Restaurants often forget one of the keys to bringing all the full, earthy flavors out of tomato-based salsa: Warm it up! El Real Tex-Mex never forgets, which is why diners may find themselves needing a salsa refill five minutes after they arrive. The other secret is fire-roasting tomatoes and jalapeños throughout the day to get a smoky undertone. The result is thick with balanced heat that won't drive anyone away yet will keep the chiliheads appeased.

READERS' CHOICE: The Original Ninfa's on Navigation­

Photo by Troy Fields

On the strength of a weeklong visit to Houston to visit friends and family, Philippe Verpiand took the ultimate gamble in 2012, moving his family lock, stock and barrel from San Diego to Houston and opening the modest yet refined Etoile Cuisine et Bar in Uptown Park. It was a gamble that paid off. This charming restaurant consistently wins hearts for its menu of well-executed French standards. Think steak frites, escargot, house-made pâté de campagne and cassoulet. His apple tart, paper-thin and drizzled with caramel, is the best in the city. Add to that a new bar program, an affordable wine list and a vibrant social hour, and you've got a place that is undoubtedly très, très bien. This year, Verpiand was also recognized by his peers when he was inducted as a Maître Cuisinier de France (Master Chef of France) by the elite international organization of chefs who are masters of French cuisine.

Pizza is a personal thing for many people. The crust needs to be right, the toppings need to be fresh and varied, the cheese should be of high quality and the sauce should be made with the correct mixture of herbs with just enough zing to complete the whole. Dolce Vita Pizzeria Enoteca, time and again, does all these things right. The Montrose institution has a loyal following that makes its restaurant one of the most coveted tables on the lower Westheimer strip on any given night. The reason? The pizza. Whether you choose a simple margherita topped with basil, bufala mozzarella and tomato, or one of Dolce Vita's other specialties, like the unfailingly delicious calabrese (tomato, mozzarella, spicy salami) or the beautifully constructed prosciutto e rucola (tomato, mozzarella, arugula, prosciutto), these wood-fired, thin-crust pies hit the spot every time.

There's a reason the owners of Cousins Maine Lobster walked away with a $55K cash infusion from the hit television show Shark Tank. Their products — traditional lobster rolls, lobster quesadillas, tater tots and a lobster bisque — are just plain delicious. The Los Angeles-based food truck expanded to Houston earlier this year, and has been received with as much enthusiasm as the original. People wait in line for the buttery Maine lobster roll, served chilled with a touch of mayo on a New England roll. They go a bit nuts over the Connecticut lobster roll, served warm with butter and lemon. Though the lobster rolls themselves are not that large, they're filled with fresh, bright orange, high-quality lobster, an indulgence that's worth the wait any day.

There's a reason the Kolache Shoppe on Richmond has endured for the past 45 years. The original dough recipe — which hasn't changed since the place opened and involves a process that raises the dough three times — yields a soft, slightly sweet, melt-in-your mouth filled pastry that simply keeps people coming back again and again. This year, Kolache Shoppe got new owners, but the dough recipe hasn't changed. What has changed has been for the better: A renovation to make the space more modern and cozy, and ingredients that focus on products that are local and seasonal. The scratch-made kolaches come with traditional fillings such as apple, cherry and prune, as well as seasonal varieties including lemon cream, ginger citrus marmalade and orange cream. Then there are the ever-popular small smokie-style sausage kolaches, as well as a signature venison and pork sausage sourced from Wharton. Finally, vegetarians can indulge with the spinach, egg and cheese, or a ranchero egg and cheese — all of it delicious and a great representation of this Czech-belt Texas tradition.

