Spewing happy talk and fawning over socialites has long been mistaken for good service in Houston's top-end restaurants. (It's actually an institutionalized form of panhandling.) T'afia exemplifies a new and more enlightened approach to restaurant service. The waitstaff is unobtrusive, unassuming, yet helpful. Most important, they're extremely well informed about the food, its provenance and its preparation. It's nice to know that the carrots are cooked with ginger tonight, but at T'afia, the staffers can tell you the name of the local farmer who grew them, how long the farm has been certified organic and which day the carrots were picked. And they'll invite you to come back on Saturday morning when you can buy the same carrots at the farmers' market held every Saturday in the T'afia parking lot. Credit for the highly informed service goes in part to chef Monica Pope's concept; she serves local produce and artisanal food products because she's dedicated to changing the way Houstonians eat -- and she understands that it's her waitstaff who's doing the educational outreach.
Photo by Joanna O'Leary
You can get brunch just about anywhere these days, but at Backstreet Cafe, the meal's staples are redefined. The fluffy gingerbread waffle is served with sauted cinnamon apples. The French toast is reinvented as brioche generously stuffed with bananas and served with a sticky-sweet caramel sauce. The Eggs Benedict are served over cheddar chive biscuits and come with a zingy jalapeo barnaise. Standouts include the red pepper polenta with poached eggs, spinach, Choron sauce and andouille sausage. Our favorite is the chicken and andouille hash: Tender grilled chicken is mixed with cuts of sausage, onions, mushrooms and potatoes. The hash is topped with two sunny-side-up eggs and a delectable jalapeo hollandaise. Brunch at this cozy River Oaks home-turned-eatery is kicked up by superb cocktails such as a creative wild berry mimosa and a fruity, crisp blackberry mojito.
It's 8:30p.m., you're starving and sitting in your underwear, and the last thing you want to do is get in the car again. What to do? Savvy diners in the Heights area call on Spaghetti Western, named for the cowboy shoot-'em-up movie staple. The Italian restaurant's delivery menu features obligatory -- and darn good -- pizzas, such as the Good (veggie), the Bad (sausage and meatball) and the Ugly (grilled chicken, red onions and chipotle tomatillo sauce). Pasta favorites like spaghetti (natch) and tortellini don't disappoint. But it's Spaghetti Western's specialty dishes that make for a doorstep delight. The grilled pork chop, dressed with a spicy sweet jalapeo kiwi glaze, is thick, tender and bears perfect sear marks. The carb-riffic Pasta Man Special boasts an Italian bread-crumbed crab cake on a grilled chicken breast, topped with crawfish tails and a garlic cream sauce -- all on a bed of pasta. Dinner in your drawers was never better.
Goat isn't the kind of meat you just throw on the grill and smother with a slice of cheddar. Roasted long and slowly, good cabrito is as hard to come by in Houston as a village campfire. But the closest thing you'll find to the real deal -- the Mexican pueblito method of steaming a cabra whole in a pit of flames -- can be found on a table amid the socialites at Hugo's. Here the chefs wrap big pieces of goat in banana leaf along with chile de arbol, morita peppers, avocado and bay leaves. They steam it for hours until the fragrant meat nearly falls off the bone. When you order the dish (at $17.95, well worth it), the carefully deboned goat morsels are steamed again in a smaller leaf and served alongside guacamole, refried black beans, a bowl of habanero salsa and sauted nopales (cactus leaves). It's the rarest of combinations: a dish served on a fancy table on a trendy block of the Montrose that's also muy autntico.

Best Of Houston®

Best Of