We've asked you a few times to tell us about your favorite restaurants, and nearly 600 of you of have responded. It's always tough to narrow down the list, but here's our updated, always-changing take on where to eat like a local, from sea to shining sea. (Keep telling us about your favorites, and we'll keep improving our list.)
**NOTE: This article was updated on Monday, June 29, 2009
NEW! ARCTIC ROADRUNNER in Anchorage, Alaska
If you're in Anchorage and you've had your fill of seafood, this old-timey burger joint should do the trick. Don't opt for anything too fancy: The standard combo of cheeseburger, milkshake, and French fries or onion rings is delicious and plenty filling. There's no table service, and the place doesn't take credit cards. Order at the counter, take your number and pay in cash, and then consider eating outside at the tables along Campbell Creek, where the salmon you just spared (well, unless you ordered the salmon burger) are known to spawn. Arctic Roadrunner has been in business for four decades; the walls are covered with photos of patrons who've visited this perennial spot for "the best burger in Anchorage." Information: 2477 Arctic Blvd., 907/279-7311. Price check: A standard burger is $5if you want something more complicated, the Kodiak Islander is $6, and the Keeneye burger, with mozzarella cheese, is $6.25. Milkshakes start at $4. Thanks for sharing: Reader Scott B was the first to tip us off.
NEW!ELOTE CAFE in Sedona, Ariz.
It doesn't look like much from the outside, and that's putting it nicely, but if you don't get to Elote before 6 p.m., expect to wait an hour or more for dinner. Bide your time at the bar with perfect margaritas (there are five versions) and servings of free popcorn dusted with chile powder. All of the Mexican dishes are prepared imaginatively, with gourmet overtones: Start with the sopa de elote, and then move on to standout plates like enchiladas, carne asada, chile relleno, tacos with mole sauce, or anything slow roasted. The menu's smaller plates are close to entree size, so visitors often keep prices moderate by eating tapas-style. The patio has great views but can be cold at night, especially during the winter months. Elote knows it's popular; unless you have a party of five or more, no reservations are considered. Information: 771 Hwy. 179., 928/203-0105, elotecafe.com. Price check: Chicken tacos with mole sauce are $9.50, quesadillas are $11, and margaritas start at $7. Of the large plates, the chile relleno is affordable at $16.50. Thanks for sharing: Reader sharonlash was the first to tip us off.
NEW! FEZ in Phoenix, Ariz.
Just off the Indian School light-rail stop in Central Phoenix, Fez serves traditional American staples with Mediterranean accents in a friendly, contemporary setting. The Fez burger is a massive half-pound sandwich on ciabatta, improbably stacked with pears, crispy onions, feta cheese, and cilantro. Lighter eaters opt for the tasty Fez lettuce wraps with minced chicken and dried fruits, or one of the four kisras, Mediterranean flatbread pizzas with toppings like lamb or grilled chicken. Restaurant acolytes love all four types of fries, heaped into generous baskets, but can't agree about which is best. Bring a crowd and order one of each kind, then top it all off with one of the 20-plus martinis to keep the ensuing French fry debate civil. Information: 3815 N. Central Ave., 602/287-8700, fezoncentral.com. Price check: Salads like the tomato taza run about $6.50 for a small portion (it's plenty big!), while fries are $4.50 a basket. The signature Fez burger costs $11; a martini is $9.50. Thanks for sharing: Reader SuzyA was the first to tip us off.
FLANCER'S in Gilbert, Ariz.
There's nothing ordinary about the Southwestern food at Flancer's. Sandwiches are dressed with condiments like prickly-pear glaze, orange-cranberry barbecue sauce, chipotle mayonnaise, and New Mexican green-chili mayonnaise. Even the names of the sandwiches are unique: It's About Thyme has balsamic-and-thyme marinated chicken with basil mayo, sautéed mushrooms, melted provolone, lettuce, and tomatoes. Owner Jeff Flancer graduated from the Culinary Institute of America and has worked in high-end restaurants. Information: 610 N. Gilbert Rd., 480/926-9077, flancers.com, sandwiches from $6.75. Jennifer Causey, Chandler, Ariz.
GELATO DOLCE VITA in Mesa, Ariz.
Before leaving Italy for Arizona, Walter Bergamaschi and Marti Printy took a course at Gelato University, outside Bologna. They're constantly adding to their flavor library, which includes dark chocolate and habanero peppers; desert-flower honey; and kiwi and chardonnay. It's not uncommon for a customer to ask for a telephone call when a favorite flavor is available. Information: 5251 E. Brown Rd., 480/329-2143, gelatodolcevita.com, from $2.50. Nila and Scott Erickson, Mesa, Ariz.
