The owners of Lemon Tree are Peruvian, and ceviche -- raw seafood pickled in lemon juice -- is considered the national dish of Peru. And they know how to make it here. You can get either plain fish or a seafood mixture consisting of fish, shrimp, mussels and calamari served with thin slices of onion and finely chopped peppers known as ajis amarillo, as well as corn and sweet potatoes. The best part of the dish is the juice, which remains after all the seafood has been consumed. It's not considered rude to raise the plate to your mouth to drink it -- but please, no slurping.
Readers' choice: Goode Co. Seafood
Celebrity chef Noe Robert Gadsby made the big splash of the year with the opening of the Houston Noe, the sister restaurant of the original in Los Angeles, which is located in another Omni Hotel. Gadsby runs both of his playful, challenging restaurants with a whimsical touch. He defines his highly original cooking style as progressive American or Franco-Japanese, but neither label adequately captures his culinary pyrotechnics. Much of the food is astonishing. Some of it is transcendental. Sure, the menu reads like a list of culinary crossword-puzzle clues. But luckily for sybarites, you don't really need to get the chef's jokes to enjoy the succulent lobster in Asian-flavored broth or the inventive foie gras. The decor manages to be elegant yet semi-casual, with an Asian modern theme that features Japanese art, black lacquered chairs, a blue-and-rust carpet and lots of blue accent lighting. This is the place where serious foodies gather to see and be seen.
The jellyfish salad and the ducks' tongues whizzing by on the dim sum carts look exotic. But it's the dumplings at Fung's Kitchen that are extraordinary. Sure, the shrimp ones and the xiu mai are excellent, but how about dumplings filled with chopped snow-pea shoots and garnished with peas and carrot cubes? Owner and head chef Hoi Fung comes from a long line of chefs in Hong Kong, the dim sum capital of the world. The regular menu at Fung's Kitchen features more than 400 items, some of them available nowhere else in the city. When Fung set his sights on dim sum, he decided to do it in the same sort of haute Hong Kong style. Carts roll on weekends, but there's also a dim sum menu available at lunch.
Readers' choice: Kim Son
If your definition of a great restaurant is a posh dining room where airhead waiters suck up to rich people, try the new Tony's, or one of Tilman Fertitta's high-end swank-aterias. But if you want to visit the epicenter of Houston's food scene, go to T'afia, the minimalist restaurant in Midtown where the service is informative, not kiss-ass. Want to try some of the most innovative cocktails in the entire country? Check out the aged ratafia concoctions and the melting essences behind the Plexiglas bar. Want to find out about the latest in Texas food products? Order T'afia's "local market tasting menu," which might include home-cured duck prosciutto with Texas tangerines, Pure Luck Farm goat cheese with toasted pecans, or shavings of locally made Brown Paper Bag chocolate with poached East Texas pears. Want to buy some of these fabulous ingredients to cook with at home? Visit the weekend farmers' market in T'afia's parking lot, where chef Monica Pope encourages Houstonians to support the local artisanal food scene by buying the same organic heirloom vegetables, handmade breads and chocolates, fresh-roasted coffee and other high-quality ingredients she serves at the restaurant. While other top chefs seem to be aiming ever lower in hopes of getting rich, Pope is quietly and single-handedly creating a market for the kind of high-quality foods the world needs more of. We are incredibly lucky to have a chef and a restaurant this enlightened in Houston, Texas.
Readers' choice: Brennan's of Houston
The free-form dumplings at San Tong Snacks look like meatballs in floppy wrappers. The spicy pork stays snug inside the thick and chewy cloak of dough, and the pink pork is generously seasoned. But the real secret of San Tong's amazing dumplings is their freshness. The proprietors run a little factory in the back, so the dumplings are made continuously. The menu includes pork-and-leek, pork-and-cabbage, pan-fried and beef-soup dumplings (pork dumplings in beef broth). An order includes a dozen and costs around five bucks. The restaurant and dumpling factory recently moved from its scruffy space in Diho Plaza into luxurious new digs down the street next to Jasmine Asian Cuisine. The restaurant is a little bigger now, but the dumplings continue to shine.
