Hugo's

When you talk about regional Mexican cuisine in Houston, the conversation inevitably turns to Hugo's. One of Houston's finest restaurants since 2002, chef Hugo Ortega's eponymous venue has been a critical hit from the get-go, a reason why he has been a James Beard Foundation finalist in the Best Chef Southwest category for the last five years. What's wonderful about this restaurant is its adherence to Mexican culinary traditions. It takes you on a journey through Mexico's vast geography with dishes like cochinita pibil (slow roasted suckling pig) from the Yucatan or huachinango a la Veracruzana (whole snapper from Veracruz). There are deep, richly flavored moles that hail from Puebla or Oaxaca; tart ceviches one might find in the Baja; not to mention killer churros and hand-churned Mexican drinking chocolate. A bountiful and undeniably fantastic Sunday buffet brunch is one of the city's best. Delicious cocktails utilizing Mexican spirits and a thoughtfully curated wine list complete the picture.

Tony's

All of the bread at Tony's is baked in-house, including the long, spindly breadsticks called grissini. Dig in the basket and you'll find a treasure trove of other wonders, including Parmesan-sprinkled focaccia and sesame white pumpkin bread. It's such a lovely assortment that it seems possible to dine simply on bread and wine alone, but to miss out on the beautiful pastas, roasted meats and fishes would be a shame. It's this kind of elegance that extends even to the bread course that makes Tony's one of Houston's best fine dining destinations.

Best Neighborhood Spot in Upper Kirby

Pondicheri

Pondicheri

With the upstairs bake lab adding to the excitement of the downstairs cafe, this Indian street food spot is a full-on powerhouse located in West Ave. (The cafe is so popular, it even expanded operations into NYC.) At breakfast, the Morning Thali is an absolute must. The traditional Indian variety plate offers a tapestry of flavors, from a spiced potato curry and rich lamb keema to bright saffron cucumber raita, plus a yolky egg and carrot paratha that you can use to dip and top as you please. The thalis carry on into dinner, with varieties including earthy butter chicken and smoked eggplant, as well as a vegetarian yogi platter. There are curries, frankies, dosas and plenty of cardamom-spiced, sugar-coated and whipped-cream-dolloped sweets, too. Each is more addicting then the next, which you'd know if you've ever tried the mind-numbingly good chai pie.

Walk into this unassuming blue- and white-painted house on any morning but Sunday, and you will find a line of patrons waiting patiently for their fix. Follow the line and the smell of fresh tortillas, and you will be led, cafeteria style, to a hot-plate counter with that morning's offerings. You choose from standards like egg and chorizo, bacon and egg, or potato and egg, but there is also barbacoa (shredded lamb or beef), lengua (beef tongue) and a selection of guisados (stews) made of pork ribs or beef. There are sautés made of nopales (cactus paddle) or calabaza (pumpkin) — approximately 20 selections in all — everything made fresh daily. This place is magic.

Kuma Burgers
Photo by Chuck Cook Photography

Kuma Burgers, an excellent joint located in an unlikely spot — the food court at Greenway Plaza — has some of the most interesting milkshakes in town. There's a rotating selection of seasonal offerings, including the sweet corn shake, which is a can't-miss when it's available. But you can get the Milo Shake all the time. Milo is a mix of chocolate and malted milk powder, so this delight is actually a malted, and it hits the sweet spot between being drinkable through a straw while being thick enough to satisfy.

Hubbell & Hudson Bistro
Photo by Troy Fields

When Cureight by Hubbell & Hudson opened last summer in The Woodlands, many questioned whether there would be enough demand to fill its 25 seats. One year later, the restaurant is sold out on most nights, and requires a minimum of a week's advance booking for patrons to secure a spot at what has become one of the most coveted tables in the greater Houston area. A restaurant within a restaurant, Cureight is tucked away inside the larger Hubbell & Hudson Bistro. To get there, you are led by a hostess down a hallway to a small, intimate dining room where the backdrop is executive chef Austin Simmons's kitchen, located just feet away and clearly visible through a glass partition. When you dine there, it's as if you're a personal guest of the chef. An amuse-bouche of Hokkaido scallop and torched uni (sea urchin) is sublime. A milky soup course of geoduck is spectacularly presented. A meat course of A5 Wagyu from Japan is taken to another level with the addition of dumplings stuffed with kimchi. On paper, you are supposed to get eight courses, but the reality — when you factor in the amuse bouche, the mignardise and the take-home gift from the pastry chef — is so much more.

Cafe TH
Photo by Troy Fields

An institution in the East Downtown area since its days in the '80s as just a banh mi shop, Cafe TH, now owned by the friendly and outgoing Minh Nguyen, is like Eado's version of Cheers reincarnated as a restaurant. Regulars come here for a fix of everything from Nguyen's Vietnamese banh mi sandwiches to his vegan curry and his pho. There are also killer egg rolls and one of the best versions of grilled pork and rice vermicelli you will find anywhere in the city. What's more, several combos — Abby's Uncommon Combo, Trifecta Sanjay and Ironman Jay — are named after patrons who visited so often that they were inducted into Cafe TH's family.

If you're going to spend someone else's money, you may as well do so with beef. At Pappas Bros. Steakhouse, you'll be treating yourself to what is easily one of the best steaks in the city. The barely year-old location in the heart of downtown is impeccably classy, with an open dining room showcasing handsome wood paneling and a gorgeous marbled-topped bar with seating facing an open kitchen. The steakhouse continues to wow with beautiful cuts of prime beef (many of which are dry-aged onsite), luxurious seafood towers, and incredibly satisfying sides and desserts, like the über-sweet gooey pecan pie, which you most definitely want to tack onto the tab. Order some bottles — you're not paying, after all — from the standout collection of 2,000 wines overseen by advanced sommelier Bill Elsey, or have an incredible cocktail from Matt Tanner, formerly of Anvil Bar & Refuge. (Don't miss a selection from his cherry-picked whiskey cart.)

READERS' CHOICE: Pappas Bros. Steakhouse

Himalaya Restaurant & Catering
Jeff Balke

We've crowed over chef-owner Kaiser Lashkari's chicken curry. We've praised his dense, sweet take on flan. His housemade pastrami, in both fried and cold-sliced form, was one of our favorite dishes of 2015. This year, however, he blew everyone away with his Pakistani take on fried chicken, which includes brining the chicken ahead of time with ginger and garam masala. It's Lashkari's continual culinary exploration that keeps Himalaya on top — not just as a Pakistani restaurant but as one of Houston's best restaurants, period.

Oporto Fooding House
Photo by Troy Fields

No matter when you visit Oporto Fooding House & Wine, there's something about the vibe that feels oh so right. Meant to channel a coastal Portuguese cafe, the restaurant's design is chic and stylish yet approachable. Octagonal-shaped terra cotta tiles imbue the space with warmth. Hanging woven chandeliers and copper accents give it character. Come nighttime, these same chandeliers cast a dreamy, golden glow over the entire space. Meanwhile, bossa nova and samba beats intermingle with the thrum of dinner conversation, setting the perfect tone for the evening. Add fantastic food, an excellent cocktail list and a very reasonably priced wine list for a wonderful experience all around.

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