Ed. Note: This article was first published in the January 2015 issue of Houstonia, and has since been updated to reflect closings and new additions.
There’s more to Armando’s than just the busy social scene at the bar, which seems to reach its height on Thursday evenings. Armando’s actually serves great food, not just top-shelf margaritas (or $18 Grand Don margaritas if you’re feeling fancy). Sure, the plates are pricey—especially those famous lobster enchiladas—but you’re paying to be part of the party here, which is why everyone really comes to Armando’s.
Fans of the original (and now closed) Pico’s Mex-Mex in Bellaire and its quirky, palapa-filled patio will find the posh new Upper Kirby reincarnation (complete with new name) more formal—note the private tequila lockers, wrought-iron purse stands, and valet parking—yet Chef Arnaldo Richard’s classic Mexican cuisine is still the star, and that’s what really matters. Don’t miss the spectacular moles and, when in season, Picos’ famous soft-shell crabs.
The first location of what has become a two-chain success story is still packed every night of the week with guests eager to get their fix of Fat Fries topped with cilantro, onions, pork belly, "kimcheenaise" and Sriracha along with an array of bao: fluffy Chinese pancakes, folded and stuffed, sandwich-style, with everything from beef brisket and pickled onions to panko-crusted fish and a mint slaw. A robust craft beer selection further elevates the fast-casual fare.
Owner/chef Lynette Hawkins has succeeded in keeping her cozy Italian café both casual and high-quality since opening in 2009. At Giacomo’s, the small plates and accompanying small prices encourage you to order, experiment, and share (don’t miss eggplant involtini in particular), though the restaurant is perhaps best known for its exemplary spaghetti carbonara with guanciale and a farm-fresh egg.
Kata Robata is, quite simply, the best sushi restaurant in Houston. Sitting at chef Manabu Horiuchi’s counter and ordering the omakase—Japanese for “I’ll leave it to you”—is an experience that every serious food-lover should have at least once. Chef Hori-san will dazzle you with whatever is freshest that day and create a personalized menu that will likely make buying grocery-store sushi rolls an incredibly tough proposition in the future. Not sitting at the sushi counter? Try Kata’s rightfully famous lobster-miso mac ‘n’ cheese or the richly flavored ramen.
Recently relocated into sumptuous new digs, this luxe Indian restaurant from chef Kiran Verma is back and better than ever. Non-carnivorous types will want to book the Vegetarian Feast menu, while pescatarians—or anyone who's simply living it up—will love the Lobster tasting menu, whose six courses all feature the crustacean in some fine fashion. Whatever you end up ordering, you’re going to leave extremely full and extremely well-taken-care-of.
At this, its second location, Local Foods has built a massive, beautifully landscaped patio that’s alluring in both summer and winter, when you can warm up outside between heaters and bowls of hearty posole (perhaps accompanied by a spicy kombucha margarita). Lunchtime offers solid sandwiches, while dinner gets a little fancier with specials like 44 Farms sirloin, Black Hill Ranch pork tenderloin, and free-range roast chicken.
You'll be hard-pressed to find a kid-friendlier restaurant in the Loop, as Mia's Table offers everything exhausted parents want: a convenient parking garage, crowd-pleasing kid's menu (each entree served with your choice of fries or fresh fruit), free soft-serve custard for dessert (if you can pass up ordering a Blue Bell shake), a shady patio for playing on, and an accommodating staff who're equally happy to pour you an ice-cold Shiner Bock over a Mia's Monday Meal that comes with 10 pieces of fried chicken, two large sides, and Texas toast.
Anita Jaisinghani’s fast-casual café has been an unqualified hit since day one, offering Gulf Coast–Indian fusion fare at breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Have you ever had a saag paneer omelet? Or uppma, the Indian version of grits? You should. Just want to pick up some of Pondicheri’s famous pastries? Head upstairs to the Bake Lab + Shop, where you can grab chili-chocolate-oatmeal cookies as well as sandwiches, fresh juices, and more to go.
Pondicheri isn’t the only Gulf Coast–Indian fusion game in town. At The Queen Vic, chef Shiva Patel turns out a mean Texas chaat salad with avocado and roasted corn, but you’ll also find British-Indian dishes as well, from the classic chicken tikka masala to hybrid creations such as a Scotch egg wrapped in ground lamb and served in a tomato curry. The draft selection at the bar is impeccable, and the cocktail program is every bit its match.
You can certainly come here for the sushi (and the wonderful piano player on weekend evenings), but the real reason to visit Sushi King isn't the sashimi: it's the other Japanese food. This staple of the Upper Kirby scene has steadily built up its menu of Japanese favorites rarely found elsewhere in Houston. Try a bowl of hiyashi chukka, chilled noodles in a sweet citrus soy sauce topped with cha siu pork, kani, candy-striped fish cakes, cucumber, ginger and tamago.
A popular lunchtime destination for over a decade, Turquoise Grill one-ups most Mediterranean restaurants with a changing seasonal menu and rarely seen specials such as sigara boregi (fried feta cheese rolls), lahmajun (thin-crust Turkish pizza), and iskender kebab (get this if you love beef, lamb, butter, yogurt, and bread). You may have a hard time finding this hidden gem if it’s your first visit, but once you do you’ll be seeking it out in no time.