El Real Tex-Mex Cafe
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.
Jarro Cafe
Batli Joselevitz
Working your way through the six salsas at Jarro Cafe is like taking a master class on the Scoville scale. The offerings range from eye-opening (the chunky oregano and chile-accented onion salsa) to sneaky-hot (the sweetened chile arbol paste) to volcanic (the bright green tomatillo-serrano slurry). Beneath the heat lurk complex flavor profiles, perfectly matched to the peerless Mexico City-style fare turned out by Memo Pinedo's kitchen. Not for nothing has this Spring Branch favorite already been written up this year in both The New York Times and Texas Monthly. It's also the perfect place to test the mettle of visiting guests who claim they like to eat spicy food.
Danton's Gulf Coast Seafood Kitchen
Photo by Troy Fields
The oysters alone win this award for Danton's. Served any way — fried, Rockefeller or baked — the fresh, plump, straight-out-of-the-Gulf oysters are a must-have. But the best way to enjoy them is to belly up to the bar and order a dozen raw on the half shell, especially on Oyster Mondays, when a dozen is half price. Danton's seemingly has broken the curse of its corner of Chelsea Market, and the freshness of the seafood combined with classic Cajun flavor and flair has much to do with that.
Beaver's
Photo by Houston Press Staff
For many, Beaver's sets the pace when it comes to non-traditional barbecue in Houston, so it is still a challenge to get vegetarians to walk through the door — until they learn about The Nut Burger. The patty is concocted from a brown rice base with nuts mixed throughout and seems to be held together by static cling. Topping it with cheese not only makes it taste great but also helps hold it together. Meatatarians will not be fooled; the burger is not shredded flesh. But that delicious, delicately constructed patty is delicious and falls apart in your mouth.
Hubcap Grill
Tucked away in a tiny compartment in the middle of downtown, Hubcap Grill is maybe the easiest place in the world to drive by without even seeing. Yet vast and ample rewards await therein. The burgers, oh Lord, the burgers: The patties are hand-formed, never-frozen beef, and the buns are homemade artisan bread. The meat is thick and juicy, with just enough spice to enhance the flavor without masking it. Among the best is the Philly Cheese Steak Burger, which comes with both a beef patty and shredded, Philly-style beef. The Frito Pie Burger is amazing and deliciously crunchy. Hubcap's aptitude for excess — they feature both the Triple and the Quadruple Heart Clogger, the latter with chili and a grilled wiener — stops just short of becoming a total train wreck. All the ingredients mingle well, and have been assembled with more deliberation than the kind of "I dare you!" mentality that plagues some specialty burgers at inferior burgerias. They're ballsy, but they're knowledgeable too; where else could you find a Mediterranean-style Muffaletta Burger with homemade olive mix and Swiss cheese? Hubcap is a true Houston jewel.
Tacos A Go-Go
It's difficult to think of a better meal for a bleary-eyed Saturday morning than a slew of Tacos-A-Go-Go breakfast tacos. You start with egg, and then you choose two of 12 ingredients (or more for a quarter per item). Choices include black beans, bacon, potato, spinach and our favorite, Tacos-A-Go-Go's delicious chorizo. It's not that they're fancy; quite the opposite. They're just damn tasty is all, with good-quality ingredients. You'll probably order more than you can really eat just trying out all the combinations. Slather on the hot sauce and get your day started.
Heights Asian Cafe
This unassuming little restaurant in the shell of an old Long John Silver's has brought excellent pan-Asian food to a neighborhood that was sorely missing it. And the best item on its extensive menu is one of the simplest: steamed pork and vegetable dumplings, hand-filled and hand-crimped in the kitchen by a tiny old lady who seems to do nothing else. As you'd imagine, the resulting dumplings are nothing short of wonderful, easily competing with other favorites at FuFu and QQ Cafe.
Gatlin's BBQ
At Gatlin's, low and slow are the keywords in this family's burgeoning barbecue empire. There's barely any seating inside, and only a small attached patio, but that doesn't stop the lines from forming outside the front door every single day, demanding Greg Gatlin's brisket and ribs. Unusual for a barbecue joint, the sides are just as craveable as the meat: Try the dirty rice and you'll leave an avowed liver lover, and get some creamy coleslaw for a little crunch alongside your meat. And when they say, "Love is the secret ingredient" here, they mean it: You'll always get service with a smile and a gentle reminder not to leave without dessert.
Natachee's Supper 'n Punch
A great Bloody Mary is tricky to pull off. It's not enough to put it together from a mix, and even if you use all the correct ingredients, it can still get watered down by too much ice or overdone by too much hot sauce. The Bloody Mary at Natachee's is a great example of the art. Spicy but also refreshing, and boldly, intensely flavorful without overdoing it, the Natachee's Bloody Mary is perfect — perfect — for nursing a hangover. The fact that Natachee's puts it on special right when it's needed most — Sunday mornings — is a godsend. The fact that, while you're there, you can also wolf down the other World's Greatest Hangover Cure — a big, sloppy, country-fried breakfast — doesn't hurt, either.

Best Place for a Vegetarian to Take Their Meat-Loving Friends

Hoggs 'n' Chicks

Hoggs n' Chicks
For a meat-heavy restaurant that comes from a Frenchman with an extensive butchery background, Hoggs 'n' Chicks makes a mean veggie burger — possibly the best in the area. Quinoa is the base here, along with plenty of vegetables: carrots, spinach, bell peppers and more mingle in this delightful patty. Two different all-veggies salads, a veggie soup of the day and even a goat cheese-topped veggie sandwich round out a menu that's otherwise laden with porky creations like the Pig's Delight with fried pork loin, ham, bacon, Hatch chile sauce and a fried egg. Let your carnivores delight in the Delight while you enjoy your veggie burger.

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