Niko Niko's Market Square
Fat and fluffy, the chickpea patties at Niko Niko's are equally tasty on their own, but we prefer them tucked into one of the restaurant's signature breakfast pitas with scrambled eggs, sautéed onions and tomatoes. They're alluringly crispy outside, the crunch giving way to a dark green interior that's soft without being mealy or mushy. And, yes, they're just as good in a regular, tzatziki-smeared pita at lunch, too.
Nam Gang
Located on Gessner and Blalock in Koreatown, Nam Gang is the place to go for Korean barbecue. You can order plates of beef short ribs (galbi), pork belly (samgyeopsal) and thinly sliced cuts of meats (bulgogi) — all of which you cook yourself on a griddle in the middle of the table. The mini complimentary side dishes taste fresh and consist of pickled vegetables, tofu, seaweed, fish cakes and more; these banchan are spread across the table to be eaten as accompaniments to the main dishes. Other à la carte items include panjeon, a scallion pancake, and a stir-fried-vegetable-and-glass-noodle dish called jap chae, in which the noodles are made of sweet potato starch. Pressing the button at your table will signal the attention of the wait staff. Korean barbecue is interactive, but if you prefer not to reek of grilled meats afterward, your meats can be cooked in the kitchen upon request.
Jonathan's The Rub
Most people were stunned when tiny Jonathan's the Rub — perhaps the darkest horse of 16 competitors — took home first place in the Houston Press Burger Bracket competition this year. The little restaurant in Spring Branch certainly knows how to grill a great burger, but that's not all: Chef and owner Jonathan Levine and his family also turn out beautiful steaks and stellar bowls of shrimp and grits. In fact, you'd never even guess Levine's originally from Brooklyn until you hear him cracking wise with friends and customers from across the line. Although the casual neighborhood cafe is usually packed, a new addition should be able to accommodate the crowds that are quickly becoming regulars once they find the place.
Pink's Pizza
Stephanie Meza
The specialty pies at Pink's Pizza include such interesting concoctions as Deuce (goat cheese, mozzarella, spinach, portobello mushroom, roma tomatoes, and garlic with pesto sauce); Double Down (rosemary chicken, bacon, mozzarella, spinach, tomato, and roasted garlic with alfredo sauce); and Santa Monica (gorgonzola, mozzarella, prosciutto, eggplant, artichoke, sun-dried tomato, and cranberry with a garlic-infused olive oil). These unpretentious, gourmet fresh pizzas are already a Houston institution. But perhaps the best item to order is the simple pizza by the slice. The slices are huge — they require two paper plates each — and seasoned with plentiful Italian herbs. Pink's recommends ordering only one topping or just plain cheese for their pizza by the slice — any more weight, and the thin crust may fall apart. The pizzeria is small, with only a few bar tables, so delivery and pick-up orders are preferred.
Kenny & Ziggy's Delicatessen Restaurant
When it comes to the canon of New York-style Jewish delicatessen food, it ultimately boils down to that old gastronomic proverb: It ain't the meat, it's the motion. Any of the top deli owners in this country — whether in New York, New Jersey, Chicago, Palm Springs, or Houston — will tell you the same thing: They all buy their smoked fish from the same group of purveyors based in New York, and they all prepare their meats — pastrami and corned beef — using roughly the same recipes. What sets the great delis apart is not the quality of the raw materials (because they all have access to the same products) but rather in how they slice and dress the fish and meats. Kenny & Ziggy's Delicatessen on Post Oak is not just the best New York-style deli in Houston. It may be the best sit-down deli in the country right now. That may seem like a very tall gefilte fish tale. But in the age of the dying art of the New York-style deli, when healthier eating habits and changing demographics have shifted the average urbanite's culinary awareness and eating habits and the deli greats of New York and Chicago are struggling to survive, you have to wait for up to 20 minutes for a table for two on an average weekday lunch at Kenny & Ziggy's. Why? The food is that good.
Hillstone
Most chains get a few, or even several, dishes right, but Hillstone manages to nail them all, starting with the spinach artichoke appetizer. The sandwiches are hefty, with cheeseburgers, veggie burgers, fish and a French dip, while the gorgeous salads are meals unto themselves. There's a soup calendar that might make you choose what day to go. The rotisserie chicken, Hawaiian rib-eye and barbecue pork ribs are outstanding entrées, and the French fries, oh, those fries. The room is dark and clubby enough for a special tryst, but boisterous enough for kids. Not too casual, but not too dressy, either. Hillstone has a comprehensive wine list, and if there's a wait for a table (there usually is), the bar will make it an easy one.
Lee's Sandwiches
Baked fresh several times a day, the French baguettes from Lee's Sandwiches are soft and airy on the inside and crispy golden on the outside. The closest thing you'll find to authentic Parisian baguettes, these loaves only cost $1. Stuff with meats and cheeses to make a sandwich, slice and bake with savory toppings for hors d'oeuvres, or do as the French do and spread on butter and jam for a simple breakfast. These scrumptious baguettes at dirt-cheap prices will help you dine like a Parisian right in your home.
Fratelli's Authentic Italian Cuisine Restaurant
The difference between hardened, store-bought pasta and the homemade variety is the difference between receiving a postcard from Rome and standing on the steps of the Coliseum. Fratelli's Chef Teresa Tadeo Wittman insists on authenticity, from sauces seasoned with herbs grown on-site to cracker-thin pizza, bubbly and charred to perfection in a traditional wood-fired brick oven built by her husband Bob. This from-scratch philosophy extends to the pasta, made fresh daily, which serves as a solid foundation for Fratelli's most exceptional dishes — and puts the unassuming restaurant, tucked away in a strip mall off of Highway 290, on par with some of Houston's most celebrated Italian eateries.
Crave Cupcakes
Photo by Houston Press Staff
The cupcakes are dense and richly flavored, and the frostings are so smooth and thick, they taste as good as a piece of fudge. With flavors like white chocolate macadamia nut, peanut butter chocolate, red velvet and mint chocolate, Crave Cupcakes are truly crave-worthy. Handmade with care, each big-enough-to-share dessert is worth every penny of its $3.25 price tag, and people can't seem to get enough, ordering them by the dozen for everything from office parties to afternoon tea. The new Crave location on Kirby is larger, with more seating room, and easier to navigate for a quick in-and-out dessert stop. And if you wake up feeling like you have to have a cupcake to start the day, from Mondays through Fridays they open as early as 8 a.m.
Soma Sushi
It's probably surprising to find that a sushi restaurant excels at desserts, but you won't find anywhere else in town right now that offers the cutting-edge selections found at Soma. Using liquid nitrogen, Chef Jason Hauck has created some exhilarating and exciting dessert items like his Nitro-Bourbon ice cream, which arrives smoking at the table and then is cracked slowly with a spoon. Strange and wondrous, it's unlike anything you've ever tasted, and you may even experience smoke coming out of your nose when you're eating it. The vanilla flan with coconut key-lime "snow" is another smoking creation that's simply delightful. Both are showstoppers that are cool, delicious and surprising — and who doesn't like that?

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