What's not to eat in Houston? The answer is very little. In keeping with the city's modern image as a 21st-century melting pot, almost every conceivable cuisine can be found in our sprawling metropolis — and you'll need to be willing to explore nearly every square inch of it in order to find some of its most fascinating foods.
That's where our first annual 100 Favorite Dishes list — completed on the Eating...Our Words blog during the weeks leading up to our most recent Best of Houston® issue — comes in: From Nigerian goat pepper soup to updated Salvadoran-American breakfast hybrids, from historic Nation of Islam desserts to Vietnamese waffles made with pandan grass, this is our guide to some of the most interesting food in the city. The list comprises favorite dishes from the last year, dishes that are essential to Houston's dynamic cultural landscape and classics that any visitor (or resident) should try at least once. We've put the whole thing together into one package here. And as a companion piece, be sure to take a look at Lauren Marmaduke's suggestions for where to eat on Valentine's Day, page 18.
Although a few of the restaurants have closed since the list was completed, there are still 94 dishes out of 100 waiting to be tried out. Start today and maybe you can try all of them before our 100 dishes for 2012 starts in May.
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No. 100: Dumplings at Heights Asian Cafe
2201 Yale, 713-880-9998
The gently hand-pinched dumpling wrappers at this converted Long John Silver's are ideal: just thick enough to hold together without being chewy, giving way to a savory mixture of ground pork and spinach inside. They're brightened up with a vinegary sauce served on the side.
No. 99: Mixta Pizza at Friends Pizzeria
7952 Westheimer, 281-888-9564
The fresh vegetables — tomatoes, onions, black olives, corn and green peppers among them — are sweetly snappy, an ideal counterbalance to the plump drops of salty, extra creamy catupiry cheese that are scattered throughout on this thoroughly unique (to Houston) Brazilian-style pizza.
No. 98: Veggie tacos from Radical Eats
3903 Fulton, 713-697-8719
Fat, furiously green slices of avocado are battered in cornmeal and end up gently oozing out of their crispy skin like melting butter. They're tucked into homemade tortillas so fluffy you'd never know they're vegan, then topped with crunchy red cabbage slaw and chipotle-spiked Vegenaise.
No. 97: Bean pie from Conscious Cafe
2612 Scott, 713-658-9191
You'd never know this classic pie is made with navy beans. Its sweet taste, smooth consistency and warm undertones of nutmeg and cinnamon make it remarkably close to sweet potato pie. The gently sweet and crumbly graham cracker crust is a bonus.
No. 96: Swiss chard crepes from Giacomo's Cibo e Vino
3215 Westheimer, 713-522-1934
Sweet crepes, bitter greens and nutty, salty cheese combine in effortless harmony here, and although the dish is easily split, you won't want to share. And with Giacomo's extremely affordable prices, you don't have to.
No. 95: Eggs Mia Bella at Mia Bella Trattoria
320 Main, 713-237-0505
Of the many variations on eggs Benedict on the menu, it's the eggs Mia Bella that are best: Two perfectly poached eggs sit atop soft English muffins and a mess of spinach, mushrooms, onions and potatoes, all covered with a bright, citrus-punched Hollandaise.
No. 94: Mulligatawny soup at the Queen Vic Pub & Kitchen
2712 Richmond, 713-533-0022
This rich soup gets even heartier at the Queen Vic, where it has a base of silken coconut milk and lentils in place of the more traditional rice and chicken, all of it mixing with fresh bites of apples and turmeric in a dish that combines British and Indian influences in one sunny bowl.
No. 93: Helado de Lúcuma from Pollo Bravo
10434 Richmond, 713-278-0801
Lúcuma's sunny flesh has a highly unusual flavor — almost like naturally occurring caramel custard — that makes it a natural for desserts. Pollo Bravo's house-made lúcuma ice cream is cold and refreshing but also creamy and thickly sweet, like a lighter version of dulce de leche, all at once.
No. 92: Black bean burger from Natachee's Supper 'n Punch
3622 Main, 713-524-7203
A patty made from a mélange of black beans, rolled oats, red peppers, corn and cilantro comes served with several heavy slices of buttery avocado cozied between two sweet, eggy buns. It's an anomaly to find such a good veggie burger at a Southern classics restaurant, which makes it even sweeter.
No. 91: Chupacabra pizza from ERA
No. 90: Roast chicken from El Norteño Pollos Asados Estilo Monterrey
1381 Gessner, 713-722-0550
A whole roasted chicken at El Norteño — its skin caramelized to a crisp and its fat turned to butter — will easily feed four people, and comes with a roasted onion, roasted jalapeños, peppy salsa and plenty of corn tortillas, all for less than $15. Viva los food trucks.
No. 89: Eggs El Salvador from Brasil
2604 Dunlavy, 713-528-1993
In this modern interpretation of traditional Salvadoran food, two poached eggs sit atop a mound of dark persimmon-colored chorizo and a tender pupusa filled with beans; both the chorizo and the pupusa are made in-house, and it shows. The whole pile is covered with green and red salsas, served alongside a cup of black beans and a twist on curtido, a slaw of cabbage and carrots in a vinegar dressing.
No. 88: Frank the Pretzel from Eatsie Boys
The pretzel bun comes from Slow Dough Bread Co., and the chicken sausage frank inside it — mixed with poblano peppers, parsley, feta and parmesan — is made by the Eatsie Boys themselves, served out of their mobile food truck. Keeping it in the family, it's topped with homemade Chardonnay mustard from Al Marcus of Grateful Bread, the father of Eatsie Boy Matt Marcus.
