Photo by Mai Pham

Sinful chocolate chip cookies and gourmet chef collaborations? There's only one pastry chef in town who takes baking and repping Houston to another level and that's Rebecca Masson of Fluff Bake Bar. Masson's exceptional bakery in Midtown is also home to an endless schedule of incredible pop-up brunches and dinners that feature famous visiting chefs from across the country. She started these, she told the Press this year, just so her staff doesn't get bored at the tiny bake shop. Lucky for us, that means delicious meals that you know will end with epic desserts. In the spring Masson paired up with Louie Mueller Barbecue to make brisket croissant sandwiches at Houston Barbecue Festival, and if you were lucky enough to taste them, you'd understand that everything Masson seems to touch is pastry magic. It's no surprise, then, that she makes her signature unicorn cookies, which are the best sugar cookies in town.

After helping to rebrand the original Koala Kolache (which is now known as Karma Kolache) on FM 529, former partner Vatsana Souvannavong branched out on her own, taking the name with her to open up this Cypress kolache shop. Souvannavong worked tirelessly to perfect the new recipe, this time focusing on more authentic, traditional kolache flavors. The Czech-style pastries — both the kolache and its savory cousin, the klobasnek — come with that perfect, slightly sweet and pillowy dough. Get them dolloped with cream cheese, lemon and poppyseeds; packed with farmers' market fruit hauls featuring strawberries, cherries and peaches; and stuffed with locally made chorizo and eggs, portobello mushrooms mixed with Boursin cheese, and boudin. "Donut" worry, the shop still makes crazy-good doughnuts, too.

Jeff Balke

It glows in the night, a beacon of greasy late-night eats that never fails to astound for its throwback HoJo-era digs and cases of heavenly meringue- and whipped cream-topped pies. Sit at the bar and watch the bustling kitchen area, where servers pile food atop trays as big as smart cars, with an air of indifference or maybe even bickering, though they always serve their guests with a smile and a "honey" or "baby." Whether you're here for a midnight country-fried steak with an iceberg lettuce salad doused in ranch or just starting the day with buttermilk pancakes, a slice of pie is a must, and the house signature is a whammy, the Bayou Goo. It's a mix of chocolate silk and vanilla cream over a sweet cream-cheese layer with enough whipped topping to make the cheerleader from Varsity Blues blush. It's then topped with pecans and chocolate shavings. Just please keep your clothes on.

Every once in a while we all need a big-ass, reliable slice of New York-style cheese pizza without any fuss. Romano's is the place to fulfill that necessity. Sandwiched between a nail salon and a Marshall's in an unassuming strip mall on the edge of Montrose and River Oaks, Romano's cooks up whole pies and slices in a no-frills eatery that has indoor and some outdoor seating, if you don't mind overlooking a vast parking lot. The test of a great pizza is how it reheats in the oven the next day, and Romano's never disappoints, its pizza staying crispy and oozing with cheese with a light touch of tomato sauce that balances sweet, spicy and acidic notes deftly. It's just making a slice last until the next day that's the hard part.

Tucked away in River Oaks, Giacomo's is a casual Italian and wine fixture that delivers big on flavor when you get a major craving for carbs — future marathoners take note. Here, chef and owner Lynette Hawkins, who lived in Italy during her formative years, and honed her chops at Damian's and her former Tuscan gem, La Mora Cucina Toscana, serves up an unworldly array of signature house pastas and no-fail classics, including a hearty bolognese and creamy spaghetti alla carbonara. It is blessed by the porcine gods with bits of cured guanciale, or pork jowl, lacing the al dente semolina pasta. The pappardelle ai funghi e gorgonzola will delight shroom-lovers who are hell bent on getting downright sinful with a white wine and gorgonzola cheese sauce. There's also the standout tortelli di bietola, or half moon ravioli, filled by hand with Swiss chard, rich ricotta and goat cheese, and served in a decadent sage brown butter. Add in a selection of incredible wines by some of the world's greatest female wine makers (the floral white Zibibbo is a standout), a few cichetti (small plates) and a table in the courtyard, and yeah, you'd better start that 10K training pronto.

