At least four things have to be right to make the perfect espresso. First, the ingredient: finely ground Italian espresso-roasted coffee. Second, the equipment: a machine capable of bringing the water to 2000 degrees and delivering the right pressure. Third: the know-how, in the form of an experienced barista who both knows how to tamp down the coffee in the gruppa (the metal cup) and keeps a watchful eye on the whole process. Last: knowing to serve it in a porcelain demitasse, which is far more civilized than a cardboard cup and makes it taste much better. A fine espresso should be enjoyed much as you would a fine wine. Swish it around in your mouth to get the full flavor and texture; it should have an almost syrupy feel. The thick, reddish-brown crema on top, the symbol of a perfect extraction, should be thick enough to hold two teaspoons of sugar for a few seconds before letting it sink to the bottom of the cup. At Dolce & Freddo, that's what you get.

Saba Blue Water Cafe
"What's in this?" we asked, taking a sip of our first ever mojito. "Heavenly goodness," a friend said. A mojito is a Cuban drink made with rum, soda and simple syrup. A delectable muddle of mint leaves and lime sits at the bottom. Saba adds to the sugar-water sweetness of the simple syrup with a splash of 7-Up. It's the perfect summer beverage for people who are sick of Jolly Rancher-flavored apple martinis but want something more elegant than a shot of tequila. Saba's ambience adds to the "I'm hip and trendy and drinking a cooler drink than anyone else" vibe. The best thing is to drink a couple mojitos at the bar, then go sit at a table. They'll serve you crispy shrimp chips. Pour soy sauce on them, drink another mojito and listen to the chips sizzle. The more mojitos you have, the cooler this will seem. Trust us.

Seoul Garden Restaurant
If you only kind of feel like cooking -- but definitely want to get out of the house -- Seoul Garden is the place to go. The bulgogi is brought to your table. This fantastic Korean beef tastes as though it's been marinating since JFK was alive and is sliced into paper-thin strips. There's an open grill where you cook your own dinner. The dish is accompanied by a chorus of tofu, spicy potatoes, Korea's ubiquitous kimchi. Be careful with your legs. It really hurts if you accidentally slam your thigh into the grill. But don't get too entranced in conversation and forget to flip your beef. If you toss it on expecting the waitress to come back to turn it for you, your tender beef will end up burned and tough.

If you listen to KIKK FM, you've probably heard Jerry Jeff Walker's "Sangria Wine" about 73 times. Sangria is most easily described as fruity trash-can punch. But it's hard to find a place that puts real fruit in it, not to mention the difficulty in finding someone who doesn't use watered-down wine that tastes like Kool-Aid. No bones about it, the sangria here is damn tasty. And if you ask for extra fruit, they'll cut up a whole apple for you. The best meal to have with your sangria? Start with an empanada. Then devour a heaping plate of picadillo, essentially Cuban chili. This heavenly hash combines ground beef, tomato, green pepper, green olives or capers and plenty of garlic. Serve it up with rice, fried plantains and a bowl of black beans and -- madre de dios -- que delicioso! Once you've kicked the pitcher of sangria, we recommend a glass of café con leche. Then you're gonna need a nap.

El Hidalguense
When you walk in the front door of this place, the aroma of goat smacks you in the nose. Or is it mutton? Chivito asado al pastor (spit-roasted goat) and barbacoa de borrego estilo Hidalgo (Hidalgo-style lamb slow-cooked in maguey leaves) are two of the restaurant's specialties; if it's Friday or Saturday, odds are you're smelling both. Weekdays the goat is reheated in sauce, but on the weekends the chivito (or cabrito, as it's called farther north) is spit-roasted over charcoal while you watch. There's a band playing favorite tunes from Hidalgo on Friday and Saturday nights when the whole Houston Huastecan community comes here to hang out.
Watch out! The innocent-looking paper-wrapped package they hand you when you ask for a cheeseburger at Adrian's is actually a delicious mess waiting to happen. The giant hand-formed meat patty is topped with a sloppy mountain of lettuce, tomatoes, onion and pickles. The burgers are fried to order, so they're piping hot. They're also so big you need a strategy to eat one. First of all, be sure to ask them to cut it in half. This will reduce the likelihood of the entire sandwich coming apart and cascading down your shirt on first bite. Next, consider sharing with a friend. Two people can easily split the $4.35 monstrosity. Try one of the awesome steam-table potato or vegetable dishes instead of french fries. The food here is beautiful, but the dining room is ugly. That's probably why most Adrian's Burger Bar patrons call in their orders and get the food to go.

