Cafe Piquet The local Cuban community may have been the first to discover Cafe Piquet when it opened in 1996, but today the secret's out about this small, cozy eatery. The menu's not long or extensive -- Piquet specializes in a few traditional dishes that have won the hearts of many, and not just because the food is plentiful and the prices reasonable. Ropa vieja (shredded beef with tomatoes and olives, $8.95), masas de puerco fritas (chunks of fried pork cooked with garlic, $9.95) and a whole red snapper ($17.95) are just some of the outstanding items offered here. Whiter-than-white rice, blacker-than-black beans, yucca in garlic sauce and ripe plantains are among the side dishes. And remember to complete your order with a perfectly brewed cafe cubano.

Hugo's Don't ask for chips and salsa, fajitas, nachos or any other of those familiar standards here. Chef and co-owner Hugo Ortega is a Mexican national who worked his way up from a busboy at Backstreet Cafe, and he doesn't do Tex-Mex. At the upscale Mexican restaurant that bears his name, the duck, cabrito, rabbit and tacos al pastor are the main attractions. The chocolate is ground fresh, the tortillas are hand-formed, and the moles are all made from scratch. Hugo's does serve margaritas, but you're better off ordering one of the dozens of premium tequilas served Mexican-style -- straight up with a shot of sangria on the side. There's also an excellent wine list selected for its compatibility with the intense, spicy flavors. The Mexican food here compares favorably with the best in the nation. And in truth, it blows away a lot of the top restaurants in Mexico.

Aries When the editors of Food & Wine chose Aries chef Scott Tycer as one of the top ten new chefs in the country last year, they pegged Aries as part of a national movement. Highly trained chefs such as Tycer who run their own small restaurants are bringing kitchen craftsmanship to a new level in this country. It's an approach to cooking that requires enormous dedication. Aries doesn't have a freezer. Everything is made from scratch every morning. The chefs shop and forage for ingredients that no other restaurant can offer, and they hire farmers to grow things other restaurants have never heard of. Tycer's bread is so good, he opened a bakery, which now supplies many other Houston restaurants. But this kind of chef-driven restaurant also requires a sophisticated clientele. Houstonians who think that great restaurants cater to a demanding customer's every whim, from "sauce on the side" to a tomato salad in the dead of winter, are apt to be disappointed here. Go to Aries and let chef Scott Tycer cook for you. Odds are he will wow you with his considerable genius. If you need to "have it your way," you're better off at Burger King -- or Tony's.

Farrago For a complete Farrago mussel experience, lean over the large bowl of steaming shells and inhale the broth when the dish comes to your table. If you close your eyes, you'll be transported to an exotic locale. Open them, and you'll find yourself at the bright little spot in Midtown that specializes in lighthearted fusion dishes. The dish consists of a whole pound of Prince Edward Island mussels, which are renowned for their flavor and texture. They're steamed in a broth of coconut milk and green curry paste with green onions, fresh basil, cilantro and mussel liquid stock. The mussels come with a grilled baguette to soak up the broth, but it's tempting just to pick up the bowl and drink it.

Pho Nguyen There's a whole lot of slurping going on at Pho Nguyen, where $4.50 gets you a regular-sized bowl of the heartwarming Vietnamese beef noodle soup known as pho. Don't be put off by the ingredients of the 16 or so different kinds of soup available. Tripe, soft tendon and fat brisket fill the bowls at Pho Nguyen, and they all have the same hearty broth base. Get creative and customize your soup with the bean sprouts, fresh basil leaves and jalapeo slices that accompany each order, and go crazy with sauces like hoisin, fish and the fiery-red sriracha. In its shopping-strip digs, the place may seem sketchy at first, but open the door and you'll immediately catch the savory aroma that keeps the crowds gathering in this tiny place.

Kubo's Japanese Restaurant Chef Kubo was the best sushi man in Houston. Unfortunately, he left town several years ago, but he trained his replacement, chef Hori, very well. The new sushi master is doing an admirable job of filling Kubo's sandals. There's always something interesting on the specials board at Kubo's, and the fish is always the very finest in quality. An even younger chef named Suzuki, who is fresh from Japan, is executing some splendid renditions of traditional sushi preparations. His chirashi, presented in a textured, three-tiered bowl, offers artful compositions of sashimi, radish shoots, seaweed, rice and other elements tucked one beneath the other. Crazy rolls and the like are done by a pair of imaginative Latin American sushi chefs. They also run a special all day Sunday, when every piece of sushi sells for $1.25.

Batli Joselevitz
Jarro Cafe Houston hot sauce has been in a slump lately. Maybe they toned down the heat level for visiting All-Star Game fans and forgot to zip it back up again. If you've gotten used to insipid picante sauce, Jarro Cafe's salsas will open your eyes -- wide. At this bright and sunny little taco joint on Gessner north of Long Point, they bring you different salsas and some lime quarters in six brightly colored bowls with every order. But these aren't your ordinary Houston salsas. There's "Mayan" salsa, made of chopped purple onions flecked with Mexican oregano and chile powder; an oily, brick-red chile arbol sauce; a deep green salsa that tastes like chopped jalapeos and cilantro; and a bright orange sauce made with lots of pureed red chiles. Last but not least, there's a neon-green salsa made with pureed tomatillos and serranos that will rip out your tonsils.

Marine's Empanadas When you name your business after yourself, you'd better be good at it. The empanadas ($2.35 each) at Marine's are better than good -- they're outstanding. Marine's offers 47 different versions; most are savory, but some are sweet, distinguished by a dusting of powdered sugar. These made-to-order, stuffed, doughy, fried little wonders are the ultimate finger food. Funky favorites include "the hippy," made with salami, fried onions and raisins; "the avocado," a smooth blend of mashed avocado and melted cheese; and "the fig," made with fig jam, melted cheese and walnuts. Anyone would be proud to lend his name to these beauties.

Photo by Houston Press Staff
Brown Bag Deli You get a brown bag and a pencil when you walk into this busy lunch counter. On the bag are a series of commands like "Choose Bread," "Choose Meat" and "Choose Cheese." Oddly, the fabulous sandwich filling of a Southern childhood, pimento cheese, is listed under the meats. Not that we're complaining. Where else can you get a decent pimento cheese sandwich these days? If you aren't from around here, you may be wondering, What is this stuff exactly? In an article titled "P'minnuh Cheese: The Pâté of the South," author Kendra Myers explains that while all versions of PC include cheddar or American cheese and chopped pimientos (generally bound with mayonnaise), regional variations might include garlic, cayenne, buttermilk, pickle juice or cottage cheese. In some parts of the new multicultural South, pimento cheese is eaten on toasted bagels. We recommend you try the excellent Brown Bag Deli version on white bread.

Pico's nachos Jorge If you're looking for something light to snack on, hit the road. Pico's nachos Jorge are a mountain-sized heap of smoldering ingredients. The plate of tortilla chips comes piled high with the restaurant's trademark marinated pork roast, shredded for your convenience and blanketed with oozing Chihuahua cheese, guacamole and sour cream. Counterbalancing the heat and salt are sweet, luscious pink rings of pickled onion -- also a signature ingredient at the homegrown Mexican restaurant. It's a gamble seeing just how much weight a single tortilla chip will bear as you pile it on. No chip can hold all the stuff that comes on top of these nachos. Thankfully, Pico's nachos are served with a fork.

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