Bocca Deli
Photo by Houston Press Staff

The sandwiches at Bocca Deli aren't fancy — but they're just fancy enough to make you wonder how the family-run shop in Lindale Park manages to sell them so cheap. Grilled chicken is diced and tossed with roasted red peppers, then topped with melting Provolone cheese. Ham sandwiches are kicked up with mango-habanero sauce and crunchy cucumber. And none of them are over $7. A combo gets you half a sandwich and a cup of homemade soup for $7, too, which is only one of the great deals that Mike Kriticos offers as almost a neighborhood service in this close-knit northside community.

Artisans
Photo by Troy Fields

"It feels like Joel Robuchon's restaurant in Vegas," one might say when dining at Artisans. With its open kitchen and curved 28-seat bar, diners who want to can watch all the kitchen action right as it's happening. From the big whoosh of flames that go up while they're making the steak au poivre (pepper steak) to the meticulous plating of dishes right before they arrive in front of you, sitting so close is just like being at a chef's table in the kitchen, something the owners were striving for. "We wanted to make the chef's table available to everyone," says kitchen veteran and executive chef Jacques Fox, who is often seen visiting with guests during dinner service. His personal touch, combined with the Gallic flair of the decor — artisan-crafted wooden menu boards, bright red rooster motifs and a gorgeous fleur de lys awning above the more intimate velveteen banquette area — gives this restaurant atmosphere and then some. All this while you're dining on well-executed, classic French dishes — it doesn't get much better.

El Real Tex-Mex Cafe

Of all the menu items offered at this wonderful Tex-Mex restaurant, the enchiladas are far and away superior to any others anywhere in Houston. There is something special about the combination of tortilla, meat and cheese that El Real bakes to delicious perfection, with each bite seemingly better than your last. Try the bacon enchiladas for brunch, or el gallo verde, chicken enchiladas in green salsa, or, for the vegetarian in the family, go for the amazing enchiladas de hongos (mushroom). Wanna be bold? Add a fried egg on top to round up the fantastic flavors.

Liberty Kitchen Oyster Bar

Okay, the phrase "best clams" in conjunction with "oyster bar" inspires a certain amount of cognitive dissonance. Get over it. Oysters may be center stage at Liberty Kitchen, but littleneck clams are getting increasing attention for their supporting role at dinnertime. Shipped farm-fresh from Mattawoman Creek, Virginia, the steamed clams are immersed in a bath of the restaurant's own wheat beer and dressed with shallots, Italian sausage and spicy mayonnaise. The combination of fatty pork, pepper, sweet mollusks and hoppy broth makes this dinner entrée more like a festive stew, so grab a large spoon and some extra bread to slurp and soak up every delicious drop.

Bismillah Restaurant
Photo by Katharine Shilcutt

Hot french fries and a burger, chicken wings, pizza — there's just something everyone loves about good old-fashioned comfort food. Now take those favorites and imagine them with a distinctly Pakistani twist. That's exactly what second-generation restaurateur Inam Moghul is doing at Bismillah Cafe. Located just doors down from the original — and much larger — Bismillah Restaurant, the small cafe forgoes formality for quick, Pakistani-style snack food, or chaat. Ten-spice chicken wings and curried french fries share the menu with more traditional South Asian favorites like samosas and dahi puri. This melding of styles makes Bismillah one of Houston's very best places to have a casual bite.

Nazif's Turkish Grill & Deli

Nestled in one of the hundreds of shockingly similar patchwork strip centers on Westheimer, Nazif's stands out by offering exceptional authentic Turkish fare that goes beyond the simple Americanized kebabs and hummus you may be used to. With a focus on baked goods, Nazif's serves up Turkish-style pizza called pide topped with scrambled eggs, meats and cheese as well as myriad fluffy wraps stuffed to the gills with chargrilled meat and vegetables. The windows advertise lunch specials at a great value, but the perfect time to visit is on a Sunday for the brunch, when large Turkish families gather to take in the stellar (and surprisingly inexpensive) buffet of fresh veggies, ezme, pilaki and more.

Gatlin's BBQ

People rave about the brisket at Gatlin's, but then again, they rave about just about everything offered by this humble mom-and-pop shop in the Heights, run by owner Greg Gatlin and his parents. The tiny storefront with just enough room inside for three small tables sells consistently delicious barbecue that's made fresh and runs out daily. Ribs are charred with flavor on the outside, juicy on the inside. Sausage is tender and full of flavor. Pulled pork packs a huge punch on its own or as a heaping hunk of a sandwich. The spicy proprietary house-made sauce comes from a secret recipe that no one else touches but the Gatlins, and as for the sides, it doesn't get better. Chunky potato salad; tangy, creamy, crispy slaw; and barbecue beans that are slap-yo-mama delicious all make up part and parcel of the whole package that is Gatlin's BBQ. Craft-based barbecue that's made with a whole lotta love — that's the magic of Gatlin's.

Aladdin Mediterranean Cuisine
Photo by Christina Uticone

Located on the corner of Westheimer and Montrose, Aladdin Mediterranean Cuisine is one of those places to go when you feel hungry and don't have a lot of cash. For less than $12 (most entrées are $10.99-$11.99), you get a choice of entrée, choice of three side dishes and fresh-out-of-the-oven pita bread. Entrées are usually some type of meat: chicken or lamb kebabs, lamb gyros and lamb shank. Sides are chosen cafeteria-style along a counter. Cold sides, like the dips and salads, can be further split into half portions. An example would be a plate of hummus and baba ghanoush dip, with a cucumber and beet salad, and then one hot side like eggplant or roasted cauliflower. Portions are huge, the food is always fresh and tasty, and there are always plenty of leftovers to take home for the next day's lunch — definitely one of Houston's best bangs for the buck.

The Pass
Photo by Troy Fields

Though Best Chef is technically awarded to one person, in the case of Seth Siegel-Gardner and Terrence Gallivan of The Pass & Provisions, it would be impossible to choose between them because these two chefs do just about everything as a team. Together, they've created one of the most inspired restaurants to hit the scene in years. "Restaurant" is actually something of a misnomer. In a single space, they've managed to develop two absolutely distinct concepts that share a single kitchen. On one side, day-to-day fare consisting of artisanal breads, charcuterie, pizzas and pastas rules the house. On the other, dress-you-up fine dining offers the ultimate elevated dining experience with tons of wow factor. Though the two sides are different thematically, the culinary creativity displayed on both menus is remarkable. Whether it's a rooster's crest-shaped pasta or a gigantic piece of just-fried chicharrón that serves as their muse, Siegel-Gardner and Gallivan, as a team, take food from ordinary to ­extraordinary.

Pho Dien

Pho, or Vietnamese noodle soup, is available at just about every Vietnamese restaurant around town. What separates the good from the bad are the broth and the meats, and at Pho Dien, a tiny strip-mall hole in the wall on Bellaire Boulevard outside of Beltway 8, they are the reasons why discerning Vietnamese diners will line up outside the tiny restaurant on a Saturday afternoon. The broth here is rich and well seasoned, never too salty or too diluted, the essence of bones and spices evident with each slurp from the spoon. The rice noodles are of the fresh variety, with good elasticity to them. But it's the meat that's the star; their tai uop, or marinated carpaccio, is gossamer tender and flavorful. Order the dac biet specialty bowl with the tai uop on the side, which you can dip into the steaming broth to eat with each steaming spoonful of noodles, and you'll see why it's one of the best bowls of pho around town.

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