Rest of the Best 2013

Top 10 drive-throughs in Houston.

2. W Grill

Three words: Drive-through margaritas. They shouldn't be legal, but somehow they are (because this is Texas, folks). While the 11 varieties of margaritas and mixed drinks run a little on the sweet side, they certainly don't skimp on the booze, and you can add an extra shot for only $1. The drive-through "seals" the margaritas in a plastic bag, making them — technically — closed containers. The rest of the food, like the salmon BLT or the fish tacos, is pretty great for drive-through cuisine, but the margaritas are what makes W Grill really shine.

1. El Rey Taqueria

The warm octopus salad is a "wow."
Mai Pham
The warm octopus salad is a "wow."

El Rey is not your typical fast-food joint. Sure, the food comes out fast, but what we have here is a full-fledged Mexican-Cuban restaurant. Where else can you pick up a succulent, golden-skinned rotisserie chicken and plantains, complete with Mexican rice and pork-laced charro beans, at a drive-through window? Or a steak and eggs breakfast with caramelized onions and perfectly fried eggs? Or a grilled chicken salad with fresh mangos, pico de gallo, avocado and spicy cilantro dressing? Or tres leches and flan? Not to mention, they do breakfast. Drive-through Cuban coffee, anyone? I rest my case.

Local Spotlight

Oysters and Tuna Tacos
First look at Caracol.

Mai Pham

'I could come here just for this," I thought to myself as I sampled the unbelievably tasty ostiones asados, or wood-grilled oysters, topped with chipotle butter at Caracol. The first of several dishes I tried during my first visit to Hugo Ortega and Tracy Vaught's new coastal Mexican seafood restaurant in the BBVA Compass building on Post Oak Boulevard, it is without a doubt their signature dish, the one you have to order every time you go.

Not only were the oysters mouthwatering to look at, but the flavor and texture were incredible: Each slurp of silky-smooth, molten, hot oyster tasted of mild oceanic salinity that ended with a great crispy, buttery, spicy finish. Parmesan-grilled oysters can commonly be found throughout Latin America — from Mexico to Peru and Chile — but Caracol's non-cheesy version is simply outstanding. I polished off six oysters by myself (and could easily have scarfed down a few more).

The food is just one of the things that make Caracol one of my favorite new restaurants to open in Houston this past year. The design of the restaurant is open and airy, with high ceilings; clean, modern lines; and a color palette of creams and pale powder blues that evokes the feeling of a coastal resort. Wall art is understated, depicting sea creatures from fish to the vibrant red squid that dominates the eastern wall. You could transport this restaurant to a beach in Mexico and it would easily fit right in. The lighting is attractive without being too bright or dim, and the noise level is controlled so that you can easily converse with someone sitting across your table. The service staff, wearing simple ruffled Mexican peasant shirts, are attentive, enthusiastic and friendly.

But back to the food. The menus are arranged so that the small, appetizer-size plates occupy the two outer columns with the larger, more substantial entrées in the middle. During my first visit, I didn't make it past the small plates, sampling items like a brilliantly conceived carnitas-style tuna taco, wherein chunks of tuna were prepared to mimic pork carnitas. The meaty flesh of the tuna had a crisp outer sear and mingled with bright slivers of red onion and a Sriracha-like spicy hot sauce to make one helluva gourmet-tasting fish taco.

A shrimp aguachile looked like a work of art, served on a small plate over rounds of paper-thin cucumber that had been arranged in an overlapping pattern to form the base of the dish. Although there were deep rust-colored dots of a smoky spicy sauce, I wished there had been a more pronounced acidity, like you'd find in ceviche. Nonetheless, I couldn't quibble with the authenticity of the preparation, because it tasted just like aguachile dishes I'd tried in Mexico.

A warm octopus salad, in which the octopus had been braised until tender before being finished on the grill, was another standout. Served with a mix of chunky roasted root vegetables, the dish was as vibrant in color as it was smoky and complex.

On a subsequent visit, I was part of a group of four, again opting to forgo the entrées in favor of ordering several small plates to share. We ended up with what was, in effect, a ten-course tasting by the night's end.

We started with the aforementioned favorites, along with a plate of fall-off-the bone costillas, or pork ribs; a snapper sashimi appetizer (the least memorable of the night); a fantastic mixed seafood campechana; a delectable chilpachole de jaiba, or softshell crab soup; and the signature ceviche de caracol, or conch ceviche, the sea snail after which the restaurant is named.

Sliced up into long, thin rectangular slivers, the conch is placed on the plate in five small mounds, steeped in a marinade of pineapple, red pepper and ginger. The spice hits you at the onset but disappears immediately, and what you're left with is a kind of spicy sweet and sour taste as you absorb the wonderful textures of the conch itself. Imagine the quick bite of a fresh squid sashimi, the slight elasticity of a clam and the meaty chewiness of abalone all at the same time — that is what you experience when you chew on the conch.

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