HIGHWAY 95 CAFE ASIAN CUISINE in Yuma, Ariz.
Nothing about the industrial area on the edge of Yuma says gourmet Asian cuisine, least of all the drab exterior of Highway 95 Cafe. But diners who pull into the dirt parking lot are in for a treat. The menu is mostly Mandarin and Thai: BBQ pork drizzled with a tangy sauce, Beijing ravioli, an array of noodle dishes, and outstanding seafood. Highway 95 is packed year-round, and service is crazy fast. Information: 2585 E. 16th St., 928/329-8882, entrées from $5, cash only. Eliana Osborn, Yuma, Ariz.
TRIO'S in Little Rock, Ark.
The lack of a men's restroom (there's a women's and a unisex) at Trio's suits its ladies-who-lunch crowd just fine. The menu seems aimed to please them, too. It's easy to pass the afternoon over hot crab dip served with crostini, or Mediterranean tapenade served with lavosh crackers. But the dessert tray steals the show. The choices include Banana Delight, a concoction of bananas, cream cheese, vanilla pudding, and whipped cream in a pecan-shortbread crust; apple-cranberry pie; several kinds of cheesecake; and seasonal offerings such as sweet-potato pie and pumpkin mousse. Information: 8201 Cantrell Rd., 501/221-3330, triosrestaurant.com, lunch entrées from $6.50, closed Sun. Holly E. Callaway, North Little Rock, Ark.
OCEAN BEACH PIER CAFÉ in San Diego, Calif.
The Pier Café has a knack for choosing the tastiest ingredients and letting them shine. Chunks of lobster make the omelets irresistible, the delicious mahimahi stands out in the tacos, and fresh mango brings the pancakes to a whole new level. The interior is pure San Diego: small, casual, and friendly, with wood-plank tables and a view of the beach and of surfers passing by. Information: 5091 Niagara Ave., 619/226-3474, tacos from $3, closed during heavy surf. John Jost, San Diego, Calif.
SHABU in Mission Viejo, Calif.
Each seat has a hot plate in front of it with a pot of boiling water. You order seafood, chicken, pork, or beef—all raw—and boil it, along with the accompanying mushrooms, tofu, noodles, and spinach, until everything is cooked. The best part is the special sauces that Kumi (a.k.a. Hot Mama), the hilarious owner, makes fresh daily: ponzu, sesame, ginger, and Hot Mama chili soy sauce. Adjust them to your taste by mixing in scallions, garlic, chilies, and daikon radishes. The restaurant is always packed, so reserving is a good idea. Information: 28715 Los Alisos Blvd., 949/588-3225,entrées from $11, closed Mon. Charlice Arnold, Rancho Santa Margarita, Calif.
THE WILD PLUM CAFE & BAKERY in Monterey, Calif.
The food is as simple as the decor—rustic wooden furniture, a hand-painted mural, a handwritten menu—but it always has an interesting twist. The roast-beef sandwich, for example, is served on focaccia with Gorgonzola cream, carmelized onions, and garlic aioli. If you don't have time to eat there, pick up a box lunch to go (call ahead to order one). Be sure to try the pastries—the muffins and scones are a treat. Information: 731 Munras Ave., 831/646-3109, sandwiches from $8, closed Sun. Stefanie Kaku, Carmel, Calif.
SOUTH BEACH BAR & GRILL in San Diego, Calif.
San Diegans know fish tacos, and this joint is considered by many to have the best in town. A lightly grilled flour tortilla is filled with mahimahi, cabbage, pico de gallo, and cheese, and then drizzled with ranch dressing. They're so cheap, you might as well get two orders, plus a cold beer. It takes some time to score a seat, but the tacos are absolutely worth thewait. Information: 5059 Newport Ave., 619/226-4577, southbeachob.com, tacos from $3. Laura Shanley, San Diego, Calif.
NEW! HEART OF JERUSALEM CAFÉ in Colorado Springs, Colo.
Heart of Jersusalem Café, in downtown Colorado Springs, is one of those restaurants where pretty much everything is good. If you can't make the final call between Mediterranean staples like falafel, baba ghanoush, hummus, and tabbouleh—and no one seems to be able to—then order one of the sampler plates, which go for about $6. Dishes are large and filling, but stick around for the baklava and the Turkish coffee—the latter emerges from the kitchen in a traditional pot called an ibik, and is as black as ink and as potent as rocket fuel. Heart of Jerusalem feels like a lunch place; if you're looking for dinner, head to a restaurant where the pace and the preparation is a little more thoughtful. Information: 15 E. Bijou St., 719/477-1777, heartofjerusalemcafe.com. Price check: A falafel sandwich goes for $5, and a single serving of baklava is $1.50. Families can order the special kids' chicken nugget plate with fries and a drink for $6. Thanks for sharing: Reader Andrea was the first to tip us off.
