Mockingbird Bistro

After an up-and-down career in the fine-dining arena, Chef John Sheely has found a home in the more relaxed bistro category. Mockingbird Bistro is a perfect example of what a bistro is supposed to be — a place that's both comfortable enough to get a beer and a burger while dressed in blue jeans, yet sophisticated enough to take a date for a foie gras appetizer and a world-class glass of wine. The gothic interior decor, much it of left over from a former tenant, lends just the right sort of eccentric atmosphere to this Montrose neighborhood hangout. Sheely's crispy French fries in paper cones are among the best frites in the city, and his juicy, rare Kobe burger is a joy. And, of course, wherever Sheely goes, you'll find excellent fried calamari.

Brasil
Photo by Katharine Shilcutt

Bacon is sacred. And there's no reason to go messing with the time-honored formula of the classic BLT...unless you're going to do it right. The BLT at Brasil treats bacon with the respect it deserves. The addition of blue cheese, herbed aioli and red onion does good things for this sandwich, as does the choice of fresh focaccia or ciabatta. While you wait, kick back with a beer or a glass of wine and take in the Montrose scene. And if you still have room for dessert, the German chocolate cake or white-­chocolate cheesecake are excellent choices. Brasil can get crowded on nights and weekends, so if you'd like a side of peace and quiet with your BLT, afternoons are optimum.

Central Market

Duomo means dome in Italian, as in the top of a cathedral. It is also the name of a loaf of bread and, as its name suggests, it is big and round. It is also so crusty that it hurts the inside of your mouth when you bite into it. It's not soft and squishy or limp and lifeless like some other bread — it's what real bread is supposed to be. The inside is full of air pockets, and it has enough salt in it to be noticed. It makes the best sandwich bread and terrific toast. Tear off a hunk and have it with a piece of cheese. Smear it with butter and enjoy its simple pleasures; however, watch it really shine as a panino, coated with olive oil and grilled in a toaster oven (a George Foreman grill also works great).

New York Bagel & Coffee Shop

The location next door to New York Bagels, the best bagel bakery in town, gives this New York-style coffee shop a major advantage over other breakfast venues — if you like bagels. These bagels at New York Coffee Shop aren't just fresh, they're hot out of the oven. And they come in such favorite flavors as onion, sesame, poppy, salt and pumpernickel. Try a bialy! It's an onion bagel without a hole. The egg-and-bagel breakfast with home fries is a bargain at under $4. The scrambled eggs and caramelized onions with salty lox or milder Nova Scotia smoked salmon are a favorite for exiled New Yorkers. And the fish platter is sensational for those who like smoked salmon and raw onions for breakfast. The service is excellent. And the interior, with its dated wallpaper, worn Formica tables and cramped booths, is as authentically generic as a coffee shop in Manhattan.

El Ultimo Taco Truck

Look for a shiny taco truck parked in front of a do-it-yourself car wash. The big fat breakfast tacos are $1 a piece and you get your choice of scrambled eggs with bacon, ham, potatoes, nopalitos, machacado (shredded beef), chorizo or roasted peppers on a corn or flour tortilla. The flour tortillas are handmade, and the chorizo is truly exceptional. The thick green salsa is tart and hot. There's no coffee, but there are fresh-fruit aguas frescas available. Check out the advertising illustrations painted on the sides of the truck — they are among the most interesting examples of taco truck art in the city. And if you're worried about the sanitary standards, it might comfort you to know that everybody behind the counter wears hair nets.

Hugo's

Forget nachos, tacos and Tex-Mex in general. At Hugo's, the brunch features regional Mexican cuisine at its finest. Set the scene with Bloody Marias or a pomegranate mimosa and enjoy the live music coming from the upstairs balcony before venturing to the elaborately decorated buffet. It contains an incredible variety of delectable dishes not found in your average cantina. Start out with a soothing corn soup; then try the sweet corn pudding or the delicious ceviche or the ensalada de nopales (cactus salad) or the squash stuffed with huitlacoche (a corn fungus). Return for the best carnitas ever or the chilaquiles with fried eggs. At this point, you still have half the buffet to taste, but you may wish to go straight to the dessert station anchored by tres leches cake, which ranks among the best in the city, and a rich, traditional hot chocolate, which, along with churros, is not to be missed.

T-Bone Tom's is a Kemah meat market that morphed into a restaurant. The burgers are exceptional, thanks in large part to the quality of the hamburger meat, which is ground fresh daily on the premises. The meat is formed into a distinctive square patty in your choice of a quarter-pound or half-pound size. Both are cooked to order and served with the customary lettuce, tomato, onions, pickles, mayo and mustard on a toasted bun. Customized versions include a cheeseburger, a jalapeño burger, a mushroom-Swiss burger and a bacon-Swiss burger. There is also a heavenly ­hamburger-steak dinner with brown gravy and grilled onions. You can enjoy your burger inside the meat market or out on the deck, which is known as Tom's Backyard. There's live music seven nights a week outside. And there's nothing like a reggae tune, a sea breeze and a cold beer to make a burger taste better.

Goode Company Armadillo Palace
Photo courtesy of Goode Company

The walls are covered with buffalo heads, cowboy memorabilia and giant photos of Jim Goode's chuck-wagon cooking team. The live music comes from Texas singer/songwriters, and the ice-cold draft comes in frozen cannonball schooners. The bar stools are shaped like saddles, and the bartenders spin the longnecks around one finger before they open them, just like Buffalo Bill used to spin his six-shooter around one finger before blowing the smoke out of the barrel. And it's amazing what a massive dose of unabashed Texana does for the flavor of a classic Texas burger. Oddly, Armadillo Palace's burger utterly outclasses the one at Goode Company's burger joint across the street. It's a half-pound of fresh-ground USDA Choice sirloin, and it's extremely juicy if you request it medium-rare. Add cheese or guacamole for 75 cents, bacon or venison chili for 95 cents. READERS' CHOICE (tie): Beck's Prime, Christian's Tailgate Grill & Bar

Mi Luna

The menu at Mi Luna tapas restaurant in the Village has no shortage of things to choose from. It's helpful to have a glass of sangria in hand before even trying to make a decision. On this impressive list, there are two calamari dishes, one fried and one grilled. The fried calamari comes with a spicy tomato sauce that has a hint of cumin, and it's perfectly fine, but the grilled calamares a la plancha are outstanding. Served on a bed of greens and drizzled with roasted-garlic vinaigrette, generous pieces of warm calamari are perfectly seasoned and tender. It's hard to find grilled calamari that doesn't resemble a rubber band in both taste and texture, so the preparation alone is enough to recommend this dish.

The Amacones don't just look cute -- they're delicious.
Photo by Troy Fields
The Amacones don't just look cute -- they're delicious.

Take raw fish, in this case tilapia, and marinate it in lime juice until it is "cooked," add finely diced hot peppers, shrimp, avocado, tomatoes, onions, cilantro and pineapple. Toss it all together and pile it high on a bed of shredded red cabbage and carrots and you have ceviche, a simple, tasty and very colorful dish. The pineapple adds a hint of sweetness, which counteracts not only the lime juice but the peppers as well. The lime juice alters the texture of the fish, making it tender, yet firm. As with all dishes at Amazon Grill, the ceviche comes with endless salad and plantain chips, which are best for scooping up large quantities of the stuff.

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