Cafe Piquet
Photo by Houston Press Staff

It's always a good sign at a Cuban restaurant when you see actual Cubans eating there. And Cafe Piquet certainly passes the test. Located just west of the 610 Loop, this cafe boasts a large stone patio area and a warm wood and stone interior with photos of Cuban movie stars and the island's landscape along the walls. As natives chatter away at the bar over cups of Cuban coffee, order up a plate of sweet fried plantains and a Cuban sandwich, easily the best in the city. The pressed bread is toasted on the outside and moist on the inside, the pork is tender, the ham is thinly sliced and the cheese holds it all together for the perfect bite. Ask for a pickle and yellow mustard on the sandwich, and you'll keep coming back for more.

Textile

While the kitchen can be uneven at Textile, one thing here is always phenomenal: dessert. Under the direction of young pastry chef Plinio Sandalio, the whimsical and utterly beguiling desserts at Textile satisfy a range of palates, from the traditional (a bold chocolate torchon) to the adventurous (sweet potato beignets with bacon ice cream, or pound cake with apple butter and blue cheese ice cream). Sandalio does double duty as the pastry chef at Gravitas (both are owned by Textile's chef, Scott Tycer), but it's his inventive work at Textile that outshines the desserts at any other restaurant in Houston. He's currently experimenting with Pisco sours lined with Pop Rocks and a fried chicken ice cream made with roasted chicken bone stock and Guajillo honey, a dish that's at once savory, sweet and staggeringly delicious.

Fung's Kitchen

At Fung's Kitchen, the dumplings are fresher, the seaweed is crunchier and you can get signature killed-to-order seafood items like scallops in their shells straight from the aquarium during dim sum service. You might do a double take when you walk in the door — if it looks like the restaurant has gotten bigger, it has. Cleverly disguised within the red fabric and golden dragon decorations on the wall at one end of the dining room, there is a set of doors that roll back into the wall revealing an identical dining room beyond. And in that dining room there's another wall and another set of doors. During dim sum service on the weekends, the dining room is expanded to its full capacity these days. Chef and owner Hoi Fung comes from a long line of Hong Kong chefs. And Hong Kong is the capital of dim sum.

Avalon Diner
Photo by Houston Press Staff

Even though it's difficult to shake the newness of the new location (which is not so very new anymore), Avalon Diner is still serving up some of the best greasy-spoon food in the city. The place is usually filled with regulars, and the waitstaff has been there for ages. There's something for every diner craving — from Blue Plate Special comfort food to arterially challenging breakfast staples. The chocolate malt is so divine that, according to one customer, it "hits you in the back of your throat and gives you the right pop and itch." The lure of breakfast food all day long is reason enough to stop by and check out this Houston classic.

T'afia

Sure, you can get a drink special at any old bar in town. But only t'afia's drink specials are made with seasonal, organic produce and Texas wine. And only t'afia's drink specials come with complimentary appetizers from one of the best kitchens in the city. Tuesdays through Thursdays, you can relax in the cool confines of its modern bar or shaded patio and enjoy a drink from the menu of decidedly hip and retro cocktails — like champagne drinks made with Tito's vodka – or ratafias, fortified wine drinks made with local produce. Those days, with the purchase of any cocktail, an appetizer such as mini bison burgers, tuna sashimi or chocolate truffles is gratis. The menu changes with the seasons, so you can be sure you're always getting the freshest and most inventive tastes in town.

QQ Chinese Cuisine

What QQ Cuisine (also called "Chinese Cuisine" on the signage out front) lacks in customer service — and it lacks in that area quite a bit — it more than makes up for in food. Often dismissed in the face of its more popular next-door neighbor, Fu Fu Cafe, QQ rewards those who brave the rather dingy interior and distant, obtuse waitstaff with divine flat rice noodles, twice-cooked pork and panfried dumplings. Not to be confused with soup dumplings (despite their similar appearance), these doughy little pillows are sprinkled with black and white sesame seeds and served with a crusty, crispy bottom that makes biting into them a pure pleasure. The savory pork filling rivals any soup dumpling in town. And at six to a plate, they make a fine meal in and of themselves.

The Original Marini's Empanada House

When Marini's first opened in Houston back in 1971, empanadas were pretty exotic and the restaurant had a cult following. Marini's got a lot of hippies hooked on the high-buzz tea called yerba mate. Today, the reincarnation of Marini's in the Carillon Shopping Center displays lots of photos and articles from the good old days. And the empanadas are better than ever. Try the Texas BBQ empanada, stuffed with barbecued brisket; the gaucho, with ground beef in a soupy picadillo; and the Green Hulk, with chicken, spinach and mushrooms. For dessert, give the kids the banana, Ghirardelli chocolate chip and dulce de leche empanada; but save the more sophisticated fig, cheese and walnut empanada for the adults. Everybody loves the apple Gabriella with chunks of apples, dulce de leche and cream cheese. There are also store shelves in the restaurant stocked with specialties from Argentina—including yerba mate.

Los Dos Amigos
Jeff Balke

Los Dos is tiny. There are a half a dozen tables covered in plastic tablecloths, several booths along the wall, and a six-seat Formica counter in the L-shaped dining room. Breakfast and lunch are booming. Breakfast tacos are 99 cents, and the breakfast specials are $3.25 until ten o'clock. But forget the bargains — you have to order the three enchiladas topped with two fried eggs and raw onions for $7.25. The eggs on enchiladas aren't on the breakfast menu; they're listed with the entrées. It's the best enchilada plate in the city, and the desayuno de campiones. For a change of pace, stop in on Wednesday, when the $5.75 daily lunch special is enchiladas suizas, three chicken enchiladas in a white cheese and sour cream sauce with beans and rice. They don't serve frozen margaritas, and there isn't any beer either. So you can have the eatery pretty much to yourself at dinnertime.

La Brocante Cafe

This little French restaurant is located on Kirkwood just south of Westheimer, not far from the old location of Bistro Provence, which was owned by the same couple, Georges and Monique Guy. La Brocante means "flea market." Monique Guy sells old furniture and bric-a-brac out of the space, and there are price tags hanging on everything. The plates are mismatched, and the plastic placemats are gaudy maps of France with advice for tourists. And yet this eccentric little eatery, run by Houston's favorite French chef, Georges Guy, turns out the best old-fashioned French cuisine in the city. Try the oysters in cream sauce with lardons, the duck confit salad, the chunky country-style pâté, the incredibly tender escargot or any of Georges Guy's daily specials. You can't go wrong. With only 30 seats, the cafe is more like a large dinner party than a restaurant.

Marcelo Kreindel's greatest wish after moving to America from Argentina eight years ago was that he would once again be able to enjoy a gelato like he used to love at home. And four years ago, he decided to make that dream come true. Kreindel founded Trentino Gelato, which has steadily become the most sought-after supplier of gelato and sorbet in Houston. His dazzling selection — aside from the standard dulce de leche, he also creates flavors like fig with walnuts, wild Texas honey, caramel popcorn and guanabana — and use of local and seasonal ingredients make his gelato the best indulgence in town (and it's healthier than ice cream, to boot). Although without a traditional store for now, Trentino Gelato can be found at local farmers' markets, shops like Coffee Groundz and Cricket's Creamery and stores like the Midtown Spec's, as well as high-end restaurants like Glass Wall, Reef, The Grove and t'afia.

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