No. 87: Caldo Tlalpeño from Tacos del Julio
8203 Long Point, 832-358-1500
Thick pieces of white-meat chicken, pulled straight off the bone, fill a citrus-tinged broth along with hunks of carrot, potato, avocado and white squares of panela cheese. The best part is dosing your soup with the plastic tub of smoky chipotle chiles in dark red adobo sauce on the side.
No. 86: English pea soup at Brasserie 19
1962 W. Gray, 713-524-1919
Sweetly vegetal and tasting of springtime on a miserably hot summer day, Brasserie 19's pea soup is lightly chilled, and the peas' simple sweetness further complemented by an island of jumbo lump crab meat in the middle of the bowl.
No. 85: Falafel from Zabak's Mediterranean Cafe
5901 Westheimer, 713-977-7676
The little discs are lightly crispy on the outside and softly crumbly on the inside, with a fine texture that's not too compact nor too loose — a textural rarity in this town. The dark brown exterior of the falafel parts to reveal an interior of green, thanks to parsley and fresh jalapeños among the ground chickpeas.
No. 84: Buttermilk-fried pork loin with fried eggs at Canopy
3939 Montrose, 713-528-6848
The pork loin is tender enough to cut with a fork as the crispy exterior shatters softly underneath. On top is a jalapeño-sausage pan gravy that yields a smoky, complex flavor that snaps with bites of fresh peppers. Use the golden yolks as additional "gravy" for the potatoes if the jalapeño gravy gets too hot.
No. 83: Grillades and grits from BB's Cajun Cafe
2710 Montrose, 713-524-4499
This traditional Cajun creation uses slow-cooked cuts of beef (the grillades, pronounced "gree-yahdz") in a dark, roux-like gravy served over grits. At BB's, it's served with a flaky, fluffy biscuit that you'll want to use to sop up every last drop of gravy.
No. 82: Haemul dolsot from Seoul House
10603 Bellaire, 281-575-8077
Wait for your bowl to cool down before mixing all of the ingredients — octopus, squid, crawfish and various vegetables — or else you'll lose the crisping effect the hot stone bowl imparts. The resulting dish is a playful heap of flavors and textures: crunchy rice mixed with soft vegetables, chewy squid, sweet seafood and a spicy, vinegar-based red sauce.
No. 81: Pandan waffles at Parisian Bakery III
8300 W. Sam Houston Pkwy. S. #176, 281-776-0503
The waffle has the same sweet, eggy taste and texture as a regular waffle, but with fascinating tropical notes from the pandan grass itself. The result is a waffle colored green from the pandan's chlorophyll and sweetened with a very light, clean coconut flavor.
No. 80: Pita bread and hummus at Phoenicia Specialty Foods
12141 Westheimer, 281-558-8225
The hummus here is smooth and silky, without being so soft as to render its primary ingredient unrecognizable. There's still that tiny bit of chunkiness to the tangy, tahini-laced hummus, which clings perfectly to the hot, homemade pita that's also made in-house.
No. 79: Goat pepper soup at Peppersoup Cafe
10010 Bissonnet, 713-776-8989
Pepper soup packs a fun punch if you're game. Its dusky, goat-filled broth is seasoned with garlic, chile peppers and a variety of Nigerian spices, then further kicked up by the addition of a thick red paste called "alligator spice" for its ferocious bite.
No. 78: Melon and Texas feta salad from Beaver's
2310 Decatur, 713-864-2328
Honeydew melon at its greenest and sweetest is accented with fat white peaks of Brazos Valley raw feta. The salad is also topped with diced bacon, thin slices of fresh jalapeño, pumpkin seeds and pickled red onions that pack a tart little punch with each bite, all finished with a serrano-based vinaigrette.
No. 77: Hot Italian beef from BB's Beef & Hot Dog
No. 76: Bacon-avocado burger from Facundo Cafe
3103 Ella, 713-880-0898
It's not just the burgers at Facundo Cafe that make this place special; it's the cafe itself, located improbably inside a car wash at Ella and Loop 610. Here, you can get your car detailed and your oil changed, all while you watch Chef Danny Harper work the grill in his tiny space. Fresh, crunchy spinach functions far better than iceberg lettuce and buttery slices of avocado work their magic in the same way that an oozing slice of cheese would in this burger. The slightly sweet sourdough bun mirrors the salty sweetness of the applewood-smoked bacon, and Harper happily cooks the meat to order.
No. 75: Pancakes from Fountain View Cafe
1842 Fountainview, 713-785-9060
The pancakes here are impossibly thin, straddling the line between pancake and crepe, with lacy, delicate edges and a rich, buttery taste. If you're wondering about that softly sweet flavor underneath, it's the vanilla in the batter.
No. 74: Hobnobs from Fluff Bake Bar
Rebecca Masson's version of Hobnobs, the English "digestive biscuit," are endlessly crave-able in their simplicity. They're the dessert version of Pringles; you can't eat just one, crunching through a top layer of thinly spread milk chocolate into salty-sweet cookie itself below. Pick one up at Revival Market (550 Heights) and enjoy with coffee from the attached cafe.
No. 73: Chu chee eggplant from Nidda Thai Cuisine
1226 Westheimer, 713-522-8895
"Choo chee" in Thai cuisine refers to a red curry that's made with galangal, caraway, lemongrass, chiles and garlic. But the most important ingredient is fresh Kaffir lime leaves. Nidda Thai heaps its house-made curry on top of battered slices of eggplant so delicate and light it hardly seems right to call them "fried."
No. 72: Sausage sampler from King's Biergarten
1329 E. Broadway, Pearland, 832-569-4141
The sausage sampler at King's, which has a beautiful "biergarten" outside built by owner Johann Sitler, is just shy of $11 and comes with enough food to split between two people: three sausages, bacon-studded sauerkraut, red cabbage, white bread and strong, thick mustard.
