The Houston restaurant scene, like the city itself, is cosmopolitan. The primary influences come from Louisiana, Mexico, and Southeast Asia, but you can find restaurants serving just about any cuisine you can think of. What constitutes Houston's native cooking would be steaks, chili, barbecue, soul food, and Tex-Mex. For locals, the proper accompaniment for any of these would be beer or ice tea. The extralarge glass of ice tea is a cultural fixture in this town, as it is in the rest of the state. It is the perfect palate cleanser after a bite of something dense and spicy such as enchiladas in chili gravy.

Fast Food a la Houston

When you need to find a meal that can be had quickly and cheaply, you don't have to suffer at the hands of the national fast-food chains, where the fare tastes the same whether you're in Houston or Honolulu. A number of local chains do a good job of cooking up fast food with character. Here are four worth considering:

James Coney Island Hot Dogs started up in Houston in the 1930s. It's famous for its Texas-style chili dogs. (Most Houstonians consider hot dogs without chili as either unfulfilled potential or foreign novelty.) You can also order the chili with or without beans or as a chili pie. For hot dogs, I recommend the Texas chili dog. There are 24 locations around Houston, including downtown (815 Dallas St.), in the Kirby District (3607 Shepherd at the corner of Richmond), in the Galleria area (1600 S. Post Oak), and out along the Gulf Freeway (6955 Gulf Fwy. and 10600 Gulf Fwy.).

In 1962, the Antone family, originally from Lebanon, opened an exotic import grocery store on Taft Street near Allen Parkway called Antone's. There they introduced Houston to their now-famous po' boy (sub) sandwiches, which caught on in a big way. For lunch, you can't go wrong with one of these, which come already prepared. Get the original green label or the super red label, both of which are a combination of ham, salami, cheese, pickles, and special chowchow on fresh baked bread. Antone's locations include 2424 Dunstan (in the Village), 8110 Kirby (near Reliant Stadium), and 3823 Bellaire (at Stella Link, just west of the Medical Center). You can also find these po' boys for sale at some of the small grocery stores in town.

Beck's Prime is a local chain of upscale burger joints that are known for big juicy burgers and great shakes. Locations include 2902 Kirby Dr. (near Westheimer), 1001 E. Memorial Loop (in Memorial Park by the golf course), and 910 Travis (in the downtown tunnel system below Bank One Center).

Café Express operates under the guiding principle that fast food can be nutritious, fresh, and cooked with at least some artistry. The owner of the chain is the chef at Cafe Annie's. Specialties at Café Express include a variety of salads, lively pasta dishes, juicy roast chicken, and various sandwiches. There are several items for children, including small burgers, which are sure to please. One location is in the basement of the Fine Arts Museum (the new building); other locations include 3200 Kirby Dr. (near the Village), 1422 W. Gray (in the River Oaks Shopping Center), 650 Main St. (downtown), and 1101 Uptown Park (just off Post Oak in the Galleria area).

Family-Friendly Restaurants

Café Express -- These restaurants offer miniature burgers that kids just love, while the parents can enjoy salads, roast chicken, or a pasta.

James Coney Island Hot Dogs -- What hot dog place isn't popular with kids? But most of these restaurants are decorated in bright colors that make them especially attractive to the young, and they offer kid specials.

Lupe Tortilla -- This is a great place to go when the kids don't feel like sitting still, and the parents want something more in the way of real food than what kiddie places can offer. The fajitas are excellent. When the weather is cooperating, the patio is perfect for a relaxing meal.

Houston Dining Landmark Rebuilding After Ike

Brennan's of Houston, 3300 Smith (tel. 713/522-9711), caught fire just as Hurricane Ike began battering the city. It was an electrical fire, probably produced by the storm winds when they crossed some power lines and exploded a transformer. The same winds then fanned the flames and burned much of the building before the fire department could bring it under control. Three people who were in the building at the time, including a manager and his young daughter, suffered serious burns. The restaurant's upstairs is entirely gone, and the ground floor will need a complete renovation. The owner, Alex Brennan-Martin, has plans to rebuild. You can follow the reconstruction at www.brennanshouston.com.

Many in Houston miss this restaurant. It was a perennial favorite on most local "Top Restaurant" lists. Though founded in 1967 as a sister restaurant to the famous Brennan's of New Orleans, it became independent when the family divided the properties. It offered many of the same wonderful dishes that the other Brennan's is known for, including such Creole specialties as rouxless seafood gumbo and turtle soup, and, of course, bananas Foster. It also offered several dishes not found in the original. Before the fire, the various dining rooms were strikingly elegant. I don't think you could find a lovelier table in all of Houston. If Brennan's is back in operation by the time you visit Houston, you might want to look into making a reservation.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.