat bread baked daily is only one of several offerings. Manager Candy Payne deserves all the credit. $3.25. In Sam Houston Park, 1100 Bagby, downtown (655-8514).
Tom Ka Gai
An unforgettable Thai soup with coconut milk, crushed red pepper, lemongrass, and chicken, this traditional dish achieves the perfect balance of flavors at Darawan Charoenrat’s little place on Houston’s East Side. Seasoned with Thai lime leaves and a sour, gingerlike root called galangal, the buttery, lemony, spicy nectar is good for the digestion as well as the soul. Have it with a tall glass of bright-orange iced Thai tea, a sweet sassafras-flavored drink made with cream. $5.75. 719 Telephone Road (923-4230).
Red Snapper in Lemon-Butter Sauce
Chef Georges “Monijo” Guy has chosen to locate his tiny French provincial restaurant—where else?—in the provinces. Stuck way, way out in the ugliest possible strip center on the farthest edge of the prairie, this sophisticated little place serves up a wonderful whole snapper grilled with fennel and served with an elegant sauce of white wine, butter, and lemon juice. Prices are very reasonable, thanks no doubt to the low-rent location, and savvy customers happily drive across town to eat here. $35 (serves two). 11920-J Westheimer, at Kirkwood (497-1122).
Known as pignato grasso in Italian, this exceptionally tasty, hearty soup is made with white and red beans, assorted vegetables, and Italian sausage heavily flavored with fennel. Some devoted customers pour it over a bowl of pasta for a more substantial dish. Tony Vallone owns the noisy, stylishly casual Neapolitan restaurant, and he wouldn’t dream of changing the house specialty. Eye-popping people-watching here, and a great mural. $3.25. 3920 Westheimer (622-3663).
Upwardly mobile La Mexicana, an authentic Mexican food market and restaurant close to River Oaks, serves moist, tender, crisp-crusted roast pork to a decidedly mixed clientele. The carnitas sometimes sell out, but you can while away the time waiting for more to be cooked by listening to a heartfelt corrido from the guitar players strolling past the bottles of liquid detergent and pumpkin-seed paste. This funky joint is at the moment the Mexican restaurant of choice among the avant-garde. Carnitas available Saturday and Sunday. $5.50. 1018 Fairview, at Montrose (521-0963).
Visual and culinary artist René Anguiano invented the dish, a coalition between Tex-Mex and vegetarian. First, the tamal dough is spiked with Japanese red-pepper bits, olive oil, and margarine; then a subtle filling is prepared from sautéed corn, eggplant, broccoli, carrots, “and I don’t know what else,” says restaurant co-owner Cynthia Perez. The finished tamal is topped with a dauntingly rich mushroom cream sauce and a sprinkle of pecans and raisins. The busy, packed cafe serves these tamales Fridays and weekends only. $5.50. 211 Congress Avenue (472-9357).
Wild Boar and Antelope
Hudson’s on the Bend
This Southwestern appetizer is so pretty you almost hate to eat it—but not quite. The pleasure comes in deconstructing the arrangement with a fork, poking through the red Roma tomatoes, green tomatillos, and black olives to get to the meat of the matter: smoky, moist tenderloin of boar and antelope. The two sauces—mango-jalapeño marmalade and plum-pistachio chutney—walk the tightrope between sweet and spicy without missing a step. $7.25. 3509 Ranch Road 620, 1.5 miles southwest of Mansfield Dam (266-1369).
On a whole-wheat sesame-seed bun are piled, in this order, grilled eggplant, red onion, melted provolone cheese, lettuce, and fresh tomato. A swatch of chipotle mayonnaise adds sizzle; red and blue tortilla chips lend an artistic touch. This is the best meatless cheeseburger you’ll ever eat. Have it on the cafe’s terrace in the treetops. Available at lunch only. $4.75. 2905 San Gabriel (472-6483).