WAZEE SUPPER CLUB in Denver, Colo.
A comfort-food haven for Denver downtowners, Wazee has broadened its menu in the past few years, but the main draw has always been the Colorado-style pizza—heavy on the toppings, not so much on the cheese. The pizza is good, but really, it's the nicely funky atmosphere that brings people in: exposed brick, high ceilings, checkerboard floors, a bar, and a dumbwaiter that delivers pizzas to the upperlevel. Information: 1600 15th St., 303/623-9518, wazeesupperclub.com, pizza from $7. Lynn Buschhoff, Denver, Colo.
CAROLE PECK'S GOOD NEWS CAFE in Woodbury, Conn.
Carole builds her big, creative menu on local produce and meats. Her pecan-crusted oyster appetizer with dried cherries, jicama, tomatillo salsa, and chili aioli is alone worth the trip, but once you're there, you'd be crazy not to try one of the entrées, like the wok-seared shrimp with vegetables and garlic aioli, or the free-range rotisserie chicken with mashed potatoes and stir-fried seasonal veggies. Information: 694 Main St. S., 203/266-4663, good-news-cafe.com, entrées from $18, closed Tues. Henry Bissonnette, Woodbury, Conn.
E&E STAKEOUT GRILL in Belleair Bluffs, Fla.
You can't help but admire the river-rock walls and cherry-wood and copper accents. Once your food has arrived, however, the decor fades and all you can think about is how delicious the rack of lamb is, how fresh the seafood is, and how creative the cooking is. The specials change daily, but if potato-crusted hog snapper with creamy leek-and-garlic sauce is available,order it. Information: 100 N. Indian Rocks Rd., 727/585-6399, 3bestchefs.com, entrées from $14, closed for lunch Sat. and Sun. Phil Meyer, Belleair Bluffs, Fla.
PUERTO SAGUA in South Beach, Fla.
No South Florida restaurant is more authentically Cuban than Puerto Sagua—just ask the Cubans gathered at the long counter for small plates and café cubanos (also known as Cuban rocket fuel). In the main dining room, there's even an elaborate diorama of a 1950s Havana street scene. The dishes are classic Cuban: arroz con pollo (chicken and rice), ropa vieja (shredded beef), and more. This is Cuban food for Cubans, not tourists—though tourists always love it! Information: 700 Collins Ave., 305/673-1115, entrées from $8. Richard Rosichan, Miami Beach, Fla.
TASTY CHINA in Marietta, Ga.
Owner Yang Da He hires highly regarded Szechuan cooks and gives them the freedom to cook authentic cuisine with few restrictions and no dumbing down. The result is bold, spicy dishes with a balance of flavors that stand up to the heat. (The menu label "hot and numbing" on some dishes should be taken quite literally.) Skip the two pages of Chinese-American standards on the menu and go straight to the Szechuan specialties. Information: 585 Franklin Rd. SE, 770/419-9849, entrées from $8. Morgan Eubanks, Marietta, Ga.
NEW! KEOKI'S PARADISE in Koloa, Hawaii
Near the southern coast of Kauai, within walking distance of Poipu Beach, Keoki's Paradise restaurant is a campy, fun alternative to eating at the big resorts. Tiki torches, a thatched roof, and the usual assortment of "tropical" cocktails (there are two versions of the mai tai) are a little silly, but it all feels appropriately festive when you're dining in shorts and sandals. Dishes served in the restaurant proper are overpriced, so ask for a seat near the man-made pond in the café and stick with the fresh fish, which the restaurant has mastered. The hula pie dessert is a tasty, gargantuan chunk of macadamia-nut ice cream with hot fudge, big enough for the kids to split. Information: 2360 Kiahuna Plantation Dr., 808/742-7534, keokisparadise.com. Price check: A large fish taco platter in the café goes for $10; the fresh fish entrée is $16. Tropical cocktails like the lava flow (the menu says it erupts with strawberry) cost $7.25. Thanks for sharing: Reader AncSteve was the first to tip us off.
IRAZÚ in Chicago, Ill.
You could easily mistake Irazú for a little spot in Costa Rica where you'd stop for a bite. A mural on one wall shows a cottage under palms and tree frogs. Everyone should try the vegetarian burrito with mushrooms at least once—though the steak sandwich is also spectacular. Order a mango-water shake to wash everything down. You'll leave full, satisfied, and out maybe $15 for dinner.Information: 1865 N. Milwaukee Ave., 773/252-5687, irazuchicago.com, entrées from $9, cash only, closed Sun. Amy Johnson, Chicago, Ill.
