As the 2020 CultureMap Tastemaker Awards draw closer — this year’s virtual edition takes place August 6 — the time has come for the top two categories. This week’s list spotlights the nominees our panel of industry experts selected for Restaurant of the Year, one of which will replace our 2019 winner Nancy’s Hustle.
Like most of their peers, all of these restaurants have responded to the challenges posed by restrictions designed to limit the spread of COVID-19 in thoughtful, creative ways. All have figured out ways to translate their food to-go and tweaked their menus to respond to people’s craving for comforting, familiar flavors.
Hopefully their loyal followings and overall excellence allow them to survive the current crisis, but the message to Houstonians is simple. If these places are to remain open, they require support. If reading this article prompts someone to think, “I love that place,” then order from it this weekend.
Who will win? Find out next week 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 next Thursday at 7 pm.
A limited number of general admission tickets are still available. Don’t miss out.
Now under the direction of chef de cuisine Hector Suarez and general manager Leonora Varvoutis, the Heights restaurant still turns out high quality, Italian-inspired dishes made with local ingredients. While staples like the black pepper spaghetti and pepperoni pizza aren’t going anywhere, diners will find much to enjoy in the various seasonal salads and shareable vegetables dishes that have always made Coltivare special. The restaurant has responded to the coronavirus pandemic with family-style meals, take-and-bake pizza kits, and, most shockingly of all, reservations.
Once a poorly kept secret among passionate diners, Himalaya has become one of the restaurants that represents Houston’s diversity on the world stage. Not only has it hosted both Anthony Bourdain (R.I.P.) and Andrew Zimmern, last year it landed on GQ’s list of America’s new classic restaurants with such noteworthy establishments as Thomas Keller’s Bouchon and David Chang’s Momofuku Noodle Bar. No matter how famous it becomes, classics like the chicken hara masala (with its Indian-inspired take on salsa verde) and hunter’s beef remain as flavorful as ever, and chef-owner Kaiser Lashkari’s restless culinary mind means there’s always something new to try — not that we’d blame anyone for being content with ordering Himalaya classics like fried chicken, biryani, saag paneer, and naan.
Time is running out for chef Jonny Rhodes’ tasting menu restaurants that explores African American culinary traditions through the lens of the political and social forces that shaped them. Rhodes announced that he’s closing Indigo in July 2021 to focus on his grocery store, Broham Fine Soul Food, and its companion Food Fight Farms. Still, Houstonians have plenty of time to make at least one more visit to the restaurant that captured an unprecedented level of national attention, including being one of only seven American restaurants on Time’s list of the World’s Greatest Places for 2019, as well as a James Beard semifinalist nomination for Rhodes. Just don’t miss out before its gone for good; a meal serves as a potent reminder of what the hype was all about in the first place.
For more than ten years, this Upper Kirby restaurant has served as the consensus pick for Houston’s best sushi, but diners value it for more than expertly cut and seasoned nigiri. Staples like the Texas wagyu beef skewers and lobster mac and cheese are as important to the menu as toro with uni and caviar hand rolls or hamachi and quail egg nigiri, and the team continues to innovate with dishes like the lobster sando that’s quietly Houston’s best lobster roll (it's not always on the menu, tell them Eric said you have to try it).
Chef Hori-san and his team have developed a number of creative to-go options in response to the coronavirus pandemic, among them DIY hand rolls kits and elaborate maki and sashimi platters that allegedly feed four, but a determined duo could make a decadent dinner out of any of them.
If our judges voted solely on the basis of pie, Nobie’s would win in a landslide thanks to its rotating selections that are always can’t-miss. Beyond dessert, few establishments are better at making people feel good than Martin and Sara Stayer’s intimate Montrose bungalow that combines creative cuisine, potent cocktails, and a bumping soundtrack through a vintage hi-fi. While its dining room is closed for now, Nobie’s staples like nonno’s pasta and dilly bread remain vibrant as to-go fare, and chef Martin and his crew are always tinkering with new dishes that utilize seasonal produce. To twist what the restaurant likes to say on social media, why not stop on by and then get high?
Part of the fun of dining at Ryan Lachaine’s Montrose restaurant is the ability of diners to shape their own experience. Whether meeting a friend for a casual happy hour of butter burgers and crawfish rolls at the bar or celebrating a special occasion with the restaurant’s signature caviar service, Riel always puts care and craft into ensuring a good time for its customers.
Riel aims to be a charitable member of the community, too. During the start of the coronavirus pandemic, the restaurant served as the local outpost for the Lee Initiative, which provided meals and other essential supplies to unemployed hospitality workers.
State of Grace
The River Oaks restaurant has shifted things slightly since it reopened in June. Staples like the duck carnitas for two and beef rib have been replaced with an expanded selection of steaks cooked on its wood-fired hearth. Thankfully, chef Bobby Matos’ commitment to seasonal sourcing remains fully intact with dishes like Texas peach toast and roasted corn pansoti that put summertime ingredients to their best use. One thing hasn’t changed: the Hill Country-inspired dining room remains one of Houston’s most beautiful spaces.
Justin Yu’s downtown restaurant continues to evolve in interesting ways. With the kitchen firmly under the direction of chef de cuisine Kaitlin Steets, T. Rex remains committed to serving the very best locally-sourced ingredients it can find and using it in creative ways such as a recent fried eggplant sandwich or housemade pasta with a vibrant tomato sauce. Service remains excellent courtesy of a front of house staff who seem to have an almost psychic ability to discern exactly what wine a diner is craving or what dish to suggest to round out a meal.
Chris Shepherd and chef de cuisine Nick Wong have been having a little fun at this intimate Montrose restaurant. Instead of serving the familiar menu that’s anchored by staples such as a Thai-style crispy rice salad and boudin shumai, UBP has mixed things up by trying different genres each week — everything from Korean to Mexican to this week’s British pub. While the changes have been a fun demonstration of Wong and his team’s skills, we’ll look forward to the return of the restaurant’s lively dim sum brunch.