Chicken Chile Relleno
Matt’s El Rancho
Actually, the poblano chile, chicken filling, and fried batter are inconsequential. What diners crave is the incomparably gooey mass of melted yellow cheese, sour cream, pecans, raisins, and raw onion rings on top. Knowledgeable customers at this frantic Tex-Mex emporium order extra pecans and raisins on the side. $6.50. 2613 S. Lamar (462-9333).
Fonda San Miguel
As you scan the lovely buffet tables, you realize that hardly anything—save omelets and guacamole—is familiar. Then you begin to appreciate the lavish variety of this Mexican spread. Bowls and chafing dishes beg you to try the likes of mahogany-hued Anaheim chiles (stuffed with ricotta and cottage cheese and topped with caramelized onions); chilled fish tikin xic with a russet achiote coating; corn pudding—a heavenly mush browned on the outside, golden within; and crisp strips of jicama with mango bits and a dash of chile powder. The list goes on for three dozen offerings. Best surprise? The price, a mere $16.95 for all you could possibly eat. 2330 W. North Loop (459-4121).
This hole in the wall is serious about salsas. A variety is arrayed with tostadas on a two-tiered serving tray. After initiating yourself with familiar varieties like classic tomatillo and chunky tomato-onion-jalapeño, you’re ready for a run at fiery guajillo, smoky chipotle, sultry ancho, unforgiving chilepequín, and nippy árbol. The restaurant imports its chiles from Mexico, and the selection varies from day to day. Complimentary with meals. 5610 N. Lamar (452-6207) and 6400 S. First (441-2424).
Thai Curry Chicken
A recurring note in chef Raymond Tatum’s eclectic repertoire is the chile, whether it is pumping up a French classic or igniting his famous Thai curry. To make the curry, he braises thinly sliced chicken breasts in a torrid curry-paste-and-coconut-milk-based sauce. At the last minute he stirs in julienne bamboo shoots and roasted peanuts. The incendiary brew also appears with other meats, including lamb and pork. $14.95. 1204 West Lynn (477-5584).
Hyde Park Fudge Cake
Texas French Bread Bakery
Moist as dew, smooth as velvet, sweet as your first kiss, TFB’s lush chocolate cake is picnic-perfect. $1 a slice, $15 for a whole cake. 2900 Rio Grande (499-0544) and three other locations.
Pollo Pazzo Pizza
First, yeasty pizza dough (the plump, airy type as opposed to the crisp, crunchy type) is swathed in mozzarella and Romano. Then, grilled chicken, diced tomatoes, salty calamata olives, and sweet, stringy caramelized onions are strewn across the top. Punctuating each bite is a garnish of minced garlic, lemon zest, and tiny, pungent wild oregano leaves that are as green as the minute they were picked. The modish restaurant’s spiced ice tea washes it down nicely. $9.75. 311 W. Sixth (476-8100).
Barbecued Pork Loin
Salty, sweet, and swimming in its juices, this is simply the best piece of barbecue in the world. After standing in line by the glowing pits to order, customers—like the meat and the ancient building—are also thoroughly smoked. $6.90 a pound. 208 S. Commerce, Lockhart (512-398-2361).
Peppered shrimp is the dish of choice at this converted Burger Chef on the water. Some fifteen pink medium shrimp are briefly boiled, then sautéed in the shell with butter, a whiff of tarragon, and a grind of black pepper. Utterly simple, utterly delicious. It’s a lot of calories, but most people work them off peeling the slippery little critters. $7.25. 1200 Seawall Boulevard (762-4621).
The enormous mound of shrimp or crap stuffing rises out of the flat fish like a volcanic island, complete with steam issuing from the top. To eat it you must play a game of skill, involving a knife, fork, and flounder anatomy, the point of which is to recover the maximum amount of flesh with the minimum amount of bone. Your reward is the most wantonly succulent seafood between the coasts. $20.45. 3800 Seawall Boulevard (762-9625).
