For the next 20 weeks, we'll be rounding up the runners-up to our 2011 Best of Houston® winners. In many categories, picking each year's winner is no easy task. We'll be spotlighting 20 of those categories, in which the winner had hefty competition from other Houston bars and restaurants.
10. Tom's Seafood
Who wouldn't want to eat seafood on a giant, fake boat? Tom's is wonderfully kitschy, and we love the place all the more for it. Oysters are fresh, plentiful and cheap and practically beg to be sucked down over happy hour beers, perhaps followed up by a big ol' fried shrimp platter for dinner.
No one does mesquite grilling like the Goode family of restaurants. That expert grilling technique means that the grilled shrimp po-boys here are out of this world just by virtue of the flavor the mesquite imparts to the shrimp -- even on those rare days when the bread or fixings aren't top-notch. Campechana is equally good, as are the Gulf oysters on the half shell. I recommend grabbing a seat at the bar in the old train car to watch the speedy shuckers at work.
Like Tom's, this spot gets our vote for some of the best cheap seafood around. But cheap doesn't mean the fish ain't fresh. After all, it's a seafood market first and foremost, with fresh flounder, red snapper, bass, shrimp and scallops on ice. More so, it bustles with eager customers lined up for the exceptional Gulf Coast-style fried fish, shrimp, and oyster dinners and combos. You get a choice of trout, drum, redfish, catfish or tilapia, and a large piece of it with three shrimp and french fries will cost $6.69. It doesn't stop there, with a menu of egg rolls, shrimp fried rice, gumbo, boudin balls and deep-fried everything else. You can watch the fresh fish being cleaned while you wait, and if you want to cook it yourself, there's a huge selection of any seafood seasoning that Texas and Louisiana have to offer.
Pick your own fish! That's the main draw here at Connie's. Well, that and the excellent micheladas and vuelve a la vida ceviches, which contain everything from shrimp to octopus. Like Tom's, everything is incredibly inexpensive here, which means you can bring the whole family. Connie's is neighbors with Tampico, just down the street on Airline, and both are sure-fire spots for great seafood.
6. Brasserie 19
Like any proper brasserie, this River Oaks hot spot has a terrific oyster selection flown in from all over the United States. USA Today recently named Brasserie 19 one of the top oyster restaurants in the nation for just this reason. And for all its ritzy overtones, Brasserie 19 makes the best tuna salad sandwich in town.
The whole red snapper served on a sizzling comal at Tampico is a Houston tradition, even making Robb Walsh's list of 100 Favorite Houston Dishes at the No. 3 spot. You can get your snapper topped with frog legs if you like. Wrote Walsh of the experience: "The fish comes to the table on a hot comal with the onions underneath and the shrimp and frog's legs over the top. The sides of the fish are slashed and seasoned, and the cooking process makes the skin crispy. Thanks to the cuts, the fish meat comes away in nice big chunks. They give you hot tortillas too, so you can wrap up some fish tacos and douse them with a little hot sauce." Don't miss the shrimp fried rice, either -- like Connie's, it's incongruous but delicious.
Houstonians have been enjoying the bounty of the Gulf at Tony Mandola's for 30 years, since it first opened as Tony Mandola's Blue Oyster Bar. You can tell in part because of the named dishes on the menu: the Snapper Martha, topped with crabmeat, crawfish and shrimp, or the Linguini Tony. Tony Mandola's also makes one of the most reliably delicious gumbos in town, named after Tony's mother.
This Landry's-owned chain often doesn't get the respect it deserves, but Chef Mark Holley is one of the city's least visible but most hardworking chefs -- which means he puts more of himself into the food than into publicity, and it pays off in spades. Pesce's menu has something for everyone, but never spreads itself too thin. From a Thai-style whole flounder with lemongrass and crabmeat fried rice to a Crystal hot sauce-spiked calamari that's among the best in the city, Pesce always gets it right.
Bon Appetit once called Reef the best seafood restaurant in America. And while chef/owner Bryan Caswell has his attention notably divided these days, the beautiful Midtown restaurant -- which almost feels like an interpretation of the sea itself, with its aqua blue hues and fish scale-like light fixtures -- is still one of the best around, with one of the best wine lists to boot. And the crispy-skinned snapper is still the dish that set the bar for modern seafood treatments across Houston.
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The oysters alone win this award for Danton's. Served any way -- fried, Rockefeller or baked -- the fresh, plump, straight-out-of-the-Gulf oysters are a must-have. But the best way to enjoy them is to belly up to the bar and order a dozen raw on the half shell, especially on Oyster Mondays, when a dozen is half price. Danton's seemingly has broken the curse of its corner of Chelsea Market, and the freshness of the seafood combined with classic Cajun flavor and flair has much to do with that.