—————————————————— Best Chef 2014 | Hugo Ortega | Best of Houston® | Best Restaurants, Bars, Clubs, Music and Stores in Houston | Houston Press

It was a big year for Hugo Ortega. In 2013, he and his wife, Tracy Vaught, published Backstreet Kitchen: Seasonal Recipes from Our Neighborhood Cafe, the Backstreet Cafe cookbook celebrating the restaurant's 30th anniversary. Ortega and Vaught opened Caracol, a Mexican seafood restaurant in an expansive (and expensive) space in the new BBVA Compass building on Post Oak, and it was immediately a hit with customers and critics alike. Then the man whose namesake restaurant, Hugo's, has been thrilling diners for years was a finalist for a James Beard Award for Best Chef Southwest. Even though he lost to another Houstonian, Chris Shepherd, Ortega's continued dedication to quality food and presentations in spite of his busy schedule makes him a winner in our book.

Petite Sweets makes its famous custard in-house, and Liberty Kitchen & Oyster Bar uses that, as well as pies and cakes (also from Petite Sweets), to make some of the most outrageous milkshakes around. You want a pecan pie shake? Done. How 'bout carrot cake with vanilla custard? YES. The selection depends on what flavors of cake and pie Liberty Kitchen has on a particular day, but the kind cooks will blend any of them into a shake for you. If you're less inclined to have your cake and drink it, too, that luscious custard alone (maybe with a few toppings) makes one sweet shake.

Photo by Troy Fields

Ciao Bello does Italian the way owner Tony Vallone remembers it and the way chef Bobby Matos envisions it should be. It's the combination of old-school Italian and new-school flavor profiles that has elevated this restaurant from the lesser cousin of Tony's to real competition, and its pasta is the best of the best. All the pasta is handmade from the same imported flour and Italian water that makes the pasta at Tony's so delectably springy and flavorful. The doppio ravioli filled with puréed red and yellow beets and topped with olive oil, fried sage, roasted chestnuts and a light pan sauce is one of the most creative pastas to find their way onto the specials menu here, but the regular dinner menu contains tried-and-true dishes like butternut squash pansoti and the best bolognese in town as well.

Photo courtesy Pho Binh by Night

Pho Binh first established a reputation for serving the best pho in town out of a trailer on Beamer Road. Following the success of the trailer, the owners opened a bigger, brighter spot that shines like a beacon in the darkness on Bellaire after hours: Pho Binh by Night. What sets this spot apart from the countless other pho joints in Houston (aside from the late hours) is the bone marrow you can order to go along with your pho. Stir in a blob of the marrow, which will start to disintegrate just a little from the force of the stirring, then spoon up a bite of the lush broth mixed with the marrow for the ultimate pho experience. The broth alone is complex and incredibly flavorful, but the extra dose of decadence from the marrow turns a simple dish extraordinary.

You might not expect to find an awesome wine list at a small Chinese restaurant on Bellaire, but there's a lot about Mala Sichuan that's surprising. Sommelier Justin Vann, who runs his own wine and beer consulting company, called PSA Wines, created the wine list for the small bistro after noting the dearth of decent booze along the Bellaire strip. Most restaurants in Chinatown are BYOB, but Vann changed that with the introduction of wine and beer that pairs perfectly with the often-spicy and always incredibly flavorful cuisine at Mala. The true measure of a great wine list is that it makes the food better as well. If you thought it was impossible to improve upon the food at Mala Sichuan, order a bottle of Treveri Brut Chardonnay and think again.

These are the cheapest breakfast tacos in town, and also the best. For only $1 (no tax), you get a thick, fluffy flour tortilla packed with the only option Tacos Tierra Caliente usually offers: eggs, potato, ham and chorizo. What the cooks make is what you get, and what they make at this unassuming but wildly popular taco truck across the street from West Alabama Ice House has become the stuff of legend in Houston. The breakfast tacos, served until 11:30 a.m., have a slight griddle flavor from the meat and eggs cooked to well done somewhere in the dark recesses of the truck. That flavor and the numbingly spicy green and red salsas seem prepared specifically to express Tacos Tierra Caliente's morning goal: Are you awake yet? Now you are!

Best Neighborhood Spot in Upper Kirby

Hobbit Cafe

Jeff Balke

This cozy house tucked away off Richmond sure serves up some fantastically non-hobbit-size fare. Grab a few pints from the rotating selection of local and craft beer out on the deck shaded by oak trees, then dig into some seriously good burgers and sandwiches topped and stuffed with all manner of goodies, including avocado, jalapeño poppers, tabbouleh and more. Big and small plates feature everything from blackened tilapia and Thai shrimp rolls to spinach and mushroom enchiladas, ensuring this casual neighborhood hangout has something for everyone.

The original location of LA Crawfish, the Viet-Cajun joint that expanded recently to meet increased demand for spicy mudbugs, is tucked into the food court of a Chinese grocery store. The spot doesn't look like the purveyor of the best crawfish in town, but one bite of the crawfish pho is sure to change your mind. During the offseason, LA Crawfish boils all manner of seafood, but the crawfish boils are definitely the best. Three sauces are available: classic garlic and butter, spicy Cajun, or chile lime. Order two pounds with two different sauces and a side of fried tails for the ultimate crawfish experience.

Gone are the days of the standard slices of French baguette with pats of butter. Nowadays, many restaurants offer a bread basket filled with an intriguing array of crackers, flatbreads and other doughy items, sometimes for an additional fee. At benjy's on Washington (and also in Rice Village), you never know what you'll get. Essentially it's a modern interpretation of the bread basket, where bread can be absolutely anything. One day you might munch on a basket full of cornbread and muffins with apple butter, and another you'll savor moist and fluffy cheddar chive biscuits. Maybe it'll be a trio of cheesy shortbread crackers, candied nuts and pickles. Sometimes you'll get a bowl of spiced popcorn. You're always in for a surprise. And the best part? It's free.

When MF Sushi closed because of a fire in late September 2013, Houstonians mourned the loss of the restaurant helmed by chef Chris Kinjo. Thankfully it reopened in May, and Kinjo got back to doing what he does best: incredible sushi. The most authentic experience is had at the sushi bar, where the chef creates an omakase, or tasting menu, tailored to your likes. The raw fish is top quality and as fresh as can be, and the rice is the ideal texture and temperature. Watching Kinjo create sushi is like watching a master sculptor at work. His fingers move quickly, and almost before you know what you're looking at, a beautiful, jewel-like piece of sashimi or nigiri has manifested before your eyes. They don't call him "Magic Fingers" for nothing.

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