Jeff Balke

There was a time when we couldn't imagine the Hobbit Hole existing anywhere other than the ramshackle, shire-like house on Shepherd, and we doubted its ability to survive in its new incarnation — The Hobbit Cafe — and new location, on Richmond. Defying expectations, the cozy little restaurant is just as popular now as it always was, and the vegetarian-oriented food is no exception. With filled-to-bursting veggie sandwiches like Smaug's Delight, Thorin Oakenshield and Dwalin or the simple beans, veggie and rice plate — the Valinor — you're sure to get healthy doses of both your daily beta carotene as well as Tolkien geekdom. Prices are easy on the wallet, and the sprawling patio is gorgeous on cool nights, plus there are plenty of items on the menu for your carnivorous friends, making The Hobbit Cafe an all-around winner.

The last time we ordered jellyfish salad, or "Summer Delight," the incredibly refreshing summer salad of mixed seafood served with crispy shrimp chips, our waiter at Que Huong (pronounced WAY HONG) told us to try something different. Beef and shrimp watercress salad is better, he said. But it comes with a strong fish sauce that Anglos find hard to tolerate, he warned. That's the thing about Que Huong — the menu is not designed with mainstream tastes in mind. Vietnamese Americans from the East and West coasts tell us that you can't find food of this quality at such low prices where they come from. You probably won't like the bitter melon or the greasy shrimp toasts, but try the tempura soft-shell crab. And don't miss that favorite cliché — the hot Vietnamese egg rolls that come to the table with a pile of cold romaine lettuce leaves and a plate of garnishes. Wrap the hot rolls and some herbs in the cold lettuce leaves and dunk them in the dipping sauce.

There's something about ordering whiskey inside of Poison Girl that just feels right. It goes with the blood-red walls and the foreboding metal sheet that rolls down and covers the door and one window during the day, completely obscuring the place along the busy Westheimer thoroughfare. And they do it well. Order a slightly sweet and refreshing Whiskey Daisy from the bar — which looks to have been transported from the Overlook Hotel after a brief layover in the Sex Pistols' basement — sit back and enjoy the view. People-watching (and pinball-playing) here is among the best in town, and even better when you've got a highball glass in one hand.

Even though executive chef Steve Super left The Tasting Room at Uptown Park this year to helm the newest sister restaurant, Max's Wine Dive in Austin, the food remains as good as ever. When the Tasting Room expanded a few years back, it opened up space for not only a professional kitchen but also plenty of room to enjoy the food that came out of it. This is not your typical bar food: French fries are coated with divinely pungent white truffle oil, and artisanal charcuterie and cheese plates aim to complement your choice of wine. Sunday brunches with a distinctly Southern twist are hugely popular events, as are the occasional crawfish boils thrown on the patio in the summer. And while you normally wouldn't consider a weekday lunch at a wine bar, the menu of gourmet sandwiches and dishes, like goat cheese ravioli in a brown butter sauce, is so alluring that you'll even forget they serve wine.

In Houston, a great wine list used to mean pages and pages of old French wines that started at a hundred dollars a bottle and went up to the stratosphere. Today, thanks to the popularity of wine bars, overpriced and overrated labels are out and unknown regions and obscure varietals are in. Catalan is the best example of the new wine awareness. The restaurant combines cutting-edge food by chef Chris Shepherd (formerly of Brennan's) with the kind of exciting wine discoveries and wine education you expect in a top wine bar. Antonio Gianola (formerly of Da Marco) is the best sommelier in the city. He can wax eloquent on a list of stunning, innovative wines from around the world in the $30-to-$60 range that will surprise and delight the most jaded wine snob.

Photo by Houston Press Staff

BB's Cajun Cafe isn't entirely Cajun. Sure, the oyster poor boy with big, gooey crusted oysters is plenty Cajun. And so are the "Bedtime in the Bayou" shrimp sandwich and the spicy battered soft-shell crab on a roll. But the roast beef and gravy poor boy is pure New Orleans. So is the restaurant's most popular entrée, "Maw Maw's Grillades and Grits," a bowl full of deep brown gravy with tender round steak and a mound of grits. The "Southern Man" breakfast of fried catfish, grits and poached eggs is more like Mississippi Southern cooking. And the big donut-like beignets are Tex-Mex Creole, according to Brooks Bassler, the owner. The "Tex-Cajun Virgin," a plate of hot-out-of-the-fryer shoestring fries topped with roast beef slices, brown gravy and lots of chile con queso, is all by itself some new category of fusion cuisine that the rest of the world has yet to discover. And it sure tastes good.

Dave Rosales

There's a reason that The Chocolate Bar has a reputation as a chocoholic's heaven. From the dozens of flavors of chocolate ice cream to the endless choices of chocolate pies (and hot chocolate to put your grandma to shame), there's something here for everybody. As long as they like chocolate, that is. But the enormous, multilayered cakes stand out here, glistening in their cases like a fever dream brought on by too many viewings of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Although a slice of the dreamy, chocolate-upon-chocolate Aunt Etta's cake will run you $9.95, it's all the better to share with a friend — especially over two glasses of cold whole milk, legs dangling innocently from the high bar stools as you eat. Afterwards, work off the sugar buzz with a frenzied jaunt through Candylicious, the candy shop on the other side of the store, as you recapture your chocolate-loving childhood, if just for an afternoon.

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