Best Meat-and-Three Restaurant

Jeff Balke
Avenue Grill Cops, firefighters and EMS types flock to this time-honored cafeteria across the street from Central Police Supply. The cranberry carpet is well worn, and the wood paneling and tile ceiling have seen better days. But the Avenue Grill prides itself on its "greasy spoon" reputation. The television is permanently on, and it seems like somebody is always having a spirited conversation over at the counter. At lunchtime, the meat-and-three format (one meat and your choice of three sides) is executed in classic Southern steam-table style. The fried chicken, chicken-fried steak and hamburger steak are all good bets. The squash casserole is excellent, and the greens aren't bad either. The yeast rolls are outstanding. And should you find yourself downtown looking for an early breakfast, the Avenue Grill opens at 5:30 a.m.

Skeeter's Mesquite Grill Got kids? Then you're going to love this place. Skeeter's lets kids be kids and moms and dads relax. The crayons are already on the table, and you don't have to worry what the little monsters are coloring on -- the walls here are already decorated with toddler masterpieces. So are the terra-cotta planters, the trunks of the fake trees, the bricks and some of the windows. There are electronic games and other such harmless activity magnets tucked away in the nooks and crannies, so there's no need to chase the kids. Think of this cavernous restaurant as a cageless zoo where ankle-biters roam. And believe it or not, the Velveeta chile con queso, mesquite-grilled hamburgers, and chicken breast and steak sandwiches are all quite tasty. Best of all, there's cold beer for Mom's and Dad's frazzled nerves. Don't have any kids? Run screaming!

Tony's Tony's is the final flaming star in the celestial Tony Vallone empire. Since the sale of his other restaurants to Tilman Fertitta, Vallone has concentrated on his "baby." And the waitstaff at Tony's is even more attentive, efficient and knowledgeable than it was in the glory days. The restaurant's red-walled dining room and banquette seating, central A-list tables and constant stream of servers will make you feel like royalty (chef Bruce McMillian's osso buco will, too). We can't wait for Tony's new digs to open on Upper Kirby so we can witness how this Houston upper-crust classic reinvents itself. In the meantime, Tony's on Post Oak is open for lunch again, and regulars are flocking back for its stellar service.

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.

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