Irma's
Stephanie Meza

Irma's has been a Houston institution for years, holding court in a cramped but festive building almost directly underneath 59 South. The crowd is full of regulars, who know not to ask for menus (a list of available items will be delivered orally). This is the place to fill up on the fine frozen margaritas, fresh lemonade and crisp, salty chips dipped into fantastic guacamole. It's depressing how often guacamole in this town is presented at baby-food consistency, betraying a prepackaged pea-green color and all but flavorless. Not so at Irma's, where chunks of ripe avocado stand out for texture, garlic flavor is prominent and fresh cilantro and minced jalapeño garnish a bowl of guacamole done right.

Pho Binh

Tucked into a nondescript block of Beamer well south of Hobby Airport lies the Pho Binh trailer and the best soup in Houston. That's right, it's a trailer: a temporary building with a weensy kitchen and two tiny rooms packed with tables. The gracious staff turns out bowl upon bowl filled with broth so pure, you want to bathe in it. Meats like chicken, rare beef and pork meatballs are moist-tender-delicious, and the long, smooth noodles slip-slide down with the greatest of ease. It is, quite simply, perfection in a bowl. That said, be sure to get there early; they run out of this pho goodness each and every day. You might have to share a table — that's how small it is — but that just means you get to chat with your neighbors.

CHA Champagne & Wine Bar

Cha has an amazing selection of reds and whites, plus an excellent list of Champagnes. Though you can pop a $400 bottle of bubbly here, you can also purchase a delightful glass for less than $10. Cha also has a small menu of delicious nibbles, including perfectly baked flatbread pizzas adorned with truffle oil and sea salt, cheese plates, and smoked duck breast that perfectly complement the Champagne and wines without overpowering them. Even those generally averse to wine bars will enjoy luxuriating in Cha's cozy interior while listening to a local live musician or heading to the second-floor patio for an unparalleled view of downtown.

Frenchy's Chicken
Jeff Balke

Since its humble beginnings as a sandwich shop in 1969 near the University of Houston, Frenchy's has been churning out the best Creole chicken in town. Moist meat underneath crispy, seasoned skin, Frenchy's golden bird always comes fresh from the fryer. And those sides, those sides! Fluffy, buttery biscuits, flavorful greens and spicy red beans and rice with a hunk of andouille sausage, all ready to pack up and go from one of Frenchy's nine locations. Sadly, founder Percy "Frenchy" Creuzot died this year, but his legacy of amazing Creole food lives strong as ever in Houston.

Canopy
Photo by Katharine Shilcutt

With its smooth, velvety chocolate filling, crunchy hazelnut tart shell and rich and flavorful Nutella sorbet, the chocolate hazelnut tart at Canopy is to die for. The combination of flavors is classic, but the textures are what really make this dessert luxurious. One will never be enough. If any recipe has ever been worth stealing, this is it. And, as with many items at Canopy, it's the simplicity of the fine ingredients that makes this so amazing.

Givral's Sandwich & Cafe

Every college student knows the best place to stretch your dollar is at a Vietnamese sandwich shop. Where else can you get three meals for the price of a single dish at most sit-down places? Les Givral's clean, trendy interior isn't all hype — there's a reason there are now three of them in the city. Sure, prices have gone up in the last few years, but it's still cheaper and tastier than Subway or Quiznos. While you're here, don't forget to try some of the fabulous teas from the refrigerated case, and grab some chips. We also recommend the sweet fried rice with char-grilled chicken.

Fountain View Cafe

They're the size of your face, but not cakey at all. They're slender and buttery, with a shot of sweetness. They're not quite a crepe, and they are the best damn pancakes in Houston. Come on down to this homey, unpretentious diner just outside the Loop near the corner of San Felipe and Fountain View, and feast on these addictive creations. They're too thin to stuff full of fruits or nuts, so these flat cakes come naked, as they are. You can pile on the strawberries or bananas, or use some of the delicious homemade jams, but why? These tender flapjacks taste so good on their own.

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.

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