100 Favorite Dishes 2013-2014: No. 1, Pastiera di Mare con Granchio e Gamberi at Ciao Bello

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Photo by Max Burkhalter
This dish is so good, it got its own photo shoot.
This year, leading up to our annual Menu of Menus® issue, Kaitlin Steinberg counts down her 100 favorite dishes as she eats her way through Houston. She'll compile a collection of the dishes she thinks are the most awesome, most creative and, of course, most delicious in town. It's a list of personal favorites, things she thinks any visitor or Houstonian ought to try at least once and dishes that seem particularly indicative of the ever-changing Houston foodscape.

I first ate this dish back in August of 2013, and it's been on my mind -- and my list -- ever since.

On August 7, I attended the second in a series of regional Italian cuisine dinners hosted by Tony Vallone at Ciao Bello. The first one had been focused on the food of Sicily, but the one I went to was about Naples, a region Jeremy Parzen, our wine writer and a friend of Vallone's, tells me is very close to the restaurateur's heart. And boy, did Vallone's passion show in the food.

The meal was prepared by Bobby Matos, executive chef at Ciao Bello, whose name I firmly believe needs to be mentioned in the same sentences as Chris Shepherd, Hugo Ortega and Marco Wiles as making some of the best, most praiseworthy food in Houston. The cuisine of Ciao Bello isn't pushing boundaries, as it is at Oxheart, The Pass or Uchi, but it is, in my opinion, some of the most immensely satisfying food in Houston.

Which brings me to the best thing I've eaten here all year, prepared with skill and restraint by chef Matos: the Pastiera.

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100 Favorite Dishes 2013-2014: No. 2, Bone Marrow Pho at Pho Binh by Night

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Photo courtesy Pho Binh by Night
The bone marrow supplement is what makes the dish.
This year, leading up to our annual Menu of Menus® issue, Kaitlin Steinberg counts down her 100 favorite dishes as she eats her way through Houston. She'll compile a collection of the dishes she thinks are the most awesome, most creative and, of course, most delicious in town. It's a list of personal favorites, things she thinks any visitor or Houstonian ought to try at least once and dishes that seem particularly indicative of the ever-changing Houston foodscape.

Pho Binh first established a reputation for serving the best pho in town out of a trailer on Beamer Road. The tight space would get packed with hoards of people seeking out the magical broth, so pure and flavorful after simmering for hours and hours to elicit every nuance from the meat. The soup would be filled with slippery noodles, rare beef or meatballs and whatever else you wanted to add from a platter of bean sprouts, lime wedges, chiles and basil.

Following the success of the trailer, the owners opened a bigger, brighter spot that shines like a beacon in the darkness on Bellaire after hours: Pho Binh by Night. It's open until 3 a.m., and it, too, is consistently packed with people seeking out the best pho in town at any time of day or night. And those in the know know the best pho comes with a side of a little something extra, something rich and decadent.

Bone marrow.

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100 Favorite Dishes 2013-2014: No. 3, Hamachi Nabe at Uchi

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Photo courtesy of Uchi
Here's the thing: It tastes as good as it looks.
This year, leading up to our annual Menu of Menus® issue, Kaitlin Steinberg counts down her 100 favorite dishes as she eats her way through Houston. She'll compile a collection of the dishes she thinks are the most awesome, most creative and, of course, most delicious in town. It's a list of personal favorites, things she thinks any visitor or Houstonian ought to try at least once and dishes that seem particularly indicative of the ever-changing Houston foodscape.

Oh, the hamachi nabe. What is there left to say about the hamachi nabe that hasn't already been said?

It's been on the menu at Uchi in both Houston and Austin since at least 2011, when chef Tyson Cole's recipe was highlighted on StarChefs.com. Go ahead and try to recreate the dish yourself.

No, really. Try.

There's no way it's going to be as good as what Uchi will serve you.

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100 Favorite Dishes 2013-2014: No. 4, XI Madame at Eleven XI

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Photo by Troy Fields
Carefully extract the knife or risk the whole tower tumbling down.
This year, leading up to our annual Menu of Menus® issue, Kaitlin Steinberg counts down her 100 favorite dishes as she eats her way through Houston. She'll compile a collection of the dishes she thinks are the most awesome, most creative and, of course, most delicious in town. It's a list of personal favorites, things she thinks any visitor or Houstonian ought to try at least once and dishes that seem particularly indicative of the ever-changing Houston foodscape.

