Thursday, July 11, 2013

The 28 Best Restaurants in Houston

Houston—known by many as “Space City,” the “Bayou City” or the “Energy Capital of the World”—houses more than 5,000 energy firms and hubs for 13 of the country’s 20 largest natural gas companies. NASA’s Lyndon B. Johnson Space Center directs and monitors all United States human spaceflight. The bustling Port of Houston, which shelters the Houston Ship Channel, is a vital conduit for vessels arriving or departing the city via the Gulf of Mexico. With a lower cost of living and no state income tax, this is a seductive destination for job seekers, budget-conscious families and professional athletes.

Perhaps some of you reading this moved here mere months or weeks ago for one of the reasons listed above. Exploring and learning the intricacies of this vast metropolis can be both intimidating and laborious. The traffic is detestable and often unnerving. Too many motorists do not understand the difference between the Sam Houston Toll Way and the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Yikes. Do not distress. I am here to help you acclimatize and acculturate with an indisputable panacea: food. The quickest way to fall in love with this city and forget those aforementioned negatives is to eat at one of the hundreds of renowned restaurants here.

I ventured to San Diego, Los Angeles, San Francisco and New York in the last 18 months and can say with conviction that nothing I ate in any of those ultra-urban places dwarfs what Houston offers. Did I delight in some meals in New York and California that I will remember for the rest of my days? You bet. I’m still dreaming about the homemade chocolate sauce at The Ivy in Beverly Hills and the roasted duck and Tsartini at Firebird in Manhattan’s Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood. The best part of living in Houston is you can eat the kind of meal I just described at least once a week, and in many cases, do it without burning through your life savings. In San Francisco, parking a rental car somewhere can lead to a bankruptcy declaration. In Houston, the worst-case scenario is a $3 tip given to a valet.

With the newest transplants in mind, I decided to publish a list of my 28 favorite restaurants. I hope friends and long-time residents will also read it. This is one man’s opinion and qualifies as no more than an introductory appetizer. I chose the number 28 to honor both my age and years as a Houstonian. I was born in Tomball and have lived in Spring, the Westheimer area, Atascocita, Spring Branch, the Montrose and Shepherd areas, Spring Cypress and the Heights. Therefore, this list encompasses every part of the region, including a legendary, family-owned and first-class seafood alcazar on Galveston Island.

This inventory does not include national or Texas restaurant chains. That explains the absence of Brennan’s, Pappasito’s, Fuddruckers, Fogo de Chao, Chama Gaucha, Russo’s New York Pizzeria, Del Frisco’s, the Egg and I and many others. If it’s available in any other city, it’s not on here. I focused on the eateries unique to Houston—with the exception of two honorable mentions—that placate my zest for distinguished food. I listed the establishments in alphabetical order. Happy reading and bon appetit!



Mama’s Cafémap6019 Westheimer Road [CLOSED (but never forgotten)]

The mark of a legendary, four-star restaurant is the ability to make a patron crave a dish or an ingredient he/she would not order anywhere else. I do not loathe coconuts, but the taste does not dance on my palate, like, say, hazelnut or cajeta. Mama's coconut cream pie was divine. My tastebuds want a piece so bad right now. I have ordered that dessert at other places. It did not compare. I would not order it anywhere else.

The McQueeny salad was memorable and tasty enough that I ordered it even during the five-year period when management removed it from the menu. There was not a better chicken fried steak or chicken fried chicken rendition in Texas. I have sampled the country fried goodness at all of the heralded spots on the Houston Chronicle, Houston Press, Texas Monthly and other vaunted lists. Try me. The broccoli rice casserole alone was worth a trip. I want a heaping helping of it as part of my last meal, whenever my time to exit this earth arrives.

If the building ever re-opens as the Mama’s I described above, consider breaking the speed limit to get there just after I do. The food and the memories are worth every penny and bite. To read my full review, click here. There is still, thankfully, a Mama’s in San Antonio.

