Jeff Balke

Shri Balaji Bhavan's sparse atmosphere and counter service don't dissuade Houstonians in search of delicious and authentic Udipi-style cuisine. The place is always packed with people sitting at feast-laden tables. Prices are so reasonable here, you can generously feed a family of four for around $50. It's so delicious that even meat lovers don't mind that the place is strictly vegetarian. The dosas, with their thin, platter-size crepes and savory stuffing, are not to be missed. Shri Balaji Bhavan also offers one of the best selections of puri and chaat (snacks or small dishes like those served by street vendors in India). Those with gentle palates beware; the spices here are not Americanized. This is a must-try if you like a little heat. The vegetable biryani is downright heady. Samosa chaat, drizzled in creamy yogurt sauce and garnished with a colorful riot of onion and tomato, is another winner. Or, order the thali, which provides little samples of several dishes. If the menu seems overwhelming, don't worry. Just pick something from each category or ask the guy at the counter for suggestions and go on a tasty adventure.

Though primarily known for its innovative burgers (like the Sticky Monkey with peanut butter, bacon and grilled bananas), Hubcap Grill offers fries that can steal the show from the patties. The Hell Fries, thin strips of deep-fried potato topped with jalapeños, cayenne and chile powders, and a Siracha mayonnaise, are (irony noted) heaven for those who want some serious spice with their starch. Pair them with a milder burger or eat them on their own; either way, you'll need a fork and some milk.

A true Houston landmark, the breakfast klub in Midtown is a hub of activity during its limited operating hours — 7 a.m. to 2 p.m. on Saturdays, and 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. on weekdays. Featuring a rib-sticking soul-food menu and service that is both quick and friendly, the breakfast klub will start your day off right. Must-tries include the famous Chicken and Waffles and the Catfish and Grits. This is a great breakfast or brunch spot with some of the best fried chicken you'll ever have. It never disappoints.

Dawn McGee

Although it has a small and well-edited wine list, Lucio's is still a BYOB first and foremost. That's why you'll find many of the city's wine geeks tucked away in one of its cozy dining rooms or sprawled on the inviting, manicured back patio. The big draw here is the low-cost $5 corkage fee and chef Brett Maesch's simple, elegant New American cuisine — such as whole roasted bronzino in a hibiscus glaze or smoked duck breast with Napa cabbage — that pairs perfectly with that champion bottle of wine you've been waiting to break out with friends.

Le Mistral is probably best known for its French cuisine, but lately it has upped the ante in the dessert department, starting with the acquisition of a commercial-grade Italian ice cream machine that produces house-made ice creams easily and frequently. Fruit-based sorbets are outstanding, with a wide array of seasonal flavors like pear, apricot, plum, strawberry and lemon. Staple flavors like vanilla bean and hazelnut are rich, dense and creamy-smooth. When you order a selection of the ice creams and sorbets, you don't just get a few scoops in a cup, either. The frozen dessert is elegantly adorned with handmade sugar sculptures by Pastry Chef Marcos Sacalxot, ensuring that it not only tastes good but looks great, too.

Photo by Troy Fields

Whether it's the "Heart Throb" banh mi with double pork, double chicken, two eggs and bacon; a rice vermicelli bowl topped with freshly grilled chicken and egg rolls; or a bowl of the best vegan curry you'll find anywhere in town, Cafe TH delivers Vietnamese with food that's made with care and fresh, wholesome ingredients. It's the hallmark of owner Minh Nguyen's brand. He has revamped what was once an old sandwich shop in East Downtown into a foodie destination that attracts local chefs and foodie-types from all corners of Houston. Thursday and Friday nights, Cafe TH also offers a BYOB three-course white-tablecloth prix-fixe service with a menu that changes weekly. Nguyen's desserts, like his Cafe du Monde cake, convert non-believers instantly.

Ask anyone where to go for sushi in Houston, and Kata Robata will most assuredly make the list. From traditional nigiri sushi to some of the freshest sashimi and inventive new sushi dishes, Kata Robata has it all. At the core of this restaurant is Executive Chef Manabu Horiuchi, the first-ever Japanese nominee from Houston to be nominated for a James Beard Award, in 2012. Horiuchi's insistence on the strictest of standards when it comes to food quality ensures that customers always have the freshest, and seasonally best, selection of fish money can buy: fresh scallop (hotate), live sea urchin (uni), live giant clam (mirugai), Croatian fatty tuna (toro), octopus (tako), sea eel (unagi), Copper River sockeye salmon and more. Traditional dishes like the hot-out-of-the-oven, special-recipe sweet egg omelet (tamago) are unparalleled as well. No matter what you order, on whatever day you visit, the sushi is always top-notch, all the time.

Chris Shepard is known for his charcuterie and passion for whole-animal cooking, so it's no wonder that Underbelly, the chef's first restaurant of his own, processes all of its meat in its own full-scale, back-of-the-house butcher shop. And the restaurant's ever-rotating, meat-centric menu, inspired by the various cuisines in Houston culture, certainly reflects that. Underbelly's small-plate (and limited-availability), family-style selections showcase top-quality meats from local ranchers that Shepard works closely with. The restaurant suggests ordering several plates to share and pass. And we couldn't agree more; that way, everyone can get a taste of dishes like the Korean Braised Goat & Dumplings, House Cured Salumi or Short Rib Satay. Even the bones make it to the menu (and are well worth a try).

Photo by Joanna O'Leary

Located on Long Point Road between Gessner and Blalock, Bon Ga is a favorite among local chefs, offering authentic, everyday Korean cuisine that can be ordered à la carte for one or eaten family-style. The menu is extensive, with several pages of illustrated dishes, ranging from popular boiling hot pot stews like the kim chi jjigae (kimchi stew) or soondubu jjigae (tofu stew) to appetizer dishes like the haemul pajeon (seafood pancake) or twigim mandu (pan-fried dumplings), to noodle dishes like naengmyeon (Korean cold noodles). Bon Ga wouldn't be a Korean restaurant if it didn't have Korean barbecue on the menu, and you'll find a good selection of popular barbecue cuts like galbi (short ribs) and bulgogi (marinated sliced beef) on the menu as well. Barley tea service is free, and those needing help can always ring the handy bell for service.

The simple chocolate chip cookie is surprisingly difficult to make well, judging from the host of dry, bland discs that regularly pose as America's favorite cookie. Tiny Boxwood's has managed to find the perfect combination of ingredients, prepared with the appropriate timing and temperature, to produce lusciously chewy, soft-but-sturdy assemblages of buttery vanilla dough and rich chocolate pieces. You'll find these cookies sunning themselves just next to the register; needless to say, grab 'em while they're warm.

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