Rice Village welcomed an outpost of the fast-growing Liberty Kitchen empire at the beginning of the year, and Little Liberty quickly became a favorite among locals, mostly thanks to its cozy atmosphere and refreshingly good grub. Get sloppy double burgers smothered with Thousand Island dressing, hickory-grilled Gulf fish and weekend brunch plates piled high with Southern eggs and heirloom cheesy grits, all of which pair nicely with local suds and craft cocktails. Be sure not to miss Little Liberty's latest hit, a customizable Hawaiian poke menu.

Holley's Seafood Restaurant & Oyster Bar
Chuck Cook
Holley's Seafood Restaurant & Oyster Bar

If your brunch plans don't involve at least some sort of seafood, you're doing it wrong. At his namesake restaurant, veteran chef Mark Holley wows with coastal fare inspired by a tapestry of Southern flavors, from the Lowcountry and Gulf Coast to the bourbon-centric tastes of Kentucky. This year the restaurant and oyster bar upped its game with the introduction of Sunday brunch. Start with a smoky Scotch Bloody Mary, then slurp up East Coast and local Gulf oysters on the half-shell. Next try the citrus-cured smoked salmon with crispy potato latke, and sorghum-glazed shrimp and grits. Of course, there's non-seafood stuff too. No one will be mad at you for smashing a Wagyu cheddar burger or roasted pork debris eggs Benny. You can order à la carte or off the special prix fixe menu.

READERS' CHOICE: benjy's

Stephanie Hoban knows her way around vegetables, so much so that her vegan food truck can serve up convincing caprese melts made with vegan cheese and pulled-pork-esque sandwiches made from jackfruit. Brunch options range from superfood acai bowls to delicious gluten-free cornmeal pancakes and baked doughnuts. If you can't catch the truck during its sojourns outside of Inversion Coffee House or at various farmers' markets on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Saturdays, Ripe Cuisine also offers vegan catering services and cooking lessons.

READERS' CHOICE: Pepper Tree Veggie Cuisine

Coltivare Pizza & Garden
Photo by Troy Fields

The only thing bad about the thoughtfully composed pastas at this garden-to-table Italian spot is that your favorite may leave with the change of the season. But that's okay, because the genius team at Coltivare will likely come up with something new and equally favorable. And if nothing seasonal tickles your fancy, the pastas that stay on the menu — including heaven-sent ricotta gnocchi and perfectly al dente spaghetti with black pepper — are equally as satisfying. Come with friends so you can mix and match the dishes alongside fresh backyard salads and bubbly pizzas.

Jinya Ramen Bar
Photo by Troy Fields

Despite Houston's less than cool climate, locals take no issue slurping this modern Japanese spot's hot ramen all year round. On weekends you'll likely find a slight wait for a table even on the hottest days. Once you taste the intensely flavored, 18-hour slow-cooked pork bone broth and toothsome, from-scratch noodles, you'll know why. Go for the signature Tonkotsu Black and round your meal out with a refreshing local craft pint and some green tea mochi ice cream. You may need to cool off a bit.

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.

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