In this category of the 2021 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.
Over the last year, these establishments have been more important than ever, serving up comfort and consistency to diners eager for heaping helpings of both. Of course, excellent service also sets these nominees apart.
On a related note, diners have been eager to support these kind of establishments. When many restaurants struggled to survive, it became a priority to preserve places that contribute to a neighborhood’s essential character.
Who will win? Find out July 22 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 now.
Aladdin Mediterranean Cuisine
Even when other restaurants are closed, diners can count on both locations of this Houston institution to be open and serving. Picking a favorite dish is difficult, but it’s hard to resist the rich, satisfying lamb shank, especially when wrapped up in freshly baked pita. The restaurant’s affordability only enhances its utility.
Better Luck Tomorrow
Like so many establishments around town, the Tastemaker Awards 2018 Bar of the Year winner changed things up in 2020. Chef-owner Justin Yu expanded the menu, turning the patio spot into an essential Heights dining destination. Weekly specials such as fried chicken buckets on Monday and steak night on Wednesday have put the establishment’s food on an equal footing with its flavorful cocktails.
“It’s not a secret that Bobby Heugel and I want to open more BLTs in the future,” Yu recently wrote on Instagram. Whatever neighborhood they pick for a second location will be better off for its presence.
This Montrose restaurant puts the spotlight on the Tex-Mex elements that have always been part of its sister concept The Pit Room. Powered by a massive, wood-fired grill, Candente serves all the classic Tex-Mex favorites — fajitas, enchiladas, queso, etc — many of which are enhanced with the alluring flavors of smoke. While it’s possible to splurge on ribeye fajitas, the humble beef enchiladas and carnitas might be the menu’s two hidden gems.
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 a lively patio scene made Cuchara a pandemic dining favorite for nearby residents.
After memorable appearances on the Netflix series Somebody Feed Phil and Ugly Delicious made chef Nikki Tran an unlikely culinary star, the Vietnamese chef brought her signature Viejun flavors to Montrose. The stylish dining room provides a comfortable setting for sampling Tran’s dishes, which range from familiar tastes like spring rolls and duck salad to innovative items that can’t be found anywhere else in Houston. A strong cocktail program led by veteran bartender Chris Morris makes Kau Ba an appealing happy hour destination, too.
La Calle Tacos
Downtown residents and visitors alike turn to this Mexico City-inspired taqueria for flavorful takes on all the classic fillings. Whether chowing down on street tacos or committing to a massive torta, count on La Calle to serve hot, fresh food at reasonable prices. Daily specials such as $1.49 street tacos on Tuesday and $5 margaritas on Monday only add to the appeal. In the coming months, even more Houstonians will get to experience what makes La Calle special as it opens new locations in Midtown and Garden Oaks.
From layered salads to panini and housemade pastas, this Montrose institution caters to a wide variety of tastes. Casual and affordable, it welcomes diners with friendly service from the relentless cheerful team of baristas who work behind the counter. A succinct, well-chosen wine list of mostly Italian varietals adds a touch of luxury for those looking to upgrade their experience.
This Upper Kirby restaurant remains a popular destination at all times of day thanks to chef Anita Jaisinghani’s creative, Indian-inspired fare. Classics like the chicken Frankie have legions of fans, but those who dabble on the specials will find tempting options made with an ever-evolving mix of locally-sourced ingredients. Of course, no trip to Pondicheri is complete without a visit to its second-floor bake lab for a couple of chocolate-chilli cookies.
The Original Ninfa's
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. For example, shrimp and oyster tacos and classic, melt-in-your-mouth barbacoa both shined at a recent visit. Of course, Ninfaritas have been helping Houstonians destress for generations.
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 been spun off into a separate concept with two locations and more on the way.