Xochi
Photo by Troy Fields

Often described as chef Hugo Ortega's most ambitious restaurant to date, anyone who visits Xochi will recognize that it is unlike any other Mexican restaurant in Houston. Located on the ground floor of the Marriott Marquis Hotel in Downtown, the menu at Xochi is decribed as Oaxacan cocina de autor, or chef-driven cuisine. Plates are bright and beautifully plated, bursting with color and attention to detail. The moles, made from complex recipes that require a deep understanding of the cuisine and its roots, are magnificent. In a bold move, the menu incorporates ingredients like chapulinas (grasshoppers) and other edible insects that are typical of Oaxacan cuisine, and it's pulled off with confidence. Ortega, a six-time James Beard Foundation finalist for Best Chef Southwest, currently wears the crown for 2017, and it shows.

Republic Diner + Sojubang
Photo by Troy Fields

It's not located in Houston's Koreatown area off Long Point, and it may not be as traditional or authentic as some might like, but one visit to Republic Diner in the Heights, and you can't help loving the retro-hip vibe of the place as well as the food. Appetizers like the haemuljeon seafood pancake and mandu dumplings, not to mention the kimchi fries and the Korean-style hot wings, are delicious. Sizzling dolsot bibimbap hot-stone rice bowls are colorful specimens filled to the brim with high-quality toppings and juicy bulgogi (marinated beef). In fact, the menu is full of Korean classics, from the sundubu-jjigae silken hot tofu pot to japchae glass noodles, and the banchan side dishes are made from the owner's Korean mother's recipes. And let's not forget about the drinks. Billing itself as a soju bar as well as a diner, Republic offers shots of infused soju (a sake-like distilled beverage) and soju cocktails that are not mandatory, but are highly recommended.

Best Meatballs

Forget meatballs in regular old marinara. At Greek taverna Helen in the Heights, the younger, more casual sibling to Rice Village's Helen Greek Food and Wine, chef William Wright ups the ante with his Midas touch. Perfectly plump, spiced and slow-cooked, the bite-size lamb meatballs sit in a bed of tomato sauce, fragrant and hit with warm spices like cumin and topped with crisp fried garlic chips. The dish is a traditional meze, or small plate, perfect for sharing alongside warm pita and Mediterranean dips, dolmades that swap traditional grape leaves for local swiss chard, flaming ouzo-spiked halloumi cheese and crisp Gulf calamari with tzatziki and lemon.

La Guadalupana Bakery and Cafe

What is it about this humble breakfast and brunch hub that makes people flock to its tiny strip-center location? Perhaps it's the migas, the portion size certainly not overkill, but perfect for starting a Saturday morning, with a small pool of creamy refried beans on the side. Regulars swear by the fresh-squeezed Vampiro juice, a sweet and vibrant blend of beet and apple, as well as the carne guisada, served with just-griddled flour or corn tortillas. Not in the mood for all-day breakfast? Order up a torta or sopes at lunch — nothing on the menu is very expensive. While there's usually a wait to get a seat inside the no-frills cafe, in the cooler months the shaded front patio makes for the most coveted seat, but be sure to peruse the case of baked goods when you put your name on the list to get a table — that's the best time to figure out what you want to take home after, be it the homemade flan, the churros or just a few Mexican wedding cookies.

Best Sommelier

Houston's roster of fine wine specialists has exploded in recent years, in part thanks to the city's rapid growth and the legion of sommeliers who have moved here from other states seeking opportunity in one of the country's hottest restaurant markets. But this year's "best sommelier" award has to go to one of the city's homegrown sons, Jaime de Leon, who started working as a bagger at Kroger three decades ago and nimbly climbed his way to the top of the supermarket behemoth's wine program to become one of its flagship buyers. The Sam Houston High School alumnus not only runs what is widely considered to be one of the best retail programs in the city (highly unusual for a supermarket), but he is also the inspiration for the Heights location's wine bar — a first for the chain. Kroger in turn has underwritten de Leon's bid to join the hard-to-crack ranks of the Court of Master Sommeliers, a title he is sure to snag in the next few years. De Leon also mentors aspiring Houston wine professionals, leading more than one of the city's tasting and study groups. A bona fide sommelier's sommelier, he is the embodiment of connoisseurship and — most important — hospitality.

