Shri Balaji Bhavan Pure Vegetarian Restaurant
Jeff Balke

Like most restaurants in Little India — the section of town that straddles Hillcroft where it meets Highway 59 — Shri Balaji Bhavan is a hole in the wall, and it's enticingly inexpensive. But what sets Shri Balaji Bhavan apart from all its neighbors are two things: spice and authenticity. In the great eternal debate over which is more important — how good food tastes versus how bona fide it is — Shri Balaji Bhavan wins on both fronts. The supremely authentic cuisine here is also supremely delicious, from the delicate dosai and spicy samosas to the tangy bhel puri and the numerous other chaat dishes that are perfect for sharing. Ornot.

READERS' CHOICE: Indika

Pappas Seafood

Little Pappas Seafood House might not be an oyster bar specifically, but it's still an excellent place to down a dozen on the half-shell. The Pappas Restaurants, even though they are a chain, make everything from the mayo to the bread, so quality control is peak at every restaurant. Little Pappas is the best of the best — it is small and intimate, and often you're able to slurp your oysters to some soft jazz. When they're in season, Little Pappas has one of the best deals in town. The oysters are always incredibly fresh and expertly shucked. There are also plenty of inventive hot oyster dishes. Be sure to sample some of the decadent garlic bread.

The Cajun Stop

Any Louisianan would tell you that some of the best po-boys are served up in unsuspecting holes-in-the-wall. Calliope's holds true to this tradition. Nestled in an unassuming strip mall, Calliope's serves up po-boys that have been praised by Louisianans and Houstonians alike. Try the sliced roast beef po-boy covered in brown gravy or the oyster po-boy bursting with crispy battered shellfish.

Zydeco Louisiana Diner

Although it bills itself as Cajun food from southern Louisiana, there's quite a bit of soul to this downtown institution. Since 1986, Zydeco has served up classic steam-table fare and Cajun favorites to a wide variety of downtown denizens: Cops, lawyers, construction workers and bankers all line up at lunch to get heaping portions of stewed okra, mashed potatoes, smothered pork chops and fried chicken. Further entrenching it in the splendid soul-food category are the offerings of sweet tea and decadent chocolate cake. This place is always busy during weekday lunches — which is good, considering that's the only time it's open.

READERS' CHOICE: THIS IS IT

Zelko Bistro - CLOSED

Located in an airy little house in the Heights, the newly minted Zelko Bistro has taken a concept we readily adore — comfort food — and added an upmarket spin. Are you one of those naysayers who think comfort food and white linen don't jibe? Fried chicken breaded with Cap'n Crunch, an outstanding Reuben and the city's best fried green tomatoes will have you thinking otherwise. Chef Jamie Zelko seems to know that reputable meatloaf is essential if comfort food's your game. Cooked in a can and served over a mound of buttery mashed potatoes, her "Homeless Joe" meatloaf dances on the tightrope separating down-home and upmarket. You'll want it again and again. Fried pickles, hearty soups and a fabulous burger are additional reasons to hang your hat on the Zelko rack night after night.

READERS' CHOICE:

Phoenicia Specialty Foods

The proprietors call it Phoenicia, but we like to refer to it as "heaven." With aisle upon aisle of international goodies, this grocery warehouse is the kind of place where one can easily spend half a day and drop a lot of cash. But the pita bread (or pideh, as you'll see it labeled here) is alone worth making the drive for — soft, with just the right amount of chew, these rounds are in a far different category from the generally bland pitas sold elsewhere. You've also got to see Phoenicia's ingenious pita conveyor belt in person, which snakes from the second-story bakery down into the middle of the first floor, sliding fresh bread down to waiting Phoenicia staffers. Grab a still-warm bag. Or two. Or four.

The Chocolate Bar
Dave Rosales

With flavors like Chocolate Banana Pudding and Brownie Supreme, the aptly named The Chocolate Bar is a chocoholic's paradise. Try the Candylicious Junkyard, which takes six classic candy bars and mixes them into a luscious white chocolate ice cream, transforming them into the ultimate nostalgic treat. The most popular choice is the Creamy Dreamy Truffle, which blends chocolate truffles into an exquisitely velvety chocolate ice cream. It will delight your palate with an intriguing mix of silky textures and decadently rich chocolate.

Best Vegetarian-Friendly Restaurant

Udipi

Udipi

You don't get much more vegetarian-friendly than a restaurant whose menu doesn't contain a shred of meat on it. The southern Indian cuisine at Udipi is entirely meat-free, but that doesn't mean it's boring or won't fill you up. Offering everything from playful, light-hearted fare like creamy, sweet mango lassis and springy idlis to more substantial dishes like fragrant aloo gobi and navratan korma, Udipi encourages you to experiment with vegetable-based dishes in an easygoing environment with reasonable prices. And what's more, it's bringing that attitude and its delicious food to the suburbs: Udipi also has locations in Katy and Sugar Land.

Jenni's Noodle House

When Jenni's Noodles moved to South Shepherd and West Alabama, gay smiles filled the 'Trose. Now the gay-friendly eatery offers its Dream Rolls and Angry Udon inside the sacred Loop. Jenni's is famous for serving traditional Vietnamese dishes with interesting names and plenty of culinary twists that are tasty and fun. And the service is always friendly. This is a come-as-you-are eatery that has magically avoided the clichés of so many other restaurants.

Fins

Fins' salt and pepper shrimp may sound like a simple dish, but what it lacks in complexity, it makes up for in its flawless execution. All the ingredients are very fresh and flavorful. Plump, juicy shrimp are very lightly battered and fried until perfectly crispy outside and succulent within. The generous grinding of pepper adds a nice hint of spice, while the sweet heat of the ginger is an unexpected treat. Served with sweet sautéed onions and green bell peppers, this understated dish provides maximum satisfaction.

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