Brennan's of Houston
Photo by Troy Fields
It's a rare restaurant that still gives its customers the white-glove treatment. It's a rarer one still that does so with a genteel Southern charm that never makes the service feel pretentious or stuffy. Brennan's has prided itself on years of such impeccable service over more than four decades and counting. When you're dining at the restaurant, you get the sense that you're a welcome and wanted guest in a sprawling country estate where the hosts are as famous for their hospitality as for their food.
Backstreet Cafe
Photo by Joanna O'Leary
Sean Beck started out as a waiter at Backstreet Cafe during his college days. Today he's a certified sommelier running the wine lists at three of Houston's best restaurants — Backstreet Cafe, Hugo's and Trevisio — and he was rightfully singled out as a "rising star" when Star Chefs came to Houston this year. Beck isn't just an advocate of fine wines; he's also an expert mixologist and connoisseur of Texas spirits and craft beers. Take his elegant margaritas at Hugo's or the wine dinners he pulls together at Backstreet Cafe, highlighting local and seasonal foods alongside wines from across the world: Beck is a seasoned pro who never lets his lists get stale or boring.
Esther's Cajun Cafe and Soul Food
The fact that Yelp doesn't even list a single review for this place means that Esther's is doing something right: You know that when you're eating here, you're one of the family. The customers are a tight-knit bunch at this little restaurant with a steam table (if there's no steam table at your soul food restaurant, you're doing it wrong). Pass your tray through and let Esther load it up with smothered pork chops, buttery mashed potatoes, sweet yams and a giant slice of chocolate cake for later. In the spring, Esther's even does crawfish boils on the small patio. You might feel like you ended up at someone else's family reunion, but they throw one hell of a party.
Live Oak Grill
The red-painted farmhouse, huge live oak tree and wooden farm tables out front give Live Oak Grille a quintessential Texan charm that is warm and welcoming. It's a place where families and friends convene for a cold beer or a root beer float, along with a solid, hearty meal of pork chops or burgers. But it's the chicken-fried chicken, served with a choice of two sides including macaroni and cheese, green beans and garlic mashed potatoes, that is the standout. Impressively large, with moist, tender chicken on the inside and a crispy fried chicken shell that the Colonel would be proud of, it's good every time.
Zelko Bistro - CLOSED
In keeping with its casual, neighborhood vibe, Zelko Bistro has always prided itself on offering unusual yet highly affordable bottles of wine. But chef and owner Jamie Zelko takes it one step further with a large section that's entirely devoted to vintages from women-owned-and-run wineries. It's her way of paying it forward to other females in the male-dominated food and beverage industry, as well as a way of allowing customers to experience new wines and broaden their own horizons.
Benjy's on Washington
The happy hour scene at Benjy's on Washington is always hopping, and with good reason. What draws the crowd is not just the consistently excellent cocktails but the unbelievably priced bar menu, where a myriad of dishes can be had for a mere $5. The menu changes, but standouts have been the Asian dumplings served on a tangy slaw, chicken and pine nut pizza with truffle oil, crispy salmon mini-tacos, and beef arepas. The food is delicious, and though service is a bit harried because it's so busy, your food is always served with a smile. If only all happy hours were this good.
Tacos Mayra Taco Truck
From 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. daily, this colorful taco truck located in front of a washateria dishes up some super-tasty tacos. What sets it apart from its competitors is that there's no scooping of premade filling onto a taco shell when you order here. All the fillings are finished on the grill, which means you will have to wait for your tacos to be done. The piping-hot tacos are oh-so-satisfying every time.  Flavorful, well-marinated pastor tacos burst with flavor; lengua are juicy and tender; chicharron are fatty and decadent; barbacoa hearty and melt-in-your mouth. Order on flour tortillas with everything on it (grilled onions and fresh cilantro), add some spicy salsa verde and prepare to take a trip to Mexico for just $1.50 each.
Goode Co. Seafood
Aron Danburg
Campechana at Goode Co. Seafood is almost a Houston institution, and we're pushing for it to move out of "almost" territory and into permanent acceptance. As with the seafood joints that line Airline Drive, the campechana here is served in tall sundae glasses with an olive perched on top like a cherry. Underneath, you'll find the freshest seafood that the Goode family can muster out of the Gulf along with buttery avocado chunks and a just-spicy-enough cocktail sauce that never distracts from the briny sweetness of the shrimp and crab. And during the cold months of oyster season, the campechanas are that much better.
One of the original bubble milk teahouses in Houston, Star Snow Ice is still serving up the same delicious boba drink they've been making for decades. Because the drink here is not as creamy as those you'll find at other teahouses, you can really taste the authentic flavor of the milk tea; it isn't masked by an overwhelming amount of sugar. The tapioca balls are prepared to a perfect gelatinous texture. Star Snow Ice can be found at several locations in the southwest part of Houston, so you won't have to go far to grab dessert drinks after enjoying a meal in Chinatown.
Zelko Bistro - CLOSED
Jamie Zelko was originally the executive chef at Bistro Lancaster before opening her own namesake restaurant in the Heights. Featured on the Food Network earlier this year, Zelko Bistro serves Southern comfort food with a gourmet twist. Each bite of Zelko's parmesan truffle fries is delicate and delicious. The potatoes are cut shoestring-thin and then fried to a golden perfection before being topped with truffle oil and freshly grated parmesan cheese. The truffle oil and parmesan flavors are mild, so that the potatoes remain the star of the dish, as it should be with any order of fries. Order them as an appetizer, and you'll be licking the plate clean.

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