While Houstonians are lucky to have lots of high-end authentic Italian restaurants, we are equally blessed to have the free garlic bread and large Caesar salads at family-friendly little nooks like Nick's. The Italian-American cuisine here doesn't aim very high, but it seldom misses. The linguine pescatore, a huge bowl of pasta with shrimp, squid, chopped clams and mussels in their shells, all tossed in a well-made tomato sauce, ranks right up there with the seafood pasta found in the inexpensive red-checkered-tablecloth restaurants of Boston's North End. Nick's also offers such kid-pleasers as spaghetti and meatballs and baked lasagna, which probably accounts for the high percentage of tables occupied by parents and their children. The portions are so enormous, you end up taking as much food home as you consume at the table. You've gotta love a restaurant that sends you home from dinner with tomorrow's lunch.
Soul on the Bayeaux
There's an art to frying great catfish so that it's greaseless and crispy on the outside, and moist and juicy on the inside. It also should be mild in flavor with no swampy taste. At Soul on the Bayeaux, they use a Cajun-spiced cornmeal batter that gives the fish a nice little kick. When the catfish is this good, there's only one thing that could make it better: all-you-can-eat catfish. And for $11.95, Soul on the Bayeaux is more than happy to oblige.
Real Galvestonians don't give a damn about tourist restaurants in restored Victorians. They don't fret over finding a tabletop view of the beach. Their folk is bayou folk, and just about the last down-home, real Galveston spot left on this island ain't scenic. It's a red-and-white shack surrounded by a barbed-wire fence and a giant parking lot. And it serves kick-butt Cajun and Creole food. We're talking big Styrofoam takeout cups full of crawfish etouffee, gumbo and jambalaya, with all the spices. Braised short ribs and three kinds of boudin. Cheap and good. So good that the ordering counter -- in a room smaller than a River Oaks closet -- often spills out the front door with customers. None of them are tourists, but Leo's alone is enough reason to visit Galveston.
Lemon Tree
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
T'afia
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.
Sabor! Central American Cuisine
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.

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