SCHWA in Chicago, Ill.
It's rare to find a restaurant that offers great experimental food with no attitude, but that's exactly what you get at Schwa. Everything about the place tells you the food is the main event: The space is small, the decor is bare bones, and the tasting menu—which is the only menu—is served by the chefs, not waiters. In fact, this restaurant pays so much attention to the food that it doesn't even have drinks on the menu; customers bring their own wine or beer.Information: 1466 N. Ashland Ave., 773/252-1466, schwarestaurant.com, three-course menu $55, closed Sun. and Mon. Charlie Baase, Chicago, Ill.
NORTH END CAFE in Louisville, Ky.
The most difficult thing about dining there is choosing which meal to eat. If you go for breakfast, you can savor the house-smoked trout hash. But that means you'd miss the rosemary roasted chicken and dumplings for lunch. Then there's dinner, when you have the option of tapas or an entrée (maybe grilled salmon over Parmesan risotto). Of course, you could just stay for all three meals. Information: 1722 Frankfort Ave., 502/896-8770, northendcafe.com, entrées from $10, closed Mon. Cynthia Birkhead, Bardstown, Ky.
UNION STREET in Detroit, Mich.
There are lots of options at Union Street—pastas, sandwiches, salads—but you could be forgiven for never ordering anything but the calamari. The tender squid is julienned, marinated, dusted with seasoned flour, flash fried, and then dressed with a lemon beurre blanc, basil, capers, red onions, and tomatoes. Order extra bread and refuse to give up the bowl until you've mopped up every last drop of sauce. (Ask for the sauce "the old way"—the new version of the dish doesn't come with enough.) Information: 4145 Woodward Ave., 313/831-3965, unionstreetdetroit.com, entrées from $13. Adrien Kant, Cincinnati, Ohio
THE AMERICAN RESTAURANT in Kansas City, Mo.
Well aware that it has one of the best locations in the city—in Crown Center, with views overlooking downtown and the surrounding area—the American Restaurant has oriented most of its tables toward the big glass walls. At night, the lights are dazzling; around Christmas, they're breathtaking. The restaurant could probably get away with preparing mediocre food for its contemporary American menu, but it wouldn't dare. Information: 200 E. 25th St., 816/545-8001, theamericankc.com, entrées from $17, closed Sun. Brenda Tatro, Kansas City, Kans.
CAFÉ BLEU in Las Vegas, Nev.
In the Semmerlin area, Café Bleu is run by Le Cordon Bleu College of Culinary Arts. Except for the executive chef, the entire staff—from the chefs to the servers—is made up of students. The ever-changing menu includes the kind of high-end cuisine you'd expect from the Venetian or the Four Seasons, but at a fraction of the price. The restaurant is open for lunch and dinner, and it's quite popular; you'll want to reservewell in advance. Information: 1451 Center Crossing Rd., 702/851-5322, vegasculinary.com/onsite_restaurant.asp, entrées from $7, closed Sat.–Mon. Carol A. Shields, Las Vegas, Nev.
DE LORENZO'S TOMATO PIES in Trenton, N.J.
What's tomato pie, you ask? To those in the know (i.e., anyone from Trenton), it's the best darn pizza you'll ever eat: a thin crust topped with tomato sauce, high-quality olive oil, tomatoes, and cheese. Within seconds of coming out of the oven, the pie is on your table, still bubbling, the crust slightly charred. De Lorenzo's is in a converted row house in the Chambersburg neighborhood. In the main room, there are several booths and a pizza oven. The back room—once the owner's living room—has a few more tables. If you're a Mets fan, you're in luck: During baseball season, the game is always on the restaurant's TV. Information: 530 Hudson St., 609/695-9534, delorenzostomatopies.com, pizza from $12, cash only, closed Mon.–Wed. J. Costigan, Trenton, N.J.
Stewart's in Tuckerton, N.J.
There are three ways to experience this '50s-style drive-in. Take a little boat down Tuckerton Creek, dock in the back of the restaurant, and hang out at one of the canopy-shaded picnic tables; drive up and have your meal delivered on a tray that hangs precariously on your car-window frame; or walk through downtown Tuckerton and take a seat at one of the counter stools. No matter where you are, you'll enjoy a view of Tuckerton Lake and the Tuckerton Seaport. Stewart's makes the most incredible milkshakes—thick, creamy, and expertly blended. Order your favorite flavor with a pork roll sandwich. Information: 102 W. Main St., 609/489-1696, pork roll from $3.75, cash only, open Apr.–Oct. Janet Mihalic, Hermosa Beach, Calif.