Maggiano’s Little Italymap2019 Post Oak Boulevard

One defunct family tradition I would like to resuscitate: Christmas-time gatherings at Maggiano’s, where the family-style menu option provides bountiful fulfillment and endless opportunities for pleasurable, smile-inducing conversation.

The Olive Garden may champion a family-first environment, but it serves up the equivalent of gas station perfume to its guests. The chain’s customary no-zip, sapless proficiency may satiate some appetites but not mine. I prefer the scent of Coco Chanel or any department store fragrance to a cut-rate option that makes its user smell like he/she just bathed in a backed up toilet. If Olive Garden’s edible but flat food compares to a passable Motel 6 room, Maggiano’s is a Penthouse suite at the Plaza hotel.

I realize that the smell or image of a stopped up commode is not appetizing, so I’ll conclude this blurb with the dishes that keep me coming back. The calamari fritte, chopped salad, ravioli with braised veal, chicken saltimbocca, fontina potatoes and chocolate zuccotto cake are consistent culinary triumphs.



59 Diner map3801 Farmham Street

It does not astonish me that food snobs and critics tend to omit this Houston staple from ‘best of’ lists. It just chagrins me. This cheap yet fetching cluster – with spots throughout the city – stays open 24-7. Its offerings can cure hangovers, ease the malady of a break up, and it hosts office and school parties. The prices are so reasonable you will think you have robbed the place when you head for the door.

The key to understanding 59 Diner’s consistent excellence is knowing what not to eat. A friend once tried to order the chicken marsala, and I threatened to slap him as if he had just insulted my mother. Do not force me to give you the death stare. Learn from the passengers in the movie Airplane! and stay away from the fish. Stick to the breakfast items, the pot roast, the chicken tenders and the fries. The bodacious breakfast tacos make my taste buds happier than Dikembe Mutombo blocking a shot. The best milkshakes, aside from the ones at Amy’s and Hank’s ice creams, are blended here. Come early or come way late, say, at 4 a.m. No fuss. No need for cloth napkins knotted to look like swans. Just great grub any time you want it, all the time.

Baby Barnaby’s map602 Fairview Street

I would traverse the Sahara Desert barefoot in a black leather jacket and sweatpants just for one serving of the breakfast potatoes. OK, I exaggerated a bit there. I have, however, waited more than an hour in Houston’s 100-degree torridity for a seat and a plate of the scrumptious pumpkin pancakes. Everything on the menu, including the chicken fried steak and the chicken-apple sausage, is worth the considerable effort it can take to find parking and an open table.

The cramped quarters might make the dining experience uncomfortable for those accustomed to grandiose spaces and plush, leather seats, but the food will turn that griping mouth into a gobbling one. Unlike the sister restaurants in the Barnaby’s chain, the Baby version only serves breakfast and closes at noon on weekdays and 2 p.m. on weekends. 

Backstreet Cafémap1103 South Shepherd Drive

The family responsible for Hugo’s and Prego pours its DNA into this indulgent café with dazzling décor, a charming patio area and dishes Kate Middleton would pony up to have at her birthday dinner. The seasonal American fare at Backstreet is prepared with an imaginative flair that would make the folks at Pixar jealous. A few examples of executive chef Hugo Ortega’s flawless touch: bacon-wrapped quail with a cheddar chive biscuit and spicy smoked corn sauce, roasted pear salad, coffee crusted beef tenderloin with spicy maple chipotle bourbon sauce, ragout of slow-roasted lamb, chicken milanesa with prosciutto, and cauliflower couscous.

Patrons can rent lavish private rooms to host wedding and baby showers or other celebrations with family and friends. As you should expect, this extravagance comes at a steep price. You must pay it at least once before you die. That is a command, not a suggestion.

Café Lili Lebanese Grillmap5757 Westheimer Road # 112

This expedient, speedy and affordable Lebanese café makes the best falafel in town. The hummus and meat pies also merit a special mention. What I love most at Café Lili, though, is the simple, pleasant atmosphere that beckons adventurous eaters without pretense.

