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.

La Unica Bakery Declaring the best breakfast taco in Houston is kind of like choosing the best hot dog in Chicago, the best pizza in New York, or the best boob job in Los Angeles. We know that the big yellow truck at the corner of Houston Avenue and Center Street serves a fine breakfast taco, and yes, Houston, we know from your votes that Whataburger does a good job too, but the folks at La Unica Bakery take the cake -- so to speak -- this year. Their masterpiece is the bacon-and-egg taco, which is wrapped in a homemade flour tortilla. They're not the first people to ever scramble their eggs and fry their bacon in the same pan, but somehow they do it better than anyone else. They keep the bacon pliable and juicy, without letting the grease overrun the eggs. For the perfect start to your day, add some frijoles and queso blanco. Did we mention that they make their tortillas fresh?

Beso In a city steaming with heat and humidity, the competition is keen for the best mojito. Beso's classic Cuban concoction will chill out the city's sweatiest soul, combining the acquired expertise of its owners to capture the mojito crown, elbows down. Master chef Arturo Boada insists on only the freshest ingredients, and co-owner Bill Sadler has a consummate taste for fine beverages. Their blend of sugary base, rum, club soda and lime comes to life under the rich spell of aromatic garden-fresh mint. We also suggest sampling the equally exotic raspberry mojito under the patio's palm trees. Havana daydreamin' is on the way.

Jeff Balke
Frenchy's The lines have died down at Pollo Campero. Its zesty Latin version of fried chicken is still excellent, but it isn't new anymore. And while the old-fashioned Southern fried chicken at Barbecue Inn on Crosstimbers is still as crunchy as it used to be, the crust is admittedly bland. If you like your chicken spicy, nothing tops the flavor of hot and juicy Frenchy's chicken. And some of the city's best Creole dishes -- the sausage-heavy red beans and rice and the greens -- are on Frenchy's sides menu. The battered Frenchy fries are stellar, too. Standing in line may seem like a nuisance, but it's also your guarantee that every piece of chicken has just come out of the fryer. And Frenchy's is conveniently open until 1 a.m. on weeknights and 3 a.m. on Fridays and Saturdays, for folks with a late-night craving.

Photo by Houston Press Staff
Barnaby's Just flip on the tube or try dodging a pop-up ad and it's clear: This is the year of the Atkins and South Beach diets. But Barnaby's has done the high-protein, low-carb thing for years. Owner Jeff Gale (who named the eatery after his dearly departed sheepdog) understands his ultra-healthy clientele so well that bottles of Bragg Liquid Aminos (a popular garnish for those in serious workout training) are as much a table staple as ketchup and salt and pepper. Lunch at any of the three Inner Loop locations is often a muscle show -- regulars in tight, form-fitting shirts or workout gear polish off grilled salmon, burgers (without the bun, natch), chicken breasts, lean pork chops or gargantuan salads. And if you're not an Atkins believer, don't worry: Comfy, calorie-rich offerings -- like baby back ribs and diet-destroying apple pie à la mode -- are favorites, too.

Photo by Houston Press Staff
Buffalo Grille "Man, it feels like someone jammed a shard of glass through my forehead. What time is it?" "It's, like, noon, dude." "Ugh. It's bright out. What the hell were we drinking last night, anyway?" "Bartender called it Gulps Gone Wild. I think I saw him put 151, SoCo, some kind of schnapps and, like, Fierce Melon Gatorade powder in it." "Christ! What's with this long line?" "Dude, this place is so worth it. These people know what's up." "Man, I hope so. Shit's taking a while. What're you getting?" "Biscuits and gravy. Bacon. The bacon's good, dude. Real good." "Yeah? Yo, I need some coffee. Hold my spot here a second?" "Cool." (Pause. He comes back over holding a cup of regular, stirring in one packet of cream, the rich aroma caressing his nerves.) "Oh...Oh, man! This is good." "Told you."

Christy's Doughnuts Spanish and English mingle easily in this Montrose corner shop. Smiles and morning banter come easily, too; cops and kids mix with every-darned-day regulars who sip coffee and take the entire morning to read the paper, and if your server thinks you're cute, he might throw a couple of free holes in your bag. But the neighborly feel really sinks in when you examine the dozens of wall-mounted thank-you letters to owner Sean Heng for all the good deeds he's done (Little League sponsorships, doughnut donations, aid to local charities). Along with the letters are boards of photos of happy customers -- a testament to Christy's devoted clientele. Whether you eat them in the store or take them home, Christy's makes a weekend-morning doughnut fix into a friendly, small-town experience.

La Paletera Picture a Dreamsicle made with fresh fruit and real cream, and you can begin to imagine what La Paletera's Mexican popsicles taste like. Except they call them paletas, and they only have one stick. Unlike American popsicle makers, La Paletera never uses artificial flavorings or frozen fruit pulp. There are 47 flavors available every day, the most popular being coconut, strawberry and banana; there are also more exotic varieties too, like mango and chile. Fruit cups and fruit salads are available, and each boat-shaped bowl of fruit comes with your choice of chile powder or a hot-and-sour chile dipping sauce. The Fulton location is a franchise of the original La Paletera in Corpus Christi. Amy Salazar, who started the company with money she saved as a crop worker, grew up selling popsicles and aguas frescas at her parents' palatería in Guadalajara, Mexico. Today, she's selling more than popsicles; she is also selling popsicle-stand franchises.

Central Market's Irish soda bread Weighing in at well over a pound, the Irish soda bread at Central Market ($2.49) is an extremely dense, hearty and heavy loaf, especially since it's compact in size -- about that of a deflated volleyball. It's leavened with baking soda (hence its name) and mixed with buttermilk, which adds silkiness to its texture. Fissures on the top of the loaf allow for easy dismantling, so you can rip into it before you even get to the car. These fissures come from the cross-shaped cut in the bread, which dates back to early medieval times when the symbol was sliced in to ward away the devil. Central Market's version contains raisins along with caraway seeds, for an inviting mix of salty and sweet.

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