The Viet-Cajun crawfish craze is as strong as ever in Houston, with many of the popular joints competing each year to get on the top lists. At the top of the pack this year? Cajun Kitchen. Not only is the quality top-notch (bigger, consistently good-size crawfish), but beyond the Cajun boil are Vietnamese flavors that coat the crawfish. Cajun Kitchen's "Kitchen Special," a wok-sautéed blend of butter, garlic, oranges and other spices, is supremely addictive. Its Thai Basil is still one of the most innovative flavors out there, and the Garlic Butter — the core of Viet-Cajun crawfish — comes heaped with mounds of garlic on top. Eating Cajun Kitchen's crawfish is a delight, from the sweetness of the tail to the flavor that you can slurp off the shell. So great is Cajun Kitchen's crawfish, in fact, that the restaurant was chosen by chef Paul Qui as the place to spotlight in Anthony Bourdain's critically acclaimed PBS Series The Mind of a Chef.

READERS' CHOICE: Ragin' Cajun

Ninfa's

When it comes to fajitas, the choices in Houston are abundant, but at the end of the day, the all-time winner for consistency and plain old deliciousness all around is, and always will be, The Original Ninfa's on Navigation. It's the reason why, at any given moment, Mama Ninfa's original location continues to bustle and thrive. Chef Alex Padilla does a great job making sure that each sizzling plate comes out perfect. The Hereford outside skirt steak is tender and tasty. Combine this with caramelized onions and your choice of guacamole, sour cream, cheese, pico de gallo, and charro or refried beans, and what you have are fajitas as they were meant to be eaten, old school and without question fantastic.

Kiran's Restaurant and Bar - CLOSED

When you want a good Indian food experience in Houston, you head to the Little India area off Hillcroft. When you want a superlative Indian food experience, you head to Kiran's, whose chef and owner is Kiran Verma. It's there that you'll experience Indian food on par with the best in the world. Londoners will fly into Houston and head straight to Kiran's for a meal steeped in tradition and cooked with heart. Service is unparalleled, and somewhat formal, in a good way. Waiters sport vests and pressed white shirts, zig-zagging across the room carrying trays laden with the day's bounty. That's the great thing about Kiran's; her menu is vast. You could order just appetizers, like the fun pani poori, small pastry shells filled with nuts and fruit and spicy broth, a flavor and texture bomb. You could go traditional and order tandoori chicken, curries and staples such as chicken tikka masala or saag paneer. There's an entire vegetarian menu from which to choose. The house-made breads — from the chickpea papadum crackers to the naan breads, which you can have stuffed with ingredients such as mint chutney or garlic, are superb. In fact, Kiran's is excellent right down to the mango mousse dessert, creamy yet light as air and much like the restaurant itself — simply fantastic.

Blacksmith Coffee Bar
Photo by Katharine Shilcutt

Blacksmith has become the morning hub for sommeliers, bartenders, restaurant owners, chefs and, yes, food writers. It's like the taverns of old, but without the booze. Instead, its regular customers start coming in at 7 a.m. for caffeinated elixirs and conversation. The baristas use coffee beans roasted in small batches by Greenway Coffee, which is also run by Blacksmith co-owners David Buehrer and Ecky Prabanto. Buehrer and Prabanto personally select the beans, often traveling to the countries of origin to meet with the farmers. The selections range from acidic, fruity varieties to deep, chocolaty ones. Author Neil Gaiman famously said in a commencement speech, "Make good art." At Blacksmith, coffee is art — and it's good.

READERS' CHOICE: Boomtown Coffee

Best Neighborhood Spot in the Galleria

Dish Society

Dish Society

Since it opened in January 2014, the spiffy, upbeat, sunnily bright Dish Society in the Gables Tanglewood complex at San Felipe and Bering has quickly established itself as the local eatery of choice in the area. The food is unfussy and locally sourced and often has a healthful spin. The open kitchen vibe and colorful, yellow-accented decor make the ambience all the more inviting. Stop by for breakfast, lunch, happy hour or dinner, and the space will be filled with a cross-section of locals drinking coffee, dining on pork belly hash, munching on salade verte of local greens or having a more substantial meal of coffee-crusted pork tenderloin over sweet potato puree with braised collards. There may be kids running around, or friends having a leisurely bite, or just someone going it solo with a glass of wine. Brunch in particular is pretty knockout, with a selection that ranges from creamy shrimp and grits, to Nutella French toast, to soft pretzel bread sandwiches or brisket and eggs with fresh biscuits, complemented by coffee from local roaster Greenway Coffee.

