The Pass
Photo by Troy Fields

The desserts at both the fine-dining and casual sides of The Pass & Provisions change regularly. What doesn't change is that the sometimes fanciful — even improbable — ingredient combinations always end up tasting even better than they sound. Maraschino cherry soft serve with cocoa nibs and chile makes perfect sense: Cherries and chocolate go hand in hand, as do chile and chocolate. However, what other place would come up with combining a pistachio financier, yogurt ice cream and bitter chocolate with prune-infused Armagnac? Such combinations exemplify the overall brilliance of executive chefs Seth Siegel-Gardner and Terrence Gallivan. Yes, they are, in fact, the pastry chefs, too. When asked who was responsible for the dessert program, Siegel-Gardner told us, "We just found that it's another outlet that we really enjoy the creative process with."

READERS' CHOICE: The Chocolate Bar

Ritual
Photo by Troy Fields

When El Cantina Superior closed, it did so under the gaze of disappointed and underwhelmed diners. Really, it was for the best. The death of that concept made room for the birth of Ritual, helmed by Delicious Concepts' Ken Bridge and Black Hill Meats' Felix Florez. The latter is well known for providing locally raised meat to many of Houston's top restaurants. Suffice it to say he's got that covered at Ritual too. The food perspective is fiercely Texan, as exemplified in dishes like Smoked Lamb Bacon & Tomatoes with Deep Ellum blue cheese and the Red Eye Chop rubbed with coffee from local roaster Katz Coffee. There's a small but satisfying brunch menu as well: Try the Butcher's Breakfast, with house-cured bacon, a link of coarsely ground sausage, a petite steak, fried potatoes, outstanding grits and a fried duck egg.

READERS' CHOICE: State of Grace

Taqueria Taconmadre

Though it is a food truck, Taconmadre on Edgebrook has a separate building that serves as a dining room. There's even a patio. That makes for a relaxed atmosphere for dining on classic Mexican tacos, tortas, quesadillas and more, stuffed with your choice of fajita, pastor, barbacoa, chicken, chicharrón or even tripitas. The trompo — stacks of pork grilling on a rotating skewer with pineapple dripping tenderizing juices over the top — is the real deal.

Del Frisco's Double Eagle Steakhouse

Steakhouses are simply expected to have an excellent, rich macaroni and cheese, but Del Frisco's takes it a little further than usual. Topped with breadcrumbs, this decadent offering is loaded with chunks of lobster tail meat. The dish is broiled until the blend of fontina and Parmesan cheese bubbles and the crumbs make a toasty topping. The pasta choice is brilliant. It's pipette, a tube similar to macaroni but narrowed at one end, which means it captures and holds the creamy cheese sauce. Talk about gooey luxury.

READERS' CHOICE: Jus' Mac

La Table
Photo by Troy Fields

Any restaurant can dish out food, but few places provide guests with a sense of being truly valued and taken care of during a meal. La Table, managed by Invest Hospitality, the same company that oversees L'Atelier de Joël Robuchon in Las Vegas, understands how. It's all about good training that emphasizes the power of observation. The trained eye knows when it's time to offer a purse stand, or take someone's jacket, or fill a wine glass. (That last part might be the most important.) Houston has never lacked good food but we sure could use more places with outstanding service like La Table.

Fat Cat Creamery

At Fat Cat Creamery you can create your own marvelous concoction from your choice of ice cream and three toppings, but there's also the Every Day is Like Sundae, a special offering that changes regularly but always features two scoops of ice cream, housemade sauces, freshly whipped cream, cherries and a baked good. One example from this year was the Coffee Cake Sundae with two scoops of Fat Cat's Coffee & Cream ice cream, hot fudge, cashew praline crumbles, fresh whipped cream and a cherry. What makes these sundaes exceptional is the quality of the ingredients. The hot fudge is made from TCHO dark chocolate and the ice cream uses milk from Texas dairy Mill-King.

Kata Robata Sushi & Grill

Sushi lovers in Houston know to count on Kata Robata for a consistently excellent and interesting selection of fresh fish. Every day the first page of the menu highlights special arrivals, such as skipjack, konoshiro (gizzard shad) and uni (sea urchin), as well as the prized otoro and chutoro (fatty and medium-fatty tuna, respectively). Visit Kata Robata for the reasonably priced sushi combo lunch special or, for the ultimate experience, make a reservation for omakase (chef's choice dinner) at the sushi bar.

READERS' CHOICE: Uchi

El Real Tex-Mex Cafe

El Real Tex-Mex doesn't take itself too seriously. (Really, you can't assign too much gravitas to a place that has a combo platter named after Chingo Bling.) It's a fun place for margaritas, enchiladas and big, sizzling comals of garlic butter-braised beef fajitas. None of it would be nearly as successful, though, were it not for the underlying reverence for standards set by the pioneering cooks of South Texas. There's even a museum upstairs to see old menus and artifacts from restaurants that made Tex-Mex history. By the way, El Real is also an excellent spot for weekend brunch. Don't miss the bacon enchiladas.

READERS' CHOICE: The Original Ninfa's On Navigation

El Big Bad
David Rozycki

You can get endless baskets of subpar, on-the-house chips and salsa at nearly any Tex-Mex haunt in town, but it's worth the bit of extra money for chef Jonathan Jones's badass lineup of freshly made salsas. The big and bold delights pack punches of serrano, cilantro, garlic and lime, as well as unexpected flavors like toasted sesame, pumpkin seed and cranberry. And the freshly fried house-made corn chips are the perfect vehicle with which to scoop it all up.

What could be more fun than sneaking up to the back door of a restaurant, handing a worker $20 in cash and getting a rotisserie chicken, tortillas, pico de gallo and two small containers of elote (Mexican corn with lime, chili and crema) in return? It sounds sketchy, but that's really the way it works at Velvet Taco. The chicken tastes of butter and rosemary, the corn tortillas are tender and the hot sauce is a smoky one. Best of all, on Mondays this deal is only $10.

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