Chatter’s Café & Bistromap140 South Heights Boulevard

The word “bistro” does not have to mean you leave the establishment missing one arm and leg, with an empty wallet, shedding steady tears. Chatter’s delivers hearty, artful cuisine without committing highway robbery. The menu will torment indecisive diners because it features everything from stir-fries, loaded salads and steaks to kabobs, artichoke misto and magnificent lasagna. Forget the Big Mac at McDonald’s. The Chatter’s spread put on every burger is real “special sauce.” I often order the same two items: the zucchini fritters with horseradish-spiked ranch and the fried pork chops with peach chutney and southern corn pudding.

Though I have never waited for a table, the re-opening and re-modeling of adjacent bar Addix has made parking a difficult proposition. That is my lone complaint. The interior, even when packed, is never noisy, and the windows along the perimeter allow guests to engage in peerless people watching.

Ciro’s Cibi Italianimap9755 Katy Freeway

My mother and I have extolled the rich flavors cooked up at this casual but cultivated restaurant for almost two decades. The food and experience never disappoint at an Italian cuisine hub ideal for both extended lunches with friends and first dates. When I want to splurge for a bowl of fetuccine alfredo, I satisfy my jones for it here. End your garlic-filled excursion with the chocolate mousse pie or a sweet and smooth something from the gelato bar.

Demeris BBQmap2911 South Shepherd Drive

The baby back ribs—which my palate assumes are rubbed and cooked in brown sugar and chili powder among other seasonings—deliver an assailment of zip and succulence. Forget Simon Cowell’s vapid, overdramatic TV talent show. These ribs have the real X-Factor, as do the house made side dishes. Sometimes I even stop by to fetch jumbo-sized containers of the macaroni and green beans without purchasing any meat. Any spud lovers also into baseball should try The Big Puma Tater, a stuffed-to-the-brim homage to former Astros first baseman and franchise icon Lance Berkman, unless, of course, they still begrudge the career renaissance that followed his Houston departure.

Gaido’s Seafoodmap3828 Seawall Boulevard

Galveston’s renowned seafood kitchen commemorated 100 years of service in 2011 and remains the primo destination for zestful magnum opuses caught fresh from the Gulf of Mexico. My great grandparents introduced my mother and aunt to Gaido’s in the 1960s (Mom thought: Really? White tablecloths and servers in tuxedos? This exists?), and visits there became a family ritual that continues today just like the restaurant. No trip to the island is ever complete or acceptable without a lunch or dinner there.

I will let the menu descriptions do the talking: Parmesan encrusted asparagus topped with jumbo lump crab; house salad with house made honey-pecan vinaigrette; pecan-crusted catfish topped with sweet corn relish; house filet of salmon stuffed with mascarpone cheese; Brentwood soft shell crab with a roasted coconut coating and a poblano pear chutney; smooth southern grits and grilled shrimp lightly drizzled with a sweet and smokey chipotle glaze.

The restaurant also sells a black hardback book filled with the Gaido family’s prepared-with-care, intricate, time-consuming recipes, and it includes cocktails and desserts. Good luck duplicating any of them at home. 

Goode Company BBQmap5109 Kirby Drive

I have not encountered any barbecue in any part of the world better than sauce-soaked meats served up in Driftwood, Texas at The Salt Lick. Houstonians pining for beef, sausage, turkey, chicken and all the fixins do not need to high tail it to Austin, though, to find a smoked, chopped and sliced Shangri-la.

Jim Goode opened the original location on Kirby in 1977, and the experience still lives up to the sterling reputation the barbecue restaurant earned all those years ago. I keep coming back for more of the divine sweet water duck – what other BBQ taverns have duck on the menu? – and the stuffed baked potatoes. I put brisket or sausage in mine, ask for extra sour cream, a dollop of sauce then chow down like the apocalypse is imminent. The homemade pies would look and taste great alongside any Thanksgiving spread. I save room for a slice by taking half of the duck home. I then lord over my colleagues, or whichever unlucky souls must eat in the same room with me the next day, that my leftovers are better than theirs. I don’t share. You won’t, either. 