Its alternate name on the menu is "7 Layers of Heaven." When I first read that, I thought it was pretty confident. Maybe overly confident. Like, maybe the chef is setting himself up for diners to be disappointed by declaring outright that something on his menu is "heavenly."

Then I bit into it, and I had to wonder if there's a word for something that is better than heavenly.

Chef Kevin Bryant at Eleven XI created the dish after one of his coworkers suggested he put a croque madame--a traditional French café or bar snack of a grilled ham and cheese sandwich with a fried egg on top--on the brunch menu. Not willing to settle for something ordinary, Bryant set about layering the best cured meat he could find with toast and cheese in the form of béchamel sauce. And "7 Layers of Heaven" was born.

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100 Favorite Dishes 2013-2014: No. 5, Brisket at Killen's Barbecue

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Photo courtesy Killen's Babecue
I think you can almost smell it through the photo.
This year, leading up to our annual Menu of Menus® issue, Kaitlin Steinberg counts down her 100 favorite dishes as she eats her way through Houston. She'll compile a collection of the dishes she thinks are the most awesome, most creative and, of course, most delicious in town. It's a list of personal favorites, things she thinks any visitor or Houstonian ought to try at least once and dishes that seem particularly indicative of the ever-changing Houston foodscape.

A lot has been said and written about Ronnie Killen's barbecue since it first started popping up in Pearland back in the spring of 2013.

Mai Pham wrote, "Each slice of brisket revealed itself to be oozing with juiciness ... the sight had me in near-convulsions of food ecstasy."

The Chronicle's Greg Morago called the brisket "agonizingly supple," and in Houstonia, Robb Walsh described it as "perfectly cooked" (though he seems to prefer the beef ribs). Even Yelp, that most fickle of beasts, loves Killen's meat.

So when I first checked out the new restaurant, Killen's Barbeuce, which has been selling out of barbecue nearly every day it is open, my expectations were almost impossibly high.

I'll be damned if Ronnie Killen's brisket didn't exceed them.

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100 Favorite Dishes 2013-2014: No. 6, Aji de Gallina at Latin Bites

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Photo by Francisco Montes
Just like grandma used to make...if grandma was an awesome Peruvian chef.
This year, leading up to our annual Menu of Menus® issue, Kaitlin Steinberg counts down her 100 favorite dishes as she eats her way through Houston. She'll compile a collection of the dishes she thinks are the most awesome, most creative and, of course, most delicious in town. It's a list of personal favorites, things she thinks any visitor or Houstonian ought to try at least once and dishes that seem particularly indicative of the ever-changing Houston foodscape.

It's been called the most important ingredient in Peruvian cooking, and a blogger for Serious Eats writes, "If there were a chile to taste like sunshine, this would be it."

The aji amarillo pepper, native to the regions surrounding the Andes Mountains, is put on full display in a number of dishes at Latin Bites, the refreshingly modern Peruvian restaurant with a focus on traditional flavors. It's actually redundant to describe aji amarillo as a pepper because aji means pepper. Amarillo, of course, refers to the yellow color of sauces made with the pepper, though the pepper itself, when ripe, is bright orange.

From the tiradito tres sabores featuring three iterations of leche de tigre with the omnipresent aji, to the ultimate in Peruvian comfort food, aji de gallina, nothing puts you in a Lima state of mind quite like aji amarillo.


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100 Favorite Dishes 2013-2014: No. 7, Chilorio at Pico's Mex-Mex

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Photos by Kaitlin Steinberg
Chilorio tastes surprisingly complex for how simple it is to execute.
This year, leading up to our annual Menu of Menus® issue, Kaitlin Steinberg counts down her 100 favorite dishes as she eats her way through Houston. She'll compile a collection of the dishes she thinks are the most awesome, most creative and, of course, most delicious in town. It's a list of personal favorites, things she thinks any visitor or Houstonian ought to try at least once and dishes that seem particularly indicative of the ever-changing Houston foodscape.

"Is there mint in this?" I mused aloud.

"No, not mint," said my friend. "Maybe Mexican oregano?"

"Right, because it almost has a licorice flavor. And I definitely taste cumin."

"I thought I was getting cinnamon, but I could be wrong."

We looked over at the server delivering another giant margarita.

