UPDATE: The CultureMap Tastemaker Awards, originally scheduled for April 2, will now be held on August 6. The story has been updated with the new date.
In this category of the 2020 CultureMap Tastemaker Awards, we celebrate the city's best neighborhood restaurants. To narrow down the field slightly, we require that they be open for lunch and dinner at least six days per week.
Of course, those requirements still include thousands of restaurants at all price points — everything from State of Grace and Vic & Anthony's on the high end to taco trucks at the more humble end of the spectrum — so what defines a contender for Neighborhood Restaurant of the Year?
Outstanding food and hospitable service are important, of course, as they are at all restaurants. So is the ability to meet a variety of needs; ideally, they're accessible for people with a range of dining needs, whether that's vegetarian or gluten-free.
In addition, the restaurant has to be a place whose absence would make the neighborhood feel incomplete. Consider our 2018 winner, Paulie’s, as one example. Montrose just wouldn't be the same without it.
Who will win? Find out August 6 at the Tastemaker Awards party. We’ll dine on bites from this year’s nominated restaurants before emcee Bun B reveals the winners. Buy tickets (at special early bird pricing!) now.
Aladdin Mediterranean Cuisine
Whether at the original location in Montrose or the newer outpost in Oak Forest, diners can count on this restaurant for an appealing array of vegetables, skewered meats, and freshly baked pita. The low prices — most meals come in under $15 — mean that its fresh, healthy fare is good for the wallet, too. Being open all the time, even on holidays when other restaurants are closed, only enhances its utility.
Cuchara Mexico City Bistro
At this charming Montrose staple, proprietor Ana Beaven and her team of cooks serve up an authentic taste of Mexico City. The wide-ranging menu satisfies almost any craving, with dishes as diverse as Veracruz-style red snapper; lamb barbacoa (with housemade corn tortillas, natch); and huitlacoche quesadillas all setting a high standard. Eye-catching murals (created by Beaven’s sister Cecilia) and first-rate cocktails help set Cuchara apart from other restaurants.
This former food truck really came into its own when it moved from Montrose to Oak Forest. In addition to more seating, the larger kitchen allowed chef Cat Huynh to expand his menu with more of his innovative small plates like the lemongrass-grilled bone marrow and bun rieu crab omelette. Of course, staples like brisket pho and hoisin butter chicken vermicelli remain as fresh and delicious as ever.
This chic cafe feels a long way from proprietor “Buffalo” Sean Carroll’s days slinging crepes in a parking lot on lower Westheimer, but Melange continues to earn fans with its innovative dishes that are inspired by Houston’s immigrant communities. Staples like ham, egg, and cheese or banana-Nutella anchor the menu, but using seasonal ingredients means that diners will always find something new to try. Salads, sandwiches, and sweet offer plenty of variety. Heck yeah.
As her recent James Beard Award semifinalist nomination attests, chef Anita Jaisinghani remains a vital presence in Houston’s culinary landscape. More than a venue for her innovative, Indian-inspired cuisine and signature sweets, Jaisinghani uses Pondicheri to advocate for the way she thinks diners should be eating. On a recent episode of the Radio Cherry Bombe podcast, she noted that she’s reduced the amount of animal protein included in dishes in order to encourage people to eat more sustainably. A restaurant that’s not only concerned with good eating but also good ethics — that’s a neighborhood staple.
This Austin import serves up steaming bowls of soup daily. While the signature pork broth, boiled for endless hours, has a rich, satisfying flavor and creamy texture that’s hard to resist, vegans have their own soup to slurp. Small plates — don’t miss the Brussels sprouts — and a tidy selection of beer and sake-based cocktails make Tatsu-ya an appealing dinner option.
Roostar Vietnamese Grill
At their locations near The Galleria and in Spring Branch, owners Linda and Ronnie Nguyen exceed diners’ expectations for the humble banh mi with their flavorful meats and toppings — and the sneaky good soups. Devoted to customer service and growing their business, Nguyen always seems to have something new to try, like the recent Thai-inspired beef curry. Pair that barbecue pork banh mi (add pate for maximum flavor) with a pint from the well-chosen selection of craft beers.
Superica's Texan founders, chefs Ford Fry and Kevin Maxey, demonstrate a deep love for our state’s most popular cuisine at this Heights (by way of Atlanta) restaurant. Superica gets the details right — the tortillas, salsas, and queso are all first-rate — which means the fajitas, enchiladas, and margaritas will all meet every Texan’s very demanding standards. Don’t miss the slightly sweet, hearty pancakes on the brunch menu; they’re perfect for sharing with the table.
The Original Ninfa's on Navigation
As its James Beard Award semifinalist nomination for the country’s most outstanding restaurant demonstrates, the restaurant that brought the world fajitas continues to set a high standard. Feeding generations of Houstonians fajitas, enchiladas, and queso would more than earn it a spot among our nominees, but chef Alex Padilla keeps things interesting with a rotating mix of specials that utilize the restaurant’s wood-burning oven and grill. Last year’s expansion to the Galleria area means more Houstonians than ever can enjoy this classic establishment.
Whether at the River Oaks original or its offshoot in West University, this casual cafe delivers classic comfort food that consistently exceeds expectations. Fresh salads, satisfying sandwiches, and hearty entrees always feature solid technique and good ingredients. The chocolate chip cookies are so legendary that they’ve earned their own spinoff kiosk, but don’t sleep on the extremely flavorful cinnamon rolls.
Weights and Measures
Having recently celebrated its five-year anniversary, this Midtown establishment continues to satisfy its patrons at breakfast, lunch, and dinner. The signature dough room powers the restaurant, turning out everything from croissants and cookies to pizza crusts and housemade pastas. Some new faces may be overseeing operations in the dining room — specifically, managers James Peat (La Table, Le Colonial) and Angela Moore (The Pass & Provisions) — chefs Richard Kaplan and Fernando Rios ensure that the signature carrot pizza maintains its lofty reputation.