No. 71: Shawarma from Abdallah's
3939 Hillcroft, 713-952-4747
The chicken, shaved from the spit, is soft but lightly crisped on the edges. Tahini here has an aggressive pop of garlic, while pickled turnips are crisp and bright. The soft, thin pita bread that holds it all together is made fresh every day and grilled slightly to bring all the ingredients in line.
No. 70: Moules frites at the Broken Spoke Cafe
1809 Washington, 713-863-7029
Le Complet Belge is my favorite way to enjoy the duo of mussels and fries, because it comes with a pint of Stella Artois to round it out — and all for $25, which is only $5 more than the pot of moules marinières alone. Owner Catherine Duwez will whip up a special dipping sauce for the mussels with her wonderful, house-made mayonnaise. In the style of Antwerp, the sauce is meant for the mussels only — "not the fries!" as she will quickly point out — and is made by whipping mayonnaise together with malt vinegar. The combination is addictive, especially on the briny-sweet, super plump mussels that you can pop like candy until the pot is empty. No. 69: Hong Kong-style French toast at House of Bowls
6650 Corporate Dr., 713-776-2288
True to Hong Kong's gloriously messy nature of co-opting Western food into its own wondrous new dishes, the French toast here is indeed battered with egg and fried in a pan. But it's also stuffed with salty, creamy peanut butter and topped with sweetened condensed milk in place of syrup.
No. 68: Sashimi sampler at Sushi Miyagi
10600 Bellaire, 281-933-9112
The "standards" are all represented on this platter alongside less appreciated but equally delicious scallops, octopus and mackerel. Best of all is finding the small creations that Chef Miyagi has skillfully crafted from slices of lemon rind or carrot peels: swans, roses or other, abstract objects that make this dish a work of art.
No. 67: Baleadas from Honduras Maya Cafe & Bar
5945 Bellaire, 713-668-5002
Just one baleada will make a brilliant breakfast: a huge, fat, fluffy, platter-size flour tortilla that contains a thick spread of refried beans, a crumbling of salty white cheese and tangy crema that tastes more like sour cream. Add eggs or avocados for 25 cents more.
No. 66: Snow ice from Star Snow Ice & Teriyaki
9889 Bellaire, 713-988-8028
At Star Snow Ice, you choose from an array of toppings for your bowl of shaved ice. The fresh fruit available usually includes strawberries, mango, papaya, kiwi and pineapple. Or try the sweet red beans, topped — as always — with a generous portion of sweetened condensed milk.
No. 65: Boudin balls from MerCheri's
No. 64: Miso ramen at Umai
No. 63: Grim burger at Lankford Grocery
88 Dennis, 713-522-9555
One imagines the Grim Burger is so named because of the ingredients that veritably invite death by heart attack: bacon, jalapeños, a fried egg and a heap of macaroni and cheese. The bacon tastes like it came from a well-seasoned diner griddle, the mac 'n' cheese from a particularly good church potluck.
No. 62: Dabeli at Bansuri Indian Food Corner
11468 Wilcrest, 713-624-2009
Dabeli are basically Indian sliders, a savory potato mix that's shaped into a patty and placed between two slightly sweet, fluffy buns. The potato mix at Bansuri's food truck is seasoned with cumin, cinnamon and nutmeg, made according to an old family recipe.
No. 61: Wine and cupcakes at 13 Celsius
3000 Caroline, 713-529-8466
Every Wednesday, local baker Jody Stevens brings her cupcakes in to 13 Celsius for a limited-run wine-and-cupcakes pairing. Past acts have ranged from peaches and cream cupcakes paired with Muga rosé of Tempranillo to salted caramel and chocolate cupcakes paired with Madeira.
No. 60: Pâté de France from Spec's Deli
2410 Smith, 713-526-8787
This creation is a sandwich within a sandwich: thinly sliced Angus roast beef on one side and country-style pâté surround a filling of crunchy coleslaw. On the outside of the "inner sandwich," slices of tomatoes rest against mayonnaise on one side of the bread and whole grain mustard on the other.
No. 59: Steak and eggs from The Original Ninfa's on Navigation
2704 Navigation, 713-228-1175
Ninfa's may not like the fact that this is really two separate dishes, but that's tough. I can't help it if two of my favorite items are on two different dishes. Do this: Order the desayuno mexicano and ask for the salsa-poached eggs on the huevos al habañil instead of the scrambled egg/potato concoction that comes with it. (Alternately, if you just order the huevos al habañil, you'll have to replace the chicharrones on that dish with steak.)
No. 58: Breakfast pita at Niko Niko's Market Square
301 Milam, 713-224-4976
Fluffy pita bread is wrapped loosely around a fried egg-topped mess of cinnamon-laced sausage, or scrambled eggs mixed with roughly chopped pieces of falafel, bright green against the red of a tangy sambal-style sauce on top.
No. 57: Vegan curry at Cafe TH
2108 Pease, 713-225-4766
The secret to the curry's deep, silky, earthy broth is time: Owner Minh Nguyen boils cauliflower, green beans, carrots and onions separately before combining all of the vegetable stocks together with a green curry base and coconut milk. To brighten it up, he also adds lime, basil and pungent vegan fish sauce.
No. 56: Samosas at Shiv Sagar
6662 Southwest Fwy., 713-977-0150
The fennel seed-studded shells of Shiv Sagar's samosas are pure, crunchy, slightly greasy bliss, and the amped-up chutneys served alongside them have a deliciously slow burn that's best cooled off with one of its fluffy mango lassis.
No. 55: Ceviche at Latin Bites Cafe
5709 Woodway, 713-229-8369
The ever-evolving menu ranges from Japanese-inspired preparations such as tuna tiradito with soy, mirin and sesame oil served with sweet potato all the way to modern takes on Peruvian standards like salmon served with rocoto peppers and choclo corn.
