For 10 of the 11 categories in the CultureMap Tastemaker Awards, our judges panel of former winners selects the victors, but we do things a little differently for Best New Restaurant.
CultureMap readers pick the winner that pits 16 of Houston’s best new restaurants in a bracket-style head-to-head tournament. Over the course of four rounds of voting, the field will be winnowed down to one winner. It takes sustained social media campaigns to prevail, but the winning restaurant earns considerable bragging rights. Considering the field includes some of Houston's most prominent chefs like Chris Shepherd and Ronnie Killen as well as rising stars like Jonny Rhodes and Dominick Lee, expect a fierce fight in every matchup.
Polls in round one are open beginning today (Wednesday, March 6) through Sunday, March 10. People may vote once per matchup per day. The results are closely monitored for cheating and other shenanigans, so don’t try any funny business to game the results.
Who will win? Find out at the CultureMap Tastemaker Awards party presented by Woodford Reserve on March 27 at Silver Street Studios. We’ll reveal the winners, sip cocktails, and dine on bites provided by the nominees. Tickets are on sale now.
Superica vs. Calle Onze
No mystery here; our first matchup features the two new Tex-Mex restaurants that are putting their spin on Houston’s favorite cuisine. Although Superica comes to Houston from Atlanta, chefs Ford Fry and Kevin Maxey drew on their Texan roots to both get the details right in the form of first-rate salsas, flour tortillas, and queso; the restaurant also updates the genre a little bit with dishes like and to keep things interesting with smoked short ribs, whole fried snapper, and surprisingly excellent pancakes (at brunch).
Calle Onze represents a step up in terms of culinary ambitions for the owners of Near Northside bar Edison and Patton. It succeeds on the strength of dishes such as wood-grilled oysters, carnitas, and scallops with masa gnocchi — having one of Houston’s largest collection of agave spirits doesn’t hurt either. Both restaurants have been a hit in the Heights, but only one will advance to round two.
Killen's TMX vs. Kulture
If all Ronnie Killen had done was to open a Tex-Mex restaurant that provided a permanent home to the smoked brisket enchiladas and Snake River Farms beef fajitas he began serving on the dinner menu at Killen’s Barbecue, it would have been enough to ensure commercial success. Yes, he did those things, but he also became so fascinated with regional Mexican cuisine that he took cooking classes to learn to make mole, salsa, and tortillas; the dishes that feature those ingredients make TMX worth the drive to Pearland.
Marcus Davis probably could have opened Kulture as “The Breakfast Klub with cocktails” and been financially successful; instead, the restaurant serves a showcase for African American art, music, and the culinary talents of Rising Star Chef of the Year finalist Dawn Burrell, who uses her experience working at restaurants like Sparrow Bar + Cookshop and Uchi to reinterpret classic dishes like collard greens and oxtail in surprising new ways. Only one of these ambitious concepts from a restaurant industry veteran will advance to round two.
La Lucha vs. Poitín
Two Southern-inspired restaurants square off in this matchup. With its selection of oysters (raw, roasted, and fried) and first-rate fried chicken, La Lucha takes its inspiration from owner Ford Fry’s memories of meals at the legendary San Jacinto Inn; the name, Spanish for “the fight,” is an oblique reference to the Battle of San Jacinto where Sam Houston and the Texian army defeated Santa Anna and the Mexican army.
Poitín's name is similarly obscure — its a name for an Irish spirit — but its food is no less delicious. Rising Star Chef of the Year nominee Dominick Lee infuses his New Orleans roots into the menu to craft dishes like adobo-spiced pork belly with grits and collard green risotto. Both restaurants offer first-rate patios and killer cocktails, but only one will advance to round two.
Eunice vs. Indianola
This matchup features two restaurants that offer an elevated take on modern Gulf Coast cuisine. Eunice offers a lighter, fresher take on classic Creole fare; for example, chef Drake Leonards swaps rice for housemade pasta in his shrimp etouffee. Dishes like Cajun duck poppers and the housemade burrata with caviar and pepper jelly add a whimsical retro touch.
Indianola has to live up to the reputation established for sister concepts like Eight Row Flint and Coltivare and serve as the anchor for Agricole Hospitality’s trio of new concepts in EaDo. Thankfully, its classic design of light walls and big booths blends well with a menu that pulls from the culinary heritage of partners Vincent Huynh, Ryan Pera, Morgan Weber, and chef Paul Lewis; that means Thai spiced pork ribs and goat cheese wrapped in hoja santa leaves mesh with a classic riff on chicken and rice and some of the best bread served anywhere. Both restaurants are attracting plenty of buzz, but only one will advance to round two.
UB Preserv vs. Tris
This matchup pits two restaurants that evolved out of successful first concepts. UB Preserv continues Underbelly’s mission to tell the story of Houston food, but this time chef-owner Chris Shepherd is collaborating with Rising Star Chef of the Year finalist Nick Wong, who’s a little more liberal about blending cuisines; when the results are as delicious as his crispy rice salad and boudan shu mai, who can blame him?
At Tris, Chef of the Year finalist Austin Simmons elevates the work he did at Hubbell & Hudson Bistro by focusing more on local ingredients and utilized techniques he learned during stages in Europe and Asia; while the menu hops from Korean butter poached crab to lobster Thermidor (and everything in between), it always delivers bold flavors. Can the best restaurant in The Woodlands beat a James Beard Award winner’s second act?
Blood Bros. BBQ vs. International Smoke
One of these restaurants blends Texas barbecue with flavors from Chinese, Vietnamese, and Thai cooking, while the other offers a globally-inspired take on live fire cooking but calls barbecue “the b-word.” Blood Bros evolved out of a series of pop-ups and is the first restaurant for partners Robin Wong, Terry Wong, and pitmaster Quy Hoang. On the other hand, International Smoke comes with a superstar pedigree courtesy of its partners — celebrity chef Michael Mina and lifestyle guru Ayesha Curry.
International Smoke chef E.J. Miller led his team to victory over the Blood Bros. at the recent Cochon555 culinary event, but the barbecue restaurant's passionate fans could flip things around in this matchup. Will it be Blood Bros. brisket fried rice and Thai green curry boudin or International Smoke’s curry cornbread and redfish on the half shell?
Vibrant vs. B.B. Lemon
Admittedly, we’re having a little fun with this matchup. At Vibrant, first-time restaurateur Kelly Barnhart offers her unique perspective on healthy eating; all of the dishes utilize ingredients that are gluten-free, dairy-free, and non-GMO. At B.B. Lemon, Ben Berg (B&B Butchers) channels the spirit of New York restaurant J.G. Melon with a menu where it seems like everything is fried or otherwise deliciously excessive. Sure, Vibrant's gluten-free buckwheat pancakes are first-rate, but so is B.B. Lemon's diner-style cheeseburger. Both restaurants offer stylish dining rooms, good cocktails, and spacious patios, but only one will move on to the next round.
Indigo vs. Georgia James
This matchup features two of Houston’s current James Beard Award semifinalists. At Indigo, chef Jonny Rhodes explores the political and social conditions that created soul food through a series of dishes and presentations that will change diners' understanding of the ingredients he uses. Although it’s a steakhouse, Chris Shepherd named Georgia James for his parents, and the restaurant’s technique of cooking its steaks on cast iron mimics what a diner might experience in Shepherd’s home.
While those meals take place in very different environments, both restaurants reflect the highly personal vision of two culinary talents. We love them both dearly, but only one will advance to round two.