H.B. Japanese Steakhousemap4100 Farm to Market Road 1960 West

In high school, I knew making the grade would enhance my college prospects and prepare me for a successful life. I credit my parents for instilling in me the importance of a quality education. Something else, though, motivated me to earn high Bs and As. I knew that an exceptional report card might yield a congratulatory/celebratory dinner at this way-better-than-Benihana house of teriyaki steak and showmanship. The only things that have changed about H.B. since my days at Westfield High School are the move to a standalone spot further down 1960 and the $2 up charge to order the special fried rice.

Put those Benjamins to good use and watch as the chef skillfully cooks the table’s food selections, executing tricks that range from tossing eggs in the air and catching them in a bowl to stacking onions and lighting them on fire to first resemble a volcano then a moving train. Many cooks over the years have provided comic relief—“choo choo” noises during the onion stacking bit and celebrity jokes fit for the Tonight Show—at no extra charge. The Japanese salad and onion soup prove that a meal at this restaurant, with another location in Humble, is good for more than jocular entertainment. Your taste buds will get more of a workout than your laugh box.

Jax Grillmap1613 Shepherd Drive

A few eateries on this list allure a specific clientele and a homogenous crowd. An impoverished or low-income family cannot pony up for a $37 steak or a $120 bill. Jax Grill attracts a gamut of Houston residents—from the downtown office crowd at lunch, to retired couples, to tatted up bikers with Mohawks, to groups of female friends, to large families—because the affordable selection pleases and impresses folks from all socio-economic levels and backgrounds. A zydeco band gets the joint jumping on Friday and Saturday nights.

The $9 chicken fried chicken platter (ask to substitute a baked potato for $1 extra) comes with a bowl of luscious, finger-lickin’ good cream gravy. It is remarkable and delectable enough that I scoop it out with a spoon once I have finished the superb cut of chicken. I may need to enter a 12-step program to kick my addiction.

Jus' Macmap2617 Yale Street

Who knew that the microwave-able, cheapo convenience store standard and children’s treat from a Kraft box would become a gourmet staple at swanky eateries? Dressed-up macaroni dishes with specialty cheeses have joined sweet potato fries as expected items on upscale restaurant menus everywhere. Of all the renditions in Houston, though, one picayune abode gets it right – and any operation gutsy enough to fill its carte du jour with just macaroni (and a few other offerings) better get it right.

The now popular combination of Gruyere cheese and truffle oil tends to fall short of my lofty expectations. Shade, I’m looking in your direction.

‘Jus Mac makes its featured food 18 different ways. Try the All American topped with colby jack, the Pit Master loaded with brisket and colby jack, The Taco Mexi, The Broc or The Goat Cheese, to name a few. The cooks top off every bowl with breadcrumbs, a winning touch that adds to the festival of flavor. Want an appetizer? The fried mac balls with bacon are wicked.

Kam’s Fine Chinesemap4600 Montrose Boulevard

This Montrose-area neighborhood eatery cooks up Chinese cuisine as fulfilling as anything I have sampled in the San Francisco and New York Chinatowns for, in some cases, a fraction of the cost. This establishment balances economy and quality with enviable consistency, providing lunch bargains that astonish with flavor as much as low price. Come taste why patrons in the nearby residential hot spots have frequented Kam’s since its doors opened in 1988.

A re-assuring word for the skeptical Chinese connoisseurs: This is as far from standard, pabulum Cantonese as it gets in Houston without venturing to Chinatown. There is nothing bromidic about the beef orange zen or the sweet and tangy honey chicken. The pan-fried pork dumplings are divine, especially when dipped or drenched in a mild-to-medium mixture of the pot sticker, chili and jalapeno sauces. The lone drawback here is parking behind the building in a lot shared with tenants in a squalid apartment complex. My money says you will forget that oddity the moment you enter the front door. Everything thereafter, from the service to the meal-ending dip into the fortune-cookie jar, will steal your heart.

