Jersey Mike's Subs

You go up north, you can get in some pretty heated arguments about where to get the best hero. Hell, you can get into heated arguments about whether to call the thing a hero, a sub or a grinder. Here in Houston, though, the choice is pretty simple: Jersey Mike's. A national chain, it started out as a single store on the Jersey shore in 1956 and has kept its premise simple: quality meats, fresh bread, good ingredients. For the real experience, get the Number 13 ("The Original Italian") and have them make it "Mike's Way." Then turn it upside down so the juices can soak into the bread, drive home and imagine yourself at some Jersey sub shop. Or, if that doesn't appeal to you, just appreciate the sandwich.

Divino
Robert Z. Easley

The house-made Emily's goat cheese ravioli at Divino is heavenly. A fresh sage and brown-butter sauce with pine nuts and fresh parmesan nicely complements the sharp goat cheese and is well worth soaking up with a piece of bread after the ravioli is gone. Perfectly paired with a crisp white from Divino's enticing wine list, the dish comes in a half or full order — choose depending on how many hands you think you'll need to slap away once the ravioli gets to the table.

In many ice cream shops, the choices are so overwhelming that most people either take forever to order or just order vanilla, chocolate or strawberry so as not to hold up the line. At Hank's, the choices are not overwhelming — there's a manageable 16 flavors in all, which they rotate based on the availability of seasonal fruit, and every one is out-of-this-world delicious. What's nice about the ice cream here is not only the price (two scoops for $2.31) but also that there are big chunks of fruit or cookies in almost every flavor. Each is made with love at this one-of-a-kind, small, family-owned business. The blueberry cheesecake with whole blueberries and chunks of cheesecake, the butter pecan with huge pecans, and the banana pudding with large chunks of cake are all favorites. And for even more variety, they're happy to mix in your favorite add-ins or toppings.

Indika

Hidebound types sputter and fume, "That's not Indian food!" when confronted with Indika's innovative cooking. There's no chicken tikka masala here. But they do have foie gras with fig preserves and trout stuffed with nuts. If this isn't what you usually think of as Indian food, then it's time to broaden your horizons. Indika's owner, Indian-born Anita Jaisinghani, doesn't feel compelled to cater to American preconceptions. Formerly a pastry chef at Café Annie, Jaisinghani has come up with her own take on Indian cooking that is both elegant and unexpected. Eggplant stuffed with cashews, crabmeat samosas and venison kabobs are all on the menu. And if you're looking for something more unusual, try the goat brain masala — it's scrumptious! The Montrose location is brilliantly decorated with artwork and fabrics from the subcontinent. There's also some unusual cocktails including a litchi margarita and a guava mojito on the bar menu.

Damian's Cucina Italiana
Photos by Carla Soriano

This time-honored Tuscan-style restaurant has been purring along for decades, turning out classic Italian cuisine. The grilled seasonal vegetables are a favorite appetizer, and there's a wide variety of antipasti. The pasta with seafood in cream sauce is stellar, and the veal chops are legendary. But in the last few months, Damian's has gone from good to great, thanks to an extensive renovation. The carpeting, the windows and the lighting are all brand-new, and the look is more sophisticated. The art on the walls has gone from dated to classical. There's a new confidence in the kitchen, too, as chef Napolean Palacios seems to be raising the level of the cooking to fit the restaurant's new higher profile. The word is out: Damian's is back.

Houston is long on sushi restaurants, but Japanese street food is hard to come by. The expanse of Asian-melting-pot strip malls that are popping up seemingly overnight in Bellaire Chinatown seem to have forgotten about the Japanese entirely. Takoyaki Tea House is one of the exceptions. The menu here is limited, but it includes a variety of takoyaki, panfried balls of batter and filling topped with sweet mayo, wasabi, Japanese barbecue sauce and bonito flakes. Traditionally, takoyaki are made with octopus, but the shiitake and shrimp varieties are also good. As the name implies, Takoyaki Tea House has a large assortment of bubble and fruit teas to sip as you watch your takoyaki cook. Or you could just hang out in this cozy little spot and take advantage of the free wi-fi.

Darband Shish Kabob
Photo by J.C. Reid

Chances are, if you do only one thing, you're gonna do it right. At Darband, all they do is kebabs and, yes, they do 'em right, every time. This is a no-nonsense place, where six bucks buys you a kebab plate like no other. Here, you get in line, review the menu on the wall above the cash register (there are pictures of the dishes to help you decide), place your order and pay. While you wait for your number to be called, wander over to the other side of the counter, where you'll see a person making fresh pita bread, which is baked in a special oven. Choose from kubdeh (ground beef), chengeh (lamb), chicken, shish (beef chunks), chello, barg or soltani. Most dishes come with grilled tomatoes and onions. Once your dish arrives, sprinkle on some sumac and squeeze some lemon on top. Let the juices blend with the bed of rice and enjoy a sumptuous meal. Don't forget to wait for the free hot tea after your meal.

Seoul House

Seoul House is the laid-back little brother of the huge cook-your-own-food Korean restaurants that populate Spring Branch and parts of Bellaire Chinatown. It's less of an ordeal to eat here (they cook the food for you and, consequently, you don't walk out smelling like a short rib), and the food is delicious. The bulgogi and galbi are as good as we've had anywhere, and the stir-fried veggies with clear noodles and seafood pancake are ex­cellent. Another great thing about this place is the serve-yourself condiment bar, which provides much predinner entertainment. Don't fill up on the kimchi, though, because the portions are more than ­generous.

Patrenella's Italian Restaurant
Robert Z. Easley

Eating lasagna at Patrenella's is like eating lasagna at the home of a kind Italian family. Wait a minute – that's exactly what this is. Sammy Patrenella welcomes guests to his home in the Heights, which his father built in 1938 and where the family has lived ever since. He's expanded it a few times, but patrons get to eat in what used to be either his living room or dining room, depending on where they sit. And the lasagna – wow! Many lasagnas skimp on the thin slices of pasta and pile on thick layers of sauce instead. It's easier for the cook and demands far less work, but it's nowhere near as good. Here, there are at least ten layers of pasta, each covered with homemade meat sauce, ricotta and Parmesan cheeses and topped off with slices of mozzarella, which have blistered under the broiler.

Spanish Flower Mexican Restaurant
Jeff Balke

Generally speaking, anyone out at 4:30 a.m. is up to no good. Be they druggie, thief, insomniac or just seriously craving some queso, night owls can direct themselves to this eclectic Heights establishment. Spanish Flowers dishes up authentic Mexican cuisine for an impressively affordable price. Sure, it's no Taco Bell, but as everyone knows, coke hangovers and fast food do not mix well when you've been running from the cops all night in a stolen Ford Focus. Do yourself a favor and make a run for the REAL border next time. READERS' CHOICE: Katz's Deli & Bar

Best Of Houston®

Best Of