It's not surprising that one of the most exclusive zip codes in the country has some pretty fantastic food -- but rest assured that the 'hood isn't all iced tea and crumpets. So excited were we about the ten below that we didn't find room for neighborhood icons like Avalon Diner, Andre's, and the French Gourmet Bakery. Oh well.
10. Weslayan Café
Standing in the shadows of Central Market, the diminutive Wesleyan Café is a sandwich shop by trade, yet the menu also claims "Houston's best" pan-fried dumplings, handmade with love daily. The delicate dumplings certainly are fantastic -- perfectly molded and gracefully bursting at the seams with fresh pork or vegetables. But the burgers deserve just as much credit: Angus patties are rich with flavor and topped with a variety of fresh accoutrements (like jalapenos, horseradish cheddar, or a fried egg). An impressive Club anchors the list of sandwiches, but our favorite is the deliciously healthy tuna salad and hummus wrap.
Stop by Blanco's for lunch or an early dinner before the Stetson-covered, honky-tonkin' crowd at Blanco's gets going for the night. The menu boasts a nice burger -- made the old-fashioned way with a flatter patty -- but we also like the chicken soft tacos. Not into it? You certainly can't complain about the chicken fried steak, one of our favorite versions in town. Meals are served by sweet-as-pie servers... Hell, you might even enjoy it enough to stick around for a little Gary P. Nunn later that night.
Tapas restaurants are always plagued by complaints of price -- the small plates almost always seem over-valued -- and Tinto's is no exception. The dishes here are not cheap in any way, but you do seem to get a bit more food and a higher quality than at other places around town. We love the ham-wrapped asparagus and the peppered cod, and the goat cheese and artichoke glazed snails are an adventurous dream. The paella is fabulous, stuffed with generous portions of seafood, chicken, and chorizo. We love the oaky atmosphere, too.
7. Tiny Boxwood's
It's not surprising that the café arm of the Thompson & Hansen landscape architects is among Houston's loveliest atmospheres. Tiny Boxwood's has become the favorite spot of the ladies-who-lunch, who on nice days vie passive-aggressively for the beautifully serene outdoor garden tables. They snack on small, fresh salads of mixed greens and picturesque sandwiches of heavenly meats. We prefer to go at dinnertime, where we get the small, thin-crust pizzas or the always-outstanding chef's daily seafood special. Tiny Boxwood's isn't cheap, but not much in River Oaks is.
6. Tony Mandola's Gulf Coast Kitchen
Tony Mandola's has been serving up Gulf Coast seafood in the fancy-pants River Oaks Shopping Center for more than 20 years now (though it's about to relocate). This place combines the Mandola name for Italian cooking with local oceanic gems, and certainly the snapper dishes -- with their fresh meat and appetizing combinations -- steal the show. our favorite is the "Snapper Martha," grilled to golden and topped with shrimp, crawfish, and crabmeat, though we just can't quit the crawfish ravioli in a light cream sauce.
Walking through Armando's, you'll notice that the layout hasn't changed a whole ton since it was the affluent River Oaks Grill, but the classic Tex-Mex dishes can speak for themselves. Known for the potent margaritas and mushroom-specked queso fundido, this is a festive spot for a group dinner or casual date. The crab enchiladas are a justifiable extravagance, as are the dessert sopapillas. And good news, taco lovers: You can get the same awesome carnitas and tacos al carbon if you bring the Armando's taco truck to a party at your house.
4. Ouisie's Table
If you're a vocal hater of valet parking, Ouisie's might not be for you, but otherwise the beautifully open restaurant offers an outstanding lunch and dinner service. The tall-Texan ceilings give it the ambiance of a Hill Country manor, and Southern classics are truly the norm: fried chicken, shrimp-n-grits, crab cakes, and Gulf Coast oysters. But even after all these years, our go-to lunch is still the Chicken Curry Salad. Looking for something more fitting for the white linen service? Try Ouisie's famous pimento cheese. It's dynamite.
The space at the corner of Westheimer and Bammel has been a revolving door over the year, but we sure hope Giacomo's sticks around. We love the warm Italian-style wine bar, the tapas-style cichetti dishes, and the gorgeous homemade pastas. Giacomo's seems to have something for everyone: kids, adults, carnivores, vegetarians, healthy and not. And while the half-moon pasta filled with Swiss chard and goat cheese in a sage butter sauce seems to win all the rave reviews, our obsessive favorite is the pappardelle with garlic, basil, olive oil, tomatoes, and big chunks of creamy mozzarella.
2. Backstreet Café
Did you know that Backstreet Café is owned by chef Hugo Ortega? Maybe now you'll understand why we're so enamored of those beautiful chicken enchiladas. This little place, hidden in a converted house just behind River Oaks Shopping Center has been a favorite of ours ever since we discovered the vegetarian platter with its gorgeous timbale of corn pudding more than a decade ago. Fantastic daily fish specials, a kickin' wine list, and Houston's most beautiful garden seating keep this place top of mind. We heard rave reviews of the recent Tomato Fest there.
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1. Mockingbird Bistro
It seems strange somehow to think that one of the city's top restaurants could jump out at you in the middle of a homey neighborhood block, but there it is, tucked into a serene spot on Welch. Mockingbird owner and chef John Sheely takes the rich, meaty foods we Texans love and offers them in traditionally French preparations. The duck is divine. We also love the onion soup and acclaimed Kobe beef burger -- and now you can get them both with the summer lunch special. Two courses for $25? Don't scoff until you've tried it. It's River Oaks!
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