An upscale Salvadoran restaurant owned by the same people who own the El Pupusaton pupuserias, Sabor! makes a wonderful first impression with its polished granite tables, cafe-au-lait tile floors and cheerful butter-yellow walls. The restaurant is comfortable, charming and clean. The luxurious late breakfasts with fried plantains, eggs and homemade tortillas are exceptional, and the coffee is outstanding. So are the tropical juices, which come in a wide variety of flavors. Be forewarned, the food is designed to appeal to a Central American clientele, and they usually don't eat spicy food or many sauces. They also prefer well-done meat. If you like it rare, skip the steak and try the house specialty, an awesome soup called crema de mariscos a la francesa that contains shrimp, fish, mussels and crab in a rich seafood broth spiked with crema, the Central American version of sour cream. The dinner version of the dish comes in a hollowed-out round of French bread. And as you might imagine, the pupusas here are stunning.
Seafood is to mariscos as the Port of Houston is to Puerto Vallarta: You need seafood, but your liver and libido need mariscos. No joint in the city understands this better than Tampico, the perpetually packed, fluorescent-lit outpost of la vida loca on pockmarked Airline Drive. Here's the crazy concept: Supply fresh, locally caught shrimp and red snapper and let the patrons choose a fish straight off a bed of ice. Tampico is best with friends who will help you devour a whole snapper a la plancha -- a fish sizzling on a huge skillet, ideally accompanied with corn tortillas and fiery diablo sauce. Throw in some of the best margaritas, mojitos and pina coladas in the city, and suddenly you're on a completely different latitude, all for a price that won't crush the cartera.
Aries owner Scott Tycer has been recognized as one of the nation's top chefs. His crew shops and forages for ingredients that no other restaurant can offer, and Tycer hires farmers to grow things other restaurants have never heard of. But his restaurant suffered early on from the Houston dining scene's most notorious shortcoming: a lack of knowledgeable service staff. There is nothing more disappointing than eating in a restaurant where the ingredients are unique and unusual, the kitchen craftsmanship is brilliant, and the waitstaff is too clueless to explain any of it. Aries solved the problem by initiating a rigorous training program for its service personnel. The restaurant also has a captain on the floor to serve as a sort of uber-waiter, explaining the food and the details of its preparation in such detail that you're seldom left with any questions. Fine-dining restaurants in the rest of the city have a long way to go to live up to the level of service at Aries.
Once you've eaten the fresh pasta at Giannotti's Pasta Factory, you're spoiled for life. Not only can you buy it in bulk, but you can also enjoy it at the restaurant. Try Giannotti's simple, comforting red sauce over spaghetti or cheese ravioli. The place also has a passable pesto and a mean meat sauce. After a taste, you'll forever pass over the dry stuff in the grocery store and wonder if your refrigerator is large enough to store all the fresh pasta you'll need. With a cooking time of only three to five minutes, it's fast enough to help you kick your junk-food habit.
Readers' choice: The Olive Garden
Photo by Houston Press Staff
Self-taught, Nicaraguan-born chef Michael Cordua was the first to introduce Houston to South American cuisine when, in 1988, he opened his first Churrascos. This culinary pioneer showed us the flavors, aromas and dishes of lands such as Nicaragua, Peru, Chile, Argentina and Brazil, expanding our vocabulary with words like plantains, ceviche, empanadas, churrasco, yuca, chimichurri and, of course, tres leches. The trail he blazed has inspired many other Latin cuisine concepts, broadening our culinary horizons far beyond Mexico. At Churrascos, Cordua's skill is not simply in re-creating authentic dishes from many different South American countries but in marrying them with European and American cooking methods, thereby giving them an extra-special feel. His signature smoked crab claws and beef tenderloin churrasco are unparalleled.

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