You wouldn't expect to find the best Vietnamese banh mi sandwiches in Houston on Gessner in the Spring Branch area near the city's Korean community, but that's exactly what you get. Owned by Ronnie and Linda Nguyen, a young Vietnamese couple in their late twenties, the fast-casual cafe offers banh mi as well as rice and noodle dishes. Though the other items are perfectly good, it's the banh mi that definitely stands out. Served on a crispy oblong roll, the Vietnamese sandwich is filled with the perfect ratio of protein to pickled vegetable, cilantro, cucumber and jalapeño. For proteins, you get a choice of barbecue pork, pork belly, gogi (Korean-style) beef, barbecue chicken, crispy tofu or combinations. You also have the option of adding an egg or avocado. All of this is finished off with a generous smear of the restaurant's house-made garlic aioli, the secret weapon that ties it all together. First timers would do well by choosing the pork belly or the gogi beef banh mi, the restaurant's two best-sellers.

Tucked away in the corner of a strip mall on Bellaire in Chinatown, One Dragon Restaurant is as unassuming as it is special. This one-room hole-in-the-wall with no more than ten tables is presided over by a husband and wife who barely speak English but whose mission is to serve up Shanghai cuisine like you'd find in China. You can have an entirely solid family meal here made up of several family-style entrées, and it will be excellent, but the thing that everyone comes here for — the reason there's often a one-hour wait during the lunch hour on weekends — is that One Dragon has mastered the delicate and mysterious craft of making the most delicious xiao long bao, or soup dumplings. Not a single table goes without an order or two or three of these beauties. They come six to an order, the outer dumpling wrapper elastic but ultra-thin. Grab one softly with your chopstick, and it will sag with the weight of the soup inside. Bite into the dumpling and it will gush pleasantly with flavorful broth before you bite into the small pork patty inside. It's an absolute thing of beauty that is well worth the wait.

Esther's Cajun Cafe and Soul Food

Don't drive past this modest Independence Heights eatery without stopping in for a plate full of rib-sticking, soulful Cajun fare. The brothy bowls of chicken and sausage gumbo have a hot pepper bite, and the shrimp and crawfish étouffée is thick and bright with cayenne. The red beans cook for hours and are laced through with andouille sausage. There's a selection of rotating daily specials, so check the menu on the web site before you go see what's in store. There's also a soul food side of the menu and it's worth delving into, especially the tender oxtails covered with thick, beefy gravy. It's BYOB, and cold lager goes really great with the food. Pick up a bag full of homemade cracklins at the counter to take home.

Killen's Steakhouse

There is no dearth of steakhouses in Houston, but for a quintessentially local experience that couples the finest meat with delicious sides and impeccable service, you've got to give it to Killen's Steakhouse. Under the direction of newly named executive chef Joe Cervantez, the restaurant founded by Ronnie Killen is the place to experience an exquisitely prepared piece of USDA prime beef, sourced from top-of-the-line Allen Brothers and Strube Ranch. Whether you choose a New York strip, tenderloin, filet mignon or the infamous 32-ounce dry-aged bone-in Wagyu rib eye — a sight to behold — you can't go wrong. Add well-constructed sides such as the award-winning creamed corn, starters such as a lump crab cake chock-full of crab, and desserts meant to seduce, such as Cervantez's bread pudding or hot carrot cake, not to mention a thoughtful and well-curated wine list by DeeDee Killen, and you have one of the best steakhouses not just in Houston but in the entire country.

Tony's Thai & Sushi Restaurant

Occupying a stately corner in the Saigon Houston Plaza on Bellaire is Tony Thai Restaurant, one of the most beautifully appointed Thai restaurants in Houston. Step through the doors, and you're greeted by ornate sculptures and fountains shipped to Houston direct from Thailand. Tony is the owner and his wife, Ede, is the cook. She whips up dishes effortlessly, everything full of flavor and spiced as hot as you like. They've made things easy here by creating a laminated picture menu so that you can just point at what looks good, but top bets include the sweet and spicy Thai chicken wings, papaya salad, beef Tiger Cry and the spectacular fried fish garlic. Noodle dishes, such as the pad Thai or pad see ew, are also excellent, and the service from the primarily Thai front-of-the-house staff is friendly and helpful. For an extra bit of adventure, ask for off-menu specials by Ede, and you're sure to discover something new and delicious.

