CultureMap's 2014 Tastemaker Awards features a panel of industry insiders who vote on the winners in 11 categories. However, when it comes to Best New Restaurant, it's you, the CultureMap reader, who gets to decide.
We've seeded 16 of Houston's hottest new restaurants (open less than a year) in a head-to-head bracket. Only the buzziest, most-worthy candidates made the cut. Voting takes place in several rounds, just like in the NCAA basketball tournament, with a final all-out battle for the title. Click here to vote in all categories or vote individually in each matchup highlighted below.
What follows is an assessment of each first round matchup and a prediction of which restaurant will win. Of course, like any prediction, it could be wrong. Upsets happen (remember the NCAA brackets?) — especially in an online poll where a savvy social media campaign can make all the difference.
Be sure and vote now. Here are your choices:
In this matchup, it's sushi vs. schnitzel as Nara and 60 Degrees go head-to-head to determine which is the best new River Oaks arrival. Chef Fritz Gitschner may be Houston's only Certified Master Chef, but Nara chef/owner Donald Chang has enlisted his mother to make some of his restaurant's signature Korean sauces.
When kobe beef goes up against locally raised akaushi, the result is too close to call.
How do you compare a high-style, Japanese fusion concept to a simple South American spot? Both feature promising young chefs in Adison Lee and David Guerrero, and both offer food made with a high regard for ingredients. Still, it'll come down to Kuu's high style atmosphere versus Andes's comfort space.
Since more people seem to prefer sushi to ceviche, Kuu will likely prevail in a close vote.
In one corner stands Bradley Ogden, the latest celebrity chef to arrive seeking fortune in Houston with a high-concept comfort food spot. In the other, Tony Vallone, one of Houston's longest and most successful restaurateurs, who revived the name of his steakhouse in a new, high-style location in Memorial City. Both restaurants serve top dollar steaks and high quality burgers, but only one will emerge victorious.
As fascinating as new restaurants are, hard to deny the Tony's mystique. Vallone's should triumph.
Two seafood palaces, one near the Galleria and the other a couple miles away, go head-to-head in this matchup. As the latest concept from beloved chef Hugo Ortega, diners had high expectations for Caracol, but the Mexican seafood restaurant has delivered. Fish & the Knife was three years in the making and has a high-profile check of its own in New Orleans transplant Bob Iacovone.
Expect Caracol to walk away with this one — Fish & the Knife just can't match Ortega's star power. (Or can it?)
Wood-fired, Italian-inspired local cuisine or down-home Southern fried comfort food? That's the choice in this matchup, which pits the hot new restaurant from the owners of Revival Market against the latest juggernaut from Clark/Cooper Concepts. Crowds have flocked to Coltivare, where they've been willing to wait an hour or more for a table. Still, no one knows how to please a crowd like chef Brandi Key, and that fried chicken is legitimately destination worthy. They both have great cocktails, but only Coltivare has one named for a character on the show Justified.
When in doubt, choose Ava Crowder to triumph over any adversary.
Could there be a more classically American battle than hamburger vs. hot dog? Both Good Dog and Fielding's sweat the details: Good Dog uses a hot dog that's unique to the restaurant, and Fielding's grinds all its own meat. Both feature a killer craft beer selection and top-notch milkshakes, too.
Burgers may be more popular, but the Heights is a juggernaut when it comes to turnout. Good Dog takes this one.
Two historic spaces; two chefs who look like linebackers. At Heights General Store, Antoine Ware delivers Louisiana flavors in the renovated former home of Harold's in the Heights. Ronnie Killen's barbecue joint needs no introduction; Houstonians have been trekking to Pearland for hour-plus waits for a year now, and the ability to obtain those peerless beef ribs six days hasn't put a dent in the crowds.
Handicapping tip: when assessing which restaurant will win an online vote, take the one with a stand at Minute Maid Park. Killen's BBQ wins in a rout.
Last, but certainly not least, this matchup pits one of Houston's most popular cuisines and well-establishing dining neighborhoods against this year's hottest food trend and the new school dining destination of choice. Osteria Mazzantini, the second restaurant from Mockingbird Bistro chef John Sheely, opened to strong reviews thanks to its homey, Northern Italian fare and rigorously Italian wine list. Tiger Den has emerged as the city's best ramen shop, thanks to a 24-hour broth that sees the small space on a perpetual wait. Both places make their own noodles, but only one can win.
In this battle of ramen or ravioli, the smart money is on Tiger Den to pull the upset and advance.
But what do I know?
The polls are open now. Vote early. Vote often. Each reader is allowed one vote per day in the bracket category. Round 1 voting continue through April 22, Round 2 voting takes place April 23-28 and the Finals April 29 - May 2. The winner will announced on May 8.