Presenting the winners of the 2021 CultureMap Tastemaker Awards. Presented at a lively ceremony on Thursday, July 22 by Houston hip hop legend Bun B, our judges panel of restaurant industry experts selected these establishments and individuals as the very best of Houston’s culinary scene in every category except Best New Restaurant, which was voted on by CultureMap readers.
Collectively, they set high standards in all they do, from making delicious food and drinks to creating a welcoming atmosphere in their spaces. Like many of their peers, they faced the challenges of a global pandemic head on and took the steps necessary to keep both employees and patrons safe.
While it’s certainly important to recognize the winners, let’s acknowledge another important truth. The world of Houston restaurants has so much talent that any of the finalists in any of the categories would have been a worthy winner. It is truly an honor to be nominated.
Hearty congratulations to all of this year’s winners. We can’t wait for next year.
Restaurant of the Year: Nobie’s
With its five year anniversary rapidly approaching, this award acknowledges something that’s been true for awhile. Sara and Martin Stayer’s Montrose restaurant is one of Houston’s finest dining establishments. From its eclectic menu to its creative cocktails and all-vinyl soundtrack, Nobie’s succeeds because its staff takes their work seriously without taking themselves too seriously. If it's been awhile since that last visit, follow the restaurant's instructions to "get high and stop on by."
Chef of the Year: Kaitlin Steets, Littlefoot/Theodore Rex
Fresh off a James Beard Award semifinalist nomination for Rising Star Chef of the Year in 2020, Steets demonstrated the breadth of her talent with Littlefoot, the French-inspired pop-up that took over Theodore Rex for three months earlier this year. Her precise technique and high regard for ingredients have served her well at both restaurants. As T. Rex owner Justin Yu has commented previously, Steets is ready for her own restaurant; hopefully, she opens it in Houston.
Best New Restaurant: Xin Chào
Chefs Christine Ha and Tony Nguyen’s modern take on Vietnamese comfort food prevailed through four rounds of voting in the Best New Restaurant tournament. More than the strength of Ha’s devoted social media following — the former Masterchef winner has over 100,000 followers on Instagram — this award recognizes that Xin Chào has provided a fresh perspective on one of Houston’s favorite cuisines. Adding smoked elements to dishes like shaking beef and duck salad gives them added depth of flavor, while creative cocktails provide plenty of pairing options.
Rising Star Chef of the Year: AJ Ede, Brasil
This experienced chef has reinvigorated the beloved Montrose institution by utilizing some fine dining techniques to enhance the cafe’s casual fare. While customers don’t necessarily need to understand the fine points of fermentation or learn the names of the farms that supply his ingredients to appreciate the sheer deliciousness of what Ede and his team are turning out, he’s happy to explain when someone asks. The chef is also committed to helping his cooks grow as professionals by teaching them techniques that will make it easier for them to advance in their careers and encouraging them to add specials to the menu.
Best Pop-up/Startup: Josh Deleon, Underground Creamery
Not that these frozen treats need more attention — Deleon sells out his weekly production of 300 pints almost instantly — but no other ice cream maker in Houston producers flavors quite like Underground Creamery. Whether it’s salted vanilla with strawberry swirl and graham crunch, brown sugar ice cream with salted caramel swirl and Oreos, or any of his other creations, Deleon’s ice creams always offer an intriguing mix of textures and flavors. Yes, the ordering process can be frustrating, but perhaps this award will inspire Deleon to keep growing until his creations are available to a wider audience.
Pastry Chef of the Year: Drew Gimma, Bread Man Baking Co.
From Common Bond to Better Luck Tomorrow to Squable to Bread Man, Gimma has earned a reputation for taking bread seriously. In his role as Bread Man’s director of operations, Gimma oversees production that provides freshly baked loaves to Whole Foods stores across Texas as well as the company’s myriad restaurant clients. He’ll face an even bigger challenge when the bakery relocates to a massive, 40,000-square-foot facility later this year, but we suspect he’ll do just fine. After all, he's been preparing his entire professional life for this sort of challenge.
Wine Program of the Year: Squable
Originally started by sommelier Justin Vann, general manager Terry Williams now oversees Squable’s wine list. Initially, the restaurant only offered European and North American selections, but Williams has been adding Australian and South African wines to match changes in chef Mark Clayton’s menu. Of course, the best way to sample the selections is Monday-Friday from 4-6 pm when all alcoholic beverages are half-off.
Bartender of the Year: Alphonso Quiñones, Tiny Champions
The veteran bartender has brought his customer-first approach to this new restaurant from the team behind Nancy’s Hustle. Quiñones has embraced restaurant life by frequently working with the kitchen to make cocktail ingredients. In addition, his interests in using amaro and incorporating tropical flavors can be found throughout the restaurant’s cocktail offerings. For example, consider the Club Tropicana that incorporates both amaro and a grapefruit and passionfruit swizzle.
Bar of the Year: Heights Bier Garten
Among all of Houston’s patio bars, Heights Bier Garten stands out in many ways. First, it’s expansive and lush patio offers the feeling of escape from a crowded city. Second, it’s extensive selection of wine, beer, cocktails and spirits transcends similar establishments. A creative food menu elevates the typical pub grub with plenty of vegetarian dishes and scratch made sandwiches.
Neighborhood Restaurant of the Year: Candente
Entering the world of Tex-Mex can be tricky for a new restaurant; after all, every Houstonian already has strong opinions about their favorite places for enchiladas, fajitas, and margaritas. But a similar barrier didn’t stop proprietor Michael Sambrooks from getting into barbecue with The Pit Room, and the same approach that made it successful have translated to Candente. Specifically, the elements of success are: use great quality ingredients, cook them consistently, and deliver good value. Sounds simple, but successfully executing the formula has made Candente a hit.