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.

Tony Mandola's
Dawn McGee

Although a Louisiana seafood restaurant in River Oaks might seem a strange place to house the best gin cocktail in Houston, that doesn't stop it from being true. Tony Mandola's is serious about its gin, from the house-infused jalapeño gin that's used to make the famous Cajun martinis to the bitterly refreshing Negroni made with gin and Campari. The boys behind the bar make their cocktails like old pros, and the fact that they serve a Ramos Gin Fizz is a testament to their old-school prowess. Only a few other places in town serve the classic New Orleans cocktail, made with gin, egg whites and orange-flower water. If you're ever feeling nostalgic for New Orleans, a Ramos Gin Fizz will go a long way to soothing that ache.

Yia Yia Mary's Greek Kitchen

Although no Greek restaurant in Houston has it all, Yia Yia Mary's comes the closest. Once you get past the noise and the lack of intimacy, you'll find the Pappas family serving up some insanely tasty classics, including buttery spanakopita, creamy taramosalata and the ever-popular saganaki. The gyro, which is respectable, gets a needed boost from thick, hand-cut, herbed fries. Roasted and grilled meats and seafood are highly reminiscent of what you'd find in Greece, and the rustic "Cretan-style seafood" with a side of olive bread is delicious. Fresh, warm pita, huge portions and a $10 Greek wine flight will leave you satisfied and ready to hop on a plane to the islands.

Onion Creek

Onion Creek specializes in cheap, no-frills comfort food without even having a fryer on site. From the best Frito pie in town to the excellent Freek Dog (that's a hot dog with a Frito pie on top), an afternoon on Onion Creek's sprawling wooden deck with a cold beer in one hand and a pile of napkins in the other (all the better to keep yourself as clean as possible while indulging in their messy treats) is an excellent way to pass a lazy day. The Bad Ass Hot Dog is the simplest of the hot dogs offered here, but the Perro Caliente is the hands-down favorite. Two thick, meaty all-beef hot dogs are piled high with white cheddar, crispy bacon, onions, jalapeños and tomatoes for a plate full of every Texan's favorite food items outside of ribs and brisket.

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