When I was preparing to move to Houston nearly a year ago, I heard a lot of apologies from people.
"Houston?" they would say, incredulously. "Wow. I'm sorry. Sounds like you'll be eating a lot of Tex-Mex and steak and nothing else."
I'll be the first to admit that I was concerned. I grew up in Corpus Christi, but I knew little about this northern region of the Gulf Coast and its culinary complexion. I was worried that the food here would be boring and fail to engage me in a way that would make me want to write about it. Sure, I'd heard Houston was a diverse city culturally. But then, I'd also heard that, food-wise, it was a bit of a beefy wasteland.
Want to see more of this year's 100 Favorite Dishes? Check out our slideshow, "100 Favorite Dishes in Houston 2014: The List in Photos."
Now, I'll also be the first to admit that I was wrong about Houston. So were the naysayers who warned me about the city. We were all dead wrong.
It was the incredible food scene here in Houston that won me over almost immediately. Some of my first few meals here were had at H-Mart, La Mexicana, Eastside Farmer's Market and Tony's, which display the astounding culinary diversity this city has to offer. According to reports out of Rice University, Houston is the most ethnically diverse city in the country, surpassing even New York and Los Angeles. Because of this multiculturalism, Houston's food scene is one big melting pot of greatness. Name a cuisine, and we've got it.
When people ask me how I'm liking Houston almost a year in, I have a hard time expressing how pleasantly surprised I've been by my immediate love for this city. Yes, the potholes are a problem, and I'm still not over my intense hatred of valet parking or my confusion at the way the weather changes so rapidly that it seems like the work of the X-Men. But the food and the profoundly kind and interesting people in the local restaurant industry, more than anything, have made me feel more at home here than anywhere I've lived before.
I came to Houston to learn about and write about the rapidly evolving culinary scene. Every day I learn something new, and every day my taste buds are delighted by a dish or two that I'm beyond pleased to have discovered. I could go on and on about the various reasons I've fallen so hard for this city, but I'm a food writer. I think my love story is best told through the dishes I've enjoyed since embarking on this journey.
So here, Houston: This is my love letter to you. Cheers.
Want to see more of this year's 100 Favorite Dishes? Check out our slideshow, "100 Favorite Dishes in Houston 2014: The List in Photos."
No. 100, Bangkok Fries at Boheme
307 Fairview, 713-529-1099, barboheme.com
At Boheme, the crispy shoestring fries are topped with sweet, crunchy charbroiled pork, a bit of vinegary hoisin sauce, homemade yellow curry mayo, cilantro and crushed sesame rods. Oh, and Sriracha. Lots of Sriracha.
No. 99, Almond Croissant at Phoenicia
1001 Austin, 832-360-2222, phoeniciafoods.com/locations/downtown-market
The almond croissant at Phoenicia has the same rich, buttery flavor as a plain croissant, but with an added sweet nuttiness. It's cooked perfectly: crispy at the ends and on the outermost layer of dough and fluffy on the inside. The croissant is topped with toasted almonds and powdered sugar for an incredible crunchy crust.
No. 98, Bulgogi Tacos with Kimchi at Chi'Lantro
Food truck, chilantrobbq.com
Kimchi adds a unique bite to the already slightly spicy, slightly sweet beef in the bulgogi tacos from Chi'Lantro, making the taco crisp and refreshing. Kimchi is my ideal summer food, but it's not really a meal on its own. Pair it with some beef and corn tortillas, though, and you've got yourself one heck of a tasty dinner.
No. 97, Soft Pretzel at Mongoose Versus Cobra
1011 McGowen, 713-650-6872, mongooseversuscobra.com
The salt-covered pretzels are made by Slow Dough Bread Co., then warmed at the bar and given a generous brushing of melted butter before being brought out on a big silver tray. They're served with Revival Market's insanely good mustard and spicy pickles made in-house at Mongoose.
No. 96, Chicken and Waffles at Adair Kitchen
5161 San Felipe, 713-623-6100, adairkitchen.com
The huge Belgian waffle is crisp and golden brown on the outside and light and airy on the inside. It has deep squares that hold a generous amount of syrup and catch little bits of batter that fall off the chicken. The batter is crunchy and peppery with just the right amount of salt and heat to complement the sweetness of the syrup.
No. 95, Sweet Potato Gnocchi at Brooklyn Athletic Club
601 Richmond, 713-527-4440, thebrooklynathleticclub.com
This dish is wonderful not just because it features sweet potatoes so prominently in an almost pudding-like gnocchi, but also because the flavor combination of the potatoes, cream, apples, sage and mushrooms is so unexpected — and so divine.
No. 94, Foie Gras Mac and Cheese at BRC Gastropub
519 Shepherd, 713-861-2233, brcgastropub.com
BRC's best macaroni and cheese is served in a hot cast-iron skillet and topped with bread crumbs, more melted cheese, green onions and three oyster-size ovals of decadent seared duck foie gras whose flavor is present in the form of a velvety, meaty enhancement to the nutty and buttery raclette.
No. 93, Vuelve la Vida Soup at Connie's Seafood
2525 Airline, 713-868-2144, conniesseafood.com
It's as if the chefs at Connie's managed to scoop up a giant bowl of Gulf Coast water (critters and all), boil it with some vegetables, add some seasoning and dish it out to hungry diners. There's tender purple crab; flaky white fish; plump, juicy oysters; and tiny curled shrimp, all of which swirl around a white skinless potato in the middle of the bowl.
No. 92, Homeroom Burger at Bernie's Burger Bus
Food truck, berniesburgerbus.com
The Homeroom is a juicy, medium-rare, inch-high masterpiece of fresh-ground Black Angus beef topped with apple wood-smoked bacon, Cheddar, "tipsy onions," chipotle aioli and a fried egg, all sandwiched between freshly baked fluffy buns.