No. 54: Wicked Philly at Pappa Geno's
1801 Ella, 713-863-1222
The handful of giardiniera-style pickled vegetables on top are just spicy and just crunchy enough to cut through all the fattiness of the beef and Provolone cheese on a regular Philly here, creating what this Texan thinks is an ideal Philly cheesesteak.
No. 53: Pork chop at Perry's Steakhouse
9827 Katy Fwy., 832-358-9000
The pork chop here is famous for many reasons: It's raised and reared especially for Perry's, the prime cut of chop then cured and dry-aged before receiving a combination of cooking treatments before it hits your plate: roasted, smoked, then caramelized.
No. 52: Soft-shell crab at Pico's Mex-Mex
5941 Bellaire, 713-662-8383
Pico's is known for using fresh crabs, so you're never in danger of encountering a soggy softie. Instead, they arrive screaming hot and coated lightly in a simple batter of seasoned flour, having been quickly fried in olive oil and garlic. But what you taste more than anything is that sweet, soft crab meat.
No. 51: Sno-balls at MAM's House of Ice
20th St. at Rutland, 832-265-1706
Despite its soft, downy texture, the New Orleans-style shaved ice at MAM's grips the flavored syrups that are poured on top with admirable temerity, forming a bond between syrup and ice that isn't present in any other shaved-ice preparation. Snow cones and raspas don't hold a candle to a sno-ball in this department. Note: Mam's is temporarily closed but will reopen this summer.
No. 50: Whole catfish at Saigon Pagolac
9600 Bellaire, 713-988-6106
The catfish is cooked to a crispy, caramelized brown and garnished with a sprinkling of green onions, chopped peanuts and pork skin. Wrap it up with bean sprouts, cucumbers and pickled carrots in roll-your-own rice paper sheets and call them Vietnamese fajitas.
No. 49: Nova fish box at New York Bagel & Coffee Shop
9724 Hillcroft, 713-723-5879
The "Fish Boxes" here come with your choice of lox, Nova, sable or several other varieties of smoked fish, and your choice of fresh bagel. The plate is piled with tomatoes, red onions, olives, cucumbers and more than enough cream cheese, allowing you to create your own bagel sandwich.
No. 48: Sojok mana'eesh at Cedars Bakery
8619 Richmond, 713-706-4141
Imagine a breakfast pizza made with beef chorizo. That's sojok mana'eesh. The sausage clings to a light layer of halloum cheese that is spread on the pita bread before it's run through one of Cedars' giant brick ovens. It's even better with a bowl of tangy lebne cheese ordered on the side.
No. 47: Pho ga at Pho Ga Dakao
11778 Bellaire, 281-879-5899
At Pho Ga Dakao, the restaurant's specialty — as the name would imply — is pho ga, or chicken pho. It's completely like and nothing like the chicken soup Americans grew up on, both familiar and exotic at once. Like beef pho, chicken pho is made by boiling chicken bones and other assorted parts for hours on end to form a rich, fatty stock. To that, Pho Ga Dakao adds meat — light or dark, your choice — as well as buttery chicken skin and even organ meat if you're feeling adventurous. Chicken hearts and gizzards give the soup a complexity and tangy bite, but it's just as good with plain old breast meat, too. Doctor it up with lime juice, cilantro, mint or Sriracha to your liking, and you're left with a bowl of chicken soup that's as good for a cold as it is for enjoying on its own, rich, chicken-y merits.
No. 46: Sicilia salad at Trevisio
6550 Bertner, 713-749-0400
This elegant, highly civilized Sicilia salad features frisée topped with juicy oranges, delicate white anchovies, tangy Castelvetrano olives, fennel and heirloom tomatoes: a salad with thought behind it, existing as a showcase instead of a repository for kitchen scraps. No. 45: Dahi puri at Sweet 'n' Namkin
No. 44: Hot dogs at Moon Tower Inn
3004 Canal, 832-266-0105
Moon Tower Inn is a restaurant unto itself, existing in a hazy gray area between food stand, icehouse and fancy-schmancy artisanal sausage joint. You'll want to "Shut Up and Wait" for its constantly shifting rotation of hot dogs/sausages-in-a-bun served on soft Slow Dough pretzel bread, like the hopped-up "Talilamb" with cumin and caraway. Note: Moon Tower Inn is temporarily closed but is expected to reopen this summer.
No. 43: Real guacamole at Yelapa Playa Mexicana
No. 42: Akaushi short ribs at Soma Sushi
4820 Washington, 713-861-2726
Truffle-glazed American wagyu short ribs, topped with a Boucheron goat cheese mousse, scallions, sesame seeds and cilantro, sounds decadent. But the meat quickly melts on the tongue, like butter on a hot skillet, vanishing with a terrifically clean flavor.
No. 41: Country-fried chicken livers at Haven
2502 Algerian Way, 713-581-6101
Fried up like gizzards from a highway gas station, the livers have a thick, crunchy outer coating that manages not to crush the delicate liver inside — a feat in and of itself. Underneath are small coins of buttered biscuits covered with an andouille sausage-studded gravy.
No. 40: Seafood gumbo at Cajun Town Cafe
6476 W. Little York, 832-467-3360
Filled with okra, oysters, crab and shrimp in a dark roux, it's a standard Cajun classic. And sticking closely to tradition that states your meats should never be mixed, this gumbo is all seafood — no sausage or chicken found here.
No. 39: Tacos at Karanchos
620 Sheldon, 281-862-9968
These spicy tacos — like the flame-colored tacos de chicharron or trompo — have a tendency to creep up on you just like a karancho, a sneaky little devil. So does the velvety green sauce on the tables at this charming outdoor taco truck/picnic area near Channelview.
