On Thursday, April 13, CultureMap held the awards ceremony for the 2023 Tastemaker Awards. Below are the winners in all 11 categories.
A panel of judges made up of local restaurant industry experts selected 10 of them, and CultureMap readers picked the winner of Best New Restaurant via a bracket-style, head-to-head tournament.
Most of these awards have “of the year” appended to them to acknowledge that they recognize the best of what’s happening in Houston right now. Even as we celebrate the winners’ achievements, we recognize that all of them have more to do. We admire their dedication to their craft, their grace under pressure, and their desire to improve. In a city with thousands of restaurants and bars, these are the best of the best.
Neighborhood Restaurant of the Year - Craft Pita
Certainly, much of Craft Pita’s success can be attributed to its high quality Lebanese cuisine that mixes locally-sourced ingredients with a few tastes of Lebanon, including olive oil sourced from relatives of owner Rafael Nasr. Despite the fast casual service model, diners receive a high level of service throughout their meal. Craft Pita’s employees genuinely seem happy to work there, which makes customers’ experiences a little more pleasant. No wonder it has already grown to two locations — with the distinct possibility of more to come.
Bar of the Year - Captain Foxheart’s Bad News Bar and Spirit Lodge
At a time when almost all of the other bars that opened on Main Street in 2013 and 2014 have changed hands, Bad News Bar (as it’s commonly known) endures. Houstonians keep walking through the unmarked door and climbing the narrow staircase for lots of reasons — great drinks, obviously, but also an incredibly deep, well-priced selection of spirits and bartenders who take their craft seriously. Whether popping in for happy hour during the week or coming in during a busy Saturday night, customers will find Houston’s best Old Fashioned and lots of other great drinks to lift their spirits.
Bartender of the Year - Kristine Nguyen, Captain Foxheart’s Bad News Bar
Speaking of long overdue recognition, our judges have selected this Houston hospitality veteran who has been previously nominated for her work at Nancy’s Hustle. As Nguyen shared in the Bartender of the Year article, she sees her role as facilitating her customers’ good times. She has suggestions about what people should drink, but only if they ask — which people definitely should, since the next cocktail or spirit someone tries at Bad News Bar could be their new favorite.
Wine Program of the Year - Nancy’s Hustle
As CultureMap wine columnist Chris Shepherd explained, Nancy’s Hustle’s wine list has been precisely curated by sommelier Justin Vann to pair well with its eclectic menu of butter-drenched comfort food. “Fun and funky, from sherry to orange wines to cider, the focus here is natural for sure,” he wrote. That focus, and the joy the restaurant’s entire front of house staff takes in sharing their favorite selections with customers, helped them secure this year’s award. Hopefully, it also earns Nancy’s the James Beard Award for Outstanding Wine and Other Beverages Program.
Pastry Chef of the Year - Shawn Gawle, Goodnight Hospitality
On a recent episode of CultureMap’s What’s Eric Eating podcast, Goodnight Partners Felipe Riccio and June Rodil shared what makes Gawle, the group’s executive pastry chef, so special. Here are their (lightly edited) replies:
Felipe Riccio: I don’t think we’d be where we’re at if Shawn weren’t part of the team. He really has pushed everyone to create more and to be attentive. His attention to detail is incredible. We are very lucky that June had a relationship with him, and that he was willing to come to Houston. I’ve relied on him a ton.
June Rodil: I met Shawn when he was working with my best friend at Robuchon in New York. This is the second time we’ve worked together. I’ve never seen so much growth in somebody in the almost five years we’ve been working together. He’s done the work, both at our place of our business and within himself. It’s been awesome to see.
Best Burger - Burger Bodega
It seems very 2023 that Houston’s most talked about new burger joint would be developed by one of the city’s most prominent food influencers. Abbas Dhanani, known for his houstoneatz accounts, rigorously researched every aspect of a classic smash burger, carefully developing the right size patty, properly tart pickles, appropriately tangy sauce, and, most importantly, the best smash technique for developing the crispy edges that add texture. Add in the restaurant's chopped cheese sandwich, craveable milkshakes, and a stylish, photo-worthy design, and it’s no wonder Burger Bodega regularly has a line out the door.
Best Pop-Up - Khói Barbecue
Pitmaster Don Nguyen’s Vietnamese-influenced barbecue concept has come a long way since he started serving beef rib nigiri under a tent at local breweries. Now, Nguyen, who reached the finals of season three of the Food Network show BBQ Brawl, draws crowds of smoked meat obsessives for signature items such as brisket pho and beef rib curry. He's achieved enough success that his curry barbecue sauce is bottled for use at home.
Khói acquired property north of downtown where its hosted pop-ups with two of Austin’s top barbecue joints — LeRoy & Lewis and Interstellar BBQ. Could it become the home of a permanent restaurant? Only time will tell.
Best New Restaurant - Aiko
In the end, our Best New Restaurant tournament came down to a battle of Washington Avenue — Aiko vs Burger Bodega. Readers preferred the casual sushi restaurant known for its affordable omakase to the smash hit smash burger concept. We suggest celebrating the victory by visiting Aiko during its new happy hour, which features $25 and $45 omakase menus that are served daily from 5-6:30 pm.
Rising Star Chef of the Year - Emmanuel Chavez, Tatemó
Chavez might be the Larry David of Houston’s food scene. Not because he’s grouchy or self-centered — he’s actually very self-deprecating and quick to give both his team and partner Megan Maul credit for their roles in Tatemó’s success. Rather, just like Curb Your Enthusiasm makes Seinfeld seem a little less interesting, eating Chavez’s nixtamal creations makes everyone else’s tortillas seem a little bland by comparison. How does he get so much corn flavor and essence into every bite? Whatever sorcery is involved, we hope he follows this award with the James Beard Award for America’s Best New Restaurant.
Chef of the Year - Mark Clayton, Squable
Editor’s note: We asked Squable partner Justin Yu to explain what he impresses him about the work Clayton does at Squable. His (lightly edited) response is as follows:
Mark modernizes classics based on his history of cooking in fine dining in three cities — New Orleans, Portland, and Houston — and travels in Europe. His attention to detail on those very normal, overlooked flavors and textures on dishes that most diners take for granted that makes his food sing: adding pickle backs pulled from his kitchen larder to raw oysters; adding a cheesy, queso-y spread of raclette to Squable’s famous French Cheeseburger; and crisping his meticulously-built lasagna on the griddle so that all the bites can taste like the corner piece,
Mark leads by example, with a calm intensity and reverence for excellent technique. You’ll find him expediting on the line as much as he’ll also be cooking alongside his cooks at brunch and helping the dishwasher get out of a bind when it gets busy. Mark is a chef’s chef, the hardest worker and an example that people look up to.
Restaurant of the Year - Bludorn
If the only thing chef Aaron Bludorn, his wife Victoria Pappas Bludorn, and their business partner/operations director Cherif Mbodji accomplished at their Montrose-area restaurant consisted of discovering Houstonians’ limitless appetite for lobster pot pie, smart wines, and warm hospitality, it would have been enough to earn citywide recognition. Instead of only focusing on their own success, they’ve gone above and beyond by hosting collaboration dinners with chefs from across the country, raising money for nonprofits such as the Southern Smoke Foundation and World Central Kitchen, and generally using Bludorn’s growing national reputation to shine a spotlight on Houston. Taken together, they’re setting a high standard for community involvement and raising the bar for what a Houston restaurant is capable of. That’s why Bludorn is the Restaurant of the Year.