"What's in this? It's delicious, but we can't quite figure it out."

"It's a secret," he said mischievously. "It's a great mystery." And then he walked away.

Ahh, the great mystery of the chilorio at Pico's Mex-Mex.

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100 Favorite Dishes 2013-2014: No. 8, Pickled Butternut Squash Salad at Coltivare

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Photo by Kaitlin Steinberg
These ingredients shouldn't go together, but they really, really do.
This year, leading up to our annual Menu of Menus® issue, Kaitlin Steinberg counts down her 100 favorite dishes as she eats her way through Houston. She'll compile a collection of the dishes she thinks are the most awesome, most creative and, of course, most delicious in town. It's a list of personal favorites, things she thinks any visitor or Houstonian ought to try at least once and dishes that seem particularly indicative of the ever-changing Houston foodscape.

On any given night (except, oddly, Tuesdays) the line of people snaking out the door and crowding in the entrance might seem perplexing to the average, first-time diner at Coltivare. The new Heights-area restaurant from the folks who brought us Revival Market has been packed since day one, but once you try the food, it's easy to see why.

The small menu (fewer than 50 items in all, including sides and desserts) is carefully crafted to bring out the maximum amount of flavor from simple ingredients combined into artful dishes. The basic cacio e pepe pasta is the best in town, while the homegrown greens are about as fresh as can be: They're plucked right out of the backyard garden for dinner each evening.

There's one particular dish that haunts my dreams, though, in the best way possible. I crave it at all hours of the day. It's healthy enough to make me think, "Yeah, I could eat that for a nice, light lunch," and decadent enough to satisfy even when I'm wanting something a little fancy.

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100 Favorite Dishes 2013-2014: No. 9, Uni Chawanmushi at Kata Robata

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Photos by Kaitlin Steinberg
The Uni Chawanmushi at Kata Robata won an award in 2011.
This year, leading up to our annual Menu of Menus® issue, Kaitlin Steinberg counts down her 100 favorite dishes as she eats her way through Houston. She'll compile a collection of the dishes she thinks are the most awesome, most creative and, of course, most delicious in town. It's a list of personal favorites, things she thinks any visitor or Houstonian ought to try at least once and dishes that seem particularly indicative of the ever-changing Houston foodscape.

Plain chawanmushi has five ingredients: soy sauce, mirin, dashi, eggs and salt. It's an incredibly simple dish conceptually, but quite complex to execute. Once the elements are combined, the mixture must be strained through a cheesecloth or very fine sieve to remove any possible impurities. There should be just enough egg that the ingredients will congeal. Miss the mark by a hair -- a few too many flakes of dashi, an extra drop of soy sauce -- and the custard will break.

The light, quivering chawanmushi at Kata Robata is served steaming hot, literally. It's made to order, so it takes about 20 minutes from the time you request it until it's placed before you in a small ceramic pot, still emanating heat from a bath in the steamer. It's a breathtaking moment when the lid comes off, revealing the bright orange uni and tremulous bed of custard beneath it.

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100 Favorite Dishes 2013-2014: No. 10, Seafood Gumbo at Danton's Gulf Coast Seafood Kitchen

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Photo by Kaitlin Steinberg
Yeah, yeah, the oysters are good. But this is all about the gumbo.
This year, leading up to our annual Menu of Menus® issue, Kaitlin Steinberg counts down her 100 favorite dishes as she eats her way through Houston. She'll compile a collection of the dishes she thinks are the most awesome, most creative and, of course, most delicious in town. It's a list of personal favorites, things she thinks any visitor or Houstonian ought to try at least once and dishes that seem particularly indicative of the ever-changing Houston foodscape.

My mother, who is decidedly not Cajun but is a very good cook, taught me how to make gumbo years ago. She explained that it's all in the roux. If you don't have a proper roux for your gumbo right at the start, the end product will not be worthy of the name gumbo. She stressed that it should be dark, almost like chili or mole. If it's too light, the gumbo won't be rich enough.

I've carried this advice about gumbo with me since then, and as a result, I can generally tell instantly by looking at a bowl whether it will be worth my while. The vast majority of gumbo here in Houston -- even though we're frustratingly close to Louisiana -- is not up to par. It's too thin or too bland or too light in color to have the richness needed in a good bowl of gumbo. Most Houston gumbo, frankly, sucks.

Except, that is, for the gumbo at Danton's.


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