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.

Rebecca Masson in September 2014 sitting on the floor of the future Fluff Bake Bar space.
Photo by Chuck Cook Photography
Rebecca Masson in September 2014 sitting on the floor of the future Fluff Bake Bar space.

The Veruca Salt cake at Fluff Bake Bar is so good, it might make you put aside whatever fanciful, special-order cake-and-frosting combo you thought you were going to get. Most ideas suddenly seem unbearably dull compared to luscious, incredibly dark layers of devil's food cake divided by layers of salted caramel buttercream. Crunchy bits of salted pretzel add fun texture, as do the odd yet elegant edible "pearls" used to adorn the top. Best of all, Fluff Bake Bar offers the Veruca Salt cake in both full-size and single-serving versions, so there's no need to wait for a celebration for some quiet indulgence. The fact that Fluff Bake Bar finally has a storefront of its own in Midtown makes that easier than ever.

Andes Café is both understated and ambitious. It's a simple place with no fancy designer furnishings. The ambition is on the menu. Let it not be said that chef David Guerrero does anything halfway. The dishes come from seven different South American countries: Guerrero's native Ecuador as well as Peru, Argentina, Venezuela, Colombia, Bolivia and Chile. Fans flock there for generous ceviches, entraña (skirt steak seasoned with herby chimichurri sauce) and lomo saltado. Andes Café is open for breakfast, lunch and dinner, which means it's possible to begin the day with tamales, green plantain dumplings and quinoa oatmeal with blackberries and pumpkin seeds, which makes for a mighty fine start indeed.

This is "moist" brisket at Killen's Barbecue.
Photo by Mai Pham
This is "moist" brisket at Killen's Barbecue.

Killen's Barbecue in Pearland still is the one to beat, but you don't have to take our word for it. In June 2015, Food Network named Killen's the second-best barbecue joint in America. (The Bar-B-Q Shop in Memphis took the top spot.) It's not just that Killen's puts out competition-level brisket, gigantic, tender beef ribs and bone-in pork belly. It has its sides game down, too, serving up pints of homemade creamed corn, green beans allowed to retain a bit of firmness (unlike the nasty steam-table-style ones found at other barbecue joints) and a potato salad anyone would be proud to call his own. Lines form before the place even opens at 11 a.m., so it's best to get there early.

READERS' CHOICE: Killen's Barbecue

Tony's

Celebrating its 50th year in the biz in 2015, Tony Vallone's eponymous Tony's is, without a doubt, Houston's finest fine-dining establishment. From celebrities like Barbara Walters and Andrea Bocelli to Houston's local elite and billionaires, this is the place to go when you want to experience the highest level of service with gourmet Italian food to match. From the moment you step into Tony's, you get the VIP treatment. Servers are dressed in white coats. Water, wine, bread and a myriad of items appear as if by magic. You get table-side service for everything from hand-pulled mozzarella to soup freshly poured from a silver vessel to fish expertly filleted from a whole grilled branzino, or a drizzle of the most delectable Barolo sauce onto your A5 Wagyu. Wine service is impeccable and often arrives at the table in a spectacular Riedel decanter. Chef de cuisine Kate McLean keeps things interesting by offering a changing tasting menu with contemporary interpretations of Italian classics. Keeping the place classy is a strictly enforced dress code, which requires gentlemen to wear jackets in the dining room.

Taiko
Troy Fields
Taiko

The almost nondescript exterior of this restaurant, located off the beaten path in a strip-mall setting, belies what waits inside: A welcoming, mom-and-pop gem where the mom is the waitress, the dad is the cook and the food is like your Japanese grandmother might make. It's the reason why, on your average Wednesday night, the restaurant will be filled with Japanese-speaking patrons, who come for things like the delectable ball of crispy tempura, or "bomb," known as bakudan, or a dish of sake-steamed cod served in beautiful Japanese china. The panko-crusted tonkatsu pork cutlet, crispy salmon salad and very solid ramen, not to mention unusual dishes such as the uni (sea urchin) with spinach and the uni donburi bowl — both filled with an incredible amount of uni — are also winners.

Cafe TH
Photo by Troy Fields

Walk into Cafe TH on any given day, and the tiny shop's owner, Minh Nguyen, will be there to greet you with smiles and great service. To call it a neighborhood spot is almost a misnomer, because this is the kind of place that people will drive from all over town to experience. The food is humble yet fresh. Chargrilled chicken vermicelli is made with white meat. Pho and curry are offered in vegan form. Nguyen's bánh mí sandwiches are always delicious and, thanks to his hard-core regulars, there's a whole section of items that have been customized so many times, they were christened with the patrons' own names on the menu — among them, Abby's Uncommon Combo (fresh spring rolls and a half order of bánh bot chiên); Trifecta Sanjay (a small tofu sandwich, stir-fried tofu delight, a small bowl of vegan curry with baguette); and Ironman Jay (stir-fried lemongrass beef served over stir-fried vegetables).

D & T Drive Inn
David Rozycki

Tuesday is Steak Night at D&T Drive Inn and, with the backyard setting, it feels like a big family picnic — except the beer selection is much better. For $18 or $28, you get your choice of a ten-ounce sirloin or a 16-ounce rib eye, house salad and a baked potato with all the fixings. On some nights, there's even fancy compound butter that's perfect for slathering on baked potato and steak alike. D&T is serious about its beef, and it's not unusual to find grass-fed and grain-finished steaks from Black Hill Ranch on the grill. Chef Mara Serna is usually out back playing mother hen, ensuring all her diners are getting what they need and are happy, which adds to the communal feel.

READERS' CHOICE: Griff's

Kuu
Troy Fields
Kuu

Houston's west side has long deserved a noteworthy sushi spot, and now it finally has one. Diners should angle for seats at the sushi bar for a bird's-eye view of chef Adison Lee and his staff diligently forming perfectly textured sushi rice into neat blocks and topping them with some of the best fish and meats to be found in the city. Lee trained under world-acclaimed master Nobu Matsuhisa and that experience has now been honed to a sharp focus. Searing of foie gras is perfectly timed to melt into the rice and on the tongue. Fish is sliced to capitalize perfectly on the most tender layers, even a bit on the surface to ensure it wraps around the rice just so. Often, a tiny amount of ginger, yuzu or other accoutrement is applied to best showcase the fish's flavor. Go now, before Houston's other sushi aficionados find out what Lee is doing over there and make it hard to get a reservation.

READERS' CHOICE: Uchi

Best Of Houston®

Best Of