WECK'S in Albuquerque, N.M.
The local chain's name doesn't invoke traditional Southwestern fare, and the decor is decidedly plain. It's the Papas that make Weck's a favorite. To get the true experience, order the Original Papas, a huge mound of hash browns topped with diced ham, bacon, sausage, two eggs, and red or green chilies, served with a tortilla. Information: 3913 Louisiana Blvd. NE, 505/881-0019, wecksinc.com, Original Papas $8. Amy O'Donnell, Albuquerque, N.M.
BOBCAT BITE in Santa Fe, N.M.
Bobcat Bite is a tiny diner in the middle of nowhere, and it serves only a few things, but none of that matters when you sink your teeth into the green-chili cheeseburger. Made from beef that's ground fresh every morning, the burger is so thick and juicy it can be hard to handle. The story behind the name is that bobcats used to come down from the mountains, and the owners of the restaurant would feed them scraps of food. They would warn diners to be careful because "bobcat bite." Information: 420 Old Las Vegas Hwy., 505/983-5319, bobcatbite.com, green-chili cheeseburger $7.50, cash only, closed Sun.–Tues. Valerie Lefler, Tooele, Utah
MARYBILL DINER in Merrick, N.Y.
MaryBill looks like an old railroad diner car: sliding doors, tile floors, booths that seat two or four, and a counter overlooking the grill where Mary and Nick do the cooking. If you order an omelet (and you should), keep in mind that they're huge—bring an appetite or someone to share with. For lunch, get the turkey salad—it's made froma fresh turkey every day. Information: 14 Merrick Ave., 516/378-9715, from $4.40, cash only, closed Sun. Susan Dillon, Merrick, N.Y.
NICK TAHOU HOTS in Rochester, N.Y.
People come to this greasy spoon in an old brick train station for the famous Garbage Plate. The base is any combination of home fries, macaroni salad, baked beans, and French fries. For the topping, you can choose from several meat options, including burgers, chicken, sausage, ham, and fish. Follow the locals' lead and order the white hots–like hot dogs but made mostly of pork instead of beef (an upstate New York specialty). The plate is dressed with mustard, chopped onions, and the restaurant's signature sauce. Information: 320 W. Main St., 585/436-0184, garbageplate.com, Garbage Plate from $5, closed Sun. John Domm, Ontario, N.Y.
CASA NUEVA RESTAURANT, CANTINA, & BODEGA in Athens, Ohio
Casa, as locals call it, is a slow-food-promoting, worker-owned co-op in the heart of a college town, but it's not your average hippie hangout. For one thing, there's meat—but if you don't want the King Family Farm bacon or spicy sausage, there are plenty of meatless options, too: for brunch, fluffy, lemony cottage cheese pancakes; for dinner, huge burritos made from fresh tortillas and filled with jasmine rice and veggies. The chips and salsa—particularly the black bean version—should be ordered regardlessof which meal you eat. Information: 4-6 W. State St., 740/594-8691, casanueva.com, entrées from $6. Maria Surovy, Cleveland, Ohio
NAZARETH RESTAURANT & DELI in Columbus, Ohio
Despite being in a strip mall, Nazareth is full of character, thanks to the owner, Hany Baransi, who walks around with a baseball bat asking guests how the food is. But there's nothing threatening about Hany. Anyone who's eaten at Nazareth has heard him use his catchphrase, "I love you, man." Customers often give him "I love you" souvenirs—license plates, magnets—which he displays behind the counter. The walls are painted with a scene from Israel, his home. The menu is a combination of Mediterranean and American cuisines, with gyros, French fries, chicken with rice, and more. Information: Columbus Square Shopping Center, 5663 Emporium Sq., 614/899-1177, nazarethdeli.com, gyros from $5, closed Sun. Molly Ray, Columbus, Ohio
TWO FROGS GRILL in Ardmore, Okla.
Two Frogs is in Oklahoma, but it screams New Orleans. It's dark, with a funky party room and bar in the back and bands playing from time to time. Share a Fried Blossom onion to start, and then move on to the fried catfish fillets and red beans. Save room for the apple dumpling with vanilla-custard sauce—oneorder is enough for two. Information: 2646 W. Broadway, 580/226-3764, twofrogsgrill.com, entrées from $7. Claire Murphy, Ardmore, Okla.
THE RESTAURANT AT KING ESTATE in Lorane, Ore.