No. 91, Lobster Cake Benedict at Sorrel Urban Bistro
2202 West Alabama, 713-677-0391, sorrelhouston.com
Sorrel's lobster cake is assembled like a crab cake, but unlike the soggy, overly bready crab cakes that some restaurants trot out proudly, Sorrel's lobster cake employs a lot of lobster. Big hunks of meat give the cake a buttery lobster flavor, while bits of pepper and onion add complexity to the smooth cake. This is served on top of a slice of toasted, slightly sweet brioche and finished with a poached egg that's firm on the outside but golden yellow and liquid on the inside.
No. 90, Uncle Daryl's Cake at the Chocolate Bar
2521 University, 713-520-8888, theoriginalchocolatebar.com
Before this cake, already iced in a decadent buttercream and topped with ganache, is handed over, it's drizzled with extra chocolate ganache and sprinkled with toffee chips. All four layers of cake are moist and rich, with a deep chocolatey flavor.
No. 89, Porcetta e Fagioli at Giacomo's Cibo e Vino
3215 Westheimer, 713-522-1934, giacomosciboevino.com
At Giacomo's, the pork butt is stewed in a mixture of tomatoes, garlic and cannellini beans for as long as six hours so that all the herbs and spices mingle together in glorious harmony. Every couple of bites, there might be a standout flavor — a pop of sage, a slow burn of garlic, a bright tomato.
No. 88, Sesame Soft Balls at Golden Dim Sum
10600 Bellaire, 281-495-1688
The outside of this dessert is soft, chewy and doughy, but the inside is filled with ground black sesame seeds and sugar that together look like black sand from a volcanic beach. The sweet sesame is almost like halawa, but the granulated sugar gives it a different texture and a shock of sweet.
No. 87, Crab Daddy Bao at Fat Bao
3419 Kirby, 713-667-0341, fatbaohouston.com
One reason the Crab Daddy is so stellar is that the individual ingredients can be easy to mess up. The bao, for instance, can turn gummy when steamed too long, but this one held up to the heft of an entire (albeit small) crustacean. Soft-shell crab can turn chewy or tough, but this little guy was perfectly crispy with a still-intact seafood flavor even after being deep-fried.
No. 86, Ham, Egg and Cheese Crepe at Melange Creperie
403 Westheimer, 832-724-9464, melangecreperie.wordpress.com
At Melange, they have crepes down to an art form. Like masters of origami, they fold everything from ham to Nutella to palak paneer into a paper-thin envelope to create meals that are positively magnifique, but the best is the simple ham, egg and cheese.
No. 85, Pork Tamales at Irma's
22 North Chenevert, 713-222-0767, irmasoriginal.com
Menu changes regularly.
There are two things I look for when I judge tamales, and the slightly spicy pork tamales at Irma's have both of them: a good meat-to-masa ratio, and masa that has not been dried out by oversteaming. These are soft and moist (but certainly not runny), and every bite features just the right amount of meat to enhance the flavor of the corn-based masa.
No. 84, Greek Burger at Hubcap Grill
1111 Prairie, 713-223-5885, hubcapgrill.com
The toppings — feta cheese, kalamata olives, onions, green bell peppers, lettuce, tomatoes and extra special mayo — are what makes the Greek Burger special, but Hubcap's lauded patty is what makes this meal one of my favorites. It's made of never-frozen beef, and it's hand-formed, which is immediately evident from the gloriously crunchy little wads of beef that don't quite adhere to the circular shape of the rest of the burger.
No. 83, Lobster Roll at Maine-ly Sandwiches
3310 South Shepherd, 713-942-2150, mainelysandwiches.com
The lobster in Maine-ly's rolls is carefully picked out of the claw; chopped into small pieces; and tossed with a simple mixture of mayonnaise, lemon juice, black pepper and salt. It's the right amount of dressing to hold the chunks of lobster together, but not so much that any other flavor overwhelms the delicate brininess of the meat.
No. 82, Grilled Ahi Tuna at St. John's Fire
Food truck, 713-502-1188, stjohnsfire.net
Menu changes regularly.
First there's the bed of savory bread pudding upon which the tuna steak rests. It's fluffy and eggy and provides just the right amount of mushy starch to counter the other crunchy and spicy elements of the dish. Tiny fried crawfish tails with a kick of heat surround the tuna, and when you gather both sea creatures in one bite, it's a perfect balance of substantial tuna and sweet crawfish. Then there's just a handful of wilted spinach (you know, to make it seem healthier and provide color contrast) and a delightful creamy mustard sauce drizzled over the whole thing.
No. 81, Katfish and Grits at The Breakfast Klub
3711 Travis, 713-528-8561, thebreakfastklub.com
The catfish and grits breakfast at The Breakfast Klub is a big ol' piece of battered and fried catfish, two eggs cooked however you want, a biscuit or toast, and a delectable mound of perfect grits with a little pool of yellow butter in the center. It's the ideal combination of seafood and carbs for breakfast.
No. 80, The Marie Laveau Sandwich at Sandy Witch
1010 Banks, 832-660-3038, sandywitch.com
The Marie Laveau features tender and juicy Dr Pepper-braised short rib with just a hint of herbal sweetness from the soda, stewed collard greens and house-made honey mustard with a kick. That's all served on a Kraftsmen challah bun sprinkled with crispy shallot strings that can get quite messy from all the saucy stuff inside.
No. 79, Carnissima Pizza at Coppa Osteria
5210 Morningside, 713-522-3535, coppaosteriahouston.com
This wood-fired pizza is topped with crumbled Italian sausage, prosciutto, cured coppa, salumi toscano and pepperoni. Each meat originates on a pig, but they are all cured and prepared differently (and from different cuts) to create a diversity of pork flavors all on one delectable round package. The final product is drizzled with a Parmesan cream sauce and a bit of scamorza.
No. 78, Mortadella Sandwich at 13 Celsius
3000 Caroline, 713-529-8466, 13celsius.com
It's a deceptively simple sandwich, but the bright pop of acidic mustard and the little bits of creamy fat in the thinly sliced mortadella add new dimensions to what's arguably a glorified meat, cheese and tomato sandwich. When that golden yolk breaks and oozes all over the rest of the sandwich, the ensuing flavor combination — meaty and buttery, salty and tart — is a thing of beauty.
