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Meet the Tastemakers
For the fourth year in a row, the CultureMap Tastemaker Awards includes the category Best Pop-Up/Startup. It recognizes food-based businesses that don’t operate in traditional bar or restaurant settings.
These entrepreneurs reach consumers in a variety of ways, including online sales, farmers markets, and pop-ups at bars and breweries. It takes determination — and a savvy social media presence — to build a loyal following.
The trend may not be as dynamic as it has been in years past, but pop-ups have powered a lot of innovation in Houston’s culinary scene. Several of this year’s nominees — including ChópnBlọk, Tatemó, Neo, and Jūn — all have their roots in pop-ups.
Who will win? Find out March 27 at our Tastemaker Awards ceremony. Dine on bites from this year’s nominees, sip cocktails from our sponsors, and witness as we reveal the winners. Buy your tickets now.
Here are the 10 nominees for Best Pop-Up/Startup:
Ally Barrera, Sweet Bee Bakehouse
Starting a pop-up bakery that makes some of Houston’s best croissants takes hard work, and Barrera credits her grandparents for inspiring her entrepreneurial spirit. Her maternal grandparents operated a series of Mexican restaurants in the chef’s hometown of Corpus Christi. “I have a strong belief that this is where I get my cooking and business aspirations from,” she explains. Whatever Barrera’s motivation, anyone who loves viennoiserie should be making regular trips to Pearland to pick up orders from Sweet Bee.
Andrea De Gortari, The Bake Happening
Known for her elaborately decorated cakes, the baker stepped things up in 2023 by winning season six of Food Network’s Christmas Cookie Challenge and gracing the cover of Outsmart magazine. Proud of her status as a first-generation Mexican American queer woman, De Gortari’s work reflects her passions for tattoo culture, mid-century modern styles, and — in her words — “all things spooky.” “I bake stuff and I make things, because stuff tastes good and things look pretty,” she says matter-of-factly.
Chuy Ortiz and Pablo Contreras, Humo Norte
Two veteran chefs and pitmasters teamed up to create this pop-up that celebrates Central Texas-style barbecue and the flavors of Northern Mexico. Expect anything from prickly pear-glazed pork ribs and whole hog seasoned with guajillo and ancho chiles to tacos filled with smoked brisket, pork belly pastor burnt ends, and fried squash blossoms.
“We strive not just for culinary satisfaction, but to create an experience rooted in the carne asada tradition – a gathering place where friends and families connect over plates made with love,” Contreras tells CultureMap.
The chef serves her “food for the rebel souls” at markets across the Houston area. Every week, diners will find her table loaded with a wide array of sweet and savory baked goods, including her signature salted honey pie. Last year, Wild launched Jane’s Dine Inn, an intimate dinner series that showcases ingredients from local farms.
“I’m so grateful that I have the freedom that I can do my thing, too,” she said last year on CultureMap’s “What’s Eric Eating” podcast. “I have a line. That brings me so much joy to see my regulars. That community, that’s a driver.”
Joseph Boudreaux, Boo's Burgers
Burger lovers know Boo’s Burgers for its custom blend smash burgers — made with a mix of chuck and short rib — that are topped with housemade pickles and the chef’s take on a tangy burger sauce. He’s also expanded his offerings to showcase Louisiana-inspired dishes such as gumbo and yakamein. The self-described “Creole kid from Houston” has a simple culinary philosophy.
“I’m inspired by my Creole culture, but Houston shapes that, as well. I’m grateful to have been born and raised in a place that serves as one of the most diverse cities in the nation,” he wrote in an Instagram post.
Luciana Emiliani, La Crumb
The self-taught chef honed her skills at the L.A. outpost of San Francisco’s Tartine Bakery. Once she returned home to Houston, she earned raves for her pastries and desserts at both Cafe Louie and Louie’s Italian American. Now, she hosts weekend pop-ups that feature sweet and savory options such as almond croissants, strawberry sugar doughnuts, and chicken pot pie hand pies.
"I genuinely couldn't imagine doing anything else and each day baking is more fulfilling than the last," she says.
Michelle Wallace, B'tween Sandwich Co.
After a lengthy run at Gatlin’s BBQ and Gatlin’s Fins & Feathers, the chef went out on her own with a pop-up devoted to sandwiches. The rotating menu features a range of creations that include a lobster roll with smoked butter, smoked turkey on sourdough, and spicy fried chicken on the chef’s signature biscuits. America will get to know Wallace better when she competes on the upcoming season of Top Chef. Perhaps it will serve as the launchpad for her eagerly anticipated brick and mortar.
Suu Khin, Burmalicious By Suu
The Masterchef season 11 finalist has grown her following locally through a series of well-received dinners, collaborations, and by popping up at local markets. Burmese cuisine is still building its following, and Khin appreciates the opportunity to share her culture with Houstonians. “I have always dreamed of the day when people are actively searching for and talking about Burmese classics like laphet (pickled tea leaf salad) and mohinga (lemongrass fish noodle soup),” she says. Those days get a little closer with every plate Khin serves.
Willow Villarreal and Jasmine Barela, Willow's Texas BBQ
The chefs have expanded their repertoire over the last year, briefly running a steak night at Dan Electros and continuing to hold pop-ups that showcase Villarreal’s carefully smoked meats and Barela’s creative sides. Coming soon, look for a new offerings in the form of burgers and sandwiches that will preview their brick-and-mortar location that’s scheduled to open this fall in the East End at 4109 McKinney. Given the wide acclaim Willow’s has already earned, expect them to compete for Best New Restaurant in next year’s Tastemaker Awards.
The 2024 CultureMap Tastemaker Awards event runs 6-10 pm Wednesday, March 27 at Silver Street Studios (2000 Edwards St.).
The Tastemaker Awards ceremony is brought to you by Stella Artois, Rías Baixas Albariño, Topo Chico Sparkling Mineral Water, 8th Wonder Cannabis, and more to be announced. A portion of proceeds will benefit our nonprofit partner, the Southern Smoke Foundation.