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.

Indika

Anita Jaisinghani earned a PhD in microbiology in her native India before she moved to Houston and changed careers. After working as the pastry chef at Café Annie for nearly two years, she opened the original Indika on Memorial. That restaurant was lauded by The New York Times, Gourmet magazine and a host of other publications for its startlingly fresh take on Indian cuisine. At the Westheimer location, the restaurant has continued to embellish its reputation as one of the most innovative Indian restaurants in the country. Take their beet soup, one of the best bowls of vegetarian soup you have ever had. It looks like classic Russian borsch, but is made with coconut milk and garbanzo beans, and it comes with a spinach-and-cheese fritter on the side. Goat masala hamburgers and fiery vindaloo shrimp are wild entrées. Finish your meal with some house-made saffron-pistachio ice cream and warm cardamom cookies.

Da Marco
Photo by Houston Press staff

For years, Marco Wiles has been delivering uncompromising Northern Italian cuisine to the appreciative masses. Some people have even complained that he is too Italian, with a menu that requires a dictionary to decode. However, his outstanding waitstaff is always ready to lend a hand. With an atmosphere reminiscent of a fine trattoria, Da Marco is as authentic as an Italian restaurant outside of Italy gets. You won't find dishes like grilled octopus with peppers, black truffle risotto or Chianti-braised short ribs on the menu anywhere else in town.

Genji Japanese Restaurant and Karaoke Bar

If you're looking for sushi, Houston is heavily populated with above-average sushi restaurants. If you're looking for a good time and fantastic Japanese bar food, Genji is the only show in town. Set to the soundtrack of some serious (and sometimes seriously painful) karaoke, Genji attracts businessmen and twentysomethings alike. Menu highlights include teba gyoza (stuffed chicken wings), onigiri (rice balls), beef kushiyaki and yakisoba (panfried noodles with a fried egg on top). The rum-heavy cocktail menu has such throwbacks as the Mai Tai and Midori sour, but Genji's "special drinks for men and ladies" will have you dancing on one of the graffiti-laden tables with a microphone in your hand before you know what hit you.

Kenny & Ziggy's Delicatessen Restaurant

Ziggy Gruber is a third-generation deli man whose family opened the Rialto, the first deli on Broadway, in 1927. After working in a string of Gruber family kosher delis in various NYC suburbs, he opened his own deli, Ziggy G's in Los Angeles, which became enormously popular. After the Los Angeles deli got into a real estate dispute, Ziggy moved to Houston and teamed up with local talent Kenny Friedman to open Kenny & Ziggy's here. In the ten years since it first opened, Kenny & Ziggy's has become one of the most successful Jewish delis in the country. Ziggy Gruber cures his own corned beef and pastrami, but Ziggy is proudest of his traditional Hungarian-style cooking — try the goulash, the kasha varnishkas and the soups. Gruber's grandfather Max, who founded the Gruber deli empire, immigrated to New York from Budapest.

Phoenicia Specialty Foods

At Phoenicia's grill counter, there are five varieties of fresh-cooked kabobs available. As an American, you will probably want to order the big beef cubes, lamb chunks or chicken pieces. But the best choice here is the nasty-looking, gray, ground-meat kabobs. The highly seasoned minced meat on the lamb kofte and beef kofte kabobs comes out tasting like spicy sausage. Get one on a pita sandwich for $4.95 and don't forget to ask for extra garlic mayo. You can pay in the "food court" or at the front registers. If you're getting your kabob to go, pay up front — that way you can also hit the olive bar, which offers 99 kinds of olives plus artichoke hearts, hummus, tabouli, baba ganoush, tapenade, walnut and pomegranate spread, and countless other treats. And everything is several dollars a pound cheaper than at Whole Foods.

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You wouldn't think of going to a restaurant called Tofu Village for the barbecue — but in fact Korean barbecue is a specialty here. The Korean approach to tofu is nothing short of astonishing. Like the soft and comforting potatoes in the middle of a bowl of fiery curry, or the neutral tortilla that holds the picante taco meat, the soon tofu (fresh tofu) at Tofu Village is a deliciously bland counterpoint to a host of enticing hot and spicy flavors. The fact that there are so few tofu dishes made without meat makes this tofu restaurant a poor choice for vegetarian diners, but it's a great place for everybody else. The Asian-modern interior design is pretty impressive, compared to the hokey happy-kitty decor you often see in Korean joints. The walls are decorated with oversize posters of young Korean movie stars and pop singers. Get a barbecue and soon tofu combination, and you'll agree that Tofu Village is raising the bar for Korean food in this town.

Spanish Flower Mexican Restaurant
Jeff Balke

Often, late-night dining comes down to sheer convenience: Where can you find a place that's open at 3 a.m. to head that hangover off at the pass or keep you going as you pull an all-nighter? And more often than not, convenience completely trumps taste. At Spanish Flowers, however, neither is sacrificed. Spanish Flowers is that rare late-night restaurant where patrons also line up for food during the day. Open 24 hours, the place serves consistently delicious food no matter when you drag yourself in. Piping hot, freshly made tortillas and bright, kicky salsa will go a long way toward perking up the evening, while the thick, creamy queso del mar or dusky enchiladas mole will soak up all the evening's alcohol left in your stomach while tasting amazing at the same time.

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