Katz’s Delimap616 Westheimer Road

Patrons should heed the warning that accompanies the menacing but irresistible picture of the towering cheesecake shake on every Katz’s menu: Do not operate heavy machinery while drinking one or just after consumption. The nectarous concoction mixes ice cream, milk and a colossal slice of any of the available dessert cakes. The award-winning matzo ball soup merits enshrinement in a restaurant dish Hall of Fame and works as a hearty appetizer (order a cup) or a main course (order a bowl).

The mournful closure of the Austin location in January 2011 makes the Westheimer spot the lone full-service Katz’s in Texas, apart from an express version of the deli in The Woodlands. Other dainty delights at this New York-style charcuterie, which is open 24-7, include the fried chicken, the Yankee pot roast sandwich and the Challah French toast.

Laurenzo’s El Tiempo Cantinamap3130 Richmond Avenue

Margarita aficionados herald the top-shelf treats poured at the bar, and Tex-Mex addicts hanker for then savor the finest fare in town. If the three words “filet mignon fajitas” do not provoke uncontrollable salivation, then either you are a vegetarian—by no means a deal-killer at El Tiempo—or you hate delicious food. The numerous items on the menu I have ordered—from the guacamole, to the queso with beef brisket, to the various flautas, to the salads and crispy tacos—are all memorable, to the point I experience separate cravings for each dish at least once a month.

Make reservations or prepare to wait up to 45 minutes during peak dinner hours at any of the five Houston locations. Take it from someone who has sampled the victuals at more than 100 Tex-Mex joints in the area: It cannot, it does not get better than this.

Laurenzo’s Prime Ribmap4412 Washington Avenue
The service at Laurenzo’s would fit at Buckingham Palace. However, here you can eat and feel like royalty without the ceremonial responsibilities or the paparazzi on your tail. The wait staff is mindful and attentive without verging into that unpleasant and unnecessary territory where the incessant “how is everything?” queries become overbearing.

Owned and operated by the same family that brought Houston El Tiempo Cantina, Laurenzo’s may not rank as the city’s top steakhouse, but for my money, it serves the best cut of meat, bar none, in Harris County and its surrounding regions. The $37, well-marbled rib eye justifies its steep price from the first fork full to the bittersweet final bite. The baked potato is not an afterthought alongside the marvelous hunk of meat, a testament to the quality and care pervasive at this Washington Avenue establishment. The other house-made sides will make your taste buds croon like Sinatra.

Not in the mood for a steak or one of the famous prime rib selections? Try the baby back ribs, a scrumptious salad, a burger or the Tex-Mex specialties.

Liberty Kitchen & Oyster Barmap1050 Studewood Street

One of the busiest and priciest options on this 27-restaurant tabulation, Travis Lenig and Lance Fegen’s seafood eatery is located in the heart of the Heights with an alpine “EAT” sign in its bitty parking lot. The also cramped dining space makes long waits on weeknights and weekends inevitable. Take one bite of any dish on the inspired bill of fare, though, and you will understand this spot’s unrelenting popularity.

I have long been disgusted by most of the offerings in the shellfish category. Shrimp, to me, is malodorous and unappetizing. Yuck. Lobster, a worshiped delicacy for some, is a rubbery devil I avoid. Why rave, then, about this place? The first batch of fried oysters I ever savored – and I have been trying to like oysters in every form possible since childhood – is the one I ordered from the “hands on” section of the menu here.

Most of the meat offerings are divided into lists of “runners” and “swimmers.” Among those choices, the yellow-fin tuna mignon with indo soy butter and sour cream mashed potatoes reigns supreme. It is the sort of splendid plate uneducated foodie wannabes like to pretend is only available in Paris, Beverly Hills and Manhattan. The asparagus with bacon jam – I repeat: bacon jam. Oh My God – is an unforgettable accompaniment to any entrée. Save room for the finest bowl of bread pudding extant. Leaving behind any of the raspberry or caramel sauces and doubled sweet cream feels like a crime worthy of incarceration.