No. 77, Lamb Lollipops at Américas
2040 West Gray, 832-200-1492, cordua.com/americas
At Américas, they get lamb just right. The marinade helps keep it juicy and tender while adding an extra dimension to a meat that can often be gamy. It's grilled so that it's nice and charred on the outside, but still soft and pink in the center.
No. 76, The Heights Burger at Gratifi
302 Fairview, 832-203-5950, gratifikitchenandbar.com
Unlike many meat-free burgers that use fillers like bread crumbs and weird, science-project pseudo-meat, Gratifi's black bean patty is just that: black beans. In addition to being substantial, the burger is also delicious, thanks to the addition of salsa to the patty and the thick slice of pepper Jack melted ontop.
No. 75, "Date With a Pig" at Sparrow Bar + Cookshop
3701 Travis, 713-524-6922, sparrowhouston.com
The "Date With a Pig" is served by the single date on the bar menu, and it's drizzled with homemade north African chermoula. The date is slightly sweet, the chorizo it's stuffed with is creamy and slightly spicy, the bacon wrapped around the whole thing is fatty and crisp, and the drizzle of chermoula adds a hint of cumin and garlic to the mix.
No. 74, Taco al Pastor at Taco Keto
1401 Cullen, 713-224-1898
For only $1.50, you get a single taco filled with cheese and chunks of sliced pork that appear to have been pan-fried to achieve a crisp on the outside of the corn tortilla, along with papas sautéed with cumin and chile and blackened around the edges, caramelized onions, fresh cilantro, half a lemon, and a generous helping of green tomatillo and jalapeño salsa on top.
No. 73, Chili Cheese Mac from Jus' Mac
2617 Yale, 713-622-8646, jusmac.com
Chewy macaroni is doused in a cheese sauce that comes from an 80-year-old family recipe, then this creamy combo is topped with a layer of homemade chili that's rich and hearty enough to stand on its own without the added mac and cheese. Corn chips scattered on top provide a nice crunch.
No. 72, Chicken Pot Pie at Kenny & Ziggy's
2327 Post Oak, 713-871-8883, kennyandziggys.com
Kenny & Ziggy's does pot pie by stewing a hearty mixture of lean cubed chicken, celery, onion and carrot in a thick, meaty broth, then topping the whole thing with a buttery, flaky puff pastry hat. It's not too salty, as many pot pies and stews can be, nor is it too glutinous from flour added to the broth to thicken it. The meat is tender and flavorful.
No. 71, Lazy Lane Frites at Brasserie 19
1962 West Gray, 713-524-1919, brasserie19.com
The Lazy Lane frites are served in a big bowl — bigger than I anticipated for an appetizer — of slightly curly, dark orangey-brown fries tossed in sauce au poivre, grated Parmesan, truffle oil and chives. Then the mound of frites is topped with a generous portion of seared foie gras.
No. 70, Banana Split at Cloud 10 Creamery
5216 Morningside, 713-434-6129, cloud10creamery.com
It's three scoops of different ice cream — chocolate, vanilla and Nutella with marshmallows — and three types of sauce — a dark-maroon berry jam, a milk chocolate shell and rich fudge. The banana slices are sprinkled with a little sugar and then caramelized with a torch before being added to the ice cream, along with candied pecans, whipped cream and impossibly cool Nutella powder.
No. 69, A Dozen Raw Oysters at Pappas Seafood House
3001 South Shepherd, 713-522-4595, pappasseafood.com/location/?id=103
Unless you're eating appellation oysters, most gulf oysters taste pretty much the same. The oysters at Pappas are some of the best, though, because they're incredibly fresh, incredibly large and incredibly inexpensive. They're served with three different sauces, too, and though I'm usually an oyster purist, I find the mignonette sauce of red wine vinegar and shallots quite refreshing.
No. 68, Green Hurry Curry at Nit Noi
2020 Louisiana, 713-652-5855, nitnoithai.com
I suppose everyone does Thai curry a little differently, but I wasn't expecting the hearty chunks of potatoes; the soft roasted tomatoes; or the sweet, acidic pineapple slices in Nit Noi's excellent green curry.
No. 67, Bad-Ass Hambur-Torta at Pistolero's
1517 Westheimer, 281-974-3860, pistoleroshouston.com
This is like burger Jenga — one false move and the whole thing comes tumbling down. The patty is sandwiched between a brioche bun that has been lightly grilled, then smeared with chile aioli. It's topped with sautéed mushrooms, onions and peppers; thick, juicy bacon; a sliced avocado; a fried egg; slices of cheese and liquid orange queso; and, finally, a few chili cumin fries tucked between everything else.
No. 66, Enchiladas de Mole at La Guadalupana
2109 Dunlavy, 713-522-2301
I'm a sucker for mole in general, but the silky-smooth dark mole at La Guadalupana is some of the best you'll find in Houston. The enchiladas, nestled close together underneath the layer of mole, are wonderful on their own — juicy dark and light chicken meat packed inside thin, flavorful corn tortillas. But it's the mole that makes the dish.
No. 65, Shorty Mac at H-Town StrEATs
Menu changes regularly.
I don't know how the geniuses over at H-Town StrEATs came up with the idea of stuffing a grilled cheese sandwich (already a wonderful item) with macaroni and cheese (even better) and pulled braised short ribs (best). The grilled cheese sandwich is lightly buttered before it's grilled, so it tastes like the grilled cheese of your childhood. The macaroni and cheese is oozy and gooey and cheesy without being gummy or soggy. The short rib is juicy and flavorful and worth eating all on its own.
No. 64, Squirrel Master Burger at Cottonwood
3422 North Shepherd, 713-802-0410, cottonwoodhouston.com
In order to make an excellent burger, you must first start with great meat, and chef Daniel Ajtai succeeds in this endeavor with his 100 percent Angus beef patties hand-formed and cooked to order. They're stuffed with poblano peppers and topped off with smoky bacon and pepper Jack cheese plus a fried egg.
