Taconazo
Photo by Robb Walsh

A good salsa adds life and flavor to a taco, but a great salsa makes that combination spectacular. This is true of the spicy smooth tomatillo and avocado salsa that accompanies your order of tacos or quesadillas at the Taconazo truck located in the heart of the north side. The fajita tacos from this unassuming food truck in the parking lot of a vulcanizadora (or tire-repair shop) are served hot and delicious but a bit dry. Open it up, douse it with green goodness, eat and enjoy. You'll be hard-pressed to find a more satisfying combination of meat, tortilla and salsa this side of the Mexican border.

Tony's Thai & Sushi Restaurant

Tony Thai, located on Bellaire Boulevard in the Saigon Houston Plaza, is definitely one of the most well-appointed Thai restaurants in town. But the ambience is just one part of the equation at this place, where both the front and the back of the house are Thai in origin. What that means is that you get the full experience — recommendations for dishes by real Thai servers, dishes prepared by real Thai cooks. The food is undiluted in flavor. Beware of the spice level in the tom yum soup. Enjoy the taste of umami in their julienned papaya salad. The spicy, sweet and sour chicken wings are to die for, and the staple noodle dishes, like pad Thai or pad-see-ew, always tasty. Their beef tiger cry, with its lime-infused chile dipping sauce, is outstanding, as is their impressive whole crispy garlic fish. The laminated picture menu makes it especially easy to order as well. If you don't know what you want, you can always just choose the picture that appeals to you the most and point your finger to place an order.

Reserve 101

Despite the fact that Texas retains some of the most antiquated liquor laws in the country, Houston is not hurting for good whiskey bars. The Four Seasons offers curated whiskey flights starting at just $10 while places like Poison Girl and Downing Street have some of the widest selections in Texas if not America. All are trumped, however, by the knowledge and selection available at Reserve 101. Tipping the scales at nearly 230 whiskeys from around the globe, the array of booze here cannot be matched. Not content to simply offer up a great selection, the downtown bar also prides itself on its whiskey tastings as well as a curated cocktail list.

Best Place to Skip Dinner and Get to Dessert

Ruggles Cafe Bakery

Ruggles Café Bakery

This counter-service restaurant in Rice Village may offer a solid menu of fast-casual items. It may be BYOB, and it may also have a great little patio, but the real killer here, the reason you just have to swing by whenever you're in the neighborhood, is the dessert case. For dessert lovers, it's riveting, with a mouthwatering selection of huge cakes, pies and other treats perfect for any mood. Ruggles's white chocolate bread pudding is legend, their tres leches ginormous, their red velvet and carrot cakes stellar. This is definitely a place where you can skip dinner and go right to dessert, and with so many choices, you don't need to stop at just one.

Jasmine Asian Cuisine

It's called Jasmine Asian Cuisine, and indeed the menu offers a mix of Chinese and Vietnamese options. Get Peking spareribs or toasted salted calamari for your Chinese fix, but save room for Vietnamese food, which is the real star at this restaurant. Maybe you'll want to order the bo nuong vi, strips of beef marinated in lemongrass and spices, which are meant to be barbecued at the table. Maybe you'll try their bo 7 mon, seven dishes of beef that progress from an appetizer salad to more hearty fare, like their bo la lot (betel leaf wrapped beef) or their cha dum (beef meatball). Or perhaps you'll want to try their ca 8 mon (fish eight ways), again a smorgasbord of eight different fish dishes. Whatever you do, don't forget to put in an order for the whole grilled crispy catfish, which takes time to prepare. The impressive, crispy-skinned whole fish comes to the table with maraschino cherry eyes, topped with peanuts and herbs. The fish is pre-scored so that all you have to do is separate it with a spoon and combine it with the vegetables of your choice before hand-rolling it inside a rice-paper shell. The pungent pineapple-shrimp paste dipping sauce is the finishing touch to this delectable dish. It's Vietnamese cuisine at its finest.

MKT BAR

There are places where the bowls are huge, where the number of ingredients in the salad makes it seem more like an entrée than a mix of vegetables, but when you order the MKT salad at MKT Bar at Phoenicia Specialty Foods downtown, you get a real salad. Crisp, hyper-fresh romaine and cucumber tossed with mint, feta, red grapes and pistachio combine with crisps of toasted pita and a garlicky lebni dressing to create a salad that's exactly what a salad should be — light and uncomplicated, refreshing and healthy, the flavors slightly acidic and delicious. For a heartier meal, chicken breast and/or shrimp can also be added upon request. A build-your-own option is also available inside the adjacent Phoenicia Specialty Foods market.

Philippe

The wine list at Philippe Restaurant + Lounge is not the most expensive, nor does it try to impress you with big-name labels (though it offers those if you want them). What it does possess is character and a breadth of choices that marry seamlessly with Philippe Schmit's Texan-French cuisine, a credit to Sommelier Vanessa Treviño-Boyd, our 2012 Best Of winner in the Sommelier category. For certain, you'll find the wines of France well represented — Chassagne-Montrachet, Châteauneuf-du-Pape, Burgundy and Bordeaux. But mixed in with those impeccably curated wines are the gems that you'll remember — an unassuming Bandol from Provence, a delightfully crisp Vouvray, a surprisingly amazing Txakolina from the Basque region of Spain — wines that you would never explore on your own but that, with expert guidance from Treviño-Boyd, leap to the top of your list of all-time favorites. The new by-the-glass offerings at Phil's Wine Lounge on the lower floor of the restaurant are also a force to be reckoned with. A Bordeaux from Pomerol for under $20 a glass? It's practically unheard-of, but it's de rigueur at Philippe.

Alamo Tamale & Taco
Photo by Daniel Kramer

You don't have to wait until Christmas to experience the best tamales in Houston; just take a short trip up to the north side and visit Alamo Tamale's recently renovated lunch counter and taqueria. There you will find an assortment of authentic tamales to choose from. They're available in pork, chicken, bean and queso con jalapeño. Choose from the casero (or homemade) variety ($10.99 plus tax per dozen for chicken, bean and queso; $12.99 plus tax for pork) or the smaller but equally delicious machine-made tamales ($5.99 plus tax per dozen, all flavors). With the perfect ratio of masa to stuffing, these tamales are almost as good as your abuelita's!

Croissant Brioche French Bakery
Dave Rosales

The perfectly buttery and flaky croissant is hard to find, unless you're in Paris, of course. However, Croissant Brioche in West University makes you feel as if you just stepped inside a little Parisian cafe. While you can't go wrong with a plain croissant, the almond is where it's at; it's a specialty at Croissant Brioche. Thin slices of toasted almonds sit atop a subtly sweet layer of almond paste, but the best surprise is the creamy almond paste filling between the thin croissant layers. If you have a hankering for something savory, order the ham and cheese or the beef sausage croissant — either is perfect for breakfast or lunch.

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