Houston's 10 best startups showcase city's culinary creativity
One trend that has defined the last year in dining has been the rise of pop-up and start-up food businesses. For this year’s CultureMap Tastemaker Awards wild card category, our judges panel of restaurant industry insiders recognize these 10 standout examples of this growing movement.
Primarily promoted on Instagram, they’ve allowed both veteran chefs and less experienced newcomers to express themselves creatively and start a business. Our nominees cover a wide range of ground — everything from an ice cream maker who decided to top what he could buy in stores to chefs displaced when their restaurants closed during the pandemic.
They sell their products online, at farmers markets, or in non-traditional spaces such as a Montrose clothing store. Regardless of the setting, diners have come to appreciate the personal touch in each transaction.
The other aspect of these businesses that’s so exciting is their transient nature. Customers have to act quickly to purchase these items, because their future is uncertain. Sometimes they sell out in minutes; others, a chef might discover a new opportunity in another city and depart for greener pastures. Long story short: if the concha looks good, buy it now. It may not be around next week.
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.
Andrea Angulo - Azúcar Pan Artesano
When her custom cake bakery Flour and the Girls faltered during the pandemic, Angulo shifted to selling pastries. Her conchas — available in flavors such as chocolate, coffee, and matcha — have a crispy crust and a soft interior that make them utterly craveable (her Basque cheesecake is worth ordering, too). Alas, this weekend will be Angulo’s final pop-up; she announced on Instagram that she’s accepted a new job in Miami.
Andrea de Gotari - The Bake Happening
People seeking a themed cake for a special occasion have come to rely on de Gotari’s skills. Her elaborate creations reference pop culture staples from cartoons to horror movies in exquisite detail. Themed holiday boxes combine cookies, brownies, snack mix, and other treats in fun and creative ways.
Angelo Emiliani - Angie's Pizza
This native Houstonian has worked at a number of excellent restaurants in Houston, Austin, and Los Angeles, but it’s time working for James Beard Award-winning chef Chris Bianco that most shaped Angie’s Pizza. Made with Texas-milled flour from Barton Springs Mill and topped with locally sourced ingredients, Emiliani’s pies offer a distinctly flavorful crust with just the right amount of wood-fired char. Although he’s temporarily put away his pizza peel to open a new all-day cafe in the East End, he promises they will return.
After working locally at restaurants such as The Pass & Provisions and Common Bond, Au headed west to work at some of the finest Four Seasons properties in California. Houstonians with a sweet tooth have been the beneficiary of the pandemic shutdowns that compelled her to return home to Pearland. Au’s oversized pop tarts that combine a flakey, buttery crust with creative fillings such as strawberry, calamansi, and passion fruit have drawn long lines and fast sell outs. She continues to diversify her offerings with a new line of candy bars that are similarly can’t-miss.
Dawn Burrell - Pivot/Lucille's Hospitality Group
When Burrell decided to step away from Kulture, the downtown restaurant where she earned a James Beard Award semifinalist nomination, she created a meal kit delivery service that offered chef-level comfort food to diners practicing social distancing. With her profile on the rise nationally due to her stellar performance on Top Chef, the former Olympian has been popping up to preview Late August, the new restaurant she’ll open in partnership with Lucille’s chef-owner Chris Williams. In her “free time,” count on Burrell to appear at any number of charity-focused culinary events to lend her growing celebrity to a range of worthy causes.
Emmanuel Chavez - Tatemó
This talented chef has earned wide acclaim for his craft tortillas that he sells every Saturday at the Urban Harvest Farmers Market. Made with artisan corn that’s imported from Mexico, Chavez uses a traditional nixtamalization process to create tortillas that are as flavorful as the fillings he pairs them with. A recent appearance on a Texas-themed episode of Gordon Ramsay: Uncharted could be the next step in a journey that will hopefully give his tacos, tlayudas, and other masa-based creations a permanent home.
Evelyn Garcia - Kin
When the Politan Row food hall closed, Garcia found new ways to bring her South East Asian flavors to diners. She developed a line of sauces and spices that are sold locally at farmers markets and retail shops. Monthly tasting menus allow her to present elevated takes on familiar dishes.
Josh Deleon - Underground Creamery
The more ice cream Deleon tasted the more he became interested in making his own flavors that are inspired by a mixture of Houston’s diverse culinary scenes and a certain nostalgic irreverence. After initially selling to a small group of friends and family, he made the leap to a commercial kitchen and more mainstream recognition. His flavorful creations — recent options have included dark cocoa ice cream with marshmallow fluff and Ritz cracker swirls as well as funfetti cake batter ice cream with cream cheese frosting swirls and Mothers frosted animal cookies — have become such a sensation that each week’s allotment of approximately 300 pints sell out in under five minutes.
Luis Mercado and Paolo Justo - Neo
These two former Uchi chefs have been quietly wowing in-the-know diners with their innovative tasting menus built around dry-aged fish. Held in a Montrose clothing store for groups of four to six people, a meal at Neo features between 15 and 20 courses that mix individual pieces of nigiri — madai that had been aged for two weeks, kampachi that had been aged for 27 days, and bluefin tuna that had been aged for 32 days — with composed plates. The intimate atmosphere and an almost one-to-one ratio of cooks to diners make Neo unlike any other sushi counter in Houston.
Sasha Grumman - Sasha's Focaccia
Diners had just been getting to know this talented chef when the pandemic prompted the C. Baldwin hotel to close Rosalie, the restaurant where Grumman worked as executive chef. She began baking her signature bread for friends and family; intrigued by its rich, buttery texture and airy crumb, they encouraged her to sell it. Now, fans flock to farmers markets for slabs of focaccia, and Grumman is looking to grow into retail and shipping. Backed by an appearance on Top Chef that showcased her personality, she might just become America’s next bread sensation.