Mel's Country Cafe

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

Camerata at Paulie's
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

The warm, friendly service at Nigerian restaurant Café Abuja means it's an ideal place for both those well-versed in and new to African cuisine. Just ask and the staff will happily guide you through the menu. The warming Goat Pepper Soup, made with goat meat and tripe, truly packs a spicy punch that will leave even chile-heads sated. Beef is served exceptionally tender, and it's terrific in the stews. There are a wide variety of swallows (dough-like balls made from ingredients like yam and wheat), portions of which are flattened and used for scooping up the saucy foods. Don't be put off by the modest West Oaks strip center. Adorned in natural woods, Café Abuja's interior is much more attractive than the exterior suggests.

READERS' CHOICE: Peli Peli

Oporto Fooding House
Photo by Troy Fields

When you go for tapas, you're looking for an evening filled with small plates to share, preferably with a pitcher of sangria or a cold beer to wash it down. That's exactly what you find at Oporto Fooding House in Midtown, which does Portuguese tapas, or petiscos, so authentically well that it feels like you're in a cafe in Lisbon. Croquetas de bacalhau (salted cod and potato croquettes served with piri piri sauce) are magnificently crispy on the outside and bursting with flavor. A simple plate of batata (smashed fingerlings with tomato chutney and aioli) is impossible to stop eating, as are the camarões piri-piri (gulf shrimp with garlic and piri piri pepper) or the unforgettably stunning polvo com batatas (wood-grilled octopus over shaak potatoes). The menu is vast, so try to control yourself (four to five plates is plenty for two), and don't worry if you can't try everything, because you'll be back.

Oporto Fooding House
Photo by Troy Fields

When you go for tapas, you're looking for an evening filled with small plates to share, preferably with a pitcher of sangria or a cold beer to wash it down. That's exactly what you find at Oporto Fooding House in Midtown, which does Portuguese tapas, or petiscos, so authentically well that it feels like you're in a cafe in Lisbon. Croquetas de bacalhau (salted cod and potato croquettes served with piri piri sauce) are magnificently crispy on the outside and bursting with flavor. A simple plate of batata (smashed fingerlings with tomato chutney and aioli) is impossible to stop eating, as are the camarões piri-piri (gulf shrimp with garlic and piri piri pepper) or the unforgettably stunning polvo com batatas (wood-grilled octopus over shaak potatoes). The menu is vast, so try to control yourself (four to five plates is plenty for two), and don't worry if you can't try everything, because you'll be back.

The salted chocolate chunk cookie at this funky bake shop is a thing of beauty. Crowned with delicate flakes of fleur de sel, speckled with Valrhona chocolate and toasted until golden brown, the fat, stubby cookies strike that perfect balance between being rich, sweet, chocolaty, buttery and salty. Pair them with a piping hot coffee or, screw it, a glass of red wine. Bonus tip: Head to the bakery early to snag one of its Yesterday's Treats boxes; $10 will get you a mystery box stacked with leftover sweets and pastries from the day before (maybe the cookies will be in there).

Mikki's Soul Food Cafe
Jeff Balke

Mikki's Soul Food Cafe is in the back of a sketchy-looking strip center next to a gym, but this place is one of Houston's hidden gems. Service is very real in a no-bull kind of way and ranges from "Here's your food" to "How you doing, hon?" Food is served cafeteria-style and it's important to check out all the steam counters before deciding on an order. No one should risk missing out on homemade-style meatloaf in tomato gravy or silky oxtails. There are big squares of strawberry, German chocolate and coconut frosted cake next to the register (buy one just to take home, if nothing else) and if someone asks if you would like cornbread, the answer is yes. Dine here and be in good company. Customers have included singers Usher and Patti LaBelle.

READERS' CHOICE: Frenchy's Chicken

Sylvia's Enchilada Kitchen

There is an art to making the perfect enchilada, and Sylvia's Enchilada Kitchen has definitely perfected it. The enchiladas here are the not the biggest you'll find in Houston, nor are they overstuffed. They are, however, crafted with hand-made corn tortillas, then filled and topped so that each of the 20 options on the menu has a distinctive taste and personality. North of the border faves include Tex-Mex classics such as the Refugio cheese enchilada topped with chili gravy. South of the border specialties take you on a journey through the cities that inspired them. In Puebla, you get chicken enchiladas topped with mole poblano; in San Miguel, you get enchiladas suizas. Nowhere else in the city will you find the breadth of enchiladas that you do here, and they are all fantastic.

Prohibition Supper Club & Bar

You don't even have to leave the building to catch a show at this Theater District gem. That's because Prohibition Supperclub & Bar houses a theater of its own. Built in 1912 and kissed with Art Deco details, the seriously gorgeous space hosts sultry performances from burlesque troop the Moonlight Dolls. Out front, the restaurant is just as enticing. The menu evokes of sense of Southern decadence, with small plates ranging from New Orleans BBQ Shrimp and Croque Monsieur Oysters to Blistered Shishito Peppers. Don't miss the addicting Smoked Fried Chicken, a signature of former chef Ben McPherson that lives on through the talented chef Matt Wommack.. With an incredible bar program to match, you'll have one satisfying night at the theater.

Etoile Cuisine et Bar
Photo by Troy Fields

Since its 2012 debut in Uptown Park, Etoile Cuisine et Bar has steadily gained a loyal clientele, and with reason. This cozy, upscale French restaurant is helmed by chef-owner Philippe Verpiand, and he's on the kitchen line almost every night, cooking the food himself. What you get, then, is not food prepared by a cook who has never lived in France, but cuisine that is made by a French-born, award-winning chef who has been surrounded by Gallic tastes and flavors all of his life. Foie gras au torchon, escargots à la bourguignonne, magret de canard à l'orange and filet de boeuf au poivre are all masterfully executed. An affordable wine list and excellent bar menu overseen by Kimberly Paul enhance what is always a wonderful experience.

READERS' CHOICE: Brasserie 19

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