Just as you begin to second-guess your map or the local who gave you directions, a grand building comes into view—the King Estate Winery visitors center. Many of the fruits, vegetables, and herbs on the restaurant's menu are organically grown on the 1,033-acre estate. Everything else comes from Oregonian farmers, so whether you're eating the beet-and-spinach salad or the delicious pizza with tomatoes and basil, you can rest assured that it's fresh and local. As is, of course, the wine. Information: 80854 Territorial Rd., 541/685-5189, kingestate.com, entrées from $20. Rosemary Gording, Eugene, Ore.
NEW! PAMELA'S P&G DINER in Pittsburgh, Pa.
Pamela's breakfast menu breeds the kind of loyalty that sounds a little like addiction. If you're hooked, you dedicate weekend mornings to navigating the long lines and wolfing down huge, debilitating helpings of their pancakes and eggs. The restaurant's signature meal is their crepe-style pancakes, thinner and little more porous than what you see elsewhere—try the banana chocolate chip or the strawberry, both popular with the regulars. If you prefer savory to sweet, the omelets with a side of thick home fries are the best bet. Pamela's, with six branches in Pittsburgh, has little in the way of interior design or ambience, but the friendly service and the great prices (the bottomless coffee pot costs $1.75) more than make up for it. It's cash only, so stop at an ATM before you join the line, which moves mercifully fast. Information: 60 21st St., 412/281-6366. Price check: The crepe-style pancakes go for $4.25 a plate. Most omelets cost about $6.50. The bottomless pot of coffee is served in a thermos table-side for $1.75. Thanks for sharing: Reader robin first tipped us off.
NEW! GELATO BLU in Houston, Tex.
Up to 36 flavors are listed on the gelato and sorbetto menu at Houston's Gelato Blu, and the super-friendly staff lets you sample as many as you'd like before ordering. Homemade cones stuffed with Michelangelo gelato, a unique blend of ricotta and fig, win loyalty from more adventurous palates; others swear by the classics, such as pistachio and hazelnut. The store serves lunch fare and coffee drinks too, but most come for the ice cream—or mix their vices by ordering an affogato, a mound of sweet cream gelato with freshly pulled espresso poured over the top. Information: 5710 Memorial Dr. #B, 713/880-5900, gelatoblu.com. Price check: Small dish for $3.50; medium $4.50; large $5. Add 70¢ for a homemade waffle cone. Nine variations of their affogato drink go for $4.50 each. Thanks for sharing: Member foodie was the first to tip us off.
NEW! NIKO NIKO'S GREEK & AMERICAN CAFÉ in Houston, Tex.
Niko Niko's, by most accounts, is a Houston institution. Its brusque, no-nonsense efficiency isn't exactly charming, but it's necessary—after all, the lines get long, and you can't wait for your gyro forever. The baby lamb shank and the lemon chicken soup garner high praise, and although the portions are uniformly huge, you should save room for dessert. The homemade baklava and honey balls are terrific. Large plates and a special children's menu, with all items priced affordably, spell "family value." Information: 2520 Montrose Blvd., 713/528-4976, nikonikos.com. Price Check: A gyros sandwich goes for $8. Larger, mixed plates (assortments) average around $13. Thanks for sharing: Members TBowen, djb123, and foodie were the first to tip us off.
NEW! MAX'S WINE DIVE in Austin and Houston, Tex.
A trendy mini-chain with branches in Houston and Austin, Max's Wine Dive serves food with haute attitude, minus the fussiness. Diners describe plates like the "Texas haute" hot dog with venison chili and the fried egg sandwich with truffle oil as both drippingly messy and unforgettably delicious. Max's tries to keep things local: the chefs get ingredients such as buffalo and alligator meat, and assorted vegetables, from nearby farms. All of the wines from the titanic house list are served by the glass, with a two-glass commitment—you can split the pours with a friend to keep your tippling options open. Information: 207 San Jacinto Ave., Austin, 512/904-0106; 4720 Washington Ave., Houston, 713/880-8737; maxswinedive.com. Price check: Large plates can be expensive, but you can opt for more affordable meals. The popular fried egg sandwich entrée is served with hand-cut potato chips for $13, and a half order of the wild boar pasta is $9. Thanks for sharing: Member jbob was the first to tip us off.
