Best Casual Dining

Leave it to one of Houston's most highly regarded chefs, Ryan Hildebrand, to close the city's first tasting-menu restaurant and open its hottest new casual eatery down the road. The chef believes that making burgers is just as difficult as cooking "tweezer food," because people have preconceived notions of what a good one tastes like, and FM's taste dang good, like better-than-Shake-Shack good, though there's also the huge chicken-fried steak dripping in gravy and more comfort food. Huge warehouse windows and a big backyard with pingpong and yard games make this a family-friendly playhouse, but beer/cocktails on tap and a well-curated band and DJ lineup also bring out oodles of adult revelers ready to kick back on the weekend as the sun sets low.

An affogato with stracciatella.

One Austin export we can definitely get behind in Houston is Dolce Neve, makers of fine gelato. Sure, it's a little different from ice cream in that it's decidedly Italian, and this Heights shop serves up a killer stracciatella (chocolate chip), hazelnut and lemon custard. But a selection of creative seasonal flavors such as the ultra-luxurious goat cheese and pecan, with chevre sourced from Pure Luck Dairy and pecans from San Saba, is the real reason you should become a regular. That, and the fact that you're just as likely to find proprietor and Italian transplant Marco Silvestrini offering samples, making the shop's signature waffle cones, or talking about the art of gelato. Not to be overlooked are the salted caramel gelato pops, gelato sandwiches and the affogato — espresso poured over the gelato of your choosing. Here, that caffeine fix comes courtesy of Dolce Neve neighbor Morningstar. Already a beloved fixture in the neighborhood, Dolce Neve has also teamed up with Agricole Hospitality chef Ryan Pera to offer new seasonal flavors plucked right from Coltivare's garden and beyond.

Chefs Tai Nguyen and Vuthy "Tee" Srey of Seaside Poke.

This sleek East Village eatery opened in May and is everything you want in a poke stop: It's quick and efficient, design-forward and drenched in natural light, with style for days and a clean, chic appeal. It was evident from the get-go that chefs Tai Nguyen and Vuthy Srey had crafted a menu a notch above the competition, and you should expect the unexpected: housemade tinctures in dropper bottles, sprouts so fresh they're still in planters, jars of furikake and more glitzy add-ons for building your own bowl. But it's the signature poke that delights: The yellowtail truffle bowl arrives like a work of art, with a nest of delicately dried, ruby-hued chile pepper ito togarashi elegantly placed atop a mosaic of fresh fish, cilantro, pepper, masago (roe) and speckled puff rice. Salmon ponzu is brightened by garlic and vibrant orange, and tuna aioli gets a tangy assist from Thai chile and fried shallots, all of it beautifully plated. Not too shabby for a $10 bowl, but you'll also want to nab a bag of ube (purple yam) or matcha (green tea) "rice cripsy" treats and a cup of Maine Root soda — prickly pear lemonade for the win — to round out the best poke experience in town.

Tony and Donna Vallone share a smile during a photo shoot at legendary Houston restaurant Tony's.

It starts with the actual quality of rice, in this case an aged carnaroli from the Piedmont, which Tony's sources from renowned rice producer Acquerello, used the world over by only the finest restaurants. At Houston's own Italian landmark, the end product is a decadent risotto cacio e pepe, which yields a markedly tender, creamy and dreamy mouthful of risotto with notes of nutty, salty pecorino and subdued peppercorn. But first comes the best part of all. Servers rush the table with a veritable terrarium of black truffle, housed in its glass orb over a sea of uncooked rice. The large glass lid is removed and the truffle wafts toward your nose, having met the steam rising from the risotto, a sensory overload at hand as the pungent fungus is shaved over your dish. Tony's makes several seasonal risotto dishes, but the simplest version is truly the standout among them all.

Best Vietnamese

Don't freak out that the best Vietnamese restaurant in Houston doesn't even serve pho or banh mi; there is more to Vietnamese cuisine than noodle soup and sandwiches. This tiny sleeper of a joint is one of only a handful of restaurants in Houston that specializes in banh cuon, steamed rice flour crepes, made-to-order in Chinatown since 2004. In addition, dishes such as bun cha ha noi (grilled pork with vermicelli) and ca thanh long (turmeric dill pan-grilled fish fillets) are specialties that should not be missed. Thien Thanh opens as early as 8:30 a.m. because many Vietnamese people enjoy these dishes for breakfast or brunch. Prices are very reasonable, but remember to bring cash.

