Frenchy's Chicken
Jeff Balke

For all the fine restaurants that make their own fried chicken, there's still not one of them that can beat Houston fast-food icon Frenchy's. The Scott Street location is still the best. For some reason, the coating there just seems to be slightly more flavorful and crispy than the rest. The other locations are quite good, though and, thankfully — after years of shutting other locations down — Frenchy's is back on a rapid expansion track (mostly through franchising). There are now 29 locations in the greater Houston area, plus one in Beaumont. The hot, crunchy crust and perfectly moist chicken underneath are superb. To get the full experience, dirty rice, collard greens and red beans and rice are the must-have side orders.

READERS' CHOICE: Max's Wine Dive

Aladdin Mediterranean Cuisine
Photo by Christina Uticone

Located in the heart of lower Westheimer on the corner of Montrose, Aladdin is a humble mom-and-pop operation that easily wins hearts. The cafeteria-style restaurant provides an excellent bang for the buck. Select a protein and the sides you want, grab a cafeteria tray and then choose from a smorgasbord of delicious, freshly prepared delights ranging from hummus to Greek salad and hot items such as roasted cauliflower, stewed green beans or roasted eggplant. From the oven, you get freshly baked pita bread to go along with everything, and to wash it all down, choose from a selection of fresh-pressed juices (strawberry, mango and orange are usually on offer). It's a recipe for a casual and delicious meal, which can be enhanced by the fact that it's BYOB. Total win.

READERS' CHOICE: Niko Niko's

An assortment of barbecue meats and sides at Brooks' Place
Photo by Phaedra Cook
An assortment of barbecue meats and sides at Brooks' Place

Brooks' Place in Cypress made quite the media stir when it said it was getting static from neighbor Dunkin' Donuts over its new breakfast tacos. Area residents thronged to the little trailer to see what all the hubbub was about. A place that already makes stellar barbecue just doesn't have far to go when it comes to making top-notch breakfast tacos. Smoked meat such as pulled pork, sausage or brisket is stuffed into tortillas on top of scrambled egg. Cheese can be added upon request. The tacos are usually offered Wednesdays through Saturdays, and sell out every day. As if more incentive were needed, owner Trent Brooks just added a breakfast platter, too, with slices of smoked brisket, diced potatoes and scrambled eggs.

READERS' CHOICE: Torchy's Tacos

Fung's Kitchen

Super-crispy, golden duck skin with all the fat rendered, with hoisin sauce and shaved chives on the side. When you want a no-fail Peking duck experience in Houston, Fung's Kitchen is where it's at. A specialty that's available every day at this spacious Cantonese restaurant, the Peking duck is a point of pride for chef Hoi Fung, who boasts that all his cooking staff is trained to prepare and carve the bird. This ensures that when several hundred people show up for a banquet, the dish that arrives at each table is perfect. It also ensures that when a party comes in and requests Peking duck, the diners will have an experience worthy of any establishment in Hong Kong. Traditional Peking duck is served with thin pancakes, but the Americanized version comes with fluffy white buns. At Fung's you can request either or both, a total win.

Himalaya Restaurant & Catering
Jeff Balke

In Houston, the name "Himalaya" has become synonymous with the best in Pakistani fare. A great deal of that success is due to Kaiser and Azra Lashkari's tireless efforts, which started back in 1993. That was when they opened their first restaurant, a tiny affair with only six seats. These days, they feed dozens of Houstonians six nights a week in a much larger place off Hillcroft. No one leaves hungry after dining on huge platters of saffron-tinged lamb biryani, shredded hunter's beef sautéed to a frizzled crisp and spicy green curry that is not for the meek. Bonus: It's BYOB most times of the year (which is discouraged only during Ramadan), and if you haven't experienced a glass of Riesling alongside a pepper-laced helping of chicken karhai, well, you just haven't lived.

BRC Gastropub
Photo by Troy Fields

Be it a great hot dog, burger, chicken-fried oyster, foie gras mac and cheese, or braised and grilled beef belly, BRC Gastropub's recipe for over-the-top comfort food is always eminently satisfying. Consequently, the chicken-fried steak, available on the menu as an "evening breakfast" or on the brunch menu in a half order portion, is everything you could want and then some. The huge order of beef cutlet, delivered in two large pieces, is breaded in potato chips and then deep-fried until heartily, wonderfully crisp, topped with creamy gravy, and served alongside two eggs over easy, a heaping mound of smoked paprika potatoes, and BRC's famous bacon jam. The restaurant's legendary buttermilk biscuit comes with it so that you can lap up every last bit of bacon jam and gravy left on the plate.