No. 63, Bánh Mì at Les Givral's Sandwich & Cafe
2704 Milam, 713-529-1736
To make a great bánh mì, a restaurant must have great bread, and Les Givral's certainly does. It has a thin, crispy crust and a soft inside that soaks up the juice from the meat, cucumber and sauces. Les Givral's offers about a dozen different protein options on the bánh mì, which is why this favorite dish is described simply as bánh mì. I can't pick just one favorite. They're all great.
No. 62, Korean Spiced Brisket Plate at Revival Market
550 Heights, 713-880-8463, revivalmarket.com
Start with the fresh, ever-so-light-green Napa cabbage leaves. Spread a little of the house-made gochujang on the leaves. Next slap a slice of that utterly divine, melt-in-your-mouth, knock-your-socks-off brisket on top of the gochujang, followed by some kimchi, and, finally, the marinated bean sprouts and peppers.
No. 61, Old Fashioned Frito Pie at Armadillo Palace
5015 Kirby, 713-526-9700, goodecompany.com/palace.asp
The venison chili at Armadillo Palace is marvelous on its own. The juicy chunks of venison are slightly sweet and gamy, and they're tempered by the dark reddish-brown chili base loaded with cumin and chili powder. It's thick enough that it doesn't cause the Fritos to get soggy immediately, as some lesser chilis do. And those salty, crunchy chips are the ideal complement to the smooth, soothing chunks of venison bathed in velvety spices.
No. 60, Patata e Funghi Pizza at Pizaro's
14028 Memorial, 281-589-7277, pizarospizza.com
The Neapolitan-style pizza is topped with truffle oil, Yukon gold potatoes, oven-roasted mushrooms, mozzarella, rosemary and garlic. It's a smooth, mellow pie with dusky truffle and mushroom flavors accented by the earthy potatoes.
No. 59, Baklava French Toast at Harry's Restaurant & Cafe
318 Tuam, 713-528-0198, harrysrestaurantcafe.com
If French toast and baklava had a precious love child, this would be it. It's two thick slices of French toast sandwiched around baklava filling — a mixture of walnuts, cinnamon and honey. It's topped with yogurt ice cream with just a hint of orange and honey flavor to add some moistness to the dish without making it so sweet as to turn it into a dessert.
No. 58, Grilled Cheese at The Golden Grill
Food truck, goldengrillhtx.com
Note that there's no specific grilled cheese singled out here. That's because they're all amazing. Try the Hamlin, a simple sandwich of prosciutto, American cheese and jalapeño jam, or the carnitas, with shredded roasted pork, apple jam, Monterey Jack cheese and pickles to ease into the food, then go all out with Green Eggs & Jam, a sweet and savory combo with four of my favorite things: green tomatoes, Gouda, bacon and a fried egg.
No. 57, Macarons at Ganache Dessert Bar
9305 Spring Cypress Road, Suite 101, Spring, 281-257-6550, ganachebar.com
The most wonderful thing about the macarons at Ganache isn't how pretty they are (though that certainly helps). It's how much they taste like what they're supposed to. Often, macarons are redolent of something vague and sweet and crunchy. These macarons really evoke salted caramel, lavender, cafe sua da or green tea.
No. 56, Eggplant Fries at Batanga
908 Congress, 713-224-9500, batangahouston.com
Batanga takes an eggplant, skins it and slices it into logs about three inches long. Next the eggplant is coated in a thin, crispy, light-as-air batter and fried. The eggplant is then drizzled with sweet honey, sprinkled with a bit of cumin and topped with bright-green strips of chopped mint.
No. 55, Juicy Lucy Burger at Lowbrow
1601 West Main, 281-501-8288, lowbrowhouston.com
The chefs at Lowbrow start with Longhorn beef, form it into patties, stuff the patties full of fontina cheese and give 'em a nice sear. After a few minutes on the grill, the patties are topped with fried shallots and pickled shallots. The fried shallots are crispy and almost sweet and are a more expected burger topping than the pickled shallots, which are reminiscent of pickled onions and give the burger a vinegary bite.
No. 54, Kimchi Koagie at Koagie Hots
Food truck, koagiehots.com
In the midst of my love affair with Koagie Hots's kimchi fries, I discovered the kimchi koagie and fell in love anew. It's fairly similar to the fries, only with marinated rib eye instead of potatoes, and either provolone or Cheez Whiz instead of crumbled feta. It's the combination of rib eye, kimchi and Sriracha mayo all encompassed in a Slow Dough bun that makes this one of the best sandwiches in town.
No 53, Bánh Canh Hue at Simply Pho
2929 Milam, Suite C, 713-677-0501, simply-pho.com/wordpress
I'd never heard of bánh canh hue before I ate at Simply Pho for the first time, and I'd definitely never had anything like its slimy noodles at any other restaurant. As the noodles soak, they take on the flavor of the liquid around them, which itself tastes like a milder version of the little cubes of shrimp floating in it. The dish comes with bean sprouts; lush, leafy basil; jalapeños; bird's eye chiles; and lime wedges for a build-your-own soup experience.
No. 52, Fried Bananas Foster at Custom Confections
Food truck, customconfectionstx.com
Rather than being pan-fried, the bananas are coated in homemade funnel-cake batter and deep-fried. That's topped with a homemade butter, cinnamon and rum syrup; a few scoops of vanilla bean ice cream; and some whipped cream.
No. 51, Red Dragon Roll at Michiru Sushi
3800 Southwest Freeway, Suite 104, 832-203-7082, michirusushi.com
This dish is arranged with carefully sliced lemon and radish garnishes to resemble a Chinese dragon (the lemon being the head and the roll the twisting body). The inside of the roll contains spicy tuna and that ubiquitous crunch, and the outside is draped in thin avocado slices, spicy peppered tuna, a generous sprinkling of more crunch and a smattering of scarlet-red tobiko (flying fish roe).