READERS' CHOICE: Kolache Factory

Courtesy of Thien An Facebook page

Since its days as a small hole-in-the-wall inside the shopping center at Travis and McGowan, Thiên Ân Sandwiches earned a strong following for its delicious, authentic Vietnamese cuisine. It's now in much larger, swankier digs on San Jacinto in Midtown, and the expanded menu makes Thiên Ân the place to hit when you want a cross-section of great Vietnamese eats. The bánh mí sandwiches are still the restaurant's staple, for sure — the bread nicely crisp, the fillings ranging from grilled pork thit nuong to a simple egg trúng to the specialty dac biet. But you won't find a better place for bánh xèo (Vietnamese crêpe) in the city. The goi vit duck salad is a sight to behold and, as for Thien An's other traditional menu items? There are enough choices to make everyone happy — from pho to rice vermicelli bowls, bún bò hue (pork and beef noodle soup), com bo luc lac (Vietnamese shaking beef rice plate) and more.

READERS' CHOICE: Mai's Restaurant

Robert Z. Easley

Ask anyone what his neighborhood Montrose pick is, and Paulie's will usually top the list. The casual, friendly, moderately priced counter-service Italian restaurant is the place to stop (it's open 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Mondays through Saturdays) for sandwiches, pastries, cookies, coffee, salad or the daily comfort-food special (meat loaf on Monday, lasagna on Tuesday, eggplant parmigiana on Wednesday, osso buco on Thursday, fettucini and mussels on Friday or pasta con sarde on Saturday). Portions are ample and execution is consistent, making this a place where parking is often scarce and there are often lines out the door. Standouts include the house-made pasta dishes, such as the spicy bucatini Amatriciana or the canestri alla funghi (pasta with mushroom cream sauce). The fact that Paulie's opened the wildly popular Camerata at Paulie's next door adds to the allure.

Photo by Troy Fields

A stellar Brazilian steakhouse may start with the quality of the meat, but to truly separate itself from the pack, it also needs to deliver when it comes to the salad bar and the service. Chama Gaúcha, located on Westheimer near The Galleria, succeeds in all three criteria. Want quality meat? Take your pick from among cuts like their picanha (top sirloin), charred at the edges and so full of flavor. There's also rib eye, lamb and beef costela (beef ribs), not to mention sausages, chicken and bacon-wrapped chicken breast or filet mignon, and more. The salad bar is enough to fill you up in one sitting. You can choose from fresh cheese and charcuterie; hot items like the Brazilian black bean feijoada stew; fresh cuts of roasted beets, artichokes, asparagus, seasonal fruits and marinated eggplant; and composed salads of pasta, cucumber, beans and more. All this, with as much roasted bananas, fried polenta, mashed potatoes and Brazilian cheese bread as you could want at the touch of a finger. Chama Gaúcha adheres to the Brazilian rodizio format, which means the servers come to your table when you set the button at your table to green, slicing meat at your table. So, when it's on, it's on. They come quickly and serve you generously, ensuring that you leave thoroughly satiated yet hungry for a return visit.

Chuck Cook
BCN Taste and Tradition

There are few restaurants that fulfill the promise of "you get what you pay for" better than BCN Taste & Tradition. Chef Luis Roger came to Houston from Spain, and he does his best to import fine Spanish ingredients — such as jamón Ibérico — or comparable domestic ones to execute the fare of his homeland. He started his own garden at the restaurant so he'd have fresh herbs literally outside the door. The resulting dishes are not cheap, but they are beautiful and pleasing. If the goal is to impress, dishes like poached quail eggs in potato foam with seasonal truffles and sous vide rabbit loin with porcini rice and sautéed artichokes will put anyone in fine standing with dinner companions.

Tucked away on the side of the road off Longpoint near Gessner is this small, humble, mom-and-pop Korean restaurant called Korean Noodle House. Walk up a wooden plank to the yellow-painted facade and you are immediately greeted when you enter. Service is friendly, and laminated menus offer Korean language on one side and English on the other. Dishes are homey and comforting. This is a place you can go to multiple times a week for items such as haemul pajeon (seafood pancake), kimchi soondubu jjigae (spicy kimchi tofu stew) or jjamppong kalgooksoo (spicy seafood dumpling noodle soup). Noodles are hand made and the portions are huge. What makes Korean Noodle House stand tall above the rest is its secret recipe house-made kimchi. Every table gets its own earthenware urn at the start of the meal, and the kimchi is fiery, delicious and unforgettable.

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