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.
Mockingbird Bistro
Award-winning chef and owner John Sheely is back behind the stove of his self-dubbed American-Provencal bistro. Despite a gothic interior left over from the previous owners that doesn't give the place a bistro feel, the food is innovative and always superb. He is turning out such bistro staples as steak frites, a fabulous foie gras, mussels, croque monsieurs and a charcuterie platter with homemade pate. At the same time, by offering dishes like sweetbreads, Sheely courageously expands our culinary horizons. His modestly priced wine list comprises many sensational selections by the glass.
While the average itinerant tamale peddler charges five or six bucks a dozen, Dona Tere's go for $1 apiece. It only sounds expensive -- the tamales at Dona Tere are Mexico City-style tamales that are around four times as big as Tex-Mex tamales. They're also more imaginatively stuffed. The tamales filled with pork and green chile sauce are outstanding. So are the ones stuffed with chicken and mole. The dark, sweet mole sauce is as thick as Hershey's syrup and nearly as rich. The green sauce is an eye-opener -- tart and very hot. To make each one of these excellent tamales even better, you can buy an extra cup of sauce for dipping. For a hearty breakfast, order everything on the menu, which consists of four kinds of tamales, two sauces and one beverage, the hot corn drink called atole. On the weekends, this humble little stand produces a thousand tamales a day.
Readers' choice: Berryhill Baja Grill
Fung's Kitchen
When Asian dignitaries visit Houston, they are most often entertained at our finest Chinese restaurant, Fung's Kitchen. The palatial red-and-gold dining room can expand to accommodate over a thousand diners. The 400-item menu includes such exotica as thousand-year-old eggs, seaweed salad and pork-blood squares. And when it comes to Cantonese seafood, you can't beat the place. The whole ling cod are alive in the aquarium until the moment you order them, and so are the fresh scallops and oysters -- it doesn't get any fresher than that. Sure, the prices are higher here than they are at the noodle shops and dumpling houses a few miles farther down Bellaire. But Fung's Kitchen is different. It's an elegant Chinese restaurant, not a quick stop for take-out dinners. Take your own visiting dignitaries here -- you won't be disappointed.
Readers' choice: P.F. Chang's China Bistro

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