Hugo Ortega's upscale version of Mexican cuisine draws on his family's roots in Puebla, as well as on his training in the Houston restaurant business. The bar is loaded with premium tequilas, the guacamole is outstanding, and they make their own tortillas. Mexican-food enthusiasts will delight to find such exotica such as huitlacoche and squash blossoms on the seasonal specials list. The botanas platter, a huge appetizer assortment, is a good way to sample lots of offerings. But for a tour de force of Ortega's hit dishes, try the spectacular Sunday brunch: Nopalito salad, octopus ceviche, shrimp salad and cold ancho chiles stuffed with a meat-and-potato salpicon are among the amazing first courses. Seafood enchiladas, cabrito en salsa, handmade tamales and corn pudding are among the hot dishes. And Hugo's signature dessert, hot chocolate and the crispy Mexican doughnuts called churros, is especially appropriate on a weekend morning.
The fish seems fresher and the sushi chefs seem sharper at Uptown Sushi than anywhere else in town. On weekends, expect to dine among dressed-to-the-teeth singles mingling to a throbbing techno soundtrack. The sashimi is top-notch, and the raw Kobe beef is extremely popular. But it's the edgy, innovative dishes -- such as the tuna tartare served in a martini glass with Parmesan shavings -- that tickle the fancy of Houston sushi lovers. Wild things include the "lickety split roll," a bizarre-looking but tasty concoction of tuna, crawfish, cucumber and sprouts, topped with spicy tuna, yellowtail, salmon and avocado; it looks like a mosaic inside and it has a satisfying crunch. Watch out for the spicy "red roll," which features shrimp and avocado with crunchy cucumber, fresh jalapeo and sprouts on the inside and a layer of bright red tuna slathered with a red pepper paste on the outside -- it's hot!
There aren't any ceramic roosters, Ricard pitchers or other bistro clichs here; Bistro Moderne's interior is appointed in dark chocolate-brown with cream trim, and the extensive banquettes are accented with brilliant blue cushions. The look is fashion-forward, and the feel is extremely comfortable. You won't believe you're in a hotel restaurant. But thanks to the location, you can order breakfast, lunch or dinner, and the Sunday brunch is among the best in town. Roanne-born chef Philippe Schmit apprenticed at several two-star restaurants in Paris before moving to New York in 1990 and taking a job at Le Bernardin, one of the world's best seafood restaurants. And as you might expect, Schmit's fish dishes are exceptional, and his bouillabaisse is fantastic. So what makes this a bistro? The casual lunch menu features downscale classics such as moules frites, and l'hamburger, both served with world-class french fries.
When the water in Galveston Bay gets cold and the oysters start to get plump, we head to Willie G's oyster bar, where the shuckers are top-notch and they always seem to get the smallest, freshest and sweetest oysters. It's too bad they don't have a Muscadet or other extremely tart and very inexpensive wine to drink with the bivalves, but then again, this isn't France; beer is the traditional Gulf Coast beverage with oysters, and we like it just fine. This place was one of the best restaurants in Houston back in the '80s, when Cajun food was the rage, but then Tilman Fertitta bought it, dumbed down the concept, and now it's little more than an upscale Landry's. So don't bother ordering dinner. But Fertitta couldn't find a way to ruin Willie G's fabulous oyster bar -- it remains the best in town.
When you order barbecued crabs at Sartin's, the top shells and the messy innards are removed in the kitchen. What's left are spicy, meaty crab bodies (with two claws attached) that taste like a cross between barbecue and Cajun deep-fried seafood. The dish was invented in Sabine Pass, the corner of Texas that borders Louisiana and the Gulf of Mexico, but Sartin's Seafood restaurants made it famous. There have been 14 Sartin's restaurants over the years; currently, only three are open for business -- two in Beaumont and one in Houston. Kelli Sartin, daughter of the founders, opened the Houston Sartin's across the street from NASA after her parents' Beaumont restaurant was destroyed by Hurricane Rita. The Houston eatery is the last to offer all-you-can-eat crabs.
Opened in 1911 in Murdoch's bathhouse at the 21st Street pier, Gaido's is a fourth-generation family heirloom. They don't serve crabs in the winter, and they don't serve oysters in the summer -- they buy what's in season. Like Antoine's in New Orleans, Gaido's is as much a museum as it is a restaurant. Photos on the walls document the restaurant's history through menus, newspaper clippings and photos of celebrity patrons. The food isn't trendy, but some of the dishes invented there, such as Wade's shrimp bisque, have been on the menu for decades. Be forewarned: Gaido's can be great if you stick to the local seafood and avoid anything fried. But the service is glacial when the place is crowded, just like at those old classic restaurants in the Big Easy.
You judge a barbecue joint by its smoked meat. And the best comes from a real pit. The old cinder-block pit in Thelma's on Live Oak ought to be declared a historic landmark. The design was brought to Houston by the legendary Joe Burney of Beaumont back in the '20s. Harry Green, and other Houston barbecue legends who learned the trade from Burney, built pits like this in several Third Ward locations. When Harlon's bought Green's old location on Almeda this past summer, the first thing they did was to take a sledgehammer to the cinder-block barbecue pit. In its place, they installed a stainless-steel contraption. Drexler's on Dowling did the same thing a couple of years ago. The new stainless-steel barbecue ovens, with their gas and electric heating and automatic operation, are convenient for restaurant owners, but the virtual barbecue they produce doesn't measure up to the old-fashioned pit 'cue at honest-to-God joints like Thelma's.
There are many opinions as to what makes Doozo's dumplings so good. "It's the dough," one source says. "The dough is handmade." "Definitely the sauce," says another. "You don't have to bother with the spicy one, because the regular is so good." Really, Doozo has hit on a combination of all good things. The dough is substantial without being chewy, and the sauces -- regular and spicy -- are a welcome change from the create-your-own variety at most dumpling places. The pork version is flavorful, and the vegetable dumplings are the best of their kind. The atmosphere and location (a food court in the middle of downtown) can be an obstacle unless you work nearby, but Doozo is definitely worth the trip. Make sure that trip is on the early side of lunch, though, because when the dumplings are gone, you're out of luck.
Sangria, although simple to make, can be a tricky thing; it's often too sweet or tastes too much like a glass of cheap red wine. Bossa's sangria is fruity and just sweet enough without going over the top, and it's served in a pint glass with crushed ice and wedges of orange and lime. Although not traditional sangria (there's pineapple juice in it), it's refreshing and a great deal. (A very honorable mention goes to RA Sushi for its multicultural approach to this classic drink. After a few glasses of the fusion beverage that is Sake Sangria, you'll feel one step closer to world peace.)
We always remember to bring our own beer to Vieng Thai, because food this hot doesn't taste right without it. If only we could bring our own air conditioner! The restaurant, a former Asian grocery store with scuffed concrete floors and a malfunctioning a/c, is short on ambience and long on authentic Thai flavors. The green papaya slaw is the best you'll ever have. (Try the Laotian version with purple crab sauce if you're feeling daring.) The tom kha gai chicken soup with lemongrass, lime juice and kaffir lime is very sour and extremely piquant. If you don't like exotic dishes, extremely hot peppers and really pungent fish sauce, then do the rest of us a favor and go eat somewhere else -- you can get sweet and sticky Americanized Thai food all over town. We hope Vieng Thai never compromises.

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