Mockingbird Bistro

The multicultural mussel appetizer at the Mockingbird Bistro in Montrose starts with perfectly cleaned, gritless Mediterranean mussels. The black-shelled, white-fleshed shellfish are stewed in a stout Asian-fusion coconut milk broth seasoned with garlic, lemongrass and spicy red curry. Then they're presented in a big white bowl of the hearty red sauce, with the shells arranged around the outside and a pile of stewed tomato and spinach greens sitting in the center. Matched with one of Mockingbird's excellent Rieslings or a bottle of cold beer, this is a spectacular appetizer. But eaten with a basket of bread and olive oil dip, this fabulous bowl of mussels makes for a pretty substantial meal all by itself.

Feast

They call the food at Feast "rustic European fare," and there's nothing else like it in Houston. Situated in a charming old house with a very relaxed and homey atmosphere, Brits Richard Knight (the chef) and James Silk (the butcher) are taking Houston tastebuds on a journey back in time, when people used to eat everything that a pig (and other animals) had to offer, from the snout to the tail to the blood, as in a typical black pudding — a carnivore's orgasm. The adventurous menu at Feast changes daily, so just when you find the perfect dish, it vanishes. How about pork cheeks or bone marrow soup, or maybe chicken hearts on toast? No? Well, if you're holding out for the good stuff, you'll love the braised neck of lamb, the beef tongue or lamb tongues or the tongue and testicles in green sauce (not available every day). Both Richard and James have worked for some prestigious, Michelin-rated places and people, most notably under Fergus Henderson of St. Johns, in London, where James acquired the "whole hog" approach to his cuisine.

The Raven Grill

When you try the onion rings at Raven grill, you suddenly realize that the prefab stuff you've been eating at Wendy's isn't so good. People actually still hand-make these things to order? Turns out there are still restaurants that create food with heart and soul, like they actually care what you're putting in your mouth. Raven's "tower o' rings" puts a twist on the classic with a stack of onion and poblano pepper rings — hand-battered and fried to order, hot and not too greasy — and a handmade ranch dipping sauce. You could easily ruin the rest of your meal with these thick rings.

Danton's Gulf Coast Seafood Kitchen
Photo by Troy Fields

The oysters are expertly shucked and beautifully served on a tray full of ice with lemons and all the sauces. They'll give you puny ones under two-and-a-half inches if you want, but they will also accommodate those who like their oysters big — ask for the sea monsters and you'll get oysters of three-and-a-half inches or more. Danton's is a handsome seafood house on Montrose with whimsical decorations in the form of old fishing-camp photos that have been blown up and hung on the walls. The cozy little oyster bar has old-fashioned dark-stained woodwork that might remind you of the good old days of the Gulf Coast oyster saloon. Best of all, Danton's frequently runs happy hour specials on freshly shucked oysters at well below the regular price.

Himalaya Restaurant & Catering
Jeff Balke

Encompassing Pakistani, North Indian and a bit of Southern Indian cuisine, Himalaya is a standout among the dozens of Indian restaurants that populate the area. However you describe it, the food is flavorful and satisfying. Presided over by the ever-present owner, Himalaya offers some of the best dishes from the Subcontinent you'll find anywhere in town. The chicken tikka masala is velvety and subtle, and the lamb shank curry is tender, spicy and downright life-changing. Everyone who walks through the doors seems to find a favorite that keeps them coming back for more.

Buffalo Grille
Photo by Houston Press Staff

If you want to avoid the hyper-corporate flopcakes at places like International House of Crap or the House of Guys, head on over to one of these home-style grills. Buffalo Grille has good old-fashioned hotcakes the size of your head. There is no short-stack, or even a half-stack. Stacking these country cakes would be totally ridiculous. They're huge and hot and tasty. The only thing better than lathering the pancake with butter and sweet, sticky syrup is ordering a side of the to-die-for peppered bacon. Mmmm...

Thien An
Photo by Jane Catherine Collins

What sets one pho apart from another? Quite simply, the broth. The longer it's cooked, the more profound the flavor, and here they start the broths early so that by lunch, they've been simmering for quite a while. Thien An has all of the traditional cuts of beef, steak, brisket, flank steak — both standard and fatty versions — tripe, tendon and, of course, meat balls, which can be added to any of the above at a small cost. All of the meats sit atop thin noodles and come with trimmings like fresh basil, jalapeño and bean sprouts. If you hit this spot at just the right time, your slurping will be drowned out by the slurping of others — so you won't feel embarrassed at all.

Abdallah's
Photo By Troy Fields

Abdallah's sells its pita bread not only at the store but also to many of the Middle Eastern restaurants and supermarkets in town. The bread here is large, about 12 inches in ­diameter. Six come in a package for the incredible price of $1.25. A whole-wheat version is available for $1.50. When toasted, the bread opens to form the perfect pocket, ready to be filled with your favorite falafel. Alternatively, you can tear off a piece and scoop up your favorite hummus or tabouleh. Even alone, the bread has a lot of flavor.

Russo's New York Coal-Fired Pizzeria

At Russo's New York Coal-Fired Pizzeria near the intersection of the Northwest Freeway and Highway 6, Anthony Russo has re-created the old-fashioned coal-fired pizzeria experience in a suburban strip center. But the superhot oven is only part of what Russo is doing right. You don't get a pizza crust with this kind of fabulous texture unless you can turn out a high-rising yeasty dough every day. And the only way to keep such a great pizza from getting gloppy is to teach every apprentice pizza maker in the place that you aren't doing your customers any favors when you pile too many toppings on the pie. And then there's the quality of the toppings themselves. As long as they can keep the oven hot, the dough yeasty and the toppings high in quality and low in quantity, Russo's New York Coal-Fired Pizzeria will have the best pie in Houston. Readers' Choice: Star Pizza

Dolce Vita Pizzeria & Enoteca

Dolce Vita Pizzeria & Enoteca is owned by Marco Wiles, the chef-owner of Houston's best Italian restaurant, Da Marco. Wiles says that Dolce Vita is a tribute to authentic Italian pizzerias. Heating up a brick oven takes a long time, which is why the great pizzerias in Italy are only open in the evening. Dolce Vita is following their lead, so forget about grabbing a pizza for lunch. While the 12 pizzas are by far the most popular items on the menu, the unusual antipasti items are worth sampling. Come early for the two-floor happy hour scene. Downstairs, the double-sided wine bar and the row of tables overlooking the pizza oven are one of the hottest see-and-be-seen spots in the city for the black-T-shirt-and-blue-jeans set. Upstairs, a funky maze of dining rooms with parquet floors and faux wood-grain painted walls offers lots of quiet corners for intimate conversation.

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