Charivari Restaurant
Dawn M Simmons
We first tasted the Central American green flower bud called loroco a couple of years ago. It's picked wild in El Salvador and has an intriguing flavor that's something of a cross between asparagus and chocolate. Up until now, at Houston pupuserias, we could sample only the frozen variety. Evidently, importing the fresh plant is now approved by the USDA, because suddenly, in the summer of 2005, Houston was flooded with fresh loroco. We ate it with scrambled eggs and in the traditional Salvadorian manner -- as a stuffing for pupusas. But at the Midtown restaurant Charivari, Transylvanian chef John Schuster got way more creative with the stuff. Schuster, who is famous for his spring asparagus menu, used fresh loroco instead of asparagus in some classic European preparations. Charivari's summer loroco feast featured loroco salad with prosciutto, loroco risotto topped with foie gras, and crepes stuffed with crabmeat and loroco. Watch out for further developments in this new Middle European-Central American fusion cuisine.

Best Neighborhood Spot in Rice Village

benjy's

Benjy's
With its artsy, brushed-aluminum tabletops, pastel walls and teardrop lighting fixtures, benjy's looks every bit the swank hangout -- and it is. There's a separate upstairs lounge, and downstairs there's Benjy Levit's serious modern American cuisine. Chill on the comfy booths while you spy on Inner Loop scenesters, West U families and up-and-coming Rice kids. Sip on wasabi Bloody Marys and nibble on starters like oven-roasted Brie with portobello enchiladas or crabcakes with spicy remoulade. Salads range from classic to Asian-inspired, and entrees like the bone-in pork chop or sesame-crusted ahi tuna are tops. Stop by Sunday brunch for chocolate-chip muffins, benjy's crunchy French toast or a fluffy Texas omelette. Pair your meal with a crisp white-peach mimosa and ponder: Which is hipper, the food or the crowd?
Stanton's City Bites
The plainest burger on the menu at this rundown convenience store is the best bacon cheeseburger in the city. Get it "all the way," and savor your half-pound, hand-formed beef patty on an oversize well-toasted sesame-seed bun topped with lettuce, tomato, pickles, mayo, mustard, red onions, two strips of bacon and an ample amount of American cheese. Variations include the "Rio jalapeno burger" (with pickled peppers), the "BBQ blues burger" (with barbecue sauce) and the "Tex-Mex burger" (with salsa). The patty melt is a plain cheeseburger served on Texas toast. In business since 1961, Stanton's Super Market specializes in beer, cigarettes and lottery tickets. There's no place to sit down -- the burgers are to-go only -- so you better have a plan in mind for where you're going to go to eat your lunch.
Barnaby's
Photo by Houston Press Staff
The teacup toy poodles and rat-size Chihuahuas peer at each other from their owners' purses. Stately Dobermans and German Shepherds mingle with crack-addict-hyper Jack Russell terriers. Posh Weimaraners that could model for Wegman stare down their long noses at bandanna-clad, all-American golden retrievers. It's a veritable dog show on the porch of Barnaby's River Oaks location, which is fitting, considering the cafe's namesake is a dearly departed sheepdog. Well-heeled owners enjoy the savory burgers, health-conscious salads and hearty desserts such as apple pie á la mode while their pooches socialize and, on rare occasions, scuffle. (Manager Matt Matelske remembers one particular melee that involved 12 nippy dogs.) The staff ensures there's a healthy dose of treats like doggie ice cream and cookies on hand for the regulars. "We even have one who sits on a chair next to his owner at the table," says Matelske. Let's hope the pooch is a good tipper.
Spanish Flower Mexican Restaurant
Jeff Balke
When some folks think of nachos, they think of the plastic tub full of Tostitos and Cheez Whiz served up at places like Minute Maid Park. But to merely place cheese on a chip is practically a crime; those fried little tortillas can hold so much more. The Spanish Flowers nachos take top billing at this all-night haunt on the northern edge of the Heights. Each chip is laid out and individually topped with beans, cheese, ground beef and bacon -- yes, real chunks of thick, smoked bacon, some of the best in the city. The chips are then surrounded by (not smothered with) lettuce, tomatoes, jalapenos, sour cream and guacamole, which are all there waiting to become a part of your own special nacho creation. Loosen your belt and dive in.