Ocean Palacemap11215 Bellaire Boulevard

Here is a real shocker: The Chinese restaurant that supplanted the now under whelming Fu’s Garden as a personal favorite is in a part of Houston called Chinatown. Imagine that. Wow. Next, I’ll tell you that the best place to buy gas is a filling station. Feel free to stop reading if these bombshell revelations prove too much to digest in one sitting.

It took me far too long to sample the ballyhooed cuisine at Ocean Palace. Friends have implored me for years to seek out the striking, two-story building on Bellaire Boulevard that houses the kitchen and elephantine, elegant dining rooms. I thank those friends. Soon, you will thank me. Though other choices in the pan-Asian community – it should be noted that the area also has Viatnemese, Thai, Malaysian, Filipino, Laotian, Korean, Indonesian and Taiwanese foods – may get more recent critical acclaim or votes of authenticity, Ocean Palace grabs my attention and my ultimate seal of approval.

I could make dinner recommendations, but instead, I beseech you to make time for the Sunday dim sum.

Nara Thai Diningmap18455 West Lake Houston Parkway

Typical suburban eateries litter Atascocita, from Chili’s to Denny’s to perhaps the most disgusting Jack in the Box on the planet. The area’s adventurous residents seeking a respite from food chains available in anytown, USA will find solace at this cozy Thai jewel positioned between Lake Houston and Humble. The chicken curry puffs served with chili and cucumber dipping sauces burst with flavor. The peanut sauce works in concert with almost any dish. That utensil with a circular end, then, comes in handy when scooping up those last spoonfuls. This place dispatches bland in favor of exquisite and exotic. The gracious, sans-pareil service also earns this place a winning vote. 

Potatoe Patchmap2020 Farm to Market 1960 Road East

Like Steven Segal, the generous portions at this Spring-based sanctuary of home cooking will kick your butt. Try leaving this place hungry, and you’ll be sprayed with a loaded magazine’s worth of hot rolls and endure a roundhouse kick of cream gravy. In a word, the food here is yummy. As the restaurant’s name suggests, the menu features enough potato options to satisfy a person’s carbohydrates threshold for a week in one sitting.

Ask for the free appetizer of fried green tomatoes and fried okra. Follow that with a mammoth chicken fried steak or the prime rib. Good luck saving room for dessert. Come with a hankering, and leave so stuffed you can’t walk straight.

Pregomap2520 Amherst Street

Rice Village features shops and eateries galore. Prego, couched in the plethora of wallet-emptying apparel and skin care outlets, reigns supreme as the area’s destination for rich, redolent Italian cuisine. Nothing on the menu disappoints, and the ambiance, while often overshadowed by the noise level during peak hours, suits the first-class dining experience. The ravioli di anitra is spruced up with smoked duck, poached pear, pistachio, truffle butter and a port reduction. The lasagna, a staple on any Italian restaurant’s menu, may become a staple in your dreams. Consider adding the decadent chocolate soufflé to your entrée order. It takes 20 minutes to prepare in the kitchen but far less time to devour.

Ruggles Café and Bakerymap2365 Rice Boulevard

Of the many options in Houston bearing the Ruggles name, this is a gold standard as reliable as rain in Seattle and screaming teens at a One Direction show. Even at its busiest, thanks to posthaste counter service and an expeditious kitchen, chances are you will find a table.
The warm goat cheese salad is, to quote a Cure song title, just like heaven. The roast pork loin sandwich with caramelized onions is another winner.
Nothing, though, can prepare you for the dilemma of the dessert case. Don't kid yourself. You WILL order dessert. The question is, which one? It is impossible to make a wrong choice here, but the chocolate mousse peanut butter crunch, white chocolate bread pudding and tres leches rank as my three standbys. No one excels in the sweets department more than Ruggles.

