May we have your attention, please? Here are the winners of the 2018 CultureMap Tastemaker Awards. These are Houston's best culinary professionals, as selected by a panel of former winners and restaurant industry experts.
At a ceremony April 4, Houston hip-hop legend Bun B revealed the winners during a lively ceremony at Silver Street Studios. Unlike last year, when Heights-based restaurant group Agricole Hospitality took home three of the night’s top prizes, this year features a more diverse group of winners, with only one establishment earning more than a single prize.
Given Houston’s ever-growing culinary world, even being nominated is an honor, but some individuals stand a little taller than others. Our hearty congratulations to all. Together, these people make Houston a better place to eat, drink, and live.
Without further ado, here's the full list of winners:
Restaurant of the Year: Xochi
This outcome probably isn’t a huge surprise. After all, Hugo Ortega and Tracy Vaught’s Oaxacan restaurant has already been named the best new restaurant in Texas and one of the best new restaurants in the country. Credit the restaurant’s intensely flavored moles, ambitious beverage program, and top-notch service as factors that have contributed to all that recognition.
Chef of the Year: Chris Shepherd, Underbelly Hospitality
New rule*. If, over the course of less than a year-and-a-half, a chef opens two new versions of an evolving concept restaurant, shutters the restaurant that earned him a James Beard Award, and makes plans to open three new establishments in the next six months, then he should earn the Tastemaker Award for Chef of the Year. If UB Preserv, Georgia James, and One Fifth Mediterranean all come together as expected, Shepherd would be a threat to go back-to-back, except we make all winners sit out for a couple years to give others a shot at the title.
*With apologies to Bill Maher.
Rising Star Chef of the Year: Jason Vaughan, Nancy’s Hustle
Since it opened in December, Nancy’s Hustle has been an industry favorite for a variety of reasons (as its four Tastemaker nominations demonstrate), but the menu deserves much of the credit. Vaughan’s creations sound simple, but they’re so well executed that a person could happily eat them again and again. If only someone could convince Vaughan and his business partner Sean Jensen to start serving brunch, Nancy’s would be pretty much perfect.
Pastry Chef of the Year: Jillian Bartolome, Aqui
Moving from Common Bond to Aqui has allowed Bartolome to stretch creatively. Instead of just using her Michelin-starred resume to turn out perfect pastries and viennoiserie, she’s able to blend sophisticated French techniques with flavors inspired by her Filipino roots. The results are sweet and savory creations that are as gorgeous as they are delicious.
Neighborhood Restaurant of the Year: Paulie’s
For four years, Paulie’s has been the Susan Lucci of the Tastemaker Awards: always nominated but never a winner. At least, until now. The welcoming staff, affordable prices, and consistently well-executed food have given the restaurant a 20-year track record of success — don’t miss the birthday party April 15 — that owner Paul Petronella memorialized in a recently published cookbook. Hopefully he has room the Tastemaker plaque on the same bookshelf.
Best New Restaurant: Field & Tides
The Best New Restaurant tournament always produces surprising results, and this year is no different. Some of the favorites got knocked out early, but the end result makes sense. Travis Lenig and Chico Ramirez’s Southern-inspired, neighborhood restaurant in The Heights may have flown a bit under the critical radar, but the creative, evolving menu and sophisticated beverage program have made it popular with area residents, who voted it to victory over serious competition.
Bar of the Year: Better Luck Tomorrow
Given its owners track record of success (Anvil owner Bobby Heugel and Theodore Rex chef-owner Justin Yu), diners and drinkers alike had high expectations for BLT when it opened last year. That it has easily exceeded them is a credit not just to its owners, but also to our Bartender of the Year winner Alex Negranza, operations director Terry Williams, and chef Drew Gimma, all of whom have contributed to bringing the combination cocktail bar/wine bar/patio bar/late-night eats spot. Experience BLT at its best by stopping in for brunch, when a couple of cocktails followed by a bowl of spicy matzo bowl soup and a doughnut or two can give way to a lazy afternoon of crushing bottles of rose on the patio.
Bartender of the Year: Alex Negranza, Better Luck Tomorrow
As noted above, Negranza’s work developing the bar program at BLT has helped make the multi-faceted bar a consistently satisfying place to drink. Last week, he started a new role as operations director for Heugel’s three downtown bars: Tongue-Cut Sparrow, The Pastry War, and The Nightingale Room. Hopefully he still gets to pull the occasional shift behind a bar; his friendly demeanor and thorough knowledge of spirits are what helped him earn this award.
Brewery of the Year: Eureka Heights Brewing Company
In Houston’s ever-growing roster of breweries, clever branding is cool (we see you glitter beer), but it takes great flavor to stand out. Eureka Heights’ sessionable brews always hit the spot, which is why its Heights-adjacent brewery has become such a popular destination. Plans to can some of its most popular varieties will only increase Eureka Heights’ rapidly rising profile.
Wine Program of the Year: a’Bouzy
By selling over 100 sparkling wines at or below standard retail prices, Shawn Virene’s River Oaks restaurant has become one of the city’s most popular places to drink wine. Those looking to go beyond the obvious names — a difficult decision when Ruinart Blanc de Blancs is only $66 — should ask for guidance on selecting from the extensive roster of grower champagnes. After all, it’s one thing to drink a bottle of wine as cheaply on a’Bouzy’s spacious patio as at home, but it’s even better to try something a diner might not find anywhere else.
Poke Restaurant of the Year: Izakaya
As this award demonstrates, chef Philippe Gaston knows a thing or two about raw fish. Which makes sense, considering he worked at Reef, Kata Robata, and the critically acclaimed Cove raw bar prior to signing on with the Japanese-inspired Midtown pub. At Izakaya, Gaston’s creations run the gamut from a traditional, Hawaiian-style bowl of tuna, seaweed salad, and avocado to a more innovative spicy scallop with icefish and tajin.