Magnolia Bar & Grill
Magnolia Bar & Grill opened in 1983 during Houston's Cajun-restaurant frenzy, the same boom that got the Pappas brothers and Tilman Fertitta started. Most of the Cajun restaurants that opened back then compromised on the spicy Cajun flavors to become family-friendly -- but not Magnolia Bar & Grill. The food here tastes exactly the way it did 20 years ago -- rich, spicy and outrageously delicious. Try the fresh red snapper, the pee-wee soft-shell crabs, the roasted duck, the gumbo and the touffe. The "crab maison salad," made with a rmoulade recipe stolen from Galatoire's, might be the best crab salad in Houston.
Floyd's Cajun Seafood House
If you like your mudbugs extra-spicy, this is the place for you. Floyd's cooks them in a peppery boil and then dusts them with a cayenne-heavy spice blend. Your lips will burn for hours no matter how many beers you wash them down with. And yet there are Floyd's patrons who douse their crawfish with an extra coating of pepper sauce for good measure. During the season, the eatery offers an all-you-can-eat crawfish special. You can't miss the all-you-can eaters at the boat-shaped bar at Floyd's new location on the Gulf Freeway -- they're the ones who never run out of mudbugs.
Chuy's
"Big as yo' face" burritos have been a specialty at Chuy's since long before McDonald's got into the burrito business with the Chipotle chain. Chuy's regular burritos are stuffed with your choice of ground sirloin, chicken or fajita meat and then served with beans, cheese and the sauce of your choice. But it's the "house specialty" steak burrito at Chuy's, modeled on the famous steak burrito at El Cumbre restaurant on San Francisco's Mission Street, that gets our vote for the best burrito in town. It's a big flour tortilla stuffed with strips of grilled steak and lots of cheese, topped with a Hatch green chile sauce and served with charro beans and green rice. And if you prefer
the deep-fried burritos known as chimichangas, try some Chuychangas -- chicken, cheese and green chile burritos, deep-fried and garnished with sour cream and your choice of sauce.
Fung's Kitchen
The steamed scallops in garlic sauce at Fung's are exquisite -- probably because the scallops are still alive when you order them. The shellfish come to the table barely cooked and attached to the shell and lovingly decorated with chopped garlic. Chef and owner Hoi Fung adheres to the culinary aesthetic of his native Hong Kong, where the belief is that fresh seafood should be served simply. A little ginger and scallion is all the sauce you'll need on the snow crab, lobster and ling cod that you see swimming around in the aquariums near the front door. The live seafood items are the best things there, but they don't come cheap. If you don't like seafood, order something else from the 400-item menu. Chef Fung comes from an illustrious Chinese family that has produced many famous chefs, and this is Chinese fine dining, not cheap eats.
Black Walnut Cafe
Photo by Houston Press Staff
Try the rich, fluffy version of the classic Italian ice cream at this Rice Village restaurant at your own risk -- you could lose your taste for Blue Bell. The flavors change daily. Sometimes they don't have chocolate, but they just might have such alluring choices as mango, strawberry, raspberry, hazelnut, panna cotta, peanut butter and pistachio. Try a peanut butter and strawberry combo -- it tastes like a PB&J. Instead of vanilla, get panna cotta, which tastes like toasted marshmallows. The mango has a fresh fruit flavor, and the pistachio, which is a weird dark green, is very intense.
Tropical Grill's $10 weekend buffet features stellar curried goat and pickled fish, plus hard-to-find Jamaican classics such as velvety soft stewed tripe, tangy boiled green bananas and chunky homemade dumplings. Though some of this fare might seem a bit arcane, the buffet also includes such approachable items as shrimp salad with mango dressing, spicy jerk chicken, Creole chicken with sausage, and rice and peas, which is the Jamaican version of beans and rice. And if none of that appeals, you can't miss with the weekday lunch special -- a plate of curried, stewed or jerk chicken with salad and rice and peas for just $4.50.
Nobody's opening Southwestern cuisine restaurants anymore, yet Houston's best chef, Robert Del Grande, is still hanging on to the Southwestern label. Sure, he made upscale enchiladas, tortilla soup and black bean terrine famous a decade and a half ago, but those dishes are so dated now they're beginning to look retro. But Cafe Annie hasn't lost any of its highbrow audience. On the contrary, its elegant dining room is the classiest dinner destination in the city, former sommelier Paul Roberts left behind a wine collection of astonishing depth, and the food still tastes wonderful. Thankfully, Del Grande is too big a talent to stay strictly within the Southwestern niche. Sometimes, when he comes up with something truly brilliant -- like his new appetizer of barely seared yellowfin tuna with shaved roasted beets, toasted pecans and aromatic black truffle vinaigrette -- he doesn't bother trying to make it sound Southwestern. Cafe Annie is scheduled to move into bigger digs across the parking lot soon, and Del Grande promises a modernized menu. Hopefully the expansion will give him some conceptual room to move.
Gravitas
Gravitas earned its reputation as the hippest kitchen in the city by reinterpreting slow-food classics. Chefs Jason Gould and Scott Tycer put an Alpine spin on macaroni and cheese with an item the menu calls housemade German spaetzle baked with Gruyre. The dish brilliantly combines delicate little noodles with a big full-flavored stinky Swiss cheese. If you're willing to broaden your definition enough to allow spaetzle and Gruyre to fill in for the elbows and yellow cheese powder that come in the box, you will be richly, richly rewarded. Mac-and-cheese lovers have remarked that they just wanna curl up in a bathtub full of this stuff.
The Sabor version of a Caesar salad is a return to the dish's glorious past. Made on a cart at tableside in a big wooden bowl with a coddled egg, plenty of anchovies and a host of other ingredients, Sabor's Caesar dressing is closely patterned on the original, which was invented by Italian immigrant Caesar Cardini at his Tijuana restaurant in 1924. You get a huge mound of fresh, crisp romaine leaves with the signature dressing, but no tomatoes or other junk. The sublime salad, like the rest of Sabor's "Latin Lite" menu, is designed to appeal to spice-averse Mexican-food lovers. Jon Paul, former matre d' to the rich and famous at Tony's, is Sabor's owner and host, and the salad's secret ingredient is his bubbly bonhomie.
The fajitas and the fajitadillas (fajita-meat quesadillas) are made with sizzling, fresh-off-the-grill beef. The enchilada sauces are perfectly seasoned and never too thick or too watery. And giving away free chili con queso along with the chips and salsa at lunch hasn't hurt their popularity, either. The original Doneraki on Fulton had its fans, but the huge new location in the Gulfgate Center put Doneraki up there with the city's top Tex-Mex contenders. (A new Westheimer location is also coming on strong.) Tastefully decorated with saltillo-tile floors, Tabasco-colored walls and a huge copy of a Diego Rivera mural, it's one of the best-looking Tex-Mex restaurants in town. Like all classic Tex-Mex operations, Doneraki claims its chips and hot sauce, chile con queso, fajitas and cheese-stuffed jalapeos are "authentic Mexican." Bless their hearts.

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