Mikki's Soul Food Cafe
Jeff Balke

This is not your high school cafeteria. At Mikki's Soul Food Cafe, staples such as fried chicken, smothered pork chops, macaroni and cheese, and the infamous sits-like-a-brick-in-your-belly beefsteak with "40-pound gravy" are done in superior fashion. Look no further than the consistently long lines and blissful faces of exiting customers for proof. The turkey necks, chitterlings and oxtails are required eating for any diner looking to become a soul-food connoisseur. There's also a rotating daily menu of entrées that come with a choice of three sides and complimentary cornbread. Portions will challenge the capacity of your stomach, but don't worry, that's what the sweet tea is for. Just sip, take a breather and dig back in.

Givral's Sandwich & Cafe

To make a great banh mi, a restaurant must have great bread, and Les Givral's, once a bakery in Paris and Saigon, certainly does. It has a thin, crispy crust and a soft inside that soaks up the juice from the meat, veggies and sauces. Les Givral's keeps it simple with the veggies — carrots, cucumber, half a fresh jalapeño and a whole heckuva lot of cilantro — which are a constant no matter which protein you order. The best meat option is the thit nuong pâté, loaded with chargrilled pork, a Vietnamese specialty, and a bit of pâté, which adds a creamy element to the spicy, crunchy sandwich. But be warned: This banh mi is so good, the line for a sandwich is often out the door.

House of Pies
Jeff Balke

After it closed because of fire damage late last year, we missed this standby diner so much, we couldn't not name it our 2014 Greasy Spoon winner. Thankfully, it opened back up last spring. Now you can get your big country breakfasts, old-fashioned tuna melts and classic BLTs 24/7 again, just as you were meant to. And since you're celebrating, you may as well tack on a slice of pie — like the pecan-crusted, sweet-cream- and vanilla-custard-slathered, chocolate-chunk-studded Bayou Goo that we're pretty sure dreams are made of. Welcome back, HoP.

Bernie's Burger Bus
Photo courtesy of Bernie's Burger Bus

The juicy patties and doughy buns at Bernie's Burger Bus are so popular that Justin Turner, chef and owner behind the army of three food trucks, recently opened a brick-and-mortar location in Bellaire where diners can get more than just burgers. It's the burgers that Bernie's does best, though, thanks to the fatty Black Angus beef ground in-house (or rather, in-bus, in some cases) and the great homemade condiments. The patties are always cooked to a perfect medium with a nice sear on the outside to hold in the juice, while each burger topping is artfully prepared for the ultimate in gourmet burgers with a no-frills fast-food sensibility.

Etoile Cuisine et Bar
Photo by Troy Fields

Meat butter. That's the way foie gras is most often described, and the torchon at Étoile is the perfect example. It's almost gamey but delicate at the same time, and when rolled into a torchon — so named for the dish towel in which it's wrapped — and cooked in a double boiler, the fatty duck or goose liver can be spread onto toast much like butter. At Étoile, chef Philippe Verpiand makes the torchon himself, trimming, seasoning, wrapping, simmering then compressing and chilling the fatty liver into an incredible dish using techniques he learned in France. And oh, is Étoile's foie like soft butter on your tongue! Pink, smooth, creamy, ringed with a thin layer of light-yellow fat, not a hint of grit or vein, no sour flavor, no crumbly texture. The attention Verpiand pays to the preparation of this small but important dish is impeccable.

The Kim Cheese Fries at fusion food truck Coreanos are neither Mexican nor Korean per se, but they contain elements of both cuisines. The scorching hot french fries are thicker than most fast-food fries, but still thin enough that they're crisp on the outside and soft on the inside. They're topped with caramelized kimchi, twice-cooked pork belly with a kick, shredded cheese and Coreanos's signature El Scorcho sauce, a creamy drizzle of garlic, chipotle, lime juice and mayo. The cooks also add a sprinkle of cilantro for extra zing and some chopped fresh onions to give it a little more heat and texture. The kimchi is slightly spicy and has a great cabbage crunch to it when you bite down, releasing the sweet juices. The pork belly is similarly juicy and bursting with flavor, and the grated-cheese mixture sprinkled over the top melts, linking all the ingredients together with gooey strands of goodness.

Cloud 10 Creamery
Courtesy of Cloud 10 Creamery

Chris Leung started his dessert business by selling to restaurants and chefs, but eventually demand for his stunning sweets became so great that he decided to open his own place. Cloud 10 Creamery launched last October, and there's been a steady crowd lining up for Leung's unique flavors and whimsical creations ever since. The banana split is a thing of beauty that re-examines all that a banana split should be (ice cream, bananas and toppings) with a gourmet twist. The ice cream flavors themselves are impressive in both texture and because they all taste exactly like what they're supposed to. That may sound like obvious criteria for good ice cream, but never before has smooth, creamy peanut butter and jelly ice cream actually tasted like the toast, too. Bravo, Mr. Leung. Bravo.

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.

Liberty Kitchen Oyster Bar

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.

Ciao Bello
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.

Best Of Houston®

Best Of