No. 38: Crepes at Melange Creperie
403 Westheimer, 832-724-9464
Whether it's a savory crepe of ham, eggs, goat cheese, cheddar and spinach; a sweet crepe of bananas and Nutella; or a combination of savory and sweet like goat cheese and fig, owner Buffalo Sean knows how to pair his flavors for maximum impact, just like you'd get on the streets of Paris.
No. 37: Gua bao at Yummy Kitchen
9326 Bellaire, 713-541-4420
This finger food comes with a hulking piece of fatty pork belly tucked inside a soft bun. On top are pickled mustard greens — a necessary element to keep the fattiness of the belly in check — and a dusting of crushed peanuts and brown sugar that make the pork taste almost like pig candy, save for a bright bite of cilantro at the end.
No. 36: Guanciale burger at Plonk Beer & Wine Bistro
1214 W. 43rd, 713-290-1070
In place of the bacon, Plonk uses thick slices of cured guanciale as the pork product atop a grandstanding, hand-formed patty that's covered with caramelized onions and a thick coat of salty Gruyère cheese, served with delicious house-cut sweet potato fries.
No. 35: Snapper al cilantro at Teotihuacán Mexican Cafe
1511 Airline, 713-426-4420
The egg-battered snapper is always cooked to a nice medium-well and covered in a butter-based sauce that's slightly tart from a generous amount of lemon juice and white wine. The sauce takes the soapy edge off the cilantro and enhances its sweet, vegetal flavor.
No. 34: The Houstonian at James Coney Island
3607 S. Shepherd, 713-524-7400
As a Texan hot dog should, JCI's comes topped with chili in addition to cheese and minced onions. You can get two Texan dogs on a plate with tater tots and a drink. It's called The Houstonian, and it's a bargain for a slice of Houston history at less than $7.
No. 33: The Montrose at Amy's Ice Creams
3816 Farnham, 713-526-2697
A bowl of Amy's own sweet cream ice cream is mixed with two of my favorite toppings — sliced bananas and miniature marshmallows — as well as rainbow sprinkles. I shouldn't have to explain why this last touch is exactly what makes it The Montrose.
No. 32: Lobster bisque at Philippe
1800 Post Oak, 713-439-1000
This is not your standard bowl of bisque: Witness the tamale-size cod quenelle on top, or the fact that the bisque itself is primarily lobster and lobster stock, emulsified with only a touch of cream into a frothy bowl of pure lobster bliss.
No. 31: Tacos de cabeza y orejas at El Ultimo Taco Truck
7403 Long Point, 713-859-6706
Cabeza is exactly what it sounds like: fatty meat scraped from the head of the cow, much like barbacoa. And orejas are slices of pig ears, a delicacy any fan of Chinese food will be familiar with. Ordering both presents a brilliant textural contrast: soft, decadently greasy cabeza and chewy, tripe-like orejas.
No. 30: Oyster stew at Danton's Gulf Coast Seafood Kitchen
4611 Montrose, 713-807-8883
The smoky, slightly spicy tasso that Danton's tosses into its oyster stew is vital because it can easily be too creamy otherwise. The smoke of the meat cuts through that cream and enhances the sweet, briny flavor of the fat oysters inside.
No. 29: Fried oysters at TQLA
4601 Washington, 281-501-3237
Crunchy blue cornmeal batter coats each plump oyster, bringing in TQLA's signature Southwestern influence. The oysters themselves aren't always from the Gulf, but they're always fat and juicy nevertheless. And all six sit on a silky bed of chorizo cream.
No. 28: Banh mi at Cali Sandwich
3030 Travis, 713-520-0710
Cali uses a special-recipe mayonnaise that is made on-site. That explains the extra tanginess in its banh mi, especially when paired with the crisp strips of fresh jalapeño and cilantro. And there's something about the way the French bread shatters into a soft layer of pâté that's nearly perfection.
No. 27: Captin's fried chicken at Zelko Bistro
705 E. 11th, 713-880-8691
Chef Jamie Zelko's impossibly moist chicken breast is coated with a crispy, barely sweet crust made with — what else? — Captain Crunch cereal. The darkly sweet and tangy shallot jam on top keeps what could be a kitschy dish elegant, as do the tender pea shoots.
No. 26: The Brisket House Special at The Brisket House
5775 Woodway, 281-888-0331
The Special is the best showcase of all the meats that owner Wayne Kammerl smokes, with your choice of brisket, ribs, chicken, turkey or sausage. Just make sure they don't trim the fat off your brisket. Served with raw onions, Cheddar cheese and a whole pickle, this a serious 'cue hound's meal.
No. 25: Menudo at La Mexicana
1018 Fairview, 713-521-0963
I crave this in the mornings, for breakfast, the remnants of the broth sopped up with La Mexicana's fresh flour tortillas. Top it with the finely diced white onions that cut through the greasy broth, powdered oregano and chile pequin to brighten the soup even further.
No. 24: Chargrilled oysters at Wild Cajun Crawfish
6533 Wilcrest, 832-328-4000
Oysters are treated oh-so-simply here, chargrilled before being topped with a bright, slightly sweet ginger puree and a few heat-wilted scallions. It's a beguilingly straightforward way to slurp up our sea-sweet Gulf oysters in season, hot from the grill but still plump and soft.
No. 23: Breakfast tacos at Revival Market
550 Heights, 713-880-8463
The fresh yard eggs in your breakfast taco here came straight from the store, as do the other ingredients in this most blissfully basic taco: cuts of beef fresh from the ranch and a piquant salsa made in-house.
