Decent Tex-Mex may be as plentiful as traffic jams here in Houston, but when it comes to authentic Mexican tamales, one need look no further than 25-year-old La Mexicana. Their homemade tamales are nothing short of spectacular. They always taste fresh and have generous doses of pepper and chile powder. Calling these "kinda spicy" is like calling Beyoncé Knowles "kinda hot": It all depends on your taste, son. The casual atmosphere of the outdoor patio is also a nice change of pace from the eternally overcrowded new kids on the block. Be sure to order a full dozen: They're so addictive, you're going to want more than six.

If you're looking for a swanky wine bar that'll impress a date, Oporto is your place. The tapas here aren't snacks; they're huge. There's nothing better to nibble on while quaffing a glass of wine than the "Oportobello." It's a marinated portobello mushroom topped with spinach and artichoke gratin and finished with white truffle oil. If you're still hungry after that Texas-size "tapa," go for the linguiça oporto com batatas, a Portuguese-style sausage sautéed with onion, roasted peppers, potatoes, garlic, port wine and piri-piri oil. Great wines and delicious tapas will surely impress your date, but looking at all the hot River Oaks MILFs walking into Dark Tan next door will not. Saúde!

Jeff Balke

Matamoros Meat Market used to sell the best carnitas and barbacoa in the city, but you could only get them by the pound to go. Then they added the taqueria a few years ago, so now you can get your barbacoa or carnitas on a taco and then sit down and eat it. The dining area consists of six high tables furnished with barstools, and a long stainless steel counter that runs under the windows looking out on Washington Avenue. The carnitas taco comes on a hot flour tortilla smeared with refried beans and dotted with a little rice. The carnitas, which are pork chunks boiled in lard, are crispy on the edges and falling-apart tender in the middle. A taco costs $1.69, and the tortilla is so overstuffed, half of the filling falls out onto the aluminum foil. Luckily, plastic forks are provided. The barbacoa, or barbecued cow head, is sublime with green salsa, onions, cilantro and a squeeze of lime. Ask for the cheek meat.

There's a Schlitz beer poster with a photo of a caballero in a huge sombrero astride his horse hanging above La Fiesta's front door. (When was the last time you saw a Schlitz ad?) And then there's a mural of a Mexican village on the back wall. The original La Fiesta at Katy Freeway and Bunker Hill Road is one of those Tex-Mex time capsules that are fast disappearing. The little 30-table joint opened in 1972, right around the time that Houstonians discovered a new drink sensation, frozen margaritas. A year later, sizzling fajitas became the rage. As a result, La Fiesta's menu straddles two eras. There are plenty of Tex-Mex combination plates, and old-fashioned favorites like chalupas and tostadas, and then there's the "modern style" menu items such as sizzling fajitas and frozen margaritas. After 35 years of practice, La Fiesta does it all incredibly well, and at unbelievably cheap prices.

Jeff Balke

The menu may not be strictly vegetarian, but most of the second page of Baba Yega's menu is devoted to meat-free fare. It's not all soy protein, either, although the veggie club, stacked with provolone and fake bacon and turkey, is one of the best choices. If actual vegetables are what you're after, there's plenty of pastas, sandwiches and even a veggie loaf — all made with everything from asparagus to zucchini. The place also serves a nice array of salads that are so tasty you'll pay $1 to substitute them for your French fries, if you know what's good for you.

Rudyard's has some of the best bar food in Houston, and their veggie burger with cheese is no exception. The patty is not of the homemade variety, but on a toasted bun with cheddar and honey mustard, it's really quite tasty. The fries have something about them, too, especially when accompanied by a side of honey mustard. Wait, there's a trend here; maybe it all comes down to the honey mustard, though it's probably the atmosphere that makes everything so good. Throw in ambient noise from an eclectic crowd, a great jukebox and plenty of beer and it almost seems like it's not a veggie burger at all.

If you turn your nose up at buffets, stop here. The newest Kim Son has over 150 feet of buffet space devoted to serious Asian food. It all centers on the "hot pot" concept, where a pan of steaming broth is placed on a personal hot plate situated on every table. To this broth you add any number of raw ingredients, like shrimp, calamari and fresh fish for the conservatives, or tripe, liver, kidney and fish balls for the more adventurous. Accompany this with noodles and fresh leafy veggies, and you'll have a full meal. But now you have a dilemma, because you still have the remaining 120 feet of the buffet to enjoy. And that's not counting the sushi station or the Peking duck and roasted pork station. No matter how you pace yourself, you won't come close to sampling every dish, so choose carefully.

Cova is one of many wine bars that have quickly populated the Houston bar scene over the last couple of years. What sets it apart is the food. Cova's menu is always fresh, inventive and delicious. In addition to the typical cheese-and-meat plates that other wine bars offer, Cova's seasonal menu has items that range from foie gras to braised oxtails. Everything here pairs beautifully with the unique wine list, and you can order wines by the glass or by the flight. And with many of the menu items available in both small and large portions, you can try several things and still have room for one more glass of wine.

The best thing about Catalan's wine list is the prices. They aren't much higher than what you pay at a retail store. But good luck finding most of these rare, highly allocated wines at the local bottle shop. Charles Clark and Grant Cooper from Ibiza, former Brennan's chef and sommelier Chris Shepherd and former Da Marco sommelier Antonio Gianola have assembled a list of spectacular bottles from all over the world. There's bargain Barberas and biodynamic super-Friulis courtesy of Gianola's contacts in the Italian wine world. There's witty categories like "sledgehammer wines: I am not afraid of the big bad wolf" from the iconoclastic Shepherd. And there's more great bottles in the $30-to-$60 range than any other list in town, thanks to Clark and Cooper's pricing strategy. Get a bunch of three-ounce or six-ounce pours if you want to taste a variety of wines. And there's lots of good stuff by the glass.

You might not expect to find a kick-ass Bloody Mary at a mini-mall, but Mugsy's, an Upper Kirby staple, offers just that. Sandwiched between a tanning salon and a drive-through bank, Mugsy's serves its Bloody Mary as a perfect blend of spicy and hot, with a kick that will leave you gasping for a glass of water and feeling like you just ate a meal. Their homemade mix doesn't go overboard on the tomato juice, and the hint of Worcester sauce gives it a taste that many mixes regretfully forego. The scene tends to lean more toward the yuppie/post-workday set, but no matter your preference, you'll want to fork over the $5 for their perfect version of the manliest of manly drinks.

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