NEW! PAPPASITO'S CANTINA in Houston, Austin, San Antonio, Dallas/Fort Worth, and other metropolitan areas in Texas
Several readers wrote in last year to complain about the inclusion of Tex-Mex chain Chuy's, of Texas—so we know we'll get flak for tipping our hat to another local chain, Pappasito's Cantina, this year. We're messing with Texas, and we're sorry. A Tex-Mex chain that's part of the Pappas family's restaurant empire, Pappasito's doles out huge plates of food to big, hungry crowds—and still manages to satisfy demanding palates. The fajitas, by most accounts, are the star here, with self-described Texan "fajita snobs" vouching for their tastiness. Entrées can run to the expensive side for Tex-Mex, but most portions are good for two, so you should think about splitting your plate with your favorite hombre. Information:pappasitos.com. Price check: Chicken fajitas for $15—but the menu says it serves two. A two-taco dinner served with rice and beans is $10. Thanks for sharing: Members djb123 and ask4texas were the first to tip us off.
CHUY'S in Austin, Tex.
In a town where there's Tex-Mex on almost every corner, Chuy's is the best. If you can tear yourself away from the enchiladas—blue-corn tortillas filled with chicken, cheese, and tomatillo sauce and topped with sour cream—take a moment to admire the decor: velvet Elvises, hand-carved wooden fish, vinyl chairs, tables from the 1950s, and pictures of patrons all over the world in Chuy's T-shirts. Information: 1728 Barton Springs Rd., 512/474-4452 (plus four other Austin locations), chuys.com, entrées from $6. Sara Ballon, Austin, Tex.
NEW! BIT & SPUR RESTAURANT & SALOON in Springdale, Utah
The Bit & Spur is one of the best restaurants near Utah's Zion National Park: The locally brewed beer is top-notch, and Mexican-inspired basics like the house burrito and fresh fruit margaritas satisfy after a long hike, especially if you've snagged a patio seat. Ingredients are high-quality, and the vibe is festive and always friendly. Still, food quality can be erratic, and the prices are higher than they need to be—the seasonal menu, especially, trends towards expensive options (this spring's bistek asado dish goes for $30, and the special tamales are priced at $21). Keep it simple and you'll walk away happy, and full: Grab a good beer or a margarita, try well-regarded favorites like the tacos or burritos, and down it all on the back patio while contemplating the West Temple Mountains. That's hard to beat after an attempt at nearby Angel's Landing, a legendary hike to one of the best summit views in the National Park system. Information: 1212 Zion Park Blvd., 435/772-3498, bitandspur.com. Price check: The chicken, beef, or pork burrito goes for $12.50. Fajitas go for a pricey $18.25. A children's menu is available: The child's portion for a taco or enchilada plate is $6.25. Thanks for sharing: Reader Lois was the first to tip us off.
CROWN BURGERS in Salt Lake City, Utah
Crown Burgers has grown to include seven locations throughout the area, but there's nothing chain-like about it. For one thing, the company is run by a family, not a big corporation. For another, the owners pay special attention to the food, whether it's the popular Crown Burger—a man-size patty topped with pastrami, cheese, lettuce, tomatoes, and a special sauce—or the gyros, taquitos, broiled chicken, burritos, salads, fries, or shakes. Every outpost is always packed at lunch, but you never haveto wait longfor your order. Information: 3190 S. Highland Dr., 801/467-6633, Crown Burger from $5, closed Sun. Richard Miles, Tooele, Utah
CORNER BAR & GRILL in Richmond, Va.
Not too sweet and not too heavy, the absolutely perfect mashed sweet potatoes at the Corner Bar & Grill fall somewhere between pudding and homestyle creamy mashed potatoes. Order them as a side to any of the classic Southern dishes on the menu—delicately fried catfish, pork chops, sandwiches, fried oysters, or barbecue Jack grilled chicken. Add the restaurant's spectacular collard greens and sweet, moist cornbread, and you're all set. Information: 1301 W. Leigh St., 804/213-3046, thecornerbargrill.com, sandwiches from $7, mashed sweet potatoes $2, closed Sun. Ellen Young, Mechanicsville, Va.
YUMIKO'S TERIYAKI in Redmond, Wash.
It seems like there's a teriyaki restaurant in every Eastside strip mall, but Yumiko's teriyaki sauce, with just the right balance of savory and sweet, makes this place stand out. (The recipe has been passed down for generations and remains a family secret.) You can order steak, shrimp, or chicken, all of which are served with rice, sauce, and a little cabbage salad. Servings are generous, so you may want to go for a half portion. The dining area only seats 19. Information: 15003 NE 24th St., 425/562-8916, entrées from $6.50, closed Sun. Megan Rossman, Edmond, Okla.