Provisions

The Ham O' The Day has been on the Provisions menu since day one, and is still the must-order appetizer that manages to be light and flavor-packed at the same time. Paper-thin slices of cured domestic ham from heritage pigs are piled up across a smooth, oblong platter and rest on top of rye aioli studded through with whole mustard seed. The featured ham changes from week to week, but the varieties have included La Quercia's Tamworth and Prosciutto Picante from Iowa, as well as Surryano from Edwards Virginia Smokehouse. If you think Italian prosciutto is always superior, these feathery layers of meaty goodness may very well change your mind.

Nobi Public House
Photo by Troy Fields

This spot in Webster brings a wide selection of craft beer to patrons south of Houston. The beer list is updated on the website daily, which is helpful for those who might have to make a drive to the southern outpost. On any given day, there are more than 40 beers on draft and more than 100 by the bottle, and Nobi regularly taps limited-offering kegs, too. Just as an example, on a single Saturday, Nobi served Founder's CBS Imperial Stout and Avery Brewing's Mephistopheles Stout and had bottles of Saint Arnold Bishop's Barrel on hand, too. As if more incentive were needed, there's an ambitious Asian-inspired food program (chargrilled pork banh mi and beer go hand in hand) and theme days like "Sunday Phonday," when the pub makes one big pot of beefy pho (Vietnamese noodle soup). When it's gone, it's gone, so get there early.

Charivari Restaurant
Dawn M Simmons

Charivari Restaurant, owned by Transylvania-born Johann Schuster and his wife, may look like a throwback to a 1980s restaurant somewhere in the middle of Europe, but that's part of the charm. Schuster earned his chef's whites in the old country, which means that the food here is prepared with the skill and technique you'd find in European kitchens. Staples like the Hungarian ghoulash, schnitzel or pan-seared foie gras are always on point. Daily specials, created with seasonal local ingredients — white asparagus, chanterelle mushrooms, fresh-catch fish from the Gulf — are always a pleasure. If anything, it's the weekday lunch specials that make this a great neighborhood spot. Drawing regulars for the $9.99 special of soup and main course, or $15.50 business lunch special of salad, main course and dessert, the menu changes daily, and features comfort-food items like Vienna-style meat loaf with pan-fried egg, Caesar salad and crab cake, or polenta Toscana with fresh wild mushrooms and four Italian cheeses.

Prohibition Supper Club & Bar

At Prohibition Supperclub & Bar, it's gentility in the front and decadence in the back. The front dining room, with deep, upholstered porter's chairs and marble flooring, speaks of old Southern luxury. A long, sturdy bar anchors the back, and there are giant upholstered booths so huge that a party of eight can dine comfortably. Overhead, ornate crystal chandeliers cast twinkling light across the black and white marble floor, and the silverware comes in matched sets, right down to the oyster forks. Conversely, the ballroom in the back is more like an opulent Grecian theater, complete with stage, cushy booth seating, spiral staircase and upstairs balcony. It's perfect for showcasing the Friday and Saturday night burlesque performances of resident troupe The Moonlight Dolls. No matter which setting is preferred, diners are sure to be impressed.

Da Marco
Photo by Houston Press staff

Set in a refurbished old home in Montrose on the lower Westheimer drag, Da Marco offers a $29 business lunch prix fixe that's the best in town. You arrive to find all kinds of brand-name cars in the tiny parking lot, ably maneuvered by the on-hand valets. Reservations are a must at lunch, which often book a week or two in advance. The room will be filled with power lunch types and couples wanting to indulge. What makes the lunch so special is a combination of service, choice and impeccable execution. You're essentially choosing from the à la carte menu, where items on the lunch special will be asterisked. It's hard to decide whether you want the shaved celery salad with beets and pecorino or artichoke alla giudia to start. For the entrée, wild boar pappardelle, cod gnocchi with shellfish ragu and roasted quail with fava are some of the more than ten-plus items that will catch your eye. For dessert, the pastry chef entices with beautifully plated chocolate torte and more.

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