Rio Ranch
Smaller than a hubcap but bigger than your face, the chicken-fried steak at Rio Ranch is actually a thin-cut sirloin steak that has been dipped in buttermilk, hand-dredged in seasoned flour and fried until it's crispier than Grandma's chicken wings. It's served atop a large pile of steaming mashed potatoes with black pepper-specked cream gravy on the side. Rio Ranch, which was opened by Robert Del Grande in 1993, is one of the earliest outposts of the "cowboy cuisine" cooking style that has since gained considerable notoriety in the national press. Designed to resemble a Hill Country ranch house, the interior and exterior are built almost entirely of native limestone and cedar, some of it salvaged from old ranch buildings. The bar and most of the tabletops are made of mesquite. And the place is decorated with quirky knickknacks made by Texas artisans. Don't miss the bizarre deer antler chandelier.

Chapultepec Lupita
Photo by Houston Press Staff
There's an undeniable truth in cooking: Deep frying makes everything better. The law behind it is simple. Frying adds fat -- lots of it -- to anything, and fat means flavor. Exhibit A: the chimichanga. The chimichanga is a beautiful thing, in a horrifying way, like a chicken-fried steak. Take chicken, cheese, onions and cilantro, wrap it all burrito-style in a flour tortilla, and submerge it in really hot oil until it's golden-brown. Plan a trip to the confessional and the gym after one of these bad boys. We're not quite sure what makes the deep-fried log at Chapultepec a notch above the rest. Maybe it's the homemade, non-Sysco quality of the ingredients. Or maybe they've figured out the perfect temperature for the oil to make the shell crispy, but not crunchy. Either way, we've yet to find better proof of the deep-fried theorem than this Tex-Mex dish.
House of Coffee Beans has been Houston's gourmet coffee roaster for almost 30 years. You can smell the roasting beans before you're even through the door. The secret to their success is simple: They focus on doing one thing and being the best in their class. They purchase the best green coffee beans from every coffee-growing region known to man, then they roast them in small hand-tended batches. They prefer to roast their beans medium rather than dark, which may mask any imperfections in the beans. Five different coffees are brewed daily. Customers can try a free sample or buy a cupful. In addition to having nearly 100 different coffees, they have a large selection of teas from around the globe. They have both unblended coffees from small estates and blended coffees, in both caffeinated and decaffeinated varieties. Many different flavors are also available. The most expensive variety is the Jamaican Blue Mountain at $42 per pound, although insiders tout the Indian Monsooned Malabar at $14.50 per pound, which is completely free from acidity and astringency. It undergoes an airing and watering by nature as well as hand-picking and turning twice a day during the curing period. That's one nice cup o' joe.

Screw the NyQuil. When you're sick, you need Jewish penicillin. We recommend Kenny & Ziggy's Mish Mosh. Their matzo balls are light and fluffy. You can slice your spoon straight through these tasty dumplings. (That's a sign they're probably unhealthy; the only way to get really light and fluffy matzo balls is to use a gallon of schmaltz -- fat. But who cares? You're sick.) The best part of this soup is that it includes kreplach. Kreplach is a bitch to make -- even Jewish moms make it only once a year, for high holy days. The gentile dictionary defines it as Jewish ravioli -- little ground beef-filled noodles that float in your soup (and make it so special). If you're famished, we recommend a plate of corned beef and cabbage to follow. Oh, to enjoy such flavor. You should live so long.

Best Of Houston®

Best Of