Zabak's Mediterranean Cafe

The area near Hillcroft and Westheimer is packed with Middle Eastern joints — from humble delis to jam-packed markets to fancier cafes — offering large portions of hearty delicacies at distinctly affordable prices. Our favorite is Zabak's, a small, bright, family-run restaurant. The falafel there is moist, lightly crunchy on the outside and bright, parsley green on the inside. The spices within the joyous cylinders are dominated by ground chile, which is also sprinkled over the sandwich toppings; this gives it a kick that lets you know it's there, without sounding the fire alarm. If you like your falafel on a sandwich, the sliced tomatoes and a wad of crispy iceberg lettuce offer a lovely mix of textures. And the tahini sauce is exactly as it should be: tangy, drippy and slightly viscous. Zabak's falafel achieves a rare culinary harmony, one we'll seek out again and again.

The Davenport Lounge

The Davenport is a dinosaur in the ever-changing nightlife world. And there's a reason for its longevity — the killer martini. Beyond the purist's gin martini, there are around 30 other varieties, many considered martinis only because of the glass in which they're served. The Davenport's gin martini is sheer perfection: crisp, a little bitter and potent. For a nice deviation, try the Bloody and Bruised, a "martini" Bloody Mary that is very spicy while still being drinkable. Bonus: The helpful bartenders here have a reputation for being swift on their feet. Bottoms up!

Branch Water Tavern

Branch Water Tavern has a wall of rare and expensive whiskeys behind the bar that will make any sour mash head drool. The bartenders serving your straight Kentucky, Tennessee or experimental whiskeys are knowledgeable and professional. The list of all-American bourbons reads like an erotic novel — we suggest perusing it while sipping an eight-year-old Buffalo Trace bourbon, neat. Don't forget to try one of the house specials or infused batches they have macerating on the bar.

French Riviera Bakery and Cafe
Photo by Catherine Gillespie

The French Riviera Bakery feels like a slice of Paris just outside the Loop. Any time of day, devotees sit huddled around tiny outdoor tables sipping espresso and feasting on that most French creation, the croissant. The golden-brown bread starts off crispy and flaky at the ends, and slowly turns into a buttery, doughy center, where French baking dreams become reality. You can use the croissants as sandwich bread for your pâté de campagne, or get them filled with sweet apples, decadent chocolate, and even ham and cheese for breakfast. But nothing tops the simple taste of French Riviera's plain croissant, fresh out of the oven.

Taco Milagro

Taco Milagro may be nestled in River Oaks and surrounded by fine establishments, but it's not pretentious, especially when skirts start swinging to the live salsa band. The place is a nice combination of fun and fun to look at. And what better way to people-watch than by sipping one of Taco Milagro's fabulous mojitos? Many bars never seem to get the drink's proportions right, but here the drinks are consistent, not too sweet and not too bitter, served up with fresh mint. Just how we like them.

BRC Gastropub
Photo by Troy Fields

If you're going to call yourself a gastropub, you better have some damn good mac and cheese. And if you're going to call yourself an American gastropub, it better be hella great. BRC hits the mark with its mac and cheese of the day. Whether it's made with Tillamook cheddar and broccoli or steak and blue cheese, it's always piping-hot and gooey, with lots of buttery bread crumbs on top of the crust, made of baked macaroni and crunchy cheese. Whatever combination Chef Jeff Axline comes up with, it's sure to please.

Beaver's
Photo by Houston Press Staff

The folks at Beaver's begin their tantalizing Sunday brunch cocktail with a zesty blend of tomato juice, bruised celery, lime, garlic, Worcestershire, salt and pepper. They spice it up with both wasabi and their own special Ex-Wife Hot Sauce (a kick-you-in-the-pants blend of chipotle and red and green Tabasco). The tomato juice is infused with all of these savory ingredients for several hours before being strained. As if that weren't tasty enough, you then get to choose from four types of liquor to add to your Bloody Mary: original vodka, bacon-infused vodka, tequila or smoked whiskey. All four are amazing options, but the smoked whiskey earns the top score.

Shipley Do-nut Shops

Most cities don't have the incredible diversity of food that we as Houstonians enjoy. Try finding a kolache in Seattle, for example. Fortunately, our fair city is filled with kolache makers — big and small, new and old, authentic and non. Our favorite? We drool over the boudin kolaches from the Shipley Do-Nuts on North Main near I-45. Every week this Shipley location receives a shipment of boudin from New Orleans and stuffs it by the spoonful into their soft and fluffy kolache shells. The result is a warm pocket that's just the right mix of savory 'n' spicy: an absolute breakfast delight. As you savor, be sure to tip your hat to the culture collision in effect. On the one hand there's the boudin, a quintessentially Cajun invention of pork sausage and rice. And yet it arrives in a kolache, a deliciously Czechoslovakian vessel. It's the perfect marriage of not-at-all-related cultures. Globalization rules!

Escalante's

Not every Escalante's serves local red snapper. It is usually done as a special, and you have to ask about it. But when it's available, it's some of the freshest snapper we have ever tasted — firm and mild, with the taste of salt water. The skin is extra-crispy, and when you squeeze the lime over the top, the snapper will transform everything you know about fresh fish and make you a true believer. After you try it, you'll be calling Escalante's and asking if it's available.

Osaka Japanese Restaurant

It's refreshing when you find a place that's as genuinely comfortable as it is delicious, and that's exactly our experience at Osaka. The menu at this diminutive Japanese joint isn't mind-blowing, but it's consistently refreshing, with delicious salmon, shrimp, eel and tuna offered in creative combinations, all at reasonable prices. You'll find the standbys on the sushi list, plus a bunch of more adventurous rolls that expertly play with textures and flavors. Try one of the outstanding bento boxes for a quick lunchtime fix, or slurp up the fantastically simple soups. Nothing about Osaka is pretentious or loud. In fact, beyond the food, the zen atmosphere is one-upped only by the amiable servers, who can make suggestions and customize orders. Perhaps best of all, every diner gets a small freebie at the beginning of every meal — from creative rolls and punchy dumplings to golden tempura and steamy baked mussels. No wonder we love Osaka so much.

Best Of Houston®

Best Of