No. 22: Sticky toffee pudding at Branch Water Tavern
510 Shepherd, 713-863-7777
Some desserts dance crazily along the boundary of too-sweet, but this does not. It's an elegant and restrained, albeit incredibly rich, dessert: caramelized sugar atop a terrifically moist cake, all of it tempered by the understated calm of the house-made pistachio ice cream on top.
No. 21: Tex-Mex burger at El Real Tex-Mex Cafe
1201 Westheimer, 713-524-1201
The thick, sloppy beef patty is rich and meaty, its juices holding all of the other ingredients together: Fritos, roasted poblano peppers, a smear of lardy refried beans, red tomatoes, caramelized onions and a sprinkling of queso fresco.
No. 20: Lasagna at Capri Pasta Pizza & More
25602 I-45, Spring, 281-298-0055
The lasagna resembles a savory mille-feuille, layers of handmade pasta alternating with soft ricotta and bright, sweet marinara. It's that handmade pasta that makes all the difference, too, ceding easily to each carve of the fork so that none of the fine layers are crushed underneath.
No. 19: Pork rillette at Feast
219 Westheimer, 713-529-7788
The pork rillette is my favorite all-purpose pork preparation at Feast. The rough-hewn rillette is perfectly portioned bliss in a bowl, served along with a sort of modern ploughman's lunch: cheese, freshly baked bread, cornichons, onions. There's even a sort of house-made Branston pickle that pairs brilliantly with the fatty meat and cheese. I love being able to make finger sandwiches in endless combinations with soft shreds of rillette as the only constant: pickled red onions, sage-infused Cheddar cheese on one, pickle and fierce Stilton on the next. Through it all, that clean, buttery flavor of the pork comes through most emphatically.
No. 18: Chicken-fried steak at Triple A Restaurant
2526 Airline, 713-861-3422
The homemade qualities of this made-from-scratch CFS show in the honest construction of the pounded-thin steak, with crinkly batter that adheres fiercely to every bite and crunches satisfyingly under a sea of peppery white cream gravy.
No. 17: Crème brûlée bread pudding at Killen's Steakhouse
2804 S. Main, Pearland, 281-485-0844
Chef Ronnie Killen soaks brioche bread in crème brûlée — giving the dessert its name — before baking it, then tops it with an assortment of warm, spice-soaked fruit and brandy that pushes the entire dessert into a different territory altogether.
No. 16: Migas at La Guadalupana Bakery & Cafe
2109 Dunlavy, 713-522-2301
All of the ingredients — tortillas, chorizo, bell peppers, onions — are uniformly diced and tossed with the scrambled eggs, resulting in a far more festive (and more delicious) dish than the plain old egg-and-tortilla mish-mash that many of us grew up with.
No. 15: Snapper with grapefruit at Kata Robata Sushi & Grill
3600 Kirby, 713-526-8858
Specials at Kata Robata change every day, so it's not always possible to get the same dish twice. One day, it's fresh Gulf snapper served with grapefruit, peppery arugula, mandolined carrots and a sticky-sweet miso glaze, the next it's toro with hazelnuts, kimchi sauce and a poached egg.
No. 14: Venison carpaccio at Thanh Phuong
3236 E. Broadway, Pearland, 281-412-7868
The venison carpaccio — a spin on the more traditional bo tai chanh, or Vietnamese beef carpaccio — keeps company here along with four other favorites that are can't-miss items at this charming Pearland spot: deep-fried rabbit; a mahogany-colored pho that's rich in cinnamon and anise; chicken wings coated with a glaze of caramelized fish sauce; and a decadent crème brûlée. The venison carpaccio makes excellent use of the soft, ruddy deer meat. Thin, opaque ribbons of deer are marinated in citrus juices and pungent fish sauce, served with strings of red onion and shallot woven throughout and liberally doused with crushed peanuts for a sweet, nutty crunch that plays off the sweet venison.
No. 13: Mesquite-grilled shrimp po-boy at Goode Co. Seafood
2621 Westpark, 713-523-7154
Partnering the smoky, nutty, almost sweet flavor of mesquite wood with Gulf shrimp is a natural pairing. What elevates this dish is tucking that shrimp into some French bread, making it into a trifecta of Third Coast cuisine: Louisana-style po-boy, Gulf Coast seafood and Hill Country mesquite.
No. 12: Tamarind-glazed salmon at Samba Grille
530 Texas, 713-343-1180
A sticky-sweet tamarind glaze — nudged along with a green mango sauce — has a subtle fruitiness to it that brings out the sweet notes of buttery salmon and nutty notes of the striking black quinoa underneath. It's a simple preparation on the surface, with deep currents of complexity below.
No. 11: Bone marrow service at Stella Sola
1001 Studewood, 713-880-1001
Stella Sola's bone marrow is pure meat butter, scooped daintily from a split-in-twain bone and spread onto freshly baked ciabatta with few other accoutrements needed, save a dusting of sea salt and sweet shallots to cut the fatty flair.
No. 10: Ribs at Gatlin's BBQ
1221 West 19th, 281-804-4555
The luscious char on the outside comes from a low-and-slow smoking technique employed by owner Greg Gatlin, who uses hickory to impart a sweet aroma and taste to his fall-off-the-bone ribs.
No. 9: Shrimp and grits at Brennan's of Houston
3300 Smith, 713-522-9711
Brennan's makes these grits impossibly creamy without losing any of that important texture. Corn kernels on top provide a pleasantly sweet contrast against the salty grits. And on top, sweet in that briny ocean way, are plump Gulf shrimp and shreds of earthy parsnip to ground it all.
No. 8: Barbacoa at Hugo's
1600 Westheimer, 713-524-7744
Tender lamb is braised for hours in a combination of chiles and garlic, then slow-roasted in agave skin for a delicate sweetness. It's served oh-so-simply with fresh corn tortillas, onions and cilantro, the rich man's version of a street taco.
