Introducing the 2021 CultureMap Tastemaker Awards winners. Presented by Houston hip-hop legend Bun B in a lively ceremony on Thursday July 22nd, our jury of restaurant experts selected these locations and individuals as the best in the Houston culinary scene in every category except the best new restaurant voted by CultureMap readers.
Together they set high standards in everything they do, from preparing delicious food and drinks to creating an inviting atmosphere in their rooms. Like many of their colleagues, they faced the challenges of a global pandemic and took the necessary steps to protect both employees and customers.
While recognizing the winners is certainly important, let’s acknowledge another important truth. So talented the world of Houston restaurants that any finalist in any of the categories would have been a worthy winner. It is really an honor to be nominated.
Congratulations to all this year’s winners. We can hardly wait for the next year.
Restaurant of the year: Nobie’s
As their fifth anniversary is fast approaching, this award recognizes something that has been around for some time. Sara and Martin Stayer’s Montrose Restaurant is one of the best restaurants in Houston. From its eclectic menu to its creative cocktails and all-vinyl soundtrack, Nobie’s succeeds because its employees take their work seriously without taking themselves too seriously. If it’s been a while since your last visit, follow the restaurant’s directions to “get high and stop by”.
Chef of the Year: Kaitlin Steets, Littlefoot / Theodore Rex
Fresh from a nomination for the James Beard Award in the semifinals for Rising Star Chef of the Year in 2020, Steets demonstrated the breadth of her talent with Littlefoot, the French-inspired pop-up that Theodore Rex took on for three months earlier this year. Her precise technique and high appreciation of the ingredients have served her well in both restaurants. As T. Rex owner Justin Yu previously commented, Steets is ready for their own restaurant; hopefully she’ll open it in Houston.
Best new restaurant: Hello
The modern interpretation of Vietnamese home cooking by chefs Christine Ha and Tony Nguyen prevailed in four voting rounds at the Best New Restaurant tournament. More than the strength of Has’s loyal following on social media – the former Masterchef winner has over 100,000 followers on Instagram – this award recognizes that Xin Chào has offered a new perspective on one of Houston’s favorite kitchens. Adding smoked elements to dishes like shaking beef and duck salad gives them extra depth of flavor, while creative cocktails offer many combination options.
Aspiring Celebrity Chef of the Year: AJ Ede, Brazil
This veteran chef has reinvigorated the popular Montrose institution by using some fine dining techniques to enhance the cafe’s casual cuisine. Customers don’t necessarily have to understand the intricacies of fermentation or the names of the farms that supply his ingredients to appreciate the pure delicacy of what Ede and his team make, but he is happy to explain when someone asks. The chef also strives to help his chefs grow as professionals by teaching them techniques that will make it easier for them to advance in their careers and by encouraging them to add specialties to the menu.
Best pop-up / startup: Josh Deleon, Underground Creamery
Not that these frozen goodies need any more attention – Deleon sells its 300 pint weekly production almost instantly – but no other Houston ice cream maker tastes as good as Underground Creamery. Whether it’s salted vanilla with a strawberry swirl and graham crunch, brown sugar ice cream with a salted caramel swirl and oreos, or one of his other creations, Deleon’s ice creams always offer a fascinating mix of textures and flavors. Yes, the ordering process can be frustrating, but maybe this award will inspire Deleon to keep growing until its creations become available to a wider audience.
Pastry Chef of the Year: Drew Gimma, Bread Man Baking Co.
From Common Bond to Better Luck Tomorrow to Squable and Bread Man, Gimma has earned a reputation for taking bread seriously. In his role as Operations Director for Bread Man, Gimma oversees production that supplies Whole Foods stores across Texas and the company’s many restaurant customers with freshly baked bread. He will face an even greater challenge when the bakery moves to a huge 40,000 square foot facility later this year, but we suspect he will be fine. After all, he has prepared his entire professional life for this challenge.
Wine program of the year: Squable
Originally founded by sommelier Justin Vann, General Manager Terry Williams now looks after Squable’s wine list. Initially, the restaurant only offered European and North American selections, but Williams added Australian and South African wines to accommodate changes in Chef Mark Clayton’s menu. Of course, it’s best to try the selection from Monday to Friday from 4pm to 6pm, when all alcoholic beverages are reduced by half.
Bartender of the Year: Alphonso Quiñones, Tiny Champions
The veteran bartender has brought his customer-centric approach to this new restaurant from the team behind Nancy’s Hustle. Quiñones has embraced restaurant life, often working with the kitchen to prepare cocktail ingredients. In addition, his interest in the use of amaro and the inclusion of tropical flavors can be found throughout the restaurant’s cocktail menu. For example, consider Club Tropicana, which has both amaro and a grapefruit and passion fruit swizzle.
Bar of the year: Heights Beer Garden
Among all of Houston’s terrace bars, Heights Bier Garten stands out in many ways. First, the expansive and lush courtyard offers the feeling of escaping a crowded city. Second, the extensive selection of wine, beer, cocktails, and spirits extends beyond similar establishments. A creative menu highlights the typical pub food with many vegetarian dishes and homemade sandwiches.
Neighborhood restaurant of the year: Candente
Entering the Tex-Mex world can be difficult for a new restaurant. After all, every Houstonian already has a strong opinion about their favorite enchiladas, fajitas, and margaritas spots. But a similar barrier didn’t stop owner Michael Sambrooks from getting into the barbecue with The Pit Room, and the same approach that made him successful has carried over to Candente. In detail, the elements of success are: use high quality ingredients, cook them consistently and offer good value for money. Sounds easy, but the successful implementation of the formula made Candente a hit.