Photo by Troy Fields

The huge, vibrant wall murals are certainly a draw, but this hip Montrose eatery's traditional Mexican fare is what keeps people coming back. That and the fact that the owners — Ana Beaven and Charlie McDaniel — are constantly cooking up new ways to engage the community. During the week, there's the astonishingly affordable three-course comida lunch, with a daily rotating menu that touches on the different regions of Mexico. One week it might be moles from Oaxaca; another it might be seafood dishes from Veracruz. Throughout the year, there will be parties for Cinco de Mayo or Día de los Muertos (Day of the Dead). The restaurant partners with yoga studios to do in-house yoga, and with Camerata to do wine and food tastings and hold $2 taco nights as well as tastings of mezcal and tequila. But what truly makes this place special is the magic that happens in the kitchen, which is manned entirely by a crew of Mexican mothers. The food that comes to your table is not Tex-Mex but fare made by someone's mother or sister or aunt — tasting exactly like what you'd find if you visited Mexico City.

Photo by Troy Fields

You can get Gulf oysters all around Houston, but for the best variety of exotics, Eleven XI is where it's at. Executive chef Kevin Bryant is so serious about his oysters that he devotes half his walk-in cooler just to storing them. During the week, he offers a minimum of 12 different varieties — exotic oysters from all up and down the East Coast as well as Canada and even New Zealand. On weekends, that number bumps up to 18-22. Patrons who order oysters will get a card printed with the names of up to 60 varieties and indicating the bivalves' origins and tasting notes. The staff can easily put together a dozen from six different appellations if you want to sample a good cross-section of what Eleven XI has, served beautifully on a bed of crushed ice with lemon and mignonette. On Sundays, start your brunch off with oysters and champagne. Seriously, it doesn't get better than Eleven XI.

Photo by Troy Fields

When this West U eatery — the younger, more casual sister of Italian resto' Coppa — opened, it set out to make the kind of pizza people want to eat. We'd say it has succeeded. Diners can look in on the "dough room," where fresh pizza (and pasta) dough are flawlessly prepared. The 900-plus-degree gas-fired oven gives each pie a rustic, slightly charred crust that bubbles, craggles and crisps in all the right places, while simple, high-quality ingredients such as Calabrian chiles, prosciutto and scamorza blister under the high heat. If you want a taste of the good stuff but don't have time to stop in for a sit-down meal, don't fret! The restaurant even has a pizza-by-the-slice window. Mangia!

Sitting prominently on the corner of Richmond and Kirby, Little Pappasito's is one of those places that always manage to deliver on their promise of tasty, satisfying Tex-Mex. Maybe that's because it's so old and familiar. Or maybe it's because the place is always super-crazy-busy. Whatever the case, the margaritas are so strong and smooth (get the original frozen), you'll be flagging the server down for another in no time flat. The chips and salsa (you get salsa verde and the traditional salsa) could make a meal on their own. And the food, well, the food is happiness in the making. Sizzling fajitas with flour tortillas and all the fixins. Enchiladas with a side of Spanish rice and refried beans. Carne asada and tacos al carbón. You name it, Pappasito's does it well all the time, in a festive atmosphere that keeps people coming back, and often.

It's an unlikely spot for an authentic Cantonese restaurant, but on the second floor of the Galleria Mall II, not far from the entrance to Nordstrom, E-Tao is cooking up Shanghai-worthy food. In the case of the soup dumpling, or xiaolongbao, E-Tao actually manages to do the unthinkable and beat out the competition in Chinatown. When the steam basket arrives at your table, the dumplings are so thin they're almost translucent. As you pick them up with a pair of chopsticks, they positively droop with the weight of the soup that has formed inside. Dip them in some vinegar topped with fresh ginger, and there can be no other verdict: Without a doubt, this is the best darn soup dumpling in town.

Photo by Troy Fields

Imagine the magic of Hugo's legendary brunch buffet. Now imagine it with a focus on bright and vibrant seafood. That's what you have with this latest coastal Mexican venture from Hugo Ortega and Tracy Vaught. Start with a fewcóctelescreated by beverage director Sean Beck, then move on to the outrageous buffet that you're about to hit up at least three times too many. Platters of whole roasted fish, brightceviches and half-shell oysters sit alongside Mexican street foods such asempanadas,chorizo y papas, chilaquiles andchicharronesstew. Just be sure to save room for the cascade of Mexican pastries, decadenttres leches and cinnamon-laced hot chocolate. You need to get your $35's worth, after all.

Since 1941, the Molina family has been turning out tasty, family-friendly Tex-Mex, and at the heart of any great Tex-Mex restaurant are the chips and salsa. Molina's chips are made fresh daily. Extremely thin and crisp without the slightest hint of oil, they break if you dip them too vigorously in the salsa, and that's exactly what makes them so good. For the dip, you can take your pick between the original, a vinegar-based salsa spiked with fiery jalapeños, or the salsa fresca, a chunkier version made with fresh roasted tomatoes and jalapeños, along with dry roasted arbol and pasilla peppers. Those wanting a green salsa can request that, too. It's called "salsa a la Michael" and is made with tomatillo, avocado and roasted jalapeños.

Courtesy of Thien An Facebook page

It's back! Not that Midtown has any shortage of Vietnamese restaurants to choose from, but we sure are happy that Thien An has finally reopened after closing down in 2012 and assuring fans it would re-emerge a mere six months later. The popular sandwich joint has a new, larger location on San Jacinto that allows for a more open floor plan, more parking and more menu items to satisfy customers seeking anything from the classic banh mi sandwich to the signature banh xeo, a rice flour pancake filled with savory shrimp, pork, onions and bean sprouts. Though some people have complained that Thien An increased its prices after reopening, $3.75 for the grilled pork majesty that is the banh mi thit nuong is certainly hard to beat.

Ninfa Laurenzo is the mother of a small empire of Tex-Mex restaurants, and years later the Ninfa's on Navigation is the crown jewel of all the places that carry her name. It all has to do with the quality of the beef fajitas, and there is no substitute for the tasty Hereford outside skirt steak. Chef Alex Padilla marinates the meat simply with soy, salt and pepper, then throws it on the grill for that perfect char. The fajitas are served on a classic sizzling plate over naturally sweet caramelized onions with a small side dish of grilled peppers, and the thing to do is to grab a hand-made flour tortilla and fill it to the brim with refried beans, pico de gallo, guacamole and sour cream, then top it off with the onions, peppers and thick cuts of meat. Now, take a bite. This is what fajitas should taste like.

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.

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