Pierna de Cordera Adobada
Paso del Norte
Be prepared. An entire lamb shank will be served. Moist and rich, the meat finds its perfect accompaniment in the pungent red-chile crust and sauce that envelop it. The twenty-minute preparation time can be spent basking in the Spanish colonial setting and having your every need anticipated by waiters who occasionally seem to be psychic. Approximately $13, depending on the exchange rate. 3650 Hermanos Escobar, Juárez (011-52-161-3-4034).
Homemade Thousand Island Dressing
Forget every bad thought you’ve ever had about Thousand Island dressing. This steakhouse’s masterwork, made with mayonnaise, celery, chunks of boiled egg, and other secret ingredients, is barely pink and has an absolutely voluptuous flavor. “Waiter, we’ll have the Thousand Island dressing. Hold the lettuce.” $2.75. 1200 Country Club Road (589-2071).
Deep Ellum Cafe
Candlelight flickers off the brick walls and old wooden tabletops as diners descend in hordes to order the cafe’s trademark comfort-food-with-a-flair. Among the appetizers, the ravioli stands out—fat little pasta pillows filled to bursting with ricotta and a whisper of fresh spinach, then lavished with cream sauce and chopped walnuts. $4.95. 2704 Elm (741-9012).
Mia’s coveted chiles rellenos appear only on Tuesday nights because, as one waiter explained, “they’re too damn hard to make.” About two hundred enormous hand-selected poblano peppers are stuffed with ground beef, raisins, bell peppers, tomatoes, almonds, and potatoes. Each is dipped in egg batter, fried, smothered in ranchero sauce, and topped with melted Monterey Jack. The beef version is served until the supply runs out (about seven in the evening), but the happy secret is that special orders are still taken in advance for the chicken- or cheese-only versions, which many people actually prefer. $7.95. 4322 Lemmon Avenue (526-1020).
The Mansion on Turtle Creek
Chef Dean Fearing transforms the humble ingredients of Tex-Mex food into showstopping Southwestern cuisine at Dallas’ temple of haute cuisine and high society. Fat, sassy smoked shrimp are marinated in a sauce that contains poblanos, jalapeños, onion, cilantro, and lime juice, and placed smartly atop a bed of pinto beans with freshly made ranchero sauce. Mild tamale spoon bread offers a soothing counterpoint to the pyrotechnics of the main course. $27.50. 2821 Turtle Creek Boulevard (526-2121).
Perfect strangers stand khaki-to-denim on weekend mornings at the door to this Whiterock-area cafe, waiting their turn to tear into an order of Barbec’s incomparable beer biscuits. Each of these fluffy behemoths yields a good twelve to fourteen cubic inches of biscuit—as opposed to more ordinary versions’ seven to ten—and they have a rich, yeasty taste that makes it hard to stop eating. Three with sausage gravy, $3.25. 8949 Garland Road (321-5597).
La Calle Doce
This Oak Cliff establishment could hardly be typecast as a typical Mexican restaurant. The Victorian house is gracefully decorated in blues and whites, and the menu is devoted to seafood. Marinated and grilled catfish is the best catch—crunchily charred on the outside and sinfully succulent on the inside. $9.50. 415 W. Twelfth (941-4304).
The Original Pancake House
The Original Pancake House is part of a chain, but that doesn’t mean all the offerings are standard. Order the apple pancake for the shock value of seeing your server sweep through the room holding aloft the plate-size, oven-baked billow of pancake, Granny Smith apples, cinnamon, and sugar. $5.95. 4343 W. Northwest Highway (351-2012) and 5100 Beltline (385-6468).
Highland Park Cafeteria
Just try imagining the baked squash at the Highland Park Cafeteria shortly before lunch- or dinnertime, and then try staying away. It simply can’t be done. The oniony, buttery, creamy concoction is probably the single most popular item at the landmark Dallas cafeteria. Yellow crookneck squash are sliced and cooked with butter and a slew of sweet sautéed onions, then topped with lightly browned, crunched-up butter crackers and served in a bowl that always seems too small. $1.09. 4611 Cole Avenue, at Knox (526-3801), other locations at Casa Linda Plaza (1200 N. Buckner Boulevard) and Lincoln Plaza (500 N. Akard).