No. 50, Black Pepper Beer Lobster at Hai Cang Seafood Restaurant
11768 Bellaire, 281-564-4288, haicangrestaurant.net
Every inch of the scarlet lobster shells at Hai Cang gleams with butter and flecks of freshly ground pepper when they arrive at the table. The shells are pre-cracked, so the battle that usually accompanies a lobster dinner is all but eliminated. Frying the lobsters and drizzling them with butter and beer sauce makes the shells somewhat greasy, but the meat contained inside is fresh and plump.
No. 49, Custard Sandwich at Petite Sweets
2700 West Alabama, 713-520-7007, petitesweetshouston.com
The custard sandwiches at Petite Sweets are better than the average ice cream sandwich because a) the cookies are crunchy on the outside and chewy on the inside and b) CUSTARD. The custard center — a swirl of chocolate and vanilla — is so creamy and dreamy, it almost tastes like there's a layer of frozen caramel or whipped cream between the cookie and the frozen filling.
No. 48, El Real Burger at El Real Tex-Mex Cafe
1201 Westheimer, 713-524-1201, elrealtexmex.com
The patty, ground in-house, is cooked to an ideal medium-rare, ensuring that it's juicy and smoky, with a nice, light char on the outside. Beneath it is a layer of refried beans spread on the bun as if it were mayo; curly, crunchy corn chips; and, on top, a mound of cheese, tomatoes, roasted poblano peppers, lettuce and, finally, a spread of chunky avocado.
No. 47, CFC Deviled Eggs at Liberty Kitchen & Oyster Bar
1050 Studewood, 713-802-0533, libertykitchenoysterbar.com
While Liberty Kitchen's bacon jam leaves the greatest lasting impression from these tantalizing treats, the tiny topping of fried chicken is no throwaway garnish. Each piece is small enough to fit atop a slightly spicy deviled egg, and in spite of being surrounded by the juicy jam and moist deviled egg yolk, the outside stays crunchy, while the meat on the inside is smoky and nearly melt-in-your-mouth.
No. 46, Parma 600 Pizza at Pizzeria Solario
3333 Weslayan, Suite 100, 713-892-8100, pizzeriasolario.com
The Parma 600 features a white garlic crema sauce, which is mild enough to let the other ingredients shine while adding a bit of extra richness and moisture to each slice. The sauce is topped with creamy fior di latte and strong pecorino cheeses and gamey Prosciutto di Parma. Finally, a touch of funky truffle oil and bright arugula is placed on top of the pie after baking.
No. 45, Guanciale Burger at Plonk! Beer & Wine Bistro
1214 W. 43rd, 713-290-1070, plonkbistro.com
This cozy wine bistro offers up the Guanciale Burger, which is essentially a bacon cheeseburger featuring guanciale (unsmoked jowl or cheek meat, most often pork) instead of traditional bacon. At Plonk!, however, rather than topping a ground beef burger with a few slices of the fatty, crispy stuff, the chefs grind that sweet cheek meat right into the patty, then top it with Gruyère and caramelized onions.
No. 44, BBQ Pulled Wild Boar Sandwich at Sammy's Wild Game Grill
3715 Washington, 713-868-1345, sammyswildgamegrill.com
The BBQ pulled wild boar sandwich is exactly what it sounds like, and so much more. Think Kansas City-style pulled pork on a sandwich with a bit of coleslaw and an onion ring, and that's essentially what the wild boar sandwich is, only better, thanks to zesty cilantro cole slaw and crispy fried onion strings.
No. 43, Roasted Duck Red Curry at Morningside Thai
2473 South Braeswood, 713-661-4400, morningsidethai.com
Morningside Thai's red curry is richer, silkier and more dimensional than any I've had elsewhere in Houston. The piquant mixture of herbs, spices and coconut milk is dotted with chunks of chewy pineapple and softened tomatoes and long strands of wilted green basil leaves that sneak up on you with a rush of herbal heat.
No. 42, Fried Oyster Po-Boy at Goode Company Seafood
2621 Westpark, 713-523-7154, goodecompany.com/seafood.asp
The white baguette bread is sliced down the middle and the chewy insides are pressed down a little to allow all the good stuff — lettuce, tomatoes and pico de gallo — to fit on the inside. The oysters are breaded and fried until golden brown, but in spite of the deep oil bath, they remain crunchy on the outside with a gooey oyster interior.
No. 41, Biscuit with Marmalade and Crème Fraîche at Blacksmith
1022 Westheimer, 832-360-7470
Blacksmith's biscuits aren't greasy, and they aren't overly light and flaky. They're like the ideal marriage of biscuit and scone, with just enough heft to make a single one a filling meal. The cool, creamy, slightly sour crème fraîche pairs wonderfully with the warm, buttery biscuit, and the raspberry marmalade adds a touch of sweet and sour to the mix.
No. 40, Canestri alla Funghi at Paulie's
1834 Westheimer, 713-807-7271, pauliesrestaurant.com
In many mushroom and pasta dishes, the fungi and the noodles take on a similar texture, making it difficult to distinguish them when they're all slathered in sauce. At Paulie's, though, the crimini and shiitake mushrooms maintain a chewy bite, and the pasta is cooked to an ideal al dente. There's just the right amount of sauce that has a cream base with a bit offunky-sweet marsala wine, sage and a whole lottagarlic.
No. 39, Mum's Chicken Curry at the Queen Vic Pub & Kitchen
2712 Richmond, 713-533-0022, thequeenvicpub.com
This curry is an ideal blend of a chunky stew and a dynamic Indian dish, heavy on the cumin, coriander and turmeric. The chicken, marinated in a yogurt-and-citrus mix, is stewed until it's tender and falling apart in the pot, slowly taking on the flavors of all the spices surrounding it.
No. 38, Spicy Tamale Plate at La Mexicana
1018 Fairview, 713-521-0963, lamexicanarestaurant.com
The masa-to-filling ratio in these tamales is perfect, with a hefty serving of shredded pork and spices wrapped in a thin envelope of cornmeal, which itself is wonderfully seasoned — a welcome change from tamales whose exterior tastes like ground corn paste and nothing more. The tamale plate comes with seasoned Spanish rice, smoky refried beans, lettuces and fresh pico de gallo.
