Hugo's

The restaurant roasts its own cocoa beans and grinds them by hand in an old-fashioned stone mill that chef-owner Hugo Ortega brought back from Oaxaca. The fresh-ground cocoa paste is used to make its signature mole poblano, as well as the cup of hot chocolate that comes with some of the desserts. Seasonal dishes at Hugo's, like the chiles en nogada, are better than the supposedly definitive versions found in Mexico City. Hugo's serves chiles en nogada through the fall or as long they can get fresh pomegranates. In the summer, the menu switches over to dishes made with squash blossoms. Ortega's cousin Martha Ortega makes the mole poblano. She learned from her mother in Puebla, who learned from her mother and so on back four generations. Martha's mole recipe contains ingredients like plantains that you won't find in published recipes. Cookbooks only skim the surface. The Ortega family has mole in their blood. American foodies make the mistake of thinking that reading Diana Kennedy or Rick Bayless's cookbooks is all it takes to master Mexican cuisine. Mexican immigrants like Hugo Ortega and his family remind us of how deep Mexico's culinary traditions really go.

Zabak's Mediterranean Cafe

This place is modern, clean and unpretentious. Order at the counter, and minutes later you'll be enjoying some terrific homemade Middle Eastern food from favorite family recipes. The hummus is as smooth as can be, and the baba ghanoush has a really smoky flavor, typical of this dish. The falafel is legendary, and the tabbouleh as authentic as you can get. Also try the kifta or shish kebobs or any of the shawarma sandwiches, and none will disappoint. End your meal with any of the sweet pastries that are representative of the region.

Sparkle's Hamburger Spot

For burger aficionados and inhabitants of the Third Ward, Sparkles Hamburger Spot is a true haven. If you don't mind waiting, the gals at Sparkles will mix you up one tasty shake. They're the best because they use full-flavor ice cream and milk, mixing it the old-fashioned way, by hand. No complicated machines or premade mixes here. The only real question is, chocolate or vanilla? On hot days there's nothing as satisfying and cooling as one of these concoctions.

 

Mash a bunch of mint in the bottom of a glass, pour rum over it and you have a mojito; do it right and you have magic. Reef's 3rd Bar is doing it right. Making it the traditional way, the bartenders at 3rd Bar muddle the freshest mint with just enough sugar to make the Bacardi rum's flavors come out. Keeping it simple is key to this drink, and that's exactly what they do. And the awesome decor that surrounds the perfectly made drinks is so hip, slick and cool, it just might freeze to death.

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...

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