Swampy's Cajun Shack

If you like your mudbugs out on a patio with lots of beer and a Hawaiian Tex-Mex cover band, then Swampy's is your kind of place. The rest of the Cajun menu is hit or miss. But the bar is always hopping, and the crawfish are a relative bargain. Last spring, while the average price in Houston was between $4.50 and $5.50 a pound, Swampy's was charging only $3.50 a pound. But beware: The highly spiced, boiled crawfish at Swampy's will turn your fingers orange. That's because they're coated with peppery powder after they come out of the spicy boil. Absentmindedly licking your sticky fingers puts a fresh coat of cayenne on your palate. Which is why you will need more beer than usual to quench the fire.

Mojito
Theo Santos
Mojito

Looking for a feast? Try Flor de Cuba's parrillada cubana, a cornucopia of island delicacies including chuletas (pork chops), macitas (fried pork chunks), pechuga de pollo (grilled chicken breast), camarones al ajillo (shrimp in garlic) and vaca frita (fried beef). With all entrées, you get healthy servings of beans, rice, yucca and two types of plantains. It's more than enough for four, all for around $45. Not that hungry? Then try one of Flor de Cuba's weekly specials, such as roasted pork on Saturday afternoons or arroz con pollo on Sundays. Since Flor de Cuba has an in-house bakery, the flan, arroz con leche and papaya con crema are always fresh and light. They even have long loaves of Cuban bread, in case you want to make a Cuban sandwich at home.

Star Pizza

Don't feel like going out? Microwave seem too complicated? The staff at Star Pizza will help. You won't hear any groans if you want to switch around your toppings one last time, or cover only half the pie in olives. Then again, you can always kick it old school with one of the classic options that Star has been serving Houston since 1976. Delivery people will happily bring change to your door, so you won't have to fish around for the exact amount. And once you open that box and the aroma of fresh pizza fills your place, you'll be glad you tipped the delivery guy an extra buck. To ensure freshness, Star delivers to a limited area, so if you're out of bounds, you may want to consider relocating.

Dessert Gallery Bakery & Café

This is a place where, even if you have the utmost self-control, you're likely to lose it once you see all they have to offer. As if the cakes, cupcakes, cookies and bars themselves were not enough, as you sit and enjoy your stash, you can even watch videos of the cakes being made, with sensual close-ups that will have you drooling as well as asking yourself, "I wonder if that cake is better than the one I'm eating?" If you have a favorite cake, chances are you'll find it at Dessert Gallery — luscious lemon, lots of different chocolate cakes, carrot, Italian cream, key lime...the list is an endless temptation. The slices they sell are large, as are the cakes themselves — all at least six inches tall. The only thing missing? A sampler where you can taste three or four cakes before you settle on just one.

Fung's Kitchen

The sesame balls filled with sweetened red bean paste are hot out of the fryer — they taste like Chinese jelly doughnuts. The regular dim sum items are all nicely done, but it's the upscale exotica that catches your attention here. The cart with the shell-shaped metallic dishes of seaweed salad also carries a stylish white rectangular plate that holds the incredible combination of sliced sea snails and cucumber in chili oil and vinegar. Don't miss it! You can also order off of chef Hoi Fung's 400-item menu. Try the scallops in garlic sauce steamed live and served in their shells, or the lobster in scallion and ginger. Fung comes from a long line of chefs in Hong Kong, the dim sum capital of the world. And this is dim sum done haute Hong Kong style. Carts roll on weekends, but there's also a dim sum menu available at lunch on weekdays. Readers' Choice: Fung's Kitchen

The Mezzanine Lounge

The Mezzanine Lounge is a little unsettling in that its general vibe defies description, but it has some seriously good drink specials, so who cares? You can land there any day of the week and find yourself overcome with joy about how cheap the drinks are. And good news for sports fans — the drink prices seem to be inversely proportional to the number of televisions, and there's a Bloody Mary bar during football season. The jukebox whiplash you'll get after listening to the likes of Blue October, Beastie Boys and Bob Marley within the span of ten minutes might deter you from staying for long, but things start sounding a lot better when you've had four drinks for around $10.

Shade
Jeff Balke

There are a number of dry restaurants around, so what makes this one supreme? We could say that it's the wonderfully inspired chicken-fried quail, the inventive wasabi and cucumber crusted red snapper or the toothsome trays of tiny pastries offered at brunch. But what truly catapults this dry restaurant in the heart of West 19th Street over the top is the way it has sinfully found a way around the local prohibition of the Heights neighborhood and is not exactly dry at all. By signing up for the free Shade Club, diners can order a cocktail or a bottle of wine to go along with the exquisite fare. All you need is a driver's license to join and you're on your way.

Xiong's Cafe

Tucked into one of the endless strip centers of Bellaire Chinatown, this tiny cafe offers some delicious traditional Chinese fare. And what Xiong's lacks in size, it makes up for in dumplings. Steamed, boiled and pan-fried varieties are handmade, and show up at the table in generous portions. The spicy Szechuan dumplings and boiled pork-and-Chinese chive dumplings are fantastic and an excellent deal. Xiong's also has a number of tasty soups and noodle dishes and some outstanding green onion pancakes. For dessert, you could opt for the intriguing pumpkin cake or peek through the hole in the wall and order some bubble tea from the place next door.

The Original Marini's Empanada House

Owner Marcello Marini claims his are "the best empanadas in the world," and while we can't know if that's true, we can certainly vouch that they're the best in Houston. The Marini family has expanded its empanada empire, opening this location at the Carillon Shopping Center last year to go along with its more established restaurant in Katy. Inside, don't be surprised to see Marcello or his daughter greeting customers new and old like family, welcoming them with warm smiles and lots of friendly conversation. Argentine-inspired, the half-moon meat pies boast a delicate golden crust on the outside and a choice of more than 25 mouthwatering meat, cheese or vegetable fillings inside. And don't forget dessert. There are nearly as many sweet-tasting treats as savory on the menu, including dulce de leche, a heavenly caramel sauce that, when mixed together with fresh apples, makes you understand why the Marini family is always smiling.

El Jardin
Dawn M. Simmons

It's hard to stand out from the crowd when it comes to enchiladas. They are, after all, just rolled-up corn tortillas filled with cheese or meat and topped with a sauce. The enchiladas at El Jardin follow the same formula, but it's the variations that make them the best in the city. There are enchiladas mexicanas (filled and topped with a white Mexican cheese), de mole (filled with white-meat chicken and topped with a sweet, dark mole sauce) and San Antonio (filled with cheddar cheese, topped with chili con carne and onions). There are also enchiladas católicas (topped with a red Spanish sauce) and verdes (topped with a green sauce). The seafood enchiladas come stuffed with fresh-from-the-Gulf shrimp and crab, topped with a white wine sauce. And the burrito enchiladas (for those really big appetites) are two large flour tortillas filled with chicken or beef and cheese, and topped with chili con carne. Readers' Choice: Chuy's

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