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.
The pork chop at Niko Niko's comes on a disposable plate. It's not sitting atop braised leeks or next to candied carrots, and it's not even a thick cut of meat. But for flavor, it's the best in the city. It has been dusted in spices and cooked to moist perfection by a kitchen that, post-expansion, still manages to churn out top-quality food. A pork chop for the people, it comes with a simple Greek side salad and a pile of fries. The whole thing will cost less than the tip at fancier places. It's Houston's answer to bistro fare, but without the flatware or even the waiter.
Vic & Anthony's is a Houston steak house that doesn't bow to New York, Chicago or anyplace else. The food here is on a par with the very best in the country. The USDA Prime New York strips and porterhouses are cut two inches thick. The Maine lobster, which comes split and shelled with a bowl of drawn butter atop a candle-heated warmer, weighs three pounds. The iceberg wedges are huge and bargain-priced. And the newly revamped wine list features hard-to-get cult classics and limited-allocation wines you won't see in many other places. The exterior architecture is modeled on historic Union Station, and the baseball stadium is just a block away. The interior is decorated with historic photos of Houston and of owner Tilman Fertitta's colorful family. The cushy bar may be the best place in the city to people-watch.
Readers' choice: Saltgrass Steak House
Being bald sucks. The sun burns your scalp, women burn your phone number, co-workers burn holes in their sides laughing about how you look like Dr. Evil. And after 12 easy installments of $19.95, you will probably still be bald. But at least you won't be hungry. On the first Monday of every month, head to Neptune Subs, where the bald eat free. The bald owner, Vincent Schillaci, whose pate is immortalized in a painting on the wall, will charge you in inverse proportion to the population of your follicles. The half-bald eat at half-price; Bill White pays less than Governor Goodhair. The subs are not only free of hair, they're top-notch. Hey, call Schillaci an egghead, but he's got a heart of gold.

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