READERS' CHOICE: Hickory Hollow Restaurants & Catering

Latin Bites

What started out as a brother and sister catering business has flourished and grown into Houston's best Peruvian restaurant. Here is a place where you can experience the true essence of Peruvian cuisine. Chef Roberto Castre's dishes shine with authenticity as well as artistry. His simple trio of three causas, pastel-hued mounds of whipped potato flavored with different types of aji (pepper), and his beautiful tiradito tres sabores (thinly sliced fish made with three flavors of sauces) are the kinds that inspire imitators. His ceviches — especially the ceviche de mercado, or market ceviche — immediately whisk you to the streets of Lima with their strident acidity and melange of fish and seafood. Castre and his partners — sister Rita and brother-in-law Carlos Ramos — are also constantly innovating, making Latin Bites the destination for a taste of contemporary Peruvian. Start with a perfectly constructed pisco sour made with the highest-quality branded Pisco Portón, marvel at the consistency of no-fail entrées like the lomo saltado and complete your meal with a scratch-made dessert of alfajores (dulce de leche sandwich cookies).

Pho Dien

Walk into Pho Dien on a Saturday at 9 a.m., and you'll undoubtedly have to put your name on a list to get a table. But not to worry; the wait won't be too long. Pho Dien is the restaurant that Vietnamese know to frequent when they want a high-quality bowl of pho. The specialty here is the pho tai uop, which translates to "rare steak marinated special." It's beef carpaccio that has been marinated in a special sauce, and the meat is ultra-tender and flavorful. Another specialty is pho nam cuc, which comes with small chunks of beef brisket. But seriously, all you need to order is the pho dac biet — which comes with everything in it, including rare steak, flank, brisket, tendon, tripe and meatball — to know that you've found the best bowl of pho in the city. The broth is clear but rich with spices and aromatics and the flavor of long-simmered beef bone. Bowls come with your choice of bean sprouts blanched or raw and a side of veggies. Add a glass of cafe sua da, or Vietnamese iced coffee, and your meal will be complete.

You wouldn't expect to find the best Vietnamese banh mi sandwiches in Houston on Gessner in the Spring Branch area near the city's Korean community, but that's exactly what you get. Owned by Ronnie and Linda Nguyen, a young Vietnamese couple in their late twenties, the fast-casual cafe offers banh mi as well as rice and noodle dishes. Though the other items are perfectly good, it's the banh mi that definitely stands out. Served on a crispy oblong roll, the Vietnamese sandwich is filled with the perfect ratio of protein to pickled vegetable, cilantro, cucumber and jalapeño. For proteins, you get a choice of barbecue pork, pork belly, gogi (Korean-style) beef, barbecue chicken, crispy tofu or combinations. You also have the option of adding an egg or avocado. All of this is finished off with a generous smear of the restaurant's house-made garlic aioli, the secret weapon that ties it all together. First timers would do well by choosing the pork belly or the gogi beef banh mi, the restaurant's two best-sellers.

Tucked away in the corner of a strip mall on Bellaire in Chinatown, One Dragon Restaurant is as unassuming as it is special. This one-room hole-in-the-wall with no more than ten tables is presided over by a husband and wife who barely speak English but whose mission is to serve up Shanghai cuisine like you'd find in China. You can have an entirely solid family meal here made up of several family-style entrées, and it will be excellent, but the thing that everyone comes here for — the reason there's often a one-hour wait during the lunch hour on weekends — is that One Dragon has mastered the delicate and mysterious craft of making the most delicious xiao long bao, or soup dumplings. Not a single table goes without an order or two or three of these beauties. They come six to an order, the outer dumpling wrapper elastic but ultra-thin. Grab one softly with your chopstick, and it will sag with the weight of the soup inside. Bite into the dumpling and it will gush pleasantly with flavorful broth before you bite into the small pork patty inside. It's an absolute thing of beauty that is well worth the wait.

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