Admittedly, the 2020 CultureMap Tastemaker Awards come at a time of unprecedented challenges for the restaurant industry. All around the world, business have had to adapt to capacity restrictions, reconfigure their offerings for to-go, and figure out how to appeal to diners who are reluctant to leave their homes.
Those challenges weigh even more heavily on new restaurants that haven’t had the opportunity to establish long-term relationships with their customers. They have to be especially adept at adapting to the demands imposed by restrictions designed to limit the spread of COVID-19.
The Tastemaker Awards celebrate the best of Houston’s dining scene, and these 16 establishments are particularly worthy of recognition. They’ve navigated the challenges of the moment, and almost all of them are currently open for dine-in, to-go, or both.
Typically, a panel of restaurant industry experts picks the winners, but Best New Restaurant is different. For this category, CultureMap readers pick their favorites in a head-to-head bracket that starts now. Round one ends at midnight on Monday, July 20. Click the link to vote.
Who will win? Find out August 6 at the Tastemaker Awards — Virtual Edition. In lieu of our live tasting event, guests will receive an exclusive Tasting Tote. And, of course, attendees have access to the star of the show: our awards ceremony hosted by Bun B and streamed on CultureMap August 6 at 7 pm.
A limited number of general admission tickets are still available. Don’t miss out.
Tejas Burger vs. Truth BBQ
This matchup features two of Texas Monthly’s top 10 barbecue joints (sort of). Tejas Burger gave a permanent home to the Smokehouse Burger, a decadent smoked burger with housemade bacon and smoked cheddar cheese that began life as a weekly special as its sister restaurant, Tejas Chocolates & Barbecue. The restaurant serves other tempting creations such as the Native Texan burger — a riff on Tejas Barbecue’s signature chile relleno sausage that’s topped with a corn tortilla, guacamole, poblano peppers, and more.
Truth is pitmaster Leonard Botello IV’s bigger, badder version of his acclaimed Brenham barbecue joint; somewhat miraculously, the Houston location managed to keep the original bluesy, small town vibe despite serving a larger menu and offering much more seating (pre-COVID). The incredibly flavorful brisket and those sky-high Truth cakes help create the proper atmosphere, but Botello's friendly staff seals the deal.
Verdine vs. Traveler’s Table
This matchup features two of the hottest new restaurants in The Heights. Vegan restaurant Verdine grew out of chef Stephanie Hoban’s food truck. The menu features an extensive selection, including vegan burgers and cheese plates. The jackfruit carnitas pack enough flavor to make even the most devoted carnivore consider giving up pork for a meal or two.
To create Traveler’s Table, proprietor Matthew Mitchell took inspiration from his visits to countries around the world. Start with a Japanese-inspired take on salmon tartare or Brazilian-style pão de queijo. Entree options are similarly eclectic — everything from Thai curry noodles to Argentinian-style hanger steak and Italian beef cheek ravioli. Warm service and an affordable, eclectic beverage program help tie everything together.
Savoir vs. Squable
This matchup features two establishments that have elevated dining in The Heights. At Savoir, proprietor Brian Doke has curated an extensive wine list with selections from around the world, which means that sommelier Emily Tolbert always has an ideal pairing for whatever someone chooses for dinner. Go casual with a burger or pizza at the bar or settle in for a multi-course meal that starts with shareable vegetable plates and housemade pastas before a hearty meat or seafood entree. Breads and pastries that are baked in-house provide both a sweet end to dinner and a compelling reason to visit for brunch.
Bobby Heugel and Justin Yu already had a hit with Better Luck Tomorrow, but they stepped things up considerably for Squable. Chef Mark Clayton and baker Drew Gimma teamed up to create a European-inspired menu anchored by Gimma’s breads and Clayton’s deft touch with vegetables. Consider the restaurant’s focaccia served with a bright carrot puree or the signature French cheeseburger that’s covered in raclette and served on a house-baked pain de mie bun. Creative riffs on classic cocktails and an eclectic wine list loaded with food friendly options enhance the experience.
MAD vs. Rosie Cannonball
Quiet elegance faces boisterous exuberance in this matchup. At MAD, chef Luis Roger brings the precise techniques that have made BCN one of Houston’s best restaurants to a menu anchored by creative, Modernist-style tapas and wood-fired paellas. The restaurant’s eye-catching interior seems perfectly suited for the Instagram age.