Pho Dien

Pho Dien appeared on our list of the ten best bowls of pho in Houston back in September of last year, and it also won the Best of Houston honors for having the city's best pho in 2013 and 2016. So what makes this noodle soup reign supreme again and again? A consistent combination of fragrant, clear broth, high-quality proteins and other ingredients, and a restaurant with a mom-and-pop look and feel that continue to attract a line of diners stretching out the door every day. Bowls are big, at $7.75, and a serious bargain.

Chama Gaucha Brazilian Steakhouse
Photo by Troy Fields

It's common to get a little overwhelmed when you visit a Brazilian steakhouse. So abundant are the offerings that your eyes always tend to be a little bit bigger than your stomach, and at Chama Gaucha, this is certainly true. From the minute you set your table button to green, signaling that the gauchos should bring food, it's kind of like telling them, "Bring it on." The meat procession here is nothing short of dazzling. It's succulent, plentiful and fresh from the rodízio, and you have your pick of the wildly popular picanha prime sirloin, fraldinha bottom sirloin, filet mignon, rib eye, cordeiro rack of lamb and more. But if the meats are satisfying here, so too is the salad bar, where the 30-plus offerings ranging from cheese and charcuterie to the traditional build-your-own salads and prepared items such as marinated mushrooms easily rival any all-you-can-eat joint in town. A less belt-busting experience is also available in the form of happy hour and an a la carte lunch and dinner menu.

Best Soup Dumplings

The xiao long bao at Chinatown's One Dragon has quietly been known as one of the city's great soup dumplings for years, but just recently we were able to confirm that indeed it wins this year's honor for the absolute best soup dumpling. Houston Press contributor Mai Pham has called them "some of the soupiest soup dumplings I've had in Houston." At this tiny mom-and-pop shop, six gloriously wrapped dumplings come in each order for $5.99. The fragrant, gingery broth and pork filling are contained in a steaming-hot, incredible wrap that's actually thinner than it appears. The flavor of the dumpling stands on its own without any need for the additional ginger and vinegar sauce, so just skip the dip and slurp it all up instead.

Himalaya Restaurant & Catering
Jeff Balke

It's hard not to love everything at Himalaya. Lovingly presided over by chef-proprietor Kaiser Lakshari, this is one of those hole-in-the-wall mom-and-pop places that give us reason to love hole-in-the-wall mom-and-pop places. The daily changing combo platter, which comes with two curries, an appetizer, vegetable dish and choice of basmati rice or naan, is a steal. The biryani is some of the best, if not the best in the city. The curries are rich and complex, teeming with intense spice and flavor. Even the fried chicken is excellent — marinated in spices, boneless, gluten-free and served with creamy dipping sauce. Make no mistake, when you visit Himalaya, you can expect to feast without breaking the bank. The fact that it's BYOB with no corkage fee is just icing on the cake.

La Table
Photo by Troy Fields

It has taken more than two years, but the transformation from Table on Post Oak to La Table is now complete. Très chic and très français, La Table has emerged as the French destination restaurant in Houston, designed with three distinct areas to fit your mood and budget. Upstairs, fine dining and discreet, five-star service consistently impress at Château, where you can indulge in luxe offerings like rack of lamb and whole roasted chicken carved at the table in a sumptuous setting. Downstairs, Marché’s warm bistro, bar and patio are perfect for the more casual classics such as quiche, steak frites and chicken paillard. Don’t leave without stopping at bakery counter Macarons for a baguette or one of La Table’s exquisite pastries (the pistachio tarte and canelé de Bordeaux are musts) to go, and be Instagram-ready, because everywhere you look, there’s a great shot.

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