Charcuterie service is fun and interactive.
Photo by Mai Pham
Charcuterie service is fun and interactive.

Tucked away within the unassuming facade of Culinary Institute LeNôtre is one of Houston's best values in French dining. Kris Bistro, helmed by chef Kris Jakob, is staffed by aspiring culinary students both on the floor and in the kitchen. The net effect is earnest but not amateur, and everything is made in-house. That includes the divine charcuterie. Selections change based on which meats are cured and ready to go, but can include aged ham, beef bresaola, merguez sausage and cold smoked duck breast. Also to be admired is the whimsical presentation. The meat is hung from clothespins on a specially built rack, allowing diners to release the lovely slices of meat and watch them fall gracefully onto carefully held plates. Wash them down with one of the many red wines offered at quite reasonable prices.

Cloud 10 Creamery
Courtesy of Cloud 10 Creamery

The most fanciful sundaes are to be found at Cloud 10 Creamery. That's thanks to chef Chris Leung's creativity as well as the experience he gained at acclaimed restaurants like Bootsie's and Kata Robata, among other places. There's a seasonal sensibility at work here. Flavor combinations change right along with the temperatures. A summer sundae, for example, might have raspberry yogurt, apricots, pistachios, potato chip crumble and whipped cream. On Waffle Wednesdays, a crispy, curved waffle serves as a giant edible bowl. The possibilities are endless, and a chocolate chip waffle with corn ice cream, mascarpone mousse, milk chocolate and hazelnuts is just one example of what is possible. No one leaves Cloud 10 without feeling as if he or she just saw something new.

Karbach Brewing Co.

Right off the bat, Karbach Brewing Co. smartly ensured its beer was packaged and distributed even to Houston suburbs. It was a strategic business move that helped the company quickly establish a customer base — and a fan base. Consistency in brewing is extremely important, and Karbach nails it time after time. Hopadillo IPA, Sympathy for the Lager, Rodeo Clown Double IPA and Weisse Versa Wheat are not just standard fixtures in bars and retail stores. They are good, reliable beers, too. When it's time for releases of the latest installment of BBH (Bourbon Barrel Hellfighter) or the F.U.N. (Freaking Unbelievable Nectar) series, lines form and sellouts happen. The fact that Karbach opened its own on-site restaurant to rave consumer reviews this year is just icing on the cake.

READERS' CHOICE: Saint Arnold Brewing Company­

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

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