So your sinuses are stuffed and you can't breathe. You feel like hell, and don't want to cook. Call Niko Niko's and order some lemon chicken soup to go. The steam will clear up your sinuses. The strips of chicken will make you feel like you're getting some protein. The rice in the soup will fill you up. And the lemon -- well, the lemon just adds that magical, antibacterial zest that will wake up your sick, sleepy taste buds.

Hugo's
Houston is a Mexican food town. And Hugo's Mexican food is among the best in the nation. Rick Bayless in Chicago and Zarela Martinez in New York are chef Hugo Ortega's main competitors -- few others come close. As a native of Puebla who received his culinary training here, Ortega has a big advantage. His grasp of Mexican flavors is so confident that he doesn't feel the need to prove himself all the time. While others slavishly imitate out-of-date Mexican culinary concepts in the name of authenticity, Ortega cuts loose with new American abandon. His roasted rabbit in guajillo sauce with yams and jicama salad seems like a cross between Mexican and American Southern cooking. The tacos al pastor have so much pineapple mixed in with the crunchy pork, they taste Hawaiian. Meanwhile, there's no chips and salsa on the table, no fajitas on the grill, and no compromising to our usual Tex-Mex expectations. It's a brilliant balancing act: Ortega is upholding Mexican culinary integrity and charming the Houston fine dining audience at the same time. If you're looking for a restaurant that will blow away your food snob friends from New York or California, this is the place.
Artista
Photo courtesy of Artista
Michael Cordúa's best dishes are shockingly imaginative combinations of bold flavors presented in wild new ways. And there has never been a better stage for Cordúa's brilliance than Artista, his extraordinary new restaurant in the Hobby Center. The location in the performing arts center has inspired everything about the restaurant, from the name to the menu design to the theatricality of the decor. The Hobby's soaring roofline creates a three-story-high space inside the restaurant. And the enormous windows frame the downtown skyline. Wacky overstuffed modern chairs surround the tables, red oval-shaped booths line the back walls, and the romantically lit bar is two stories tall. It's a treat just to walk into this place.

Joyce's Seafood & Steaks
Joyce's is a rarity: a high-end restaurant with great Cajun food. There's lots of grilled fish and a couple of steaks on the menu, but the Louisiana cuisine is the real attraction. The awesome shrimp poor boy is made with shrimp that have been butterflied and dipped in a spicy batter before being deep-fried and dressed on a crusty roll. The gumbo is made with an inky dark roux and lots of seafood. And the New Orleans-style barbecued shrimp come swimming in the richest butter sauce you've ever tasted -- with lots of French bread on the side for dipping. The restaurant was formerly known as Joyce's Oyster Resort. They changed the name because too many people assumed oysters were all they served. Luckily, they still dish up the same oyster stew, oysters Rockefeller, and oysters on the half shell as well as a serious fried oyster platter.

Fung's Kitchen
Like fresh fish? Pick out a ling cod swimming in one of the aquariums up front and Fung's Kitchen will rush it to the stove, steam it and serve it up in a minimalist soy and ginger sauce for you. It is the purest fish flavor you will ever taste. But if fish isn't your favorite, don't worry -- you're bound to find something you like on this 400-item menu. The tofu dishes are especially good. Chef and owner Hoi Fung is originally from Hong Kong and comes from a family that has produced many famous chefs. When the daughter of the emperor of Japan visited Houston a few years ago, this is where she and her husband came to eat.
Lankford Grocery and Market
Eydie Prior's parents opened Lankford as a grocery in 1939. After a while, Eydie took over and started serving food. It was well received, so in 1977 she decided to turn the place into a restaurant. Since then, generations of regulars have filled the rickety joint to the gills nearly every day. Anyone who's ever heard of Lankford will ask if you've had the thick-'n'-juicy hand-packed burgers. Those more in the know will suggest the enchilada special. These are some of the best cheesy, beefy enchiladas in the downtown area, with a hearty mix of chili powder and cumin in the chile con queso topping. A half order will leave most bellies plenty full. Chicken-and-dumplings aficionados should be sure to pencil in that special as well. There's nothing this place can't do well.

This is the place for home-style Cuban food. The restaurant could never be considered fancy, but the food, that's another story. The mariquitas con mojo make a great starter. Thin plantain chips are covered with an onion, garlic, olive oil and lime sauce that will have your taste buds singing. Entrées include many classic Cuban dishes like ropa vieja, vaca frita, picadillo and arroz con pollo, but accolades go to the masas de puerco fritas, which are large chunks of fried pork -- crispy on the outside yet moist and tender on the inside. All of the main courses come with the classic black beans and brilliantly white rice as well as ripe plantains known as maduros, which add an interesting sweetness to everything they touch.

Kahn's Delicatessen - CLOSED
Alfred's in the Village was once Houston's favorite New York Jewish deli -- legendary for its overstuffed sandwiches, kosher-style pickles and box lunches. Today, Alfred Kahn's son, Michael Kahn, carries on the tradition at Kahn's Deli in Rice Village, not far from his father's original location. The walls are decorated with old photos of Alfred and Houston celebrities of yore along with dozens of write-ups from newspapers and magazines. There are a couple of places to sit, but Kahn's business is primarily takeout. The tiny walk-up sandwich counter serves a spectacular oversize Reuben that sells for $7.50 and is best approached with a knife and fork. Other popular sandwich combinations include roast beef, turkey and cheese with Russian dressing. But for the deli purists, there are also plain sandwiches, including corned beef, pastrami and chopped liver, not to mention the excellent half-sour pickles.
Kim Son Restaurant
Dawn McGee
On the weekend, Kim Son's carts carry an average of 70 dim sum items. Don't miss the velvety eggplant stuffed with shrimp paste, mushroom-capped meatballs, Chinese broccoli, golden-fried turnip cakes, slurpy rice noodle rolls, cylinders of shrimp paste wrapped in seaweed and deep-fried in tempura batter, pork dumplings with quail eggs inside, or the sweet taro roll covered with almonds. But wait, you say, dim sum is Chinese, so how could the best dim sum in Houston be served at a Vietnamese restaurant? "I was born here in the States, but like the owners of Kim Son, my family is Chinese-Vietnamese," explains Andy Troung, the manager of the Stafford location. "Chinese people ate dim sum all the time in Vietnam. So eating dim sum in a Vietnamese restaurant in Houston makes perfect sense to Chinese-Vietnamese-Americans like me."

Resist the temptation to ask for a knife and fork. When you eat Ethiopian-style, the spongy flatbread called injera serves as both your plate and your eating utensil. You pull off a chunk of bread and wrap it around the food, turning everything into an injera taco. There's even Ethiopian salsa, not that you need it -- the food at Blue Nile is all incredibly hot. Green beans, potatoes and carrots in a spicy sauce are a favorite vegetable combination, as are the lentil stews. Other standouts include the lamb cubes with onions and peppers and a lamb in a turmeric-heavy sauce. It's easy to share dishes here. All of your orders are combined on one big platter set in the middle of the table and everybody digs in. The atmosphere is pleasantly unusual. Try the Ethiopian honey wine.

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