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

Pappas Bros. Steakhouse

A throwback to steakhouses of generations past, Pappas Bros. has the old-school charm of a private club and is the perfect setting for a power dinner. Plush leather seating, grand marble columns and rich mahogany paneling make this the ideal place to chomp on a stogie and seal a deal. Once you've polished off a buttery 26-ounce porterhouse, take the conversation into the lounge, where an elite selection of cognacs and single-malt Scotch whiskeys await and are sure to impress. And at prices like $600 for a 40-year-old Bowmore Scotch or $500 for a Courvoisier L'Esprit cognac, you'll feel warm all over, knowing the boss or client is picking up the check. So, go ahead and spend away — it's not your dime. Talk about sinful.

Al's Quick Stop
Jeff Balke

Hidden at the back of a convenience store is a food counter that turns out some mean Middle Eastern food and the best falafel in the city. Tiny pucks of bright green masa are hand-formed and flattened on each side until they're the size of a half dollar. Then they're fried to a dark-brown, until the exterior is as crisp as it can be and the interior remains soft, placed inside some pita bread and covered in a thick tahini sauce. Al's falafel contains nothing but simple ingredients — ground chickpeas, parsley and spices — but together they form a typical dish that goes back to Egyptian times.

Tony's Mexican Restaurant

The bar at Tony's Mexican Restaurant stays busy serving up margaritas and mojitos, but its clientele is mainly families. It has the three main requirements for a happy family dinner: good food, low prices and a kid-friendly staff. Tony's offers kid's plates including ­quesadillas, tacos, hamburgers, enchiladas and fried shrimp. (Adults who want smaller portions can order a child's plate for a small fee.) The atmosphere at Tony's is like a large family kitchen, so noise from fussy toddlers or crying babies is usually lost in the sea of conversation and music. There's also an outdoor patio (fenced to keep the kids from wandering) that can withstand a fair amount of yelping.

Niko Niko's

For more than 30 years, Niko Niko's has been offering up authentic Greek food, many of the recipes coming from founder Eleni Fetokakis's father's restaurant in Athens. A converted gas station, Niko Niko's is always bustling with diners eager to get their Greek on. Customers form a line at the counter and fire their orders off into one of the most prolific kitchens in town. Gyros served in warm puffy pita with sweet onions, juicy kabobs and Greek salads served with a large slab of feta are just some of the reasons why Houston has embraced Niko Niko's as one of its favorite family-owned joints.

Soma Sushi

This is not your British Auntie's fish & chips. At Soma, chef Robert Gadsby, formerly of Noe at the Omni Hotel, offers a Japanese-inspired twist on this traditional dish, serving up a whole fried bass, bones, skin, tail and all. The only thing not on the plate is the head, making this a far cry from the conventional battered fillet offered at most restaurants. Served over a bed of greens with shishito peppers on the side, the fish's skin is crispy, and the inside is moist and flaky. The dish is served with four dipping sauces, including catsup, to go along with the thick steak fries that make up the "chips" portion of the meal. Enjoy the chic interior of this relatively new restaurant and have the fish and chips. It's both different and delicious.

Berryhill Baja Grill
Photo courtesy of Berryhill Baja Grill

Berryhill Baja Grill is a Houston-based chain that's vegetarian-friendly. They've been serving up their famous fish tacos since 1993 and know how it's done.  Both the grilled and tempura varieties come out fast, with crunchy cabbage and a generous dollop of Baja-style sauce on top. On Mondays and Fridays, these addictive tacos can be had for $1.99. Each location has its own personality and varying degrees of outdoor seating, but you will always find a place to unwind with some sublime tacos and a margarita.

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