On 7th Street, close to Chinatown and only a short walk from the National Mall and the Smithsonian Institution, the festive Spanish tapas restaurant Jaleo should be a tourist mainstay. Somehow, it's not. The abbreviated lunch menu is served from 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.; try sandwiches such as the JLT (jamón, lettuce, and tomato) and the roasted lamb for about $9 each. At night, the restaurant fills to capacity by 6:30 p.m.; if you don't arrive early or book a reservation well in advance, expect to wait 30 or 40 minutes at the bar. The paella is justly famous, but small plates like lamb chops, dates wrapped with bacon, and sautéed spinach with pine nuts are more fun to sample. If you over-order, you'll blow the bank; instead, order plates in groups of two or three, and be sure to get your fill of some of the cheaper staples, like patatas bravas ($6) and pan con tomate ($3). Information: 480 7th St., NW, 202/628-7949, jaleo.com. Price check: The tapas plate of Spanish omelet with potatoes and onions goes for $6.50. The paella with chicken and mushrooms, which serves two to four, costs $34. Thanks for sharing: Reader Valerie first tipped us off.
Order your falafel and then head to the toppings bar to add marinated eggplant, garlic hummus, tomatoes, cucumbers, baba ghanoush, or jalapeño-cilantro sauce. (A sign gives instructions for the best way to add toppings.) Don't forget the garlic cream sauce and tahini, the two items that the staff invites you to reapply as you work your way through the meal. The fries are prepared Dutch-style, meaning they're fried twice. There's ketchup to dip them in, but it's fun to try the more interesting options such as creamy Dutch mayo and sweet-and-spicy peanut sauce. Information: 2425 18th St. NW, 202/234-1969, falafelshop.com, from $4.50, cash only (including euros!). Laura Nixon, Alexandria, Va.
MON CHERI CAFE
Whether you're a somebody or a nobody, the guys at the counter and behind the grill only care about one thing: your order. Sure, they love to chat, and if the line isn't too long, they will. But chances are, there will be someone behind you itching to order exactly what you should be ordering—a big, fat cheeseburger with mayo, onions, mustard, and tomatoes, a side of fries, and a Coke. The bun is toasted, the lettuce is crisp, the tomatoes are red (not pink), and the burger is always perfectly cooked. Information: 3015 M St. NW, 202/338-2745, burgers from $4. Jason Carey, Charlotte, N.C.
NEW! THE OLD FASHIONED in Madison, Wis.
Much of the menu at the Old Fashioned is locally sourced or inspired. The beer-battered perch, for example, is fish pulled from local waters and then fried in a coating of breadcrumbs doused with Wisconsin brews. It's a principle that threads its way through the menu's smallest details: Even the sweet-cream butter that graces the baked potatoes is from the state. Try the fried cheese curds (Wisconsin cheese, of course) or the huge wurst platter with homemade sauerkraut and mustard—the latter is a nod to the area's German ancestry. For a nightcap, order one of the carefully crafted early-20th-century cocktails such as the sidecar or the bourbon old-fashioned. The restaurant is a calorie-counter's nightmare; try not to think about that and resolve to eat healthy tomorrow. Information: 23 N. Pinckney St., 608/310-4545, theoldfashioned.com. Price check: The slow-roasted pork shoulder sandwich goes for $8. The wurst platter is $16. Cocktails start at $4.50. Thanks for sharing: Reader alandrus was the first to tip us off.
BONA CASA FOODS in Cumberland, Wis.
Don't expect fancy waiters or sommeliers here. In fact, don't expect pretension of any kind. This restaurant is all about Midwestern friendliness. The menu is limited to "cavatills" (rolled pasta with ridges, like cavatelli), two types of ravioli (chicken or cheese and raisin), and spaghetti. Most people go for the sweet, tangy red sauce, but there's a pepper Jack cheese sauce, too. All dishes are served with meatballs or homemade Italian sausage, and a choice of salad or cottage cheese. The restaurant is popular, so you'll probably have to wait—on the lawn in summer, in your car with the heat on in winter. Information: 754 21st Ave., 715/822-8294, bonacasafoods.com, entrées from $9, closed Mon. and Tues. Liz Zappitello, Superior, Wis.
STONE TABLE in Jackson Hole, Wyo.
Run by Julie Zell Suclla and her Peruvian husband, Gustavo Suclla Schiaffino, this Latin-fusion tapas restaurant takes its food seriously. The cocktails and extensive wine list are reasons enough to go, but once you're there, you'd be crazy not to order, say, the potatoes. Delivered as three Gaudí-esque towers, they're served with crab and ají chili peppers and topped with avocado and garlic-lime aioli. Even the vegetarian offerings are well thought out. The yucas fritas—fried yuca root served with an aioli dipping sauce—areabsolutely addictive. Information: 850 W. Broadway, 307/732-0500, stonetablejacksonhole.com, tapas from $3.50. Alisan Peters, Jackson, Wyo.