The seafood at this Galveston hideaway is absolutely sublime. But it's the picture window in the dining room that elevates Clary's above its mainland competitors. Through the window you can watch the pelicans and seagulls circle a glistening shrimp boat tied up at a tiny dock on Offats Bayou. The boat just in from fishing, its nets are stretched out to dry in the sun. Behind it a gray snub-nosed oyster boat shifts a little in the wake of passing ships. Clary's isn't just a seafood restaurant, it's a seafood restaurant in the middle of the shrimp fleet. As you might expect, the flame-broiled shrimp and spicy boiled shrimp are excellent. And the plump and juicy fried oysters, which are served on toast so you can sop up the juices, are way better than any fried oysters on the mainland. But it's the fried shrimp that brings people back to Clary's again and again. Like all of the fried seafood here, it's nicely seasoned with a spicy batter and deep-fried just enough to make it crisp and golden, but not enough to dry it out. It's so good, you'll hesitate to ruin the flavor with a dipping sauce.
Readers' choice: Pappas Seafood
Van Loc Restaurant
Jeff Balke
You know the drill. Semi-fatty discs of medium-rare beef stewed with chicken broth, pork bits and glass noodles in a steaming bowl as big as your head. You're eating pho -- the incomparable Vietnamese soup that'll make you wonder aloud why those cartoon kids on the Campbell's cans look so friggin' happy. For real bite, throw in a few of the fresh jalapenos that come with the pho at Van Loc. Soup is good food, to be sure. Adventurous eaters choose to add tripe.
Gorditas Aguascalientes
Jeff Balke
The breakfast tacos at Gorditas Aguascalientes include eggs with carne deshebrada, ham, bacon, chorizo and potatoes, and they're all built on handmade flour tortillas. The sensational chilaquiles, which are served on the side of the huevos rancheros, are made with dark chile sauce and white cheese. Don't miss the machacado, a popular northern Mexican breakfast made with eggs and dried beef. Tejanos are also fond of the taco de barbacoa and the menudo. The antojitos here -- sopes, gorditas, huaraches and the rest -- are cooked to order with the fresh corn dough called masa. They come to the table piping hot and lovingly garnished with refried beans, lettuce, sour cream and the filling of your choice. Fresh-squeezed orange juice mixed half and half with fresh carrot juice over ice is the best breakfast beverage. But this taqueria also has smoothies, horchata and other aguas frescas, as well as fresh-brewed coffee. The cheery tiled interior make it a charming morning hangout. A little Spanish goes a long way here.
Warm rice wine isn't for everyone. In general, true connoisseurs like it cold -- especially on a hot Friday night in Houston while a DJ spins Japanese house music. The staffers rock at this ultra-hip sushi bar, and they won't mind letting you taste their many different types of sake. The top sake also has the best name, the Poochie-Poochie ($21). It's extra-smooth and, of course, served cold. The next best is the Momokawa Asian Pear ($11), which is infused with fruit and is super-crisp and light. The Poochie-Poochie is good by itself, but why not throw the whole "reserved connoisseur" thing to the wind and mix your own sake cocktail with Japanese Sprite and lime slices poured over rocks? The staff might look at you funny, but after a few glasses, you'll be looking at them funny, too.
Sommeliers are often judged by how much profit they bring in. And the way to turn a big profit is to sell expensive wines. So the average Houston sommelier loads up the wine list with overpriced bottles and then tries to sell them with snob appeal. Italian wines are the worst. To hear the service staff at some Houston restaurants explain things, stratospherically priced Barolos and Barbarescos are the only Italian wines worth drinking. That's what makes Da Marco's sommelier, Antonio Gianola, such a hero. He seems to be in the business solely because of his passion for Italian wine. And he is delighted to share his discoveries, which often include inexpensive and unusual wines from little-known regions. He will make you an expert on affordable Proseccos and turn you on to red wines from the Slovenian border that you can afford to drink every night. If only we could clone him.

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