Molina's Cantina

Molina's, a family-run business for more than 75 years, has built a reputation on its enchiladas. With seven enchilada plates on the menu, the choices range from chicken to beef, cheese and spinach-filled, topped with green sauce, Spanish sauce, mole, or chili gravy. And while they are all good, it's the classic Enchiladas de Tejas — cheese enchiladas topped with chili con carne, melted cheese and chopped onions with an optional fried egg — that you won't be able to forget. Simple yet impeccably done, from the oozing cheese to the well-seasoned chili con carne and the flour tortilla, when you want enchiladas that embody the Tex-Mex ideal, Molina's is the place.

Coltivare Pizza & Garden
Photo by Troy Fields

This Italian concept from Agricole Hospitality — also of Revival Market, Eight Row Flint and three new concepts in EaDo — goes well beyond traditional red sauce. The restaurant has its own 3,000-square-foot garden to pull fresh fruit, vegetables, herbs and inspiration from, and with benches and string lights, that garden just so happens to make the most charming spot for pre-dinner cocktails while you wait for your table (no reservations here). Locals flock to it to share seasonally inspired Italian plates kissed with Gulf Coast soul, whether it's a wood-fired pizza topped with local heirloom squash and salumi from Revival Market, ravioli stuffed with mushrooms, Taleggio and charred onion, or a braised duck and Texas peach salad. Mainstays on the menu, including a flawlessly executed cacio e pepe, pillowy toasted ricotta gnocchi, and smoky, sweet and tart agrodolce chicken, always seem to please. All of it pairs beautifully with the solid wine list and craft cocktails from beverage all-star Morgan Weber. Oh, and a seasonal fruit crostada topped with ice cream.

The special bánh mì comes with pork belly, ham and housemade pâté.

With a lot of heavy-hitting competition all over the city, Roostar Vietnamese Grill takes the prize again for Best Banh Mi for its savory, tangy chopped rib eye banh mi, once known as the beef bulgogi. The original Roostar, which opened as Vietnam Poblano, has been a Memorial/Spring Branch neighborhood favorite since it opened in 2013. In May a second store opened in the Uptown/Galleria area at 5551 Richmond with a larger kitchen and prep area, creative desserts and local craft brews on tap. At both locations, the sandwiches are chock-full of pickled carrots, cucumber, fresh jalapeño, cilantro, house-made mayo and a load of flavor.

Americas Restaurant
Photo by Houston Press Staff

What do empanadas, ceviche, lobster corndogs, lamb lollichops and churrasco steak have in common? They all make up the menu at the ever-impressive Américas River Oaks. The flagship restaurant of the Cordúa Restaurant Group (Américas, Amazon Grill, Churrascos) continues to offer Houstonians the best example of South American cuisine, presented in an exotic ambience that channels the Amazonian rain forest. Led by chef David Cordúa, the restaurant also boasts a fine selection of South American wine, one of the city's best choices for happy hour, a magnificent buffet brunch on weekends, and a peerless tres leches that's to die for.

Best Chinese Restaurant

Beautifully painted wall murals and a glam 1920s Cantonese teahouse vibe provide a backdrop for the "everyday food" that's also the motto of Mein Chinese Restaurant, where chef Jack Tran and his brother, restaurateur Mike Tran, deliver consistently delicious, affordable Cantonese cuisine that you can, in fact, eat every day. Among the appetizers, the house-made char siu, or barbecue pork, is a must. Classic wonton noodles are as authentic as those found in Hong Kong. And there's plenty more: crispy noodles, stir-fries, dumplings, fried rice, as well as wine and beer and Lavazza coffee. The menu offers a wide enough selection that you could eat here several days a week without once repeating a dish, so order what looks good and plan to return. Parking is free and weekends generally require a wait, but it's worth it.

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