Blacksmith Coffee Bar
Photo by Katharine Shilcutt

Blacksmith is well-known as a coffee spot, but its fast, flexible and varied breakfast options are equally enticing. The staff is always helpful and tries to meet dietary requests, even if that means coming up with a combination that's not exactly on the menu. Trying to increase your vegetable intake in the mornings? Add a small salad or a side of Brussels sprouts bathed in lightly sweet soy sauce. Cutting down on carbohydrates? Even though it's not on the menu, it's totally possible to get just thick-sliced bacon and eggs. Of course, if bread is on the menu, a sausage patty and sunny-side up egg on a square biscuit that's crunchy on the outside and tender on the inside is a fine choice. Best of all, the Blacksmith staff never looks askance at orders for "lunch food" during breakfast, so a savory or meaty craving can be easily satisfied.

Snap Kitchen
Daniel+Kramer

This Texas-based chain of fresh, nutritionally balanced kitchens lets you feel good about eating takeout. That's because choosing something healthy (and actually enjoying it) is a "snap." The refreshing concept uses in-season, local ingredients to craft crave-worthy meals — think grass-fed beef meatballs and peppers, butternut squash macaroni and chicken sausage breakfast tacos — that are anything but bland. Just grab and go. And pick up some snacks, desserts and cold-pressed juices while you're at it.

The Hay Merchant

If you think making great french fries is easy, think again. Not every potato lends itself to great fries. The starch content and moisture vary from one variety to the next and even within the same variety at different times of the year. The Hay Merchant's Kevin Floyd says that while his place has always served hand-cut fries, it was former chef Dax McAnear who perfected them. The Hay Merchant uses Kennebec potatoes and, even though the process is solid, the bar is constantly adjusting for the variables. Fries aren't listed as an individual order on the menu, but you can indeed order them alone. Just ask. Pro Tip: Request the condiments basket and mix your own fry sauce from Kewpie mayo, Sriracha and a dab of mustard.

Sweet Cup Gelato opened in 2012 and has been Houston's most underrated ice cream shop — until now. It's a complete mystery as to why more people aren't raving about inventive and exotic flavors like Kashmir Rose, Bacio (after the Italian chocolate-hazelnut candy) and Malai Kulfi. The shop also sells sorbet (in other fanciful flavors like grapefruit lavender and curry coconut milk) and a small selection of yogurt. By the way, if you're shopping at Whole Foods, keep your eyes open. Sweet Cup Gelato pints are now available for retail sale, too.

Jinya Ramen Bar
Photo by Troy Fields

JINYA Ramen Bar fulfilled the dreams of barhoppers and late-night workers when it opened its Midtown location. At midnight on a Friday, who wants pancakes when he can have warm, silky tonkotsu with pork belly instead? Really hungry people will do well to also get an order of the fried pork gyoza. Chase it all down with sake or craft beer. JINYA Ramen Bar Midtown is open until 11 p.m. weeknights and 2 a.m. on Fridays and Saturdays. It's a bustling environment, so plan to wait for a table on busy nights. It's worth it.

Urban Eats

The "3 Pig Truffled Mac & Cheese" at Urban Eats is one of the best versions of the dish in Houston. The secret is a complex cheese sauce that includes Fontina, Gouda, Cheddar, Velveeta and cream cheese. As if that weren't enough, Urban Eats gilds the lily by adding bacon, pancetta and honey-glazed ham. There's a small amount of white truffle oil, but it's less an impediment than an enhancement. Possibly the most brilliant aspect of mac and cheese here is that Urban Eats smartly uses radiatori pasta instead of traditional macaroni. The ridged pasta cylinders capture the cheese sauce perfectly.

El Big Bad
David Rozycki

We love our margaritas. Really, they should be declared the official drink of Houston. El Big Bad understands, and that's why it offers nine different margaritas on its cocktail list. Actually, the potential variants probably number in the hundreds if you include all the possible combinations. El Big Bad specializes in infused tequilas. Everything from fruits to hot peppers are used to impart flavors to a silver tequila base. We're partial to Champ #3, which won the Houston Press Tequila and Tamales event in 2013. It includes cranberry- and churro-infused tequilas. Others well worth a try include a smoky mezcal variant, the Wi-Fi with coconut-infused tequila and the garden-fresh blueberry, jalapeño and cilantro version.

READERS' CHOICE: El Tiempo

Addis Ababa may not be in the sexiest shopping center. However, inside the restaurant, the warm, welcoming staff and hearty food will make diners forget the lackluster exterior. In fact, it may be the best Ethiopian restaurant with which to familiarize the uninitiated with the cuisine. The staff are happy to answer questions for those ready to embrace comforting dishes like awaze tibs — beef cubes in hot sauce with onion, fresh garlic and tomato — and yebeg key wot — lamb in berbere sauce — all to be wrapped in tart, spongy injera bread. The huge family-style meat and vegetable platters are an impressive sight. Do allow extra time after the meal for the communal coffee ceremony, one of the most important rituals of Ethiopian hospitality.

Triniti

Triniti's pastry chef, Samantha Mendoza, understands what makes for memorable desserts: flavors, luxurious textures, elegance and restraint. She graduated from the baking and pastry program at the Art Institute of Houston and first made desserts professionally at Bedford, Robert Gadsby's former restaurant. Later, Mendoza became the executive pastry chef at Tony's at the young age of 22. At Triniti, her fine chocolates and macarons, served in wooden cigar boxes, are perennial favorites. Other desserts change with the seasons, but examples include pitch-perfect hazelnut mousse enrobed in dark chocolate; silky coconut panna cotta with blueberries and crunchy granola; and cherry meringue with citrus mousse and almond crumble.

READERS' CHOICE: The Chocolate Bar

Fat Cat Creamery

Let's face it: It is not difficult to love milkshakes. Fat Cat Creamery gives us additional reasons to love these cold confections even more. First off are the inventive — but not overcomplicated — house-made ice creams with a focus on Texas products. Waterloo Strawberry Buttermilk (made with Waterloo Texas-Style Gin), Milk Chocolate Stout (with Convict Hill Oatmeal Stout) and Cat's Meow Mexican Vanilla are just some of the flavors available year-round. As the weather cools, seasonal flavors like Bourbon Pecan Pie and Pumpkin Cheesecake come back into play. Any of them make for a great milkshake, and Fat Cat has a few custom creations on any given day as well. Best of all, every ice cream is churned with fresh milk from Mill-King Market & Creamery in McGregor, Texas. Local dairies are disappearing, so a Fat Cat Creamery's shake is an indulgence with a conscience.

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