No. 37, Trompo Tacos at Taqueria La Macro
1822 North Main, 713-226-8226
I daresay Taqueria La Macro makes the best trompo tacos in town. They're tiny — the diameter of each homemade corn tortilla is probably no more than three inches. They come with diced onions and a bit of fresh cilantro and nothing else, which may be surprising to those of us accustomed to Tex-Mex with guac and cheese and pico and anything else wecan fit in a tortilla.
No. 36, Fried Mini Fish at House of Bowls
6650 Corporate, 713-776-2288
The tiny fish at House of Bowls are battered in a garlic-heavy sauce, then deep-fried until both the outside and the fish on the inside are hot and crisp. They're served on a bed of shredded iceberg lettuce and cabbage topped with chopped jalapeños and a chile-garlic-ginger sauce.
No. 35, Morning Thali at Pondicheri
2800 Kirby, Suite B 132, 713-522-2022, pondichericafe.com
Pondicheri's take on thali includes four little bowls filled with the chef's choice of side dishes, which will usually include aloo dum, a type of potato curry; upma, a traditional breakfast porridge made from semolina; beef keema, a spicy blend of ground beef with caramelized onions, cumin and chile powder; and the carrot paratha, which is meant to be dipped in everything else on my plate.
No. 34, Chiles de Padrón Asados at Caracol
2200 Post Oak, Suite 160, 713-622-9996, caracol.net
At Caracol, the padrón chiles are sautéed over high heat in a pan with hot oil until they blister and brown. Then they're finished with lime juice and sea salt and served, stems on, in a dark ceramic bowl. The combination of roasted pepper, citrus and salt dances across the tongue.
No. 33, Taleggio Pizza at Dolce Vita
500 Westheimer, 713-520-8222, dolcevitahouston.com
This pizza starts with Dolce Vita's perfect crust — not too thin, not too chewy, with just the right amount of doughy pull when you bite down on it. Then there's a layer of rich, creamy taleggio, a soft, tangy cheese with a strong smell but mild flavor. On top of that are thinly sliced pears and a drizzle of truffle oil. After thepizza is cooked quickly in a Neapolitan-style wood-burning oven, it's topped with asprinkling of fresh arugula.
No. 32, Carnitas at Molina's Cantina
4720 Washington, 713-862-0013, molinasrestaurants.com
Unlike most carnitas, which are usually served shredded inside tacos or burritos, the carnitas plate at Molina's comes with a half dozen or so good-sized cuts of meat, as well as refried beans, Spanish rice, guacamole, pico de gallo, green salsa and fresh tortillas. These carnitas are better than average because the meat is marinated in citrus and spices for several hours.
No. 31, Cochito con Mole Xico at Hugo's
1600 Westheimer, 713-524-7744, hugosrestaurant.net
An impossibly large serving of pork shoulder braised until it's falling apart is topped with thick, ruddy mole xico and served with mashed plantains, black beans, guacamole and asparagus on a bed of slightly sweet collard greens in apasilla pepper and plum sauce.
No. 30, Ice Cream in a Waffle Cone at Fat Cat Creamery
1901 North Shepherd, 713-869-1080, fatcatcreamery.com
The waffle cones at Fat Cat are so good, I'd eat them without any ice cream in them at all. They're called brown butter/brown sugar waffle cones, and they're made fresh every day. These cones are slightly sweet, but the predominant flavor is the brown butter, slightly burned and rich like caramel, and they pair perfectly with Fat Cat's divine chai tea ice cream.
No. 29, Caesar Wedge Salad at Provisions
807 Taft, 713-628-9020, passandprovisions.com
The Caesar wedge at Provisions is served with a steak knife, and you'll need it to cut through the outer layer of bread crumbs and the crisp, bright-green center of the romaine wedge. In the process, the crumb coating will fall off a bit, and the anchovies and preserved lemons that top the wedge will slide onto the plate, and you'll be left with a beautiful, wonderful mess to eat up.
No. 28, Fried Cauliflower at Roost
1972 Fairview, 713-523-7667, iloveroost.com
When it's brought out to the table, all you can see in the low light of the small restaurant is a few florets of cauliflower, slightly browned, and long, tissue-paper-thin miso flakes that dance under the slight breeze of the air conditioner and the steam coming out of the bowl. Dig deeper and you'll find the sauce is made up of miso, mayonnaise, rice wine vinegar and Sriracha. As if that weren't enough, there are strings of sautéed scallions and pine nuts at the bottom of the bowl.
No. 27, Kim Cheese Fries at Coreanos
Food truck, coreanostx.com
The scorching-hot fries are thicker than most fast-food fries, but still thin enough that they're crisp on the outside and soft on the inside. They're topped with caramelized kimchi; twice-cooked pork belly with a kick; cheese; and Coreanos's signature El Scorcho sauce, a creamy drizzle of garlic, chipotle, lime juice and mayo.
No. 26, Spicy Miso Ramen at Soma Sushi
4820 Washington, 713-861-2726, somasushi.com
There's something addictive about the combination of the soothing miso and bit of chile oil that floats on top of Soma's spicy miso ramen in tiny golden puddles. Then there are the perfectly chewy fresh ramen noodles, two types of mushrooms, onions, seaweed, wakame, tofu and pork belly. The two different mushrooms, enoki and shiitake, give the ramen an earthy flavor, while the seaweed adds bitterness and the fatty pork belly, savory meat.
No. 25, Chips and Queso at Fusion Taco
801 Congress, Suite 101, 713-422-2882, fusiontaco.com
Fusion Taco co-owner Julia Sharaby uses Golden Velvet cheese in her queso because it has a great texture, even once it starts firming up, making the taco-truck-turned-restaurant's queso richer than most such dips you find in restaurants. The secret to the richness is cream, along with homemade red salsa and pulverized chipotle peppers.
