Best Of :: Food & Drink
There is no better nor more consistently excellent Chinese restaurant in town right now than Mala Sichuan, thanks to the peerless stewardship of owner Cori Xiong and her team of highly trained Sichuan chefs. The flavors in Mala's water-boiled fish or mapo tofu are clean, vibrant and piercing, while less heat-heavy dishes such as the Funky Stick Chicken, Arctic surf clams or Four Joy Lion's Head show off the less spicy — but no less invigorating — side of Sichuan cuisine.
Tacos are one of those foods best enjoyed outdoors — yes, even on a sweltering day. It's the Houston way. That's why the all-outdoors Karanchos is such a destination for taco hounds. That, and the rotating pork-on-a-spit called trompo, which marinates in pineapple juice while it cooks. Like barbecue, trompo is best cooked outside. And as with good barbecue, people flock to good trompo from miles away. Get yours on fresh corn tortillas topped with cilantro, onions and some of Karanchos' screamingly hot salsa verde while you belly up to a picnic table in the shade. It's like inviting yourself to a family picnic, only better — you don't have to make small talk with your relatives, just stuff your face with tacos and Topo Chico.
Located inside the old Antone's Deli spot in Rice Village, Local Foods does its former tenant a great honor by continuing to turn out spectacular sandwiches that are wholly Houston. Made with as many local ingredients as possible, whether it be produce, meat or cheese, Local Foods' sandwiches are chock full of good stuff. Try the roast beef with kale, curried cauliflower and horseradish aioli or the truffled egg salad for something more traditional. Feeling adventurous? Check out the Korean barbecue pork sandwich with house-made kimchi or Gulf shrimp and blue crab salad with green goddess dressing on a fresh-baked ciabatta roll.
It's hard to believe that food coming off a truck can be as inventive, or can taste as good as, what you get at H-town Streats. But then again, it's not every food truck that has trained chefs working at the helm. On any given day, you'll find Jason Hill and/or Matt Opaleski manning the truck, which means that crawfish taco with Tabasco aioli is gonna taste like a lot more than the $3 you're paying to eat it. In fact, whether it's their infamous boudin balls with creole mustard, their fried avocado taco with cilantro slaw, their burger with sautéed mushrooms and cheese, or their watermelon agua fresca, pretty much everything that you try at this truly gourmet food truck is going to be a winner. The menu changes often, too, so no need to worry about eating the same old, same old. Even if you followed the truck around like a die-hard disciple, the menu is extensive enough that you'd still be able to enjoy a different meal every day. Food sells out quickly, so try to visit them at the beginning of service.
If you need proof that quality and quantity are not mutually exclusive, look no further than The Davenport martini. Non-purists will appreciate all of the well-crafted martini "varieties" (more than 30!), but the original classic (a frosty balance of gin, dry vermouth and a splash of olive juice) is truly potable art. More than one might even knock James Bond flat, but sip slowly and you'll be able to get off your bar stool without falling. Eventually.
Just as the sign-less Plonk is a secret treasure here in Garden Oaks, so does its wine list feature hidden gems from the peerless mind of owner Scott Miller. Miller, the former wine director at Pappas Steakhouse, is smart enough to know his clientele on both ends of the wine spectrum and caters to them with aplomb. This means you'll find highly accessible $6 and $8 glasses of Merlot mingling on his menu alongside glasses like a $16 Weingut Bründlmayer Riesling Kamptaler Terrassen from Austria or a $20 Grilli del Testamatta that would have wine geeks swooning in their seats.
At the Washington Avenue location of this Houston classic, chef Mike Potowski — a native of Japan — showcases seasonal produce and local products in his diverse but streamlined menu, with echoes of Asian influences. Free-range chicken is served with summer succotash, and pork rib eye is paired with Texas peaches in warmer months, while spring sees dishes like Gulf flounder with white asparagus and English peas. Sunday suppers are three-course affairs with whatever Potowski finds freshest at the markets, and even the draft beer selection with local craft brews changes with the seasons.
Chef Roberto Castre lives and breathes Peruvian food at his restaurant, Latin Bites — because he's from Peru himself. He brought with him to Houston not only an innate understanding of the cuisine, but also a deft touch in the modern treatments he gives to classics like ceviches and causitas. His saucework is nothing short of breathtaking, too, from bright aji amarillo atop papas a la crema to aji rocoto blended with sweet potatoes, Peruvian corn and tiradito-style sashimi. The chic, elegant dining room in cool tones only serves to underscore Castre's modern interpretations of his homeland's cuisine.
Sushi Miyagi definitely strives to keep its overhead low. There are only a few tables in this tiny restaurant and a staff of exactly two people. It's a true mom-and-pop joint; Pop makes wonderful, artistic sushi, while Mom runs basically everything else. What you get is just about the best quality fish you will find anywhere. There are some fancy, designer rolls on the menu, but if you want the authentic, real-deal raw-fish experience, this is the place to go.
Hot Bagel Shop is a true hole-in-the-wall, as any good bagel shop should be. New Jersey natives opened the store more than 25 years ago, and it's been pumping out fresh, crisp and perfectly doughy New York-style bagels ever since. Don't expect a lavish dining experience; besides the one or two tables in the parking lot, this counter-service shop is for takeout only. Come here to grab a dozen bagels, ranging from traditional flavors like onion garlic and supreme to bolder choices like jalapeño and banana walnut. Then, pick up a tub of chive cream cheese or the famous lox spread and call it a day. Oh, and we're sure a bagel dog or two couldn't hurt, either.
If you're brand-new to African — or Nigerian, in this case — food, Finger Licking Bukateria is the perfect place to start. The flagship restaurant of Houston's Little Nigeria, FLB is housed in an old Bennigan's, with plenty of room to spread out with friends and get your hands into some fufu and egusi. The helpful waiters will guide you on what to order, and the picture menu is instructive, too. At night, prepare for a scene: DJs spin records in the back and Long Island Iced Teas are on special.
If you wake up feeling particularly saucy on a Saturday or Sunday morning, then Farrago World Cuisine is the place for you. This trendy fusion restaurant is packed during its famous weekend brunch, serving up a refreshing menu alongside tall glasses of bottomless mimosas. The vibe is Miami-in-the-summertime, with a young, hip crowd that is ready to party as the DJ spins a sexy, sultry mix. Try the green chile-infused posole or the crispy calamari with wasabi dipping sauce to start, and finish the meal off with a hearty sausage-and-spinach-filled breakfast calzone or Farrago's take on huevos rancheros, served over polenta. All the while, you can sip on a seemingly endless amount of fresh orange juice and chilled bubbly.