Le' Pam's House of Creole
Photo by Troy Fields

Chef Pamela Graham's marriage of Creole and soul food wins new fans daily, with both her homestyle cooking and her warm, welcoming demeanor. Her restaurant, Le' Pam's House of Creole, brings much-needed life to a part of north Houston that has few culinary bright spots. Her Creole-style gumbo is chock-full of fresh shrimp and crab. Fillets of breaded catfish are clean, thick and fresh, and the dirty rice is moist, compelling and meaty. Sundays are when the good china comes out and gets loaded down with falling-apart oxtail and stuffed Cornish game hens. There's no better way to end the feast than with a helping of crusty bread pudding topped with brandy sauce.

Kenny & Ziggy's Delicatessen Restaurant

Is there anything that even comes close to Kenny & Ziggy's in Houston? Time and again, this place wins. Seriously, what's not to like? The ambience is old-school deli, complete with framed caricatures of famous people on the wall. And the food; it's all about the food, really: lox and bagels, overstuffed hot pastrami sandwiches slathered with Russian dressing, stuffed cabbage, matzo ball soup and chicken liver mousse that'll make your Jewish grandmother nod in approval. Don't miss the huge slices of New York-style cheesecake and, last but not least, the famous colossal Zellabagetsky (the biggest sandwich you've ever seen in your life). Yes, Kenny & Ziggy's is a real-deal, authentic Jewish deli, and that's why we love it.

Fung's Kitchen

There are a lot of Chinese restaurants in Houston, but none as enduring or as consistent as Fung's Kitchen. Since it debuted in 1990, Fung's has entertained dignitaries, VIPs and royalty. Every year, it holds a spectacular Chinese New Year's celebration presided over by Martin Yan of Yan Can Cook. Master Chef Hoi Fung regularly goes to Asia to discover new dishes, inviting chefs from China to Houston so that he can stay abreast of the latest trends and techniques. Fung is constantly innovating to bring new dishes to the menu even though he has plenty to offer in terms of traditional Cantonese cooking. His Peking duck is second to none. His lobster dishes rival the best in the city. The weekend's dim sum carts offer the most varied selections of dumplings and small plates you can find, and when there's fresh seafood in the house (everything from fresh whole fish to geoduck, dungeness crab or spot prawns), Fung's prepares to perfection.

Cuchara
Photo by Troy Fields

In a town where Tex-Mex is so abundant that you can get it at gas stations, Cuchara is a breath of fresh air. Stylish and artsy, owners Ana Beaven and Charlie McDaniel created the restaurant to bring a piece of Mexico City to Houston. You won't find any yellow cheese or cumin in the dishes here. Salsas are prepared in the old way with real chiles and peppers, so you get a strong kick of spice. Dishes are simple and presented beautifully in colorful cast-iron cocottes. For lunch, the restaurant offers a comida corrida special — three courses with an agua fresca for just $15. The lunch menu changes daily and features dishes from regions such as Puebla, Oaxaca and Veracruz. Dinner is more static, while brunch is truly dynamic. Grab a spot on the patio and enjoy traditional chilaquiles with a café de olla, and you will be transported across the border.

Damian's Cucina Italiana
Photos by Carla Soriano

There's a reason Damian's Cucina Italiana has been in business for more than 30 years. Like Old Faithful, this is a place that sticks to old-school traditions. Waitstaff are clad in black vests and provide attentive, solicitous service. Pastas and sauces are made with family recipes passed down through generations, and nowhere is that more evident than with the spaghetti and meatballs. The simple, homey dish marries a hearty pomodoro sauce with two hand-formed meatballs made in accordance with Mama Mandola's family recipe. The meatballs are just killer — packed tight yet tender enough that you can break them easily with a fork, they're full of flavor and unequivocally delicious. Add perfectly al dente spaghetti noodles, a smattering of parmesan cheese and a perfect basil leaf, and you have one of Houston's most enduring dishes.

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