No. 24, Som Tam at Vieng Thai
6929 Long Point, 713-688-9910
In the som tam at Vieng Thai, all the ingredients — papaya, lime juice, bird's eye chiles, garlic, palm sugar, fish sauce, dried shrimp and peanuts — get pounded together and then tossed by hand, the juice of the pounded ingredients forming a sort of dressing for the salad. It's served cold or at room temperature. It's refreshing in the way cool salsa is refreshing, but packs quite the punch.
No. 23, Fluffernutter Cookies at Fluff Bake Bar
(Rebecca Masson's baked goods are served atanumber of locations in Houston.)
The cookies that make up the "bread" of the fluffernutter are a combination of crunchy peanut butter and oatmeal. They achieve the ideal consistency in the oven — crisp and lightly browned on the outside while chewy on the inside. Between the cookies is peanut butter frosting, and in the center is a dollop of that inimitable (genuine) Marshmallow Fluff.
No. 22, Roasted Pear Salad at Backstreet Cafe
1103 South Shepherd, 713-521-2239, backstreetcafe.net
What makes this salad such a standout is the gorgeous (and mouthwatering) poached pear stuffed with nuts, cranberries and blue cheese that serves as the centerpiece of the dish. The pear alone would be quite a dish, but when served in salad form, it's even better.
No. 21, Foie Gras Crème Caramel at Just Dinner on Dunlavy
1915 Dunlavy, 713-807-0077, justdinnerhouston.com
Menu changes regularly.
The crème caramel at Just Dinner has a wonderful caramel flavor, and combined with the rich, almost marrow-like flavor of foie gras, it's incredibly decadent. If that were all the dish was composed of, it might have been too much of a good thing, but fortunately the round of custard is served in a pool of chile oil and chive oil dotted with pickled sweet potatoes, pickled rhubarb and fresh pomegranate seeds.
No. 20, Fried Catfish and Cajun Crawfish at The Cajun Stop
2130 Jefferson, 713-222-8333, thecajunstop.com
The crawfish tail cream sauce really is the pièce de résistance in this dish. It's similar to an étouffée in that it also seems to make use of the holy trinity, a.k.a. onions, celery and bell peppers, as well as similar Cajun spices to get your heart rate up and your forehead perspiring. Unlike with étouffée, there's a heavy dose of cream in this crawfish sauce, making it a little more rich and a little less ruddy than its Cajun cousin.
No. 19, Dahi Puri at Shri Balaji Bhavan
5655 Hillcroft, 713-783-1126
The puri shells are cracked at the top and filled with exotic chutneys and yogurt. Inside each shell is a single chunk of potato that appears to have been cooked in turmeric. On top of that is a bit of spicy green chutney heavy on the cilantro and a spicy red chutney with a slight chile-pepper heat. A mild yogurt fills the shell up to the top, then the whole thing receives a sprinkle of chopped tomatoes, fresh cilantro and crunchy chickpea noodles.
No. 18, Phat Ass Ham Hock at Goro & Gun
306 Main, 832-708-6195, goroandgun.squarespace.com
Goro & Gun's ham hock is served with bao buns and a side of pickled veggies as sort of a DIY bao plate. The combination of everything on the plate packed into a puffy steamed bun is an amazing array of textures and flavors.
No. 17, Alba White Truffle Soufflé at Tony's
3755 Richmond, 713-622-6778, tonyshouston.com
The top layer is as light as air and lets out a small whisper when you dig in with a spoon. It's aromatic and earthy, and the many eggs in the dish keep it fluffy in spite of the heavy, funky aroma. It doesn't quite melt in your mouth, but it's reminiscent of the lightness and fluffiness of cotton candy, and the way the soufflé deflates when you bite into it does give you the sense that it's melting onto your tongue.
No. 16, Okra with Crème Fraîche at Oxheart
1302 Nance, 832-830-8592, oxhearthouston.com
No longer available.
It was a crescent of thin, delicate roasted and pickled okra pods arranged on a bed of spiced crème fraîche and dotted with little pearls of smoked black garlic purée, all garnished with a smattering of aromatic Thai holy basil. This okra had a sharp, tart flavor that was instantly soothed by the smoky crème fraîche and once more elevated with the unusual flavor of roasted okra.
No. 15, Kobe Beef at Nara
2800 Kirby, Suite 100, 281-249-5944, narahouston.com
This dish isn't available often, since chef Donald Chang has it flown in from Japan for special meals only. If you're lucky enough to get it, though, you'll be entranced by the light sear around the edges and the way the flavor changes ever so subtly thanks to a little heat. Then, moving on to the center of each thin slice of Kobe beef, you'll taste a hint of citrus cutting through the fat of the meat. Finally, a chunk of Korean radish serves as a necessary palate cleanser between the rich portions of beef.
No. 14, Caramelized Pork Spare Ribs at Cafe TH
2108 Pease, 713-225-4766, cafeth.com
These pork spare ribs are like candy. They're sticky and sweet and ever so juicy, with just a hint of spice from chile powder in the sauce. The marinade contains plenty of garlic, and on top are fresh green onions, fried shallots and sautéed red bell peppers, which add some acidity to a sweet dish. Served with the pork are juicy sautéed baby bok choy and sticky jasmine rice topped with meaty portobello mushrooms.
No. 13, Foie Gras au Torchon at Étoile Cuisine et Bar
1101 Uptown Park, 832-668-5808, etoilecuisine.com
At Étoile, chef Philippe Verpiand makes the torchon himself, trimming, seasoning, wrapping, simmering, then compressing and chilling the fatty liver into an incredible dish using techniques he learned in France. And oh, is Étoile's foie like soft butter on your tongue! Pink, smooth, creamy and ringed with a thin layer of light-yellow fat.
No. 12, Curry Noodle Soup at Mamak Malaysian Restaurant
9889 Bellaire, 713-776-2388
This soup is anchored by a yellow curry broth that's sweet thanks to the coconut milk base and spicy from the mixture of lemongrass, coriander, cumin, ginger, citrus and yellow chiles, all of which are enhanced by a splash of salty fish sauce. It's swimming with thick, chewy noodles; chunks of fluffy fried tofu; slivers of soft eggplant; green bell peppers stuffed with ground pork; and crispy tofu skins.