“Everybody who sees it goes, ‘Whoa,’” said the waiter. Whoa, indeed, to an incredible twenty ounces of meat, grilled on the bone, just sitting there looking magnificent on your plate. Because the veal chop shows up on the list of specials at this miniscule Mediterranean restaurant about half the time, the chef varies his approach: green-peppercorn sauce one night, wild-mushroom or roasted-shallot another. All are delicious. $24. 4537 Cole Avenue (559-0325).
Anyone who has had to endure the gluey tasteless stuff that passes for mashed potatoes at many places should give thanks for the divine lemony, garlicky drift at this tiny Middle Eastern spot on lower Greenville. These potatoes are a side dish to another simple specialty, tender roasted chicken, but they’re so good they almost make you forget the main course. $4.49. 1905 Greenville Avenue (823-8235).
Routh Street Cafe
At a restaurant that has made culinary history with idiosyncratic food combinations, it is reassuring to find old-fashioned spice cake on chef Stephan Pyles’s menu. Warm, slightly sticky, and shot through with bits of apple and walnut, it is drenched in caramel sauce and crème fraîche and served with a perfectly round dollop of vanilla ice cream infinitesimally flecked with bits of vanilla bean. $6. 3005 Routh (871-7161).
Organic consciousness is a high priority here. Find out why diners pack the tiny former filling station by ordering the creamy goat-cheese enchiladas. Made with a seductively light whipped cheese and homemade tortillas, the enchiladas come with a piquant verde sauce so good that if it were soup, you’d be tempted to order a bowl. $6.95. 7630 Military Parkway (388-1244).
L’Entrecôte, Loews Anatole Hotel
Monolithic and glamorous, the Loews Anatole can be intimidating. Counteract the swank factor by ordering a silly-sounding dessert: banana beignets. The five light-as-air morsels are a fugue on the humble fritter, an interweaving of airy and subtle coconut mousse, fresh coconut shavings, and sugar-dusted essence of banana. Banana beignets available in cooler months, apple or peach at other times. $5.50. 2201 Stemmons Freeway (761-7410).
The gossamer tangle of crisp, puffy rice noodles is as delicate as lace. The thin sweetish sauce poured over them blends tomato, vinegar, sugar, lime juice, scallions, and other ingredients. Small rosy shrimp and crescents of cucumber are arranged just so. A fast-growing clientele and the genial family who own the restaurant offset the borderline neighborhood. $4.95. 4301 Bryan, at Peak (824-6200).
Tournedos Félix Faure
Chez Gérard is a soulful, sentimental kind of place. The fare is serious, uncomplicated, and continental, including classic tournedos Félix Faure (named after a nineteenth-century French president, whose favorite dish this was), which are simply the best pair of tenderloin filets in town. Two reasonably sized choice cuts are topped with sautéed white mushrooms and smothered in a peppercorn cream sauce. The meat is so tender you’re barely conscious of having to chew. $17.75. 4444 McKinney Avenue (522-6865).
The Imperial Rolls at this modest Vietnamese cafe might be compared to egg rolls, but they are really more like salad. On translucent creamy-colored rice paper are stacked bean sprouts, rice, noodles, mint, cilantro, slices of shrimp, and a bit of pork. Then the paper is rolled around the filling, and the tidy bundle chilled. It is served just like that, not fried, absolutely fresh, with a sweet deep-brown peanut sauce bristling with shreds of red pepper. $1. 4812 Bryan, at Fitzhugh (826-9887).
Chocolate Chip Cookie
Kathleen’s Art Cafe
You alert your server eight minutes before you’re ready for dessert. The server in turn alerts the kitchen. At the appointed time, a pristine white bowl arrives at your table, bearing your individually baked cookie and two small scoops of vanilla-bean ice cream, sizzling and melting and smelling fabulous. Available by request. $3.95. 4424 Lovers Lane (691-2355).
