We're tackling the city's neighborhoods one by one now that the Best of Houston issue is out. First was Montrose, then the Heights and now Rice Village, an area that's absolutely saturated with great restaurants.
One of the best things about the saturation in Rice Village is how easy it is to park your car and spend an afternoon walking (imagine that!) around one of the most charming, idiosyncratic areas of Houston. Some of the shops in Rice Village -- like G&G Model Shop -- feel like stepping back in time, while others -- such as British Isles -- take you to a different part of the world entirely.
You can also accomplish this sense of departure by dining at some of the diverse restaurants all packed into this small area: Spanish tapas at Mi Luna, Indian food at Shiva or Bombay Brasserie, Vietnamese at Miss Saigon, Turkish at Pasha, British at Baker Street Pub, Thai at Thai Spice or Thai Village.
You can even get grab a round of drinks Irish-style at Brian O'Neill's, Scottish-style at The Kelvin Arms or English-style at The Ginger Man. And that's just the beginning of the breadth of charming establishments that Rice Village has to explore.
10. Yum Yum Cha
Rice Village has the distinction of having the only dim sum restaurant inside the Loop. It's not the best dim sum in the city, but it's still very good and its standards from the 50-item menu are very reliable stuff: dishes like pork-and-shrimp shiu mai, shrimp dumplings, shrimp rice rolls and warm sesame rolls for dessert. And although dim sum is traditionally a brunch affair, you can even get dim sum at Yum Yum Cha in the evenings.
9. Sweet Paris
This utterly adorable creperie just opened, and with time I feel it may move higher up on the list. For now, it's an ideal spot for a layover between hitting the boutiques along Rice Boulevard -- split a simple lemon crepe with a couple of espressos, for example -- but also makes a cute dinner destination if you get one of the more filling crepes. Sweet Paris just started serving breakfast too, opening at 8 a.m.
Bistro des Amis looks like the sort of small-town cafe where you stop to get a coffee and a pastry or an ice cream while shopping in a French village -- right here in Rice Village. And with good reason: The owners, Odile de Maindreville and her brother Bernard Cuillier, are from Biarritz, a town in the Basque region of France. Because of this, you'll find more non-traditional dishes like a slightly spicy "beef paprika," their version of goulash, and slices of moist gâteau Basque. Lunch and dinner specials are very reasonable and the soups, stews and pastries (the latter of which are always well-stocked in the pastry case) are made in-house.
This longtime Village favorite from garrulous owner Nash D'Amico and daughter Brina D'Amico Donaldson is a typical red-and-white-checkered tablecloth place with the air of a traditional trattoria, serving home-style Sicilian food. The lush patio has grown more splendid over the years and is still one of my favorite outdoor eating spots in town, while the homemade black pepper tortellini stuffed with wild mushrooms, walnuts and cheese in a lemon-butter sauce is the stuff of legend. D'Amico's red sauce is another standby, and daily steam-table specials are a steal. Muffulettas and po-boys can also be found on the menu next to a small marketplace of Italian goods where you can pick up all the ingredients for your own Italian meal at home.
6. Local Foods
Local Foods is the epitome of a useful restaurant, the kind of place that's relaxed and easy -- and inspires you to have a relaxed, easy meal yourself. The choices are streamlined and simple: a few sandwiches, two soups, a handful of salads and sides and a few Texas-made beers and wines. So is the chic, updated deli décor with white subway tiles, exposed materials and bold color choices such as electric blue booths. You can take your meal inside, on the shady patio or to-go (I love to call ahead for dinner). You can even enjoy a cocktail; like everything else here, they're made with Texas-sourced products, keeping Local Foods true to its name.
5. El Meson
This longtime Village eatery allows you to tour Spain and its colonies via owner Peter Garcia, who's run the family restaurant since his father passed away in 1992. Traditional Spanish tapas and paellas find their place next to Cuban dishes like ropa vieja and picadillo a la criolla. There is even a large Tex-Mex side to the menu, offering fajitas, enchiladas and some of the most beloved margaritas in town, strong with tequila and tangy with lots of lime juice. With its dark wood and booths lining the walls, the spacious restaurant has the feel of a neighborhood taverna. The extensive wine list includes choices from the New World as well as the Old, all of which pair nicely with the equally extensive list of Spanish cheeses.
The second-story location in the Rice Village can be difficult to find, but if you're a sushi lover, it's worth the hunt. While chef Hajime Kubokawa -- or Kubo-san, for short -- is no longer at the sushi restaurant he helped found with owner Yoichi 'Yogi' Ueno, nor is Manabu Horiuchi (who is setting the sushi world on fire at Kata Robata). But it's still one of the best sushi joints in the city, a fact that's more impressive considering its longevity and the talent that it's worked with since opening 10 years ago. Some of my most memorable meals have been at Kubo's over the years, from the night I tried my first idiot fish prepared by current chef Kiyoka Ito to the one-off kaiseki dinner I still dream about.
Istanbul Grill is an outpost of Turkey nestled between monuments of yuppiedom in the Rice Village. Inside the restaurant, the TV glows with scenes from a Turkish broadcast, while outside young Turks happily demolish platters of food or sit quietly sipping Turkish coffee. Swooning is a natural reaction to imam bayildi, a luscious dish of roasted and stuffed eggplant. A favorite entrée is iskender kebab, alternating layers of lamb and beef on a skewer, but the Istanbul Grill allows you to sample a wide variety of good kebabs. And on weekends, don't miss the tiny Turkish "ravioli" called manti that are filled with lamb and topped with a tangy yogurt-mint dressing. And remember that if you park behind someone in the miniature parking lot (as is expected here), you'll need to move your car when the staff yells out, "White Jeep!" or "Red Volvo!"
Prego and its longtime chef, John Watt, have been serving solid Italian food in Rice Village for well over a decade, and yet the menu at this mahogany-accented trattoria never seems stale. Watt keeps it fresh with seasonal changes and daily specials such as pumpkin seed-crusted red snapper or Peroni-braised heirloom Berkshire pork belly while new pastry chef Matthew Zoch seems poised to keep the dessert menu fresh too. (Look for Zoch's caramel apple crumble with bourbon ice cream this fall.) Along with a beautiful, well-stocked bar, some of the most affable bartenders in town and a terrific wine list from sommelier Rafael Espinal, it's also one of the few Italian restaurants in the city to offer a substantial gluten-free menu. Yes, even gluten-free pasta. And although the gluten-free stuff isn't made in-house, the rest of the delicious pasta (and bread) is.
Benjy Levit and Dylan Murray have been serving some of the most creative modern American cuisine in the city since 1995 -- although you'd be hard-pressed to know that benjy's has been open that long, so current is the menu and recently revamped decor. The kitchen under executive chef Joseph Stayshich never seems to fail, and dishes rotate on a seasonal basis. (An excellent happy hour and busy brunch are year-round attractions, however.) Small plates like the Texas crab cakes with green goddess dressing are usually big enough to share, although you won't want to. Pizzas from the wood-burning oven are usually a good bet, but it's the seasonal entrees such as ricotta dumplings with wild mushrooms and Swiss chard or the Moroccan-spiced duck with red wine farro and beets that make benjy's the restaurant to beat in Rice Village.
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Check out our other Top 10 neighborhood lists:
Top 10 in Montrose Top 10 in the Heights Top 10 on Washington Avenue Top 10 in the East End Top 10 in the Galleria Top 10 in Midtown Top 10 in Memorial Top 10 in Upper Kirby Top 10 in Greenway Plaza Top 10 in The Woodlands Top 10 in Spring Branch Top 10 in Little India Top 10 in Far Northwest Houston Top 10 in Chinatown