No. 11, Grilled Fish Masala at Himalaya Restaurant
6652 Southwest Freeway, 713-532-2837, himalayarestauranthouston.com
The masala sauce on the two very large filets of fish is not the traditional creamy masala sauce of your British-Indian chicken tikka masala. It's chunkier and heavy with onions, garlic, tomatoes, and a generous dose of ginger and cayenne. Were there not so much fish hidden beneath the reddish layer of chopped vegetables and spices, it would be hard to discern the fishy flavor, but the portions are large and the mild fish pairs well with the exceedingly spicy sauce.
No. 10, Seafood Gumbo at Danton's Gulf Coast Seafood Kitchen
4611 Montrose, 713-807-8883, dantonsseafood.com
What makes the gumbo at Danton's the best in town is the roux. Chef Danton Nix takes the time to let his roux get to a good, dark, smoky brown before adding in vegetables, shrimp, crab and whole oysters. It's velvety smooth, spicy and full of salty seafood flavor.
No. 9, Uni Chawanmushi at Kata Robata
3600 Kirby, Suite H, 713-526-8858, katarobata.com
Digging in gently, you'll discover additions to this chawanmushi that elevate it beyond a traditional egg custard. Beneath the top layer of uni, custard and strips of shiitake mushrooms lie shrimp, chicken thigh meat and distinctive bright-yellow ginkgo nuts. In spite of the fact that the uni is merely resting on top, the briny, slightly sweet ocean sensibility of the sea urchin invades the entire dish.
No. 8, Pickled Butternut Squash Salad at Coltivare
3320 White Oak, 713-637-4095, coltivarehouston.com
Pickling butternut squash brings out its natural flavors in an incredible way. Paired with the strips of the squash are a few halves of roasted, lightly browned brussels sprouts; whole walnuts; buttery homemade croutons; balsamic shallots; and a drizzle of a balsamic vinegar reduction that creates a savory umami that lingers in your mouth.
No. 7, Chilorio at Pico's Mex-Mex
3601 Kirby, 832-831-9940, picos.net
The chilorio at Pico's starts with pork butt that's been slow-cooked for hours to produce maximum tenderness. Then the spices come in — cumin; oregano; garlic; and dark, smoky ancho chiles. They're blended into a purée, then stewed with the pulled pork until the meat has taken on a ruddy color and completely absorbed the flavors. The result is a dish that's got enough heat to provide a tickling burn in the back of your mouth, but the flavor of the pork still comes through.
No. 6, Aji de Gallina at Latin Bites
5709 Woodway, 713-229-8369, latinbitescafe.com
To prepare aji de gallina, tender, shredded chicken is boiled in water spiced with bay leaves and peppercorns, then simmered in a peanut cream sauce for several minutes until the flavors of the aji amarillo and rich, nutty peanuts permeate the meat. The final product is a lovely golden-yellow dish reminiscent of Grandma's chicken pot pie...if your grandmother had been an adorable old Peruvian woman.
No. 5, Brisket at Killen's BBQ
3613 East Broadway, Pearland, 281-485-2272, killensbarbecue.com
The brisket comes out of the smoker with a charred black crust. Beneath the layer of char and seasoning is a bright pink ring of meat that fades into a more subdued pink marbled with veins of whitish fat that, rather than being chewy, very literally melt in your mouth. The brisket is incredibly smoky, the flavor permeating the entire cut of meat and the juices so entirely that I always find myself forgetting to squirt any sauce on my already moist brisket.
No. 4, XI Madame at Eleven XI
607 West Gray, 713-529-5881, elevenxihouston.com
The first layer in this dish, also known as "Seven Layers of Heaven," is a thin slice of buttered and toasted challah, simple and slightly sweet. Atop that, the meat begins piling up — Prosciutto di Parma, speck, soppressata and smoked duck breast. In between, more challah, and on the very top, a thick layer of creamy Manchego béchamel sauce and a tremulous fried egg that spills over the edges of the bread.
No. 3, Hamachi Nabe at Uchi
904 Westheimer, 713-522-4808, uchirestaurants.com/houston
The process of serving, then eating the hamachi nabe at Uchi is akin to a theatrical production. It will arrive in a ceramic dish so hot you dare not touch it. A server will take a small ramekin of hamachi sauce and pour it into the hot bowl, stirring it and a raw egg around until everything is cooked and incorporated into one big mess of rice and fish and bonito. The result is a dish that tastes strongly of soy, dashi, shallots and sesame oil, with large chunks of hamachi and soy-coated rice taking on the strong, briny flavor of delicate pink bonito flakes.
No. 2, Bone Marrow Pho at Pho Binh by Night
12148 Bellaire, 832-351-2464, phobinh.com/by-night
There's no such thing as bad pho at any of the Pho Binh locations, but the best and richest dish is definitely the bone marrow pho, served as a side order along with any other bowl of soup. Order your favorite type of pho, then relish the fatty globs of marrow that you spoon into it, exponentially increasing the soup's usually subtle meaty flavor. Bone marrow adds a creaminess and nuttiness to the already dynamic dish, taking the lusciousness (and deliciousness) level off the charts.
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No. 1, Pastiera di Mare con Granchio e Gamberi at Ciao Bello
5161 San Felipe, 713-960-0333, ciaobellohouston.com
Soufflés can be wicked beasts, but Ciao Bello's executive chef, Bobby Matos, prepares the most heavenly dish in Houston in the style of a soufflé known in Italy as a pastiera. Part soufflé, part cake, and all decadence, it's a light-as-air blend of shrimp and crabmeat with whipped mascarpone and a delicate drizzle of spicy pesto. "Seafood cloud" is how I described it upon first tasting the masterpiece, and even months after my initial encounter with the dish, it remains in my mind as the best thing I've eaten all year.
Want to see more of this year's 100 Favorite Dishes? Check out our slideshow, "100 Favorite Dishes in Houston 2014: The List in Photos."