Better than chips and hot sauce, better in fact than any appetizer you can name, White Swan’s pan chico with pink cream cheese dip is already a legend, and the brick-walled, pink-ceilinged Cuban-Italian-Mexican-Spanish restaurant has been open only a little more than a year. “We usually use hot dog buns—our customers like them best—but you can use baguettes or any kind of bread,” says co-owner Chris Macho. “We brush them with olive oil, garlic salt, oregano, and cracked black pepper and then bake them. The dip we make with cream cheese, picante sauce, and chopped garlic. Oh, sometimes we throw in a little cilantro.” Complimentary with meals. 2307 Abrams (824-8122).
Paris Coffee Shop
Even in a working-class, blue-plate city like Fort Worth, you can’t take CFS for granted. That’s why the lunch lines start forming at eleven. The Paris’ classic version, as one waitress put it, is “hand-breaded, cut from the roast, the whole bit.” Abundant cream gravy, vegetables, and iced tea are included. $5.15. 700 W. Magnolia Avenue (335-2041).
The only restaurant in Fort Worth to convey the intimacy, comfort, and gustatory zeal of a French country kitchen also happens to produce one of Cowtown’s favorite alternatives to beef: roast duck. No matter how the chef is garnishing it (black currant sauce, for instance), the plump fowl consistently emerges crispy on the outside, tender on the inside, and virtually greaseless. $16.50. 3617 W. Seventh (737-2781).
Kimbell Art Museum
If soupmaking is an art, then the soups at the Kimbell buffet should be hung on the wall. Two choices are offered daily. The green chile with rice has a cheddar cheese and cream base and enough of a burn to titillate natives but not torture out-of-staters. The chilled seafood tomato soup brims with chunks of crabmeat, corn, olives, red pepper, sliced mushrooms, and zucchini. When the cold winds blow, tortilla soup and versions of chili appear. Soup $3.75. 3333 Camp Bowie (332-8451).
Some things never change—thank goodness. Willis McIntosh inherited the recipe for the house salad when he bought the old House of Mole in 1968. Twenty-three years later, the salad is the same as it ever was: oil, vinegar, blue cheese crumbles, grated Romano cheese, toasted sesame seeds, and a few classified extras on a bed of iceberg lettuce—a creation so simple and popular that Mac sells the seasonings to go so you can put them on your own iceberg at home. $7. 2400 Park Hill Drive (921-4682).
From the first fragrant whiff of this incomparable Lebanese roast chicken (Number 10—the Frarej) to the last swipe of pita bread through the glorious puddle of natural juices, lemon, olive oil, and garlic, there is no more sensual Mediterranean eating experience for miles around. $11. 3308 Fairfield Avenue (731-6961).
Ol’ South Pancake House
Dutch Babies are deceptively described on the menu of this pre-IHOP pancakery as “miniature German pancakes.” They more closely resemble French crêpes. After dousing the near-translucent cakes in sugar and butter, the waitress adds a squeeze of fresh lemon juice and ceremoniously folds the “babies” like fat burritos. $1.95 for one pancake. 1507 S. University Drive (336-0311) and 5148 E. Belknap (834-1291).
Cinnamon Bread Pudding
A cross between a sticky bun drenched in honey and a moist, spongy version of baklava, this homey, whiskey-sauce-spiked dessert is not as glamorous as other sweets showcased at this casual but tony restaurant, but it gets raves. $3.25. 3416 W. Seventh (877-0838).
Rather than give up barbecue altogether, the calorie- and cholesterol-conscious compromise by hitting the Railhead on Tuesdays or Saturdays. Chicken is served on those days only—with its light basting of sweet sauce and punchy hickory smoke, it’s worth the wait. $3.99. 5518 W. Vickery Boulevard (738-9808).