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.

Mockingbird Bistro

Mockingbird is one of those rare bastions of civility that's open on a Monday night, all the better to enjoy a glass of wine and a carefully constructed cheese plate at the restaurant's stately bar, under the whimsical and watchful eyes of a ceiling full of gargoyles. Of course, you can order the cheese plate at your table, with your meal. If you're feeling particularly continental, order it for dessert. But the constantly rotating cheese plate — which lately has featured selections like local goat and beer-bathed tomme from Houston's own Pola alongside a smooth sheep's milk Ossau from France — is sure to be a highlight of your meal. And at three cheeses for only $9 (along with a selection of crackers, fruit and honey), it's one of the best deals in town.

Randalls

Necessity is the mother of discovery. You might expect the fried chicken at Randalls to be mediocre, but someone there has a love for crispy, golden-brown, juicy country-fried bliss that cannot be denied. On a bad day, it is better than most chains. Paula Dean would agree: The eight-piece combo of Southern delight is greasy finger-licking good.

Fu Fu Cafe

The soup dumplings, or "steamed pork buns," as indicated on Fu Fu's menus, are small, doughy bags of concentrated broth and meat eagerly waiting to erupt in your mouth. These meaty morsels are both amazingly delicious and amazingly hot. If you're not careful, you'll scorch your lips, tongue, gums and anything else the molten inner liquids come into contact with. But handled correctly, you would find yourself with a new addiction.

El Rey Taqueria

El Rey may cater mostly to weekend partiers and yuppies looking to get their Mexican or Cuban fix, but when it comes to slinging breakfast tacos, the chain taqueria is tops. The jam-packed flour or corn tortillas come with fluffy eggs and choice of potato, bacon, ham or a mix of onion, chile pepper and tomato hunks. Off-menu, spicy chorizo is often available. The green salsa is thin and tart, with a great kick to start off the morning. Check out the eatery's colorful interiors and listen to Mexican crooners singing over the loudspeakers as you wait for your freshly made tacos. And at $1.65 a pop, you'll see why folks are lining up out the door most mornings to get their much-needed dose.

Dim Sum King

What's better than a truly authentic, Hong Kong-style meal of dim sum? Being able to get that meal nearly any time of day or night. Unlike most establishments, Dim Sum King serves the traditionally Sunday afternoon meal all day long, six days a week (no dim sum for you on Tuesdays), so you can quell that craving for yum cha and dumplings whenever the mood strikes. The menu is helpfully divided into three sections — small, medium and large plates, with corresponding prices — and has pictures as well as English descriptions under the Cantonese titles, helpful when encountering dishes like "White Cloud Phoenix Talons." The staff speaks limited English, but is always friendly and helpful. Favorites on the vast menu include savory turnip cakes, tangy beef balls and crunchy deep-fried shrimp balls, but the wide selection leaves room for ample experimentation over many visits.

READERS' CHOICE: Dim Sum King

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