No. 7: Texas shrimp chaat at Pondicheri
2800 Kirby, 713-522-2022
The Texas shrimp chaat effortlessly combines Texan ingredients into a staple Indian snack. Triangles of buttery avocado call to mind guacamoles past, while fat Gulf shrimp is rubbed down with cumin to tie the two cuisines' flavor profiles neatly together, all on a bed of puffy sev.
No. 6: Saigon burger at The Burger Guys
12225 Westheimer, 281-497-4897
The Saigon burger is essentially a burger married with a banh mi, two of Houston's most popular sandwich foods. Like a banh mi, it comes with a smear of pâté, a dash of lime juice and Sriracha sauce and hefty threads of pickled carrots, daikon radish, jalapeños and cilantro. And you can even get a fried egg on top.
No. 5: Tagliarini with black truffles at Da Marco Cucina e Vino
1520 Westheimer, 713-807-8857
As you contemplate the way that the buttery, house-made, always al dente pasta melds together with sweet, musky shavings of black truffles, it's easy to see why this simple harmony of flavors will never get old or passé, truffle oils of the world be damned.
No. 4: Oysters on the half-shell at Casey's
3828 Seawall Blvd., Galveston, 409-762-9625
The oysters at Casey's are always fresh, sweet, plump, buttery and briny — those last three being what makes a Gulf oyster so special, so unique compared to their East or West Coast counterparts. And you can't beat the old restaurant's unencumbered view of the Gulf from Galveston's seawall.
No. 3: Boudin kolaches at Shipley Do-nuts
3932 N. Main, 713-862-4655
Only a handful of Shipley's sell them, but when you find the sweet, yeasty rolls filled with slightly spicy, pork liver-y boudin, that's when you start to have an inkling that Houston is perhaps the greatest city on earth for possessing this effortless combination of Czech and Cajun favorites.
No. 2: Ceviche at Xuco Xicana
2416 Brazos, 713-523-8181
It's Gulf bycatch fish that takes center stage in all of the ceviche preparations here, whether it be a pillow black drum with warm chipotle peppers and garnished with radishes, avocado and corn, or a golden tilefish humming with howlingly hot chile de árbol and slices of pert grapefruit.
No. 1: Cheese enchiladas at Los Dos Amigos
5720 Washington, 713-862-0462
I'm not an adherent of the trendy idea that everything tastes better with a fried egg on top. The truth is that not everything tastes better with a fried egg on top, just like not everything tastes better with bacon. But here at Los Dos Amigos, the cheese enchiladas — which are already tremendous on their own — receive their crown as my favorite dish in Houston by offering two perfectly fried eggs perched on top, their soft white skin begging to be pierced with the tine of a fork, ready to let a torrent of golden yolk flow down the mountain of enchiladas and down into the gooey cheese beneath. Inside the loosely rolled tortillas is cheese that's never greasy and onions that are diced too small to even see. And the mild chile gravy on top contains no meat, just a warm undercurrent of dusky cumin. They're ultra-comforting on their own like this, but the fried eggs add a secondary — and essential, for this list — layer of richness that's matched only by the red vinegar sauce on each table. A few healthy swigs of the tart, bright sauce, and your Tex-Mex breakfast masterpiece is complete.
EAT YOUR HEART OUT
Where to dine this Valentine's Day.
By Lauren Marmaduke
There are few activities capable of stimulating simultaneously the senses of touch, taste, smell and sight like a well-prepared meal. Okay, we can think of one other. And yet food, especially chocolate, sometimes ranks even higher. And if you just went by the noises overheard at a five-star restaurant — heavy-lidded wows, slow-moaned oh-my-Gods, spontaneous four-letter expletives, and wild exclamations of approval — it might be hard to differentiate between the two. Not to mention, if you're hoping for a hot and heavy Valentine's evening, a sumptuous dinner is fantastic foreplay. Just remember that crowds are likely — even on February 11 and 12 — so always play it safe and make a reservation.
1103 S. Shepherd, 713-521-2239
Romance blooms year-round amid Backstreet Cafe's lovely al fresco patios and fireside seating, so it's only natural that Valentine's Day be stretched into an all-out four-day affair. From February 10 to 13, lovers can enjoy a complimentary appetizer (goat cheese dip with toast, miniature smoked corn crab cakes and bacon-wrapped quail) and three-course prix fixe menu ($95 per person), or celebrate on February 14 with live music by Bob Chadwick and a special four-course feast ($65 per person).
Bistro Alex — Hotel Sorella
800 Sorella Ct., 713-827-3545
Those with the hots for New American fare will surely swoon over Chef Roland Soza's decadent Valentine's Day menu. Special entrées include a cast-iron seared prime rib eye with a Maytag blue cheese Lyonnaise potato and coffee ganache ($34), an Angus filet of beef with truffle mushroom butter in a port reduction ($32), and a surf and turf featuring a butter and champagne-poached lobster tail, grilled filet, and caviar butter ($60).
What's better than a romantic Valentine's Day dinner? A romantic Valentine's Day dinner on a freakin' boat, that's what. On February 11, 12 and 14, couples can drink, dine and dance aboard the FantaSea, a 117-foot yacht docked at Kemah Boardwalk. The two-and-a-half-hour tour features beautiful views of Clear Lake, Kemah and Galveston Bay, and includes dinner with a choice of appetizer or soup, salad, espresso-crusted prime rib or lobster-stuffed sea bass, and chocolate genoise cake. Boarding begins at 6 p.m., and departure is at 7 p.m. For reservations, visit www.BoardwalkFantaSea.com. $79.99 per person.