Deli man Ziggy Gruber expanded his empire with a second location of his hit New York-style delicatessen last year. Now, corned beef and pastrami fans have two spots (Galleria and West U) at which to get their nosh on via towering triple-decker sandwiches. But there's way more than just piles of crazy good, cut-to-order, house-brined and triple-smoked meats to fill up on. There's also an entire spread of traditional deli favorites — matzoh ball soup, bagels, white fish salad, potato knish, kreplach and egg creams. Bottom line: Come hungry.

Photo by Troy Fields

It's always packed and they don't take reservations, so you better arrive early if you want to snag a table at this beloved upscale but casual Heights eatery. But even if you have to wait, regulars will tell you, that's okay. That's because Coltivare rocks one of the best backyards in the city — a garden oasis — and the menu at this Italian-inspired neighborhood gem pulls directly from its own seasonal bounty or even from down the street — check out the ice cream collaborations from nearby gelateria Dolce Neve. Whether you're seeking out a pizza, a bowl of pasta or maybe just some snacks with friends and family, chef Ryan Pera and his team turn out a wealth of options that cater to those in seek of comfort and simple, great food from his wood fired oven without any pretension. It's also home to one of the best bars in town, with cocktails and wine that speak to both the adventurous and the old-fashioned alike, making this a spot where just about anyone can feel comfortable.

Photo by Troy Fields

FM's loaded shakes haven't been around long (chef Ryan Hildebrand's highly anticipated eatery finally opened its doors in May), but they're already becoming legendary. The frosty treat starts simple enough — with an innocent vanilla, chocolate or strawberry base — before things get wild. Fixin's including brownie chunks, toffee bits, pretzel and shortbread crumbles, chocolate and caramel drizzles, whipped cream dollops and chocolate shavings are added to the mix, as are banana rum or chocolate whiskey shots if you upgrade to the adult version. The icehouse-chill vibe, tasty roadside-style burgers and welcoming patio, complete with picnic tables, greenspace and yard games like washers and table tennis, only add to the euphoria. Get sippin'.

Photos by Troy Fields

The Party Melt alone is reason to visit this Heights bar, which opened in May from boozing mogul Bobby Heugel, but there's also the fact that the menu, available until midnight daily, was created in part by his business partner, Beard Award-winning chef Justin Yu. If you're the type of person who likes to get a Whataburger patty melt after a round at the local watering hole, then the Party Melt might just change your life. Plus, you can enjoy it with a fresh cocktail in hand. Salty and both oozing and crisped over with cheese, this burger, drenched in tender caramelized onions and sandwiched between Texas toast, does wonders for serotonin levels with every greasy, decadent bite. If you can't handle the beef, the menu also rocks a solid burrata-covered, flatbread-like "Not a Pizza," simple seasonal vegetable offerings, a riff on a Tawainese chicken sandwich with a cult following and more items that Yu basically came up with by asking what he and his friends would want to eat at a bar.

It's believed that Ninfa's on Navigation didn't actually become a popular spot until a city councilman once ate lunch here and declared it the best lunch for the Downtown crowd. More than 40 years have passed since then, but the Tex-Mex institution, where Mama Ninfa Laurenzo once made fajitas famous, still rages on as the best lunch spot in Houston. Wander in on a Friday at noon and the dining room is likely to be packed with a line out the door of office workers, families, ladies who lunch and even famous Houstonians clamoring for a table. Stick with the old standby, the glorious wood-fired fajita (skirt steak) or check out chef Alex Padilla's newer, progressive dishes including the incredible queso asado (grilled cheese), octopus tacos or the beautiful whole red snapper. Either way, don't forget to sneak in a margarita on the rocks before heading back to work.

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