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.

Stella Sola

Yes, Stella Sola is owned by local celebrity chef Bryan Caswell, and yes, Stella Sola can be a bit pricey for dinner and wine, but brunch is its great egalitarian offering. Served from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. every Sunday, brunch brings nothing less than this "Texas-Tuscan" restaurant's spot-on food at far more reasonable rates. Knock down a "toad in a hole," with egg housed in homemade brioche, along with ham, mushrooms and cheese, for only $9, or grab a plate of shrimp and polenta (which is really just grits) with some bacon for $11. And since this is an Italian-inspired eatery — Stella Sola means "Lone Star" in Italian — don't forget a glass of Prosecco to wash it all down.

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.

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