Brenner's on the Bayou
Courtesy of Brenner's Steakhouse

We can all admit that Houston isn't the most picturesque city around, which makes an elegant meal at this stunning steakhouse on the bayou that much more special. With the serene backdrop of the trickling water (who knew the bayou could be so pretty?), the restaurant has a cabin-in-the-woods kind of feel. A very classy cabin in the woods. The airy two-story dining room is rustic, vibrant and modern all at once, while the outdoor Blue Bar, lush gardens and scattered fountains feel incredibly rich and chic. Perhaps Houston's not so ugly after all.

Caracol
Photo by Troy Fields

When Caracol opened in late December 2013, the crowds came, not just in support of the beloved duo of chef Hugo Ortega and restaurateur Tracy Vaught but because the space was amazing and offered food to match. From the get-go, Caracol operated like a well-oiled machine. Signature dishes, like the wood-grilled oysters topped with chipotle butter, quickly emerged. In fact, pretty much everything coming out of the kitchen was superb: tuna tacos in which the fish was cooked to mimic carnitas; shrimp aguachile served atop a bed of beautifully arranged cucumber; whole grilled fish; and the namesake ceviche de caracol (conch), so fresh it tasted of the ocean. Drinks, overseen by veteran beverage director Sean Beck, complemented the cuisine perfectly, from that lesser known glass of Italian Vermentino to creative cocktails made with mezcal or tequila. And the sweets were automatic winners, with wonders like the much-Instagrammed El Coco, a coconut dessert encased in a hollow round chocolate shell that you got to crack open with a wooden hammer. From the food to the drinks and the ambience to the service, Caracol had it all from the start — a recipe for success and the reason it merits the title of Best New Restaurant of 2014.

Revival Market

The best spot to feel right at home in the Heights is Revival Market. Stop by to purchase a few local products, such as cupcakes from Fluff Bake Bar, cheese from Houston Dairymaids or hot sauce from Bravado Spice, and stock your fridge with fresh fruits, vegetables and butchered meats from the grocery section. Enjoy the peaceful neighborhood by sitting outside with a latte and house-made yogurt and granola for breakfast, or a roast beef sandwich on challah with a side of mustard potato salad for lunch. Chef Ryan Pera's menu is simple and scrumptious and makes you feel right at home, from the grilled cheese sandwich with caramelized onions to the classic BLT with green goddess mayo. Of course, you can't miss out on the Saturday morning breakfast specials announced weekly — especially when kolaches and doughnuts are involved.

Killen's Steakhouse

Cordon Bleu-trained Pearland native Ronnie Killen knows how to make a mean steak. His icehouse-turned-steakhouse is certainly the best in Pearland, and his steaks, sourced from high-quality meat purveyors such as Allen Brothers and Strube Ranch, are among the best in the greater Houston area. In fact, order his 32-ounce dry-aged long-bone rib eye, and there really is no contest — it readily beats any other steak in Houston hands-down. First, there's the size. The bone itself is at least 24 inches long, fit for a caveman and oh so amazing. Then there's the meat, charred to perfection so that the edges are crisp and salted just right. Cut through it, and the meat is tender, juicy and incredibly savory. Nowhere else in Houston will you find a steak this beautiful.

The Hay Merchant

This Montrose brew bar helmed by guru Kevin Floyd remains just as popular today as it was when it burst onto the scene in 2012, thanks in part to its stellar cask selection (five per day, to be exact) and eccentric list of local favorite and hard-to-find beers. It's the place to go for brews in Houston. With about 80 beers on tap, covering everything from German-style Schwarzbier to all manner of pilsners and ales, both rookies and beer geeks are sure to leave hoppy (sorry, we couldn't help ourselves). Join them for a daily happy hour from 3 to 6:30 p.m., when the Hay Merchant offers a selection of 30 beers for just $3 each.

Charcuterie service is fun and interactive.
Photo by Mai Pham
Charcuterie service is fun and interactive.

It happens every single time there are new people who haven't yet been to Kris Bistro: When the charcuterie comes out, presented on a hanging display with the different cuts of meat dangling from clothespins, heads turn, cameras whip out and collective gasps erupt all around. And that's just for the presentation. When time permits, Executive Chef Kris Jakob will bring the charcuterie to the table himself and explain each of the meats, which vary from day to day. Usually there's a German sausage, a duck pastrami and a Parma ham — everything cured in-house and absolutely delicious. At the bottom of the charcuterie plate, house-made pickles and a small ramekin of house-made pâté usually complete the order, which is accompanied by French bread baked fresh daily by the students at the culinary school upstairs. Jakob, who is German by descent and grew up in a family involved in the restaurant business, learned how to cure meats from the age of five. He's now a culinary instructor and executive chef at the restaurant, and his charcuterie is second to none.

Thai Gourmet

You have to go out of your way to find Thai Gourmet, a place almost hidden away in a strip mall on Richmond between Hillcroft and Fountainview. And yet it still gets packed. The reason? The food. You can get something as simple as a pad Thai noodle dish or the classic sweet and sour shrimp tom yum goong, or go deeper and get items like Penang beef, duck curry, basil beef and massaman curry. The best part is that you can specify the level of heat in each dish, and if you go with Thai hot — buyer beware — you'll break into a sweat, but it will be oh so right.

MKT BAR

In addition to having one of the most affordable steak nights around, MKT Bar at Phoenicia Specialty Foods downtown has the distinction of making the deal available twice a week — every Tuesday and Thursday. For the staggeringly affordable price of $12.99, you get to feast on a fresh and crisp Mediterranean side salad, a chef's choice steak topped with chimichurri sauce and a side of twice-baked potatoes. It's a veritable embarrassment of riches, and one that's so popular, people start packing in as early as 2 p.m., when it starts being offered, straight through to 10 at night, when MKT Bar closes.

Regal Seafood House & Lounge
Photo by Troy Fields

Its name may be Regal Seafood, but the place might as well be Regal Peking Duck. This new Cantonese restaurant, owned by the same folks as E-Tao in the Galleria, specializes in Peking duck carved tableside, and it's a sight to behold. The golden, crispy-skinned duck is wheeled out on a custom-made cart. Protruding from the cart at an angle is a long metal rod holding the entire bird. A gloved waiter holding a butcher's knife meticulously carves rectangular pieces of the Peking duck skin onto a plate, which are served with house-made pancakes, hoisin sauce and chives. As you stuff the pancakes with duck, chives and sauce, each bite is an explosion of flavor — just amazing. But that's not all that makes this one helluva Peking duck. Regal will make you an entirely new dish for a small fee from the remaining meat on the carcass. Now that's a winner.

Latin Bites

A slew of new Peruvian restaurants have been popping up all over Houston, but Latin Bites is still the place for an authentic take. Though the menu has been changed to incorporate dishes from other South American countries, chef Roberto Castre's Peruvian roots shine through in his creative ceviches and beautiful causas, not to mention his veal-heart anticucho skewers, pollo a la parilla (grilled chicken), aji de gallina (chicken stew) and the signature lomo saltado (stir-fried beef). Castre has a deft touch with modern Peruvian cuisine as well, with dishes like duck confit over cilantro rice, Andean risotto topped with beef tenderloin and the altogether spectacular volcano rice. As for the pisco sour, the national drink of Peru, Latin Bites has that down as well, with an ultra-smooth, foam-topped libation as authentic and strong as any you'd find on the streets of Lima.

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