Star Pizzamap2111 Norfolk Street

Pizza Hut and Domino’s can indeed hit the spot following a period of intense, stomach-is-growling-like-a-Grizzly-bear hunger. Houstonians, though, deserve a slice that tastes good any time, any day and anywhere. They shouldn’t have to dial 713- or 281-GREASY-BLEH anytime they want America’s favorite bread, sauce and cheese elixir. Thanks to Star, with locations on Shepherd and Washington Ave., no one in town has to settle for a bottom-dollar bummer with cheese stringy enough to tie a boat to a dock.

The toppings are plentiful and savory, and the tomato sauce compliments the hand-tossed or deep-dish dough. Just try and resist the smell when you get a large box of this pizza into your car or your house. I dare you.

Anyone living outside the loop, or the immediate vicinity, is out of luck when it comes to delivery, but the trip to either saucy, sapid site will prove well worth it.

The Breakfast Klubmap3711 Travis Street

This always packed chicken-n-waffles spot bursts with Caribbean flavor and boasts exemplary customer service that might restore your faith in humanity. One drawback of venturing to the order-at-the-counter harbor of well-seasoned fried bird and fluffy goodness: it is always packed, which means the line can stretch from the door to the outskirts of the parking lot. Once inside, though, the breakfast does not let a growling stomach down. The other house specialty is katfish-n-grits.

Marcus Davis wanted to honor and continue his father’s legacy as a heralded restaurant owner when he opened this Jamaican joint in 2001. The result: a bustling, award-winning establishment that has even earned two thumbs up from a United States president. You may wait as much as an hour on the weekends, but you will leave with a mirthful belly and the predilection to return as often as possible. I guarantee it, mon! Just ask Dwight Howard. 

The Down Housemap1801 Yale Street

Named after the domicile where scientist Charles Darwin resided for 40 years, this Heights eatery and bar offers an eclectic but limited menu. The word “limited,” however, does not apply to the execution or presentation of the establishment’s snacks and entrees. The cheese plates will impress and massage your palate with myriad flavors. The fries rank as Houston’s best. The buttermilk thyme fried chicken delivers a sweet, succulent and crave-worthy kick. Just typing the name of that dish makes my mouth water. In keeping with the name, servers place the checks inside Darwin books, a swell and only-in-the-Heights touch.

The Italian Railroad Cafémap105 North Railroad Avenue

This bantam Humble spot wins the award for unlikeliest exquisite dining experience. A dilapidated boxcar next to a railroad track does not beckon patrons in search of distinctive Italian fare. Appearances can deceive. The opaque, candlelit interior invites customers to linger, pop an expensive wine bottle and savor the considerable efforts of the adjacent kitchen. The chef serves up everything from a delicate osso bucco to half chicken baked with garlic cloves, bacon and mushrooms. With upscale prices and an inconvenient location, save this one for a serious date, a marriage proposal or an anniversary.

Tin Roof BBQmap18918 Town Center Boulevard

Behind a Wal-Mart in the several-block area on FM 1960 where Humble becomes Atascocita, Tin Roof makes bellies and taste buds happy. Plan to feel full after a smoked-meat excursion here. As with Demeris, the side dishes merit special attention. The macaroni and cheese, mixed veggies and grilled potatoes go great with the tender pulled pork or the moist sausage. The sauce may prove too saccharine for some, but in small doses, it adds another dimension to the well-marbled, slow cooked meats. Share an order of onion rings on the outdoor patio on a rare 70-degree night.

White Oak Kitchen + Drinksmap5011 Westheimer Rd.

As late as last year, the popular Galleria restaurant was still known as Zucchini’s Farm-to-Market-Café. The fresh food destination, housed two floors above the mall’s famous ice skating rink, has been a favorite since childhood. The owner, though, decided in 2011 to remodel the space and revamp the menu.

While I preferred the open ambiance of Zucchini’s, the elegant facelift adds to White Oak’s comforting feel amidst shopping bedlam. The spread ranges from healthy, green options to pasta to an A+ cheeseburger. Serious offer: Try the burger, and if it does not rank as one of the best you have ever tasted, I will cover your check. It is that spectacular.

--Robert Kleeman

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