Best Neighborhood Spot Outside the Loop

Burn's BBQ

Why would you pick a place where you can't actually sit down and eat? Because of the food, the people-watching and the atmosphere. Besides, there's always the trunk of your car or, for most people, take-out. And there's one or two picnic tables, too. Finding the place is difficult, because it's located in an old house off the beaten path in Acres Homes. You'll know you're there when you see all of the parked cars and a line outside the house. And you'd best be ready with your order, 'cause the ladies ain't got no time to waste. Take your ticket, listen for your number and wait for some of the best barbecue you'll ever taste. There's tender brisket with the requisite smoke ring, fall-off-the-bone ribs and two kinds of sausage — one commercial and one homemade. Sides include a mustardy potato salad and beans. They often run out of things, so it pays to get there early. Also, it's cash-only.

Chef Bryan Caswell, formerly of Bank by Jean Georges in the Hotel Icon, has struck out on his own with this hip new eatery in Midtown. The seafood is not only local, it's unique. Where else can you get triple tail and croaker? Dishes like crispy-skinned snapper and pompano a la plancha are spectacular. And then there are casual offerings like mini-hamburgers and a salmon BLT, to keep the kitchen from taking itself too seriously. Located in a former automobile showroom, the restaurant makes a bold visual statement with its bare concrete floors, soaring ceilings and two-story display windows looking out onto McGowen. It looks like you're sitting inside a fish tank. The two-story, glass-enclosed wine storage area not only completes the fish tank illusion, it also keeps the wine at the perfect temperature. And the wines are sold at ridiculously cheap prices, which puts Reef way out ahead in the Houston wine game.

Little Hip's pays homage to a now-defunct diner once located in San Antonio. Among its standout classic Texas-style (by way of Louisiana) dishes is the homemade onion rings. While most local diners settle for the frozen bag of prefab rings, Little Hip's shows the love by breading every one of these flaky grease-soaked halos to order. There are plenty of sandwiches and barbecue to go with them. Next time you're in the mood for a damn good burger with a side of homemade love and a Coke, belly up to an old-school stool and enjoy a soon-to-be classic, complete with an extra-sweet and talkative waitress.

The oyster bar is the first thing you see when you walk in the front door of this Cajun seafood restaurant near Bush Intercontinental Airport. Belly up to the bar and get a couple dozen on the half shell and a cold beer. They serve half-shell oysters all year round, but if you're playing it safe you'll order the cooked oysters in the summer. The fried oysters are a good choice; they're coated in cornmeal, and they come with hand-cut fries. But you will probably see an intriguing ritual while you're sitting at the oyster bar as the counter man lines up oysters on the gas grill and turns the fire up high. Jimmy-G's fire-kissed grilled oysters are topped with parmesan cheese and basted with garlic butter — just like the grilled oysters at Drago's in Metairie, Louisiana. Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery and all that — just be glad you can get grilled oysters this good in Houston.

It's the intensity of the flavors that sets Kasra apart. Take Kasra's khorake bademjan, a long-cooked lamb shank, for instance. The meat falls apart at the touch of a fork, but it's the tart sour grape and tomato sauce with the gooey eggplant slices that makes it shine. Even the rice is amazing. There's zereshk polo, which is basmati rice garnished with a pile of barberries, small dried Iranian berries that taste sort of like lemony raisins. And then there's sour cherry rice: cherries blended with cranberries, pistachios and almonds spooned over basmati. Pomegranate lovers will want to try the fesenjan, cubes of chicken cooked in an electric purple sauce of pomegranate juice, saffron and ground walnuts. Then there's the hamburger on a stick. Kasra's kubideh is made with a high-quality ground beef mixed with grated onion, garlic and lots of spices. Try some of that on a hot taftoon!

Jeff Balke

There's a ritual to eating the Vietnamese beef noodle soup known as pho that makes each bowl as individual as you are. It involves adding leafy vegetables and herbs such as cilantro, sweet basil and bean sprouts, an element of heat from jalapeños or Sriracha sauce, plus additional flavoring from Hoisin, fish and soy sauces, as well as lime juice. Undoubtedly, a good pho starts with the broth, which can make or break the dish. At Pho Binh, the beef broth simmers for hours, which concentrates the flavors. It arrives steaming hot in small, medium or large bowl sizes, for five bucks or less. Everybody sits at communal tables, so it's easy to see how others prepare their pho. You can get your broth with slices of steak or brisket and meatballs. The experienced pho connoisseur might try the more adventurous tripe, tendon and crispy fat.

Photo by Houston Press Staff

The gourmet pizzas at Dolce Vita on Westheimer are fine — if they cook them long enough to get them crisp. But if you find yourself craving a plain old-fashioned cheese pie, it's time to go to Antonio's Flying Pizza. Antonio Rosa really throws his crusts. Normally, he caters to Houstonians, loading the pies with too much cheese and too much meat. But if you are smart enough to ask for an "extra crispy, light cheese" pizza with just a little garlic or peppers, you will get a sensational pie that will remind you of the ones served at little red-checkered tablecloth joints on the East Coast. The sausage-and-pepper sandwiches, spaghetti and meatballs, and calzones taste a lot like the East Coast versions, too. That's because Sicilian-born Antonio Rosa is a veteran of the East Coast Italian-American circuit. He owned a pizzeria in Fairfield, Connecticut, and another in Morristown, New Jersey, before moving to Houston and starting Antonio's Flying Pizza in 1971.

The pork chop at Perry's ain't no ordinary pork chop, it's a damn roast. It's known as the Seven Finger Pork Chop, 'cause when it stands tall on your plate, it's a full seven fingers high. Before carving it, your server will inform you that this cut has an eyelash, ribs and tenderloin and that it takes a full five days to make this beauty, what with the curing, smoking and roasting and all. It has a wonderful, smoky, caramelized flavor, which almost renders the accompanying herb-garlic sauce unnecessary. It is served with homemade applesauce and mashed potatoes with dill.

Best Pre- or Post-Theater Restaurant


Photos by Carla Soriano

One of the great things about dining at Damian's — in addition to the fact that it's one of the best Italian restaurants in town, with service to match — is its shuttle service. When you make a reservation, let them know you'll be attending the theater, symphony or any other show downtown. They will not only take you to your venue after your meal in a comfortable bus, but will also pick you up for coffee and dessert at the end of the show. That way, not only can you enjoy dishes like Mama Mandola's meatballs, eggplant parmigiana, osso buco, veal piccata or tiramisu, but you can do so without feeling rushed or hassled.

Photo by Houston Press staff

Year after year, meal after meal, plate after plate, no chef in Houston is as consistently brilliant as Marco Wiles. Try his velvety eggplant soup with a bruschetta crouton, his meaty braised duck ravioli served in a pile of wild mushrooms or his simple shaved celery salad topped with a slice of roasted beet and wafer of pecorino — each dish is as fantastic as the next, and there's always something new. Wiles keeps his ­cutting-edge menu up-to-date by gathering new ideas on his frequent trips to Italy and New York. The prices are reasonable, when you consider the cost of the ingredients. In fact, Da Marco's three-course business lunch may be the best bargain in the city. It's $22 for two appetizers and an entrée — a spread that would run you $30 or more à la carte. Lots of great restaurants appear on the scene in Houston every year; most flash brightly and fade. Da Marco just keeps shining.

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