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

Addis Ababa may not be in the sexiest shopping center. However, inside the restaurant, the warm, welcoming staff and hearty food will make diners forget the lackluster exterior. In fact, it may be the best Ethiopian restaurant with which to familiarize the uninitiated with the cuisine. The staff are happy to answer questions for those ready to embrace comforting dishes like awaze tibs — beef cubes in hot sauce with onion, fresh garlic and tomato — and yebeg key wot — lamb in berbere sauce — all to be wrapped in tart, spongy injera bread. The huge family-style meat and vegetable platters are an impressive sight. Do allow extra time after the meal for the communal coffee ceremony, one of the most important rituals of Ethiopian hospitality.

Triniti

Triniti's pastry chef, Samantha Mendoza, understands what makes for memorable desserts: flavors, luxurious textures, elegance and restraint. She graduated from the baking and pastry program at the Art Institute of Houston and first made desserts professionally at Bedford, Robert Gadsby's former restaurant. Later, Mendoza became the executive pastry chef at Tony's at the young age of 22. At Triniti, her fine chocolates and macarons, served in wooden cigar boxes, are perennial favorites. Other desserts change with the seasons, but examples include pitch-perfect hazelnut mousse enrobed in dark chocolate; silky coconut panna cotta with blueberries and crunchy granola; and cherry meringue with citrus mousse and almond crumble.

READERS' CHOICE: The Chocolate Bar

Fat Cat Creamery

Let's face it: It is not difficult to love milkshakes. Fat Cat Creamery gives us additional reasons to love these cold confections even more. First off are the inventive — but not overcomplicated — house-made ice creams with a focus on Texas products. Waterloo Strawberry Buttermilk (made with Waterloo Texas-Style Gin), Milk Chocolate Stout (with Convict Hill Oatmeal Stout) and Cat's Meow Mexican Vanilla are just some of the flavors available year-round. As the weather cools, seasonal flavors like Bourbon Pecan Pie and Pumpkin Cheesecake come back into play. Any of them make for a great milkshake, and Fat Cat has a few custom creations on any given day as well. Best of all, every ice cream is churned with fresh milk from Mill-King Market & Creamery in McGregor, Texas. Local dairies are disappearing, so a Fat Cat Creamery's shake is an indulgence with a conscience.

Oporto Fooding House
Photo by Troy Fields

Oporto's Midtown location opened without a lot of fanfare, content to sit quietly until curious diners drifted in and discovered this elegant gem. Owned by husband and wife team Rick Di Virgilio and chef Shiva Patel-Di Virgilio, Oporto takes the best of their earlier endeavors — the original Oporto and Queen Vic Pub & Kitchen — and combines them into a sophisticated whole. Oporto is as much a pleasure for a casual sup at the bar as it is for whiling away the hours over a multicourse meal and bottles of wine with friends. Tapas are seafood-focused and favorites include croquetas de bacalhau (salted cod croquettes), polvo com batatas (charred octopus) and littleneck clams bathed in white wine sauce . There's a wine list spanning the world from Portugal to Chile that makes it almost too easy to find a splendid pairing. With so much here to appreciate, Oporto is sure to serve up many culinary adventures for Houston diners.

READERS' CHOICE: B&B Butchers & Restaurant

Tony's

Tony's is just as serious about its pasta quality as it is about everything else. "All Pasta Made by Hand In House" proclaims the menu. The question is not whether to have pasta. The question is which pasta to have. Shall it be the pillow-like pansoti filled with squash and dabbed with sage essence? Perhaps the weather calls for tortelli stuffed with osso buco? Maybe the mood demands agnolotti alle noci, small pouches of beautiful taleggio cheese, each adorned with a single walnut half. Whatever the choice, it will prove more elegant and delectable than anyone thought possible.

Tiger Den

In the Dun Huang Plaza off Bellaire Boulevard near Beltway 8, big, flashy neon signs are the rule rather than the exception. In the midst of it all sits Houston's best ramen house, and it's almost as invisible as Platform 9 3/4 from the Harry Potter books. The name in sedate white lettering above the door is not nearly as obvious as the crowds of people waiting for a seat, even on a Tuesday night. Inside, the atmosphere is a bit reminiscent of a gritty nighttime scene in Blade Runner. Benches are crowded with diners clasping their ramen bowls. A touch of smoke fills the air, the result of pork belly, gizzards and chicken skin being grilled to crisp perfection in the kitchen. While the yakitoris, or skewered items, are mindless fun, the ramen broth is a meditation on flavors, whether it be the creamy tonkotsu that takes hours to prepare or the sultry, salty undertow of the garlic and black bean rendition. Tiger Den is too fun and deliberately casual for a printed sake list, but there are always a well-chosen handful of good selections available.

READERS' CHOICE: Ninja Ramen

Roegels Barbecue Co.
Chuck Cook Photography

After making barbecue for years under the Baker's Ribs franchise, Russell Roegels noticed that Houston barbecue was changing. He closely examined what up-and-comers like Aaron Franklin of Franklin Barbecue in Austin were preaching, and attended Barbecue Camp at A&M. He returned to his Houston store, decided not to renew the franchise agreement and set out along with his wife, Misty, to make a better product. It's been worth the effort. Now, the longtime barbecue spot on South Voss attracts lines of patrons. They are there to snag slices of brisket encrusted with black pepper and salt, pork ribs with sweet-salty balance, crisp coleslaw, mayonnaise-dill potato salad and some stellar bourbon banana pudding for dessert.

Il Mascalzone
Troy Fields

Fake risottos abound in Houston. So many restaurants put something on the menu called "risotto" that ends up being just rice cooked in broth with some cream thrown in. Good risotto starts with using the correct rice, like short-grained Arborio from Italy. Mascalzone, thankfully, understands this. As a result, its risotto is everything it should be. It's creamy. The grains are tender and a spoonful holds its shape as it should. Mascalzone offers its risotto with four different additions: vegetables, veal, mushrooms or seafood. Any risotto lover should be able to find a perfect match.

Caracol
Photo by Troy Fields

Mexico is not known for its wine (yet), so what's a sommelier at a seafood-driven Mexican restaurant to do? Make new rules. Beverage director and sommelier Sean Beck went through the same challenge when developing the wine list at Hugo's and brought that experience to bear when it was time to pair wine with Caracol's coastal cuisine. The selections are often surprising and yet make complete sense. French Champagne is terrific with briny oysters, while dry Australian Riesling offsets clams perfectly. Italian Barolo matches grilled prime rib eye and garlicky mushrooms. At Caracol, even the most jaded wine connoisseur can find new adventures, like Gerovassiliou Malagousia from Greece with Caracol's signature wood roasted oysters.

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