Capitol at St. Germain
705 Main, 713-492-2454
On February 14, the new downtown dining and entertainment venue, once a turn-of-the-century supper club, will host a four-course musically inspired meal for two. The score includes a "prelude" of appetizers like shrimp scampi, beef carpaccio and crispy Gulf blue crab "bomb," a choice of butternut squash soup or pear and arugula salad, followed by a trio of entrée options including seared sea scallops with white truffle oil, and culminating in an "overture" of Chef Kevin Bryant's handcrafted desserts. $59-$79 per person.
Procrastinators rejoice! On February 14, both Kirby and Uptown Park CRAVE locations will offer a clever grab-n-go Valentine's Day package consisting of four cupcakes — red velvet, vanilla, dark chocolate and strawberry on chocolate — and an "I CRAVE U" greeting card for curbside pickup from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. You literally don't even have to get out of the car. $20.
Fratelli's Italian Restaurant
10989 Northwest Fwy., 713-957-1150
Chef Teresa Tadeo Whitman will showcase the foods she loves most — shrimp, cheese and chocolate — in a five-course prix fixe menu available from 5 to 10 p.m. on Valentine's Day. Highlights include gamberetti amore (deep-fried jumbo shrimp coated with aioli sauce), tortellini al forno (handmade tortellini pasta, chopped walnuts and creamy tomato sauce), and medaglioni di manzo (beef tenderloin medallions with baby portabella mushrooms and a red wine reduction sauce), with a chocolate torte or tiramisu for dessert. $49 per person.
911 Preston, 713-224-7226
The Majestic Metro, originally opened as a silent-movie house in 1926, will open its doors to the public for an 8:30 p.m. Valentine's Day screening of Breakfast at Tiffany's thanks to a partnership between Alamo Drafthouse's Rolling Roadshow and the Houston Downtown Management District. The $10 ticket price includes movie, dessert and champagne cocktails provided by Georgia's Farm to Market Downtown.
Mockingbird Bistro Wine Bar
1985 Welch, 713-533-0200
Lovebirds flock to Mockingbird for a three-course prix fixe menu with starters like sweet corn and crab soufflé, entrée selections that include Dijon-encrusted rack of lamb and Muscovy duck breast with Hudson Valley foie gras, and a choice of warm bittersweet chocolate torte, crème brûlée, Godiva white chocolate cheesecake or Granny Smith apple bread pudding for dessert. $65 per person/$95 with sommelier's wine pairing.
Ninfa's on Navigation
2704 Navigation Blvd., 713-228-1175
Ninfa's three-course prix fixe dinner for two — complete with a "Sinful" margarita — is sure to satisfy laid-back, casual types with upscale cuisine in a relaxed environment. The meal features a pink peppercorn vinaigrette field green salad, filet mignon and jumbo shrimp with chipotle hollandaise, and dark chocolate mousse and Grand Marnier-soaked strawberries. ¿Que bueno, no? $59 per couple/$69 with a bottle of sparkling wine.
14800 Westheimer, Suite D, 281-496-1022
On February 14 from 4 to 10 p.m., the much-praised west Houston Italian eatery will serve a hearty helping of Italian-style amore with live music and a three-course prix fix menu featuring a choice of appetizer, cheese-stuffed manicotti with Mornay sauce or herb-roasted chicken breast with steamed broccoli and Forrest rice, and tiramisu or Italian chocolate cake for dessert. $35 per person/$65 with wine pairing.
Philippe Restaurant + Lounge
1800 Post Oak Blvd., Suite 6110, 713-439-1000
The French are rumored to be legendary lovers, and Philippe's sexy "Valentine's 'Aphrodisiac' Menu," available February 11-14, does little to dispel the myth. The tantalizing three-course meal opens with goat cheese-filled artichokes and French chile endive salad, rosemary quail egg emulsion, and fig balsamic vinaigrette, followed by a duo of mustard-braised short ribs and ginger-seared tuna, and comes to climax with a seductive medley of red velvet cake with chocolate ganache (oui!), rose ice cream with candied pistachios (oui!), violet pavlova with vanilla chantilly (oui!), and fresh raspberries — ouiiiiiii! $65 per person.
Rattan Pan-Asian Bistro & Wine Bar
1396 Eldridge Pkwy. South, 281-556-9888
Rattan's recipe for romance begins with a champagne toast and ends with chocolate ganache crème brûlée. The four courses in between include many of the west side restaurant's sumptuous signature dishes, including tuna tataki, robata Kobe, Akaushi Kobe beef sirloin, Massaman sautéed salmon and grilled Peking duck breast. $48 per person.
4601 Washington, 281-501-3237
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TQLA's Valentine's Day prix fixe menu, available February 12-14, promises hot, sweaty expressions of uninhibited desire with three courses of modern Southwestern cuisine paired with three corresponding tequilas. The dinner kicks off with a glass of champagne, soup or salad, and Don Julio Blanco, followed by a choice of a grilled eight-ounce filet or pecan-crusted red snapper paired with El Tesoro de Felipe Reposado, and orange flan and Riazul Añejo for dessert. $45 per person/$70 with tequila pairing.
4224 San Felipe, 713-961-9200
The River Oaks restaurant billed as "Mexican and Tex-Mex cuisine in a mature, sensual, environment" is offering two racy prix fixe dining options to tempt your Valentine. The "Double Dip" ($69 per couple) features a glass of champagne, "naughty nachos" topped with fried oysters and mango salsa, signature guacamole, carne asada, grilled red snapper filet, and "love bites" — heart-shaped buñuelos with orange dipping sauce. The "Roses are Red" option ($40 per couple) includes a glass of champagne, choice of roasted beet layered salad or red snapper ceviche, beef and chicken fajitas, and homemade zinfandel raspberry sorbet.