Viet Hoa Center

Walk into Viet Hoa International Foods, and if the polished concrete floor doesn't impress, then the displays of fresh and affordably priced local and exotic fruit will. Fruit such as mangoes and Asian pears are pre selected and prepacked attractively so that the customer can just grab and go. The meat counter and fish counter are sparkling clean with nary an odor. Want fish just in from the Gulf? Brightly hued red snapper glistens in the case. There's a frozen area where you can find everything from squid and mussels and shrimp to frozen durian and pre packed dumplings and edamame. Finally, in addition to all the dry goods — condiments, noodles, seaweed and international sections that focus on Japanese, Chinese, Vietnamese and Korean foods — there's a hot-foods counter and a display of fresh bakery items where you can get two- and three-item rice plates to go, and other freshly prepared cooked items that you can buy (try the whole roasted catfish on the weekends) and take home to make your own at-home meal.

Local Foods

In the few short years since Local Foods opened, its name has become synonymous with excellent sandwiches in Houston. Under Dylan Murray's stewardship, the fast-casual concept offers a range of gourmet sandwiches that go a step above the traditional deli version or something Mom might make at home. Specialty breads like ciabatta, focaccia and pretzel bun are overstuffed with fillings and sauces that are as addictive as they are fresh and healthy. Popular favorites include the crunchy chicken salad, the Gulf shrimp and blue crab, and the ever-delicious Black Hill Ranch pork banh mi. But the one that you can't take off the menu — the one that's so perfectly constructed that you can't help inhaling it every time you encounter it — is the truffled egg salad sandwich. Served on a pretzel bread bun, with simple fixings of parmesan aioli, tomato and market greens, the egg salad is soft and fluffy with just the slightest hint of aromatic, aphrodisiacal truffle, making for one great sandwich indeed.

READERS' CHOICE: Kenny & Ziggy's New York Delicatessen Restaurant

Lupita's Mexican Restaurant

Named after the family matriarch, Lupe Garcia, Lupitas in Sugar Land is the quintessential family-run Tex-Mex restaurant that we all wish we had in our neighborhood. The food here is not your mass-produced chain-restaurant food. You can taste the difference immediately in the freshness of the various dishes, which are made with pride and care using family recipes passed down through generations. Spices are ground the traditional way — with a molcajete. Lupe insists on a separate prep service for lunch and dinner to ensure that your food is always fresh and consistent. Simple things — like the freshly fried chips, super-thin and crisp, served with a roasted tomato salsa and the crazy-good charro beans — set this place apart. So do the beef fajitas. Made with 100 percent certified Angus beef marinated overnight in a special recipe, they come with all the usual accompaniments (cheese, pico de gallo, sour cream, guacamole, lettuce, rice and beans) and are served on a sizzling comal over a bed of caramelized onions, to be eaten with Lupe's signature unforgettable, hand-formed 12-inch flour tortillas. Tacos al carbon, enchiladas, chile relleno and Mexican combo platters round out the affordable menu, while friendly service and ambience (the primary decor is piñatas hung from the ceilings) make this a place the entire family can enjoy.

READERS' CHOICE: El Tiempo

Doshi House Cafe

Anyone familiar with Deepak Doshi, or the story behind Doshi House in the Third Ward, gets a kind of fuzzy feeling about this place. In 2010, Doshi left his six-figure-income job to open up a cafe and community center, a place for people to come by for a cup of coffee and a healthy, affordable meal. Because he is vegetarian, the food he offers is also vegetarian. This means that if you come by at lunch, you can have a creamy garlic and mushroom soup of the day with a panini sandwich such as the super-tasty Mumbai Streets, a whole grain bread filled with turmeric curried potatoes and peas, sautéed onions and Muenster cheese. Dinner is a one-pot meal that rotates for each day of the week: Vegan Fajita Fridays, Monday Creole Red Beans and Rice, Tuesday Thai Red Curry, Wednesday Three Bean Chili, Thursday Jamaican Jerk and Saturday Not-So-Butter-Chicken. Dinners start at 5 p.m. and cost a mere $6.95 a plate until they run out, because Doshi's philosophy is that "everyone should have access to a healthy, affordable meal."

READERS' CHOICE: Hobbit Cafe

Ahi tuna poke by chef Omar Pereney at Peska Seafood Culture is extremely fresh and delicious.
Photo by Mai Pham
Ahi tuna poke by chef Omar Pereney at Peska Seafood Culture is extremely fresh and delicious.

Moving into the posh digs at the new BLVD Place at the corner of Post Oak Boulevard and San Felipe is Peska Seafood Culture, which has captivated Houstonians with its beautiful design as much as its novel concept: It's both a restaurant and a seafood market, and fresh seafood is flown in daily, so you can buy from the counter or have it prepared for you. Behind the glass case, the daily catch can include selections ranging from chocolate clams from the Baja to mahi mahi from Hawaii to wild king salmon from the Northwest to king crab and oysters from the Gulf or the Northeast. You can have the seafood prepared however you like — pan-seared, steamed or grilled — or you can order à la carte from the well-designed menu by 21-year-old chef-wunderkind Omar Pereney, a Venezuelan chef who has been cooking in fine-dining restaurants since age 12. Standouts on the menu include thinly sliced Peruvian-style tiraditos, freshly prepared ceviches and Hawaiian-style poke, salt-crusted whole branzino, and deep-fried whole fish served with Mexican-style adobo sauce.

El Real Tex-Mex Cafe

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

Etoile Cuisine et Bar
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.

Dolce Vita Pizzeria & Enoteca

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

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