Did Hugo Ortega know he was creating the most cutting-edge Mexican food in town when he opened his eponymous restaurant? Or was he simply paying homage to the diversity and culinary gifts of his homeland? Either way, he's at the forefront of 21st-century Mexican cuisine -- both locally and nationally. First-timers can expect to be challenged and surprised by the menu offerings: pato en mole poblano (roasted duck in red mole), cabrito (roasted goat meat pulled from the bone) and conejo rostizado (roasted rabbit with guajillo adobo, camote morado and jicama salad). Ortega and wife Tracy Vaught also co-own Backstreet Cafe, and true to form, their desserts are impressive -- especially the chocolate flan with ground cocoa beans. And don't miss the tequila flight, which offers a trio of tequila or mescal samples.
It's the dish that sushi lovers and aficionados test any spot by: toro, or fatty tuna. Specifically, it's the cut of fatty meat along the fish's belly. A bad cut yields junk; a precise cut offers perfectly marbled flavor and a buttery texture. You'll never be disappointed by the toro at Osaka Japanese Restaurant, which serves the market's best tuna to a loyal clientele. The Montrose restaurant also boasts excellent offerings of sashimi (especially yellowtail tuna), consistently the best in town. The rolls here are keepers, too -- the spicy tuna and Osaka rolls are the real standouts. Between the beaming, kimono-clad waitresses and general manager Shirley, who bows to every guest and has been known to spring for appetizers or dessert, it's doubtful you'll find more authentic and attentive service.
Readers' choice: Azuma
Between the tangy Lebanese salad, fragrant tabbouleh, fluffy dill rice and creamy hummus, your plate is already full as you navigate the a la carte line at Fadi's. As you eye the offerings, you're given the choice of lamb, chicken of beef kebabs that arrive to your table sizzling, juicy and grilled to perfection. Or order the baked chicken, a full-flavored, succulent rotisserie bird seasoned with olive oil, spices and balsamic vinegar. A diverse crowd shows up to Fadi's two locations: Women in traditional shalwar kamises sit with their families among young couples of virtually every cultural background. The restaurant is a quick trip though Middle Eastern cuisine, right down to the freshly squeezed mango, strawberry and orange juices.
Back when NoDo was just called downtown, and before Main Street had a rail system -- or even more than one nightclub -- there was Warren's Inn. And there was the venerable Jose Serna, one of this city's most memorable, classy and distinguished bartenders. For more than 30 years, Serna, clad in white shirt and black bow tie, served politicians, visiting celebs, downtown suits, college kids and just regular Joes who frequented the Market Square gem. The gregarious Serna poured generously, especially when serving a Bombay Sapphire martini. His martinis became ridiculously hot commodities when the swinger scene re-emerged in the late '90s and word got around that Serna mixed the best. Sadly, he committed suicide in 2000 after a battle with incurable cancer, but his ring-a-ding-ding presence is still felt at the bar. Stop by the always-crowded joint, order a Sapphire or vodka martini, pop some Sinatra on the jukebox and offer a private toast to Jose. Somewhere, he'll be raising his glass back at ya.
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


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?
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.
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.
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

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