When young chef William Wright talks about the food at Helen Greek Food and Wine, it's with polite humility. He has the quiet intensity of one who is constantly working to master a subject. In this case, it's the seasonal aspects and ingredients of Greek cuisine, which he takes far beyond the shish kebabs and lemon potatoes you find at most places. Wright's dedication to the subject is one of the big reasons Helen Greek Food and Wine was a James Beard semifinalist for Best New Restaurant in 2016, a category in which Houston is seldom recognized. Wright is now overseeing not only Helen but also new American-Italian restaurant Arthur Ave. It's a lot of responsibility for a young man, but Wright seems up to the task.

READERS' CHOICE: Chris Shepherd of Underbelly

Stephanie Meza

At the bottom of the neon sign at Irma's Original, the motto reads "como en su casa," which in Spanish means "like in your own home." This is the motto that 74-year-old Irma Galvan has employed for the past three decades. When you come to her place, there are no menus. Most patrons have been here before, and they know what they want. They come as much to see Galvan as they do to experience her food, all of it cooked from the heart. Popular dishes include chicken mole and carne guisada, not to mention pork roast tamales topped with mole, chile ancho and tomatillo. There are also chicken, beef, cheese, fresh mahi mahi and spinach enchiladas, along with fish tacos and chiles rellenos. Irma's is more than just a neighborhood spot. It's a Houston classic.

The taco is a humble Mexican street food that you can find all over Houston, but in the hands of chef Hugo Ortega it becomes something unforgettable. A hand-made corn tortilla lays flat on the plate, topped with a tantalizingly plump lobster tail sautéed in butter and spices. A smear of black refried beans, a scoop of pico de gallo and a thick slice of avocado complete the picture, resulting in bite after bite of pure food pleasure. Best taco in Houston? Look no further than the taquito de langosta, Hugo's amazing lobster taco.

Just inside the entrance of Tony Thai, two large bronze Buddha sculptures welcome you in for a taste of Thai as authentic as it comes. A family restaurant where the owner is the cook and her brother is the general manager, this is the place where you'll see a group of Thai ladies waiting for bags of to-go food that they ordered off menu. It's also the place for dishes so spicy you'll cry in your tom yum kung (sweet and sour shrimp soup). Specialty dishes include beef tiger cry and whole fried fish with garlic. Try the yum seafood salad for something unexpected, the red curry for something homey and the catfish in chile sauce for a burst of flavor.


When Chris Williams decided to open his first Houston restaurant, he ultimately looked to his roots for inspiration — particularly the legacy of his great-grandmother, Lucille Bishop Smith, inventor of the first hot roll mix. Lucille's is decorated with black and white photos of Ms. Smith in her heyday. The logo is taken from her recipe box, which is proudly displayed on a mantel in the center of the restaurant. The menu is classic Southern. There are fried green tomatoes, country fried oysters, crab cake beignets and, of course, Lucille's famous biscuits. Whole fried fish are served on basil maque choux. Melt-off-the bone oxtails sit atop creamy serrano grits. Even the collard greens are something to remember. Williams's great-grandmother would be proud.

When it comes to fajitas in Houston, you want them to look mouthwatering, sizzling on a platter and served with rice, beans, guacamole, sour cream, pico de gallo and cheese. The tortillas need to be made by hand, still warm (and we don't mean reheated) when they arrive at your table. For all of that, Little Pappasito's delivers with a choice of beef, chicken, filet mignon or shrimp. Wash it all down with a killer margarita, and you've got yourself a stellar Tex-Mex experience.

When Enrique Bravo first opened Pollo Bravo in Houston, he had to give away free meals so that people would try his chicken. It was a smart move, because we were hooked. Now Pollo Bravo is regularly packed with couples and families looking to indulge in a chicken feast. Individuals can get a 1/4 chicken plate with sides like the fried plantains or Mexican rice, but the Gordos and Bravos combos — complete meals for the family that come with pre-set sides like avocado salad or sausage and French fries — are the way to go.

Samantha Mendoza makes waves wherever she goes, having first gained national attention as a pastry chef star at Triniti in Montrose. She worked there for four years, constructing elaborate desserts out of delicate cake rectangles, neat quenelles of housemade ice cream and accents of colorful fresh fruit. This year, she was wooed away to Killen's Steakhouse, where she's been challenged with adding chocolate and pastries to a dessert menu of steakhouse standards like bread pudding. There, she continues to wow diners with creations such as chocolate mousse with raspberry jelly and passion fruit-mango sorbet.

Texans are very passionate about chicken-fried steak and it's hard to find one to satisfy all the nitpickers. Mel's Country Cafe, though, has always served one worth making the drive to Tomball. The steaks come in "small" eight-ounce and "large" (behemoth) 16-ounce portions with all the desired choices of sides: green beans, skin-on fries and, of course, mashed potatoes. There's white cream gravy, as is right and proper. The breading is seasoned and light, which allows the tenderized beef to remain center stage. The chicken-fried steak at Mel's is, simply put, a Texas classic.

READERS' CHOICE: Hickory Hollow

Photo by Jeremy Parzen

A founding member of the Houston Sommelier Association and partner in the hugely popular Camerata at Paulie's wine bar, David Keck goes above and beyond his day-to-day responsibilities of running a bar. He has been instrumental in putting the Houston wine scene on the map, working with small producers and boutique distributors to bring hard-to-find wines to town. He is a mentor and a leader, inspiring a younger generation of wine and beverage professionals to better themselves through study and advanced certification. Then, right on the heels of being named one of Food and Wine magazine's Sommeliers of the Year, he achieved the highest level of certification possible in his field, passing the Court of Master Sommeliers exams to become the second master sommelier in Houston and one of only 230 master sommeliers in the world. There's no doubt about it: David Keck is one of the best sommeliers Houston has ever seen, and 2016 is his year.

READERS' CHOICE: Adele Corrigan of 13 Celsius

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