Rosie Cannonball may be more understated, but Felipe Riccio’s Spanish and Italian-inspired menu generates plenty of buzz. A pastry chef with a Michelin-starred resume and a master sommelier overseeing the wine list help ensure that every detail is accounted for — from the glass of sparking Lambrusco at the start of a meal to mints with the restaurant’s name at the end.
Bravery Chef Hall vs. Politan Row
Both of these food halls have made a splash in the last year. Bravery boasts an eclectic mix of up-and-coming chefs like Kokoro’s Patrick Pham and Daniel Lee and Christine Ha, whose Vietnamese restaurant The Blind Goat earned a James Beard Award semifinalist nomination for the country’s best new restaurant, as well as veterans like BOH Pasta’s Ben McPherson and Cherry Block’s Jess Timmons. Part of the fun is deciding whether to treat the various counters like a buffet by pulling a dish or two from multiple options or sitting at the counter for a multi-course meal from one cuisine. Partner Shepard Ross oversees the food hall’s wine bar, and his staff ensures the service runs smoothly.
With the same ownership as New Orleans’ acclaimed St. Roch Market, Politan Row has its own celebrity pedigree and a prime location in the heart of Rice Village. Its eclectic mix of cuisines — Mexican, Thai, Egyptian, Chinese, Nikkei, and more — stem from operators who are immigrants, women, or both. The food hall’s stylish, modern interior and family-friendly vibe make it a welcome addition to the popular shopping district.
El Topo vs. La Vibra Tacos
This matchup features two restaurants that are putting their own creative spin on tacos. At El Topo, chefs Tony Luhrman and Mike Serva have kept all the staples that made their food truck a hit — like the award-winning Houston taco made with 44 Farms beef barbacoa — and added a broad selection of house-made breads and pastries. Beverage options feature agua frescas, house-made kombucha, and a tidy list of natural wines.
La Vibra takes inspiration from Mexico City with housemade tortillas and salsas that enhance the eclectic mix of flavorful fillings. The costra, which features a layer of griddled gouda wrapped around the taco filling, has become a signature, as has the chicharrón de queso, essentially, a crispy, cylindrical cheese snack. The Heights restaurant serves up its own house-made aqua frescas, natch, including a not-too-sweet pineapple mint.
Candente vs. The Toasted Coconut
Call it the battle of Richmond Ave, Tex-Mex versus Tiki, or a covered patio face-off — this matchup features two new concepts from two operators with successful concepts. Candente 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 — that are enhanced with the alluring flavors of smoke. While it’s possible to splurge on ribeye fajitas paired with bacon-wrapped shrimp, a massive burrito filled with ground beef, cheddar, and refried beans might be the menu’s hidden gem.
Like its sister concept Nobie’s, The Toasted Coconut mixes a relaxed atmosphere with a serious approach to food and cocktails. Chef Martin Stayer’s menu takes a light-hearted approach to tropical cuisine, covering everything from handmade dumplings to Sichuan-spiced fried chicken. Bartender Sarah Troxell’s concepts offer a lighter, brighter approach to tiki staples, which means its possible to have more than one drink without feeling overwhelmed.
1751 Sea & Bar vs. Bori
The final first-round matchup features a classic battle of surf versus turf. At 1751 Sea & Bar, chef J.D. Woodward takes his experiences from restaurants like Underbelly and Southern Goods and applies them to an eclectic menu of raw, cured, and hot seafood dishes. Fittingly for a restaurant with a named inspired by England’s Gin Act of 1751, the bar features over 100 gins that get used for riffs on martinis, gin and tonics, and other classic cocktails.
Korean barbecue has been a staple in Spring Branch, but Bori has raised the bar with its stylish interior, dry-aged meats, and servers who take charge of grilling the meats. Choosing the Korean marinated beef and pork will result in a hearty, flavorful meal capable of satisfying anyone’s carnivorous habits — just leave a little room for a crispy seafood pancake, too. A full bar offers all the expected beer, wine, and soju to pair with the feast.
Ready to vote? Click here to pick your favorites.