Best Of :: Food & Drink
El Real was one of the most anticipated restaurant openings of the year, in part because of the star power behind it — celebrity chef Bryan Caswell and former Houston Press food critic and author Robb Walsh. The restaurant has proved that it takes Tex-Mex seriously with its tasty old-school fare. This means queso and refried beans made with lard, enchiladas served with chili con carne, chalupas and puffy tacos. As for seafood, try the "Wholefish" Fajitas, consisting of a whole wood-roasted Gulf Snapper — the dish is a real standout. The best part? This restaurant will only get better with time.
Los Dos Amigos holds court with other old souls Wabash Feed Store, Guadalajara Bakery and Laredo Taqueria as reminders of Washington Avenue's not-so-distant past, and it's held on this long for good reason: The food, especially the enchiladas, seems to get better the longer Los Dos sticks around. And the gooey, surprisingly greaseless cheese enchiladas with a fried egg on top are the best dish here, available on the dinner menu even though most people order them for breakfast. Kicked up with a shot of the vinegar-based red sauce on each table, these enchiladas are truly the breakfast of champions.
The tequila selection alone at Hugo's — more than 40 choices, counting its bottles of mezcal — should indicate that you're in for a serious cocktail at this Mexican favorite. Sommelier Sean Beck dreams up exciting twists on the classic cocktail, like El Sueño Profundo with smoky mezcal, but it's the standard Hugorita for $7.50 that we like best. Created with Sauza Silver, Hiram Walker Triple Sec, simple syrup and fresh lime juice, it's mixed tableside. We also love the Y Porque No margarita for only $5 during its weekday happy hours.
One could argue that the real people-watching goes down in the valet drive that's shared by Philippe and its next door neighbor, RDG + Bar Annie. But the younger set always makes its way up Philippe's grand staircase, and that's where the pretty young thing-watching commences. Celebrities both local and national — think Robert Kardashian and Carolyn Farb — love this little slice of glitz and glamour in Houston, and especially love being seen with its handsome chef, the eponymous Philippe Schmit. But even regular schmoes like us can enjoy Philippe, too; the French-Texan menu is surprisingly affordable, as is its excellent wine list.
Southwestern cuisine stopped being hip in Houston somewhere around Cafe Annie's millionth year in existence, long before its closure last year. So imagine our surprise when TQLA swooped in with Southwestern vet Tommy Birdwell at the helm and made it cool again. (Of course, having 167 different varieties of tequila, many of them on tap, doesn't hurt either.) The updated Southwestern cuisine here incorporates Tex-Mex influences as well as our own Gulf Coast cuisine, and the result is a fresh, lively menu that features excellent dishes such as crawfish corncakes with lime butter and blue corn-fried oysters with chorizo cream.
The best salad in town at a place best known as a palace to pork, a monument to meat? Yes. And that's because Stella Sola treats its vegetables with as much care and love as it does its many proteins. The Dal Giardino salad — which translates to "from the garden" in Italian — epitomizes this attitude toward showcasing fresh, local produce. Seasonal lettuce and other vegetables, like curling tendrils of watercress, mingle with pickled carrots in a Meyer lemon vinaigrette that sings brightly through the greens. Its crowning glory? A farm-fresh poached egg, whose orange yolk mixes with the vinaigrette to create a pitch-perfect dressing.
If you're gonna ball, go big or go home. Vic & Anthony's is all about going big, with its opulent dining rooms, grand central kitchen that's as imposing as a throne room, seductive piano bar and service that will make you feel as if you're a prince among men. Here, you can order an immense Porterhouse steak to feed two people for $80 and a bottle of wine at least triple that amount, just as easily as you can empty your pockets on Chef Carlos Rodriguez's elegant charcuterie plate or a jewel box of Petrossian caviar. An iced shellfish collection of the best and freshest lobster, king crab, shrimp and oysters from across the world looks like a towering work of art on the plate, while the nearly $10 croissant bread pudding with bourbon sauce is worth every dollar and every delicious calorie.
This mom-and-pop sushi restaurant in a slow-paced Chinatown strip mall doesn't look like much from the outside. The only indication of its quality lies in its name: Miyagi is an extremely common name in the Ryukyu Islands, and it serves to let other Japanese know that an Okinawan runs this place. Miyagi himself is the sushi chef, his wife the sole waitress (and creative force behind the restaurant's art). The two of them serve the most honest, authentic sushi in town. The rice is well-vinegared and hand-formed, while the fish is superbly cut, always served at a pleasantly ambient temperature. Best of all, the prices and the atmosphere make it easily accessible, and the Miyagis will always make you feel at home.
The old Midtown location of El Patio has been transformed under Chef Jonathan Jones — he of Beaver's fame — into a raucous, vivacious exploration of modern Mexican cuisine. Between leche de tigre-laced ceviches and kicky carne guisada tacos, you'll find his Jalisco-style wings. An odd item for a Mexican menu, perhaps, but Jones makes the queso fresco-topped wings work wonderfully through a special vinegar-based hot sauce spiked with chile de arbol, allspice, cloves, cumin, pepitas, garlic and toasted sesame seeds. And forget celery sticks — these wings are served with slices of jicama to cool off your palate between bites.
For Vietnamese people, eating a broken rice, or com tam, plate is synonymous with eating a burger. Start with a rice plate and add toppings like grilled pork, grilled beef, meatballs, shredded pork, Korean-style beef shortribs, Chinese sausage, fried eggs and more. As the name would suggest, Com Tam Kieu Giang specializes in doing these rice plates, and while many combinations are suggested for you, you can order a rice plate here with as many toppings as you like. The restaurant is family owned and operated, and the owner uses her own recipes, proudly uses no MSG and is always on-site, making sure that your rice plate is excellent every time. Most three-item plates run just $5.95, so it's a bargain as well. Cash only.
At most restaurants, the calamari is an afterthought. But at Zimm's Little Deck, it's given just as much attention as its fancy po-boys and signature cocktails. Here, fresh — never frozen — squid is battered as lightly as possible and served in a no-nonsense white paper boat that lets the squid shine. The sauces served on the side push this dish into award-winning territory, however: a kicky green Tabasco mash with diced bits of green chile in one ramekin and a creamy lemon aioli in the other. You'll never want to see cocktail sauce again.
Although you wouldn't expect it from a wine bar, Plonk has one of the best bacon cheeseburgers we've ever tasted. And that's because Plonk is more than just a wine bar: It combines excellent food with expertly chosen wine and beer in a cozy, neighborhood setting. The guanciale burger is the best example of that food. Its buns are toasted in the pizza oven while Swiss cheese melts onto the top bun, and when combined, they sandwich a huge patty that's rampant with beef juices and covered with caramelized onions and "face bacon." The face bacon is that eponymous guanciale that is bacon's fancier and tastier cousin, trimmed from the pig's jowls and cured until delicious.