Panera Bread Company The croissants at Panera Bread Company look like they're on steroids -- almost twice the size of normal ones, they dwarf the side-dish plates they're served on. When you bite into one, you can immediately tell that it's made with real butter. A second bite reveals that it's very fresh, since flakes of pastry go everywhere (trust us, you'll be so busy enjoying it, you won't stop to care). The croissants at Panera are so fresh because they're baked throughout the day, not just first thing in the morning. Croissants like these are best enjoyed naked -- they need absolutely nothing on them.

Giannotti's Pasta Factory Fresh pasta is common at upscale Italian restaurants and in Italian family homes, and it's easy to see why. One taste of the stuff at Giannotti's Pasta Factory is enough to convert anyone from the dry boxed kind. The beauty of fresh pasta, apart from its incredibly clean taste, is its speedy cooking time -- only three to four minutes. Giannotti's specializes in standards like spaghetti, capellini, fettuccine and linguine, which you can buy plain or in spinach or tomato flavors. They also make some incredible manicotti and cannelloni, and plain sheets of pasta for lasagna are also available. Best of all, the pasta can be sampled with a comforting home-style tomato sauce any day of the week at Giannotti's restaurant.

Goode Co. Texas Seafood Come crawfish season, this fixture on the Houston dining scene is packed with cravers awaiting bright red piles of mudbugs. It's no wonder: Goode Co.'s homemade fresh Creole seasoning of garlic, onions, celery and dried chiles is hot and flavorful. And these crawfish are big enough to win a fight. They're served with homemade smoked sausage, boiler onions and -- this is important -- corn and potatoes that have been boiled with the crawfish (not separately, the way many other establishments prepare them).

Edloe St. Deli This club sandwich is the best because it's the plain-Jane real deal. And you can only find it inside the ever-so-quaint, breakfast- and lunch-only Edloe St. Deli in West U. Served up with a fruit bowl or an onion-y scoop of creamy potato salad, the traditional double-decker sandwich at the Edloe is served on fresh and chewy egg bread, very lightly toasted. It's nothing fancy -- just tender turkey slices, extra-crunchy bacon, Monterey Jack, thick mayo, juicy tomato slices and frilly green lettuce leaves. This is a comfort-food junkie's ideal lunch.

Fleming's Prime Steakhouse & Wine Bar
Fleming's Prime Steakhouse & Wine Bar These ain't your Jack in the Box fried rings. Fleming's stacks a towering plate about six inches high with fresh, thick slices of white onions fried lightly so they're crispy on the outside and juicy inside. The golden batter -- made from Japanese bread crumbs, garlic, salt, pepper and parsley -- offsets the sweetness of these choice onions. A chipotle mayonnaise dipping sauce adds a tasty zip to the rings, which are so big you'll need a knife and fork to eat them -- or you could just wear them as a bracelet. At $6.95, they could be a meal on their own, so order these rings as an appetizer only if you've got a big appetite or several friends with you.

Barbecue Inn
Photo by Robb Walsh
Barbecue Inn The batter-fried steak at this fabulous old Houston dining institution features the crunchiest crust and juiciest meat combination imaginable. The bright white cream gravy might be a tad sweet for some. It's that old-fashioned variety that tastes like it was made with evaporated milk. The standard order comes with two chicken-fried steak patties, a salad and your choice of hand-cut fries or a baked potato with sour cream, cheddar, chives and bacon bits, served from a spinning stainless-steel carousel. The fried shrimp and fried chicken are also incredible. For a Barbecue Inn surf and turf, ask for a half-order of fried shrimp with a single chicken-fried steak patty on the side. Get a bottle of Tabasco and some extra horseradish to spice up the bland cocktail sauce.

Nundini Chef's Table Italian Kitchen and Wine Bar
Nundini Food Store At Nundini Food Store, $1.50 will get you a scoop of real Italian gelato. Gelato has less air churned into it than ice cream, so it's creamier and a whole lot denser. It also stays cold longer and doesn't melt as quickly as its U.S. cousin. At Nundini, it's hard to recommend one flavor over another, since they change every week. But if you come across zuppa inglese (English soup), try it: Made with vanilla gelato and brandy-soaked pieces of cake, it isn't available anywhere else in Houston. Traditional flavors include nocciola (hazelnut) and that all-time Italian favorite, the soft green-colored pistachio gelato. Its subtle, nutty spice goes down oh-so-easily.

Cotton Exchange Bar We like toasting our balmy weather with a light beer in a cheap koozie. But sometimes we feel more genteel, and that's when we head to the Cotton Exchange Bar for a mint julep. A true speakeasy marked only by the "808" on a black awning, the bar/lounge is housed in the historic building of the same name, a once-bustling center of trade and commerce in 1890s Houston. The Exchange's julep harks back to those older days, when sweaty businessmen would simmer down over the minty, icy bourbon cooler. Watching its creation is a lesson in bar science: Bartenders here muddle huge mint leaves and then add crushed ice and Maker's Mark bourbon to a silver cup. (The silver creates a chemical reaction with the whiskey, igniting a one-of-a-kind flavor.) Sip from the icy, frosty silver tumbler and you're suddenly more relaxed, more refined, more...Southern. All that's missing is the seersucker.

Pezcalato Peruvian Restaurant If you think ceviche means rubbery chunks of mystery fish in a lime juice marinade, Pezcalato is going to spoil you. When you order ceviche at this mom-and-pop Peruvian restaurant on Richmond, you have to specify your fish. There's grouper or snapper ceviche ($14 a plate) or tilapia or catfish ceviche ($12 a plate). The fish tastes like it's been tenderized; it literally melts in your mouth. Every order comes with plenty of mixto, a delectable mélange of tender octopus, squid and mussels in a lime juice marinade. The seafood is covered with flecks of fresh cilantro ground so finely it resembles a pesto, and it comes to the table South American-style with a slice of cold, cooked sweet potato and a little round of corn on the cob. When you're done with the ceviche, drink the marinade. Called tiger's milk in South America, it's said to be a hangover cure.

Wing Stop Chicken wings fly out of this Dallas-based franchise. After placing your order at the counter, be prepared to wait precisely 14 minutes, since everything is cooked fresh. Their original wings are similar to those at the Anchor Bar in Buffalo, New York (which purportedly invented buffalo wings in 1964 and made them a part of our national culinary heritage). But even though the wings at Wing Stop are authentic, they're nowhere near hot enough to make us Texans break a sweat. The atomic wings, however, are coated in a habanero-pepper sauce and should come with a fire extinguisher. Nontraditional flavors worth exploring are the garlic-Parmesan wings and the lemon-pepper wings, along with the homemade ranch and blue cheese dressings that accompany the celery sticks.

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