The CultureMap Tastemaker Awards are always memorable, and 2020 will be no exception. Bars, restaurants, and breweries are facing unprecedented challenges, and these awards celebrate the spirit of creativity and ingenuity that keeps them pushing forward.
When we began introducing you to this year's nominees in February, the world looked a lot different. Not long after, our awards program and tasting event, originally planned for early April, was rescheduled, and this summer, we pivoted to a completely virtual format for our annual awards. Despite the uncertainty and changes, our mission remains the same: to honor Houston's top restaurant and bar talent when they need the recognition the most.
As a reminder, a panel of industry experts, including former winners, selected tonight’s winners, except for Best New Restaurant, which was selected by CultureMap readers. That means all of our nominees and winners have earned the respect of their peers. With so many talented people working in the city’s bars and restaurants, we truly hope they feel it was an honor to be nominated.
Tonight’s winners, as revealed in a ceremony hosted by Houston hip-hop legend Bun B, bring more acclaim to Nancy’s Hustle. After winning Restaurant of the Year in 2019, the EaDo favorite takes home two prizes this year: Chef of the Year for Jason Vaughan and Pastry Chef of the Year for Julia Doran. More than serving delicious food, the team at Nancy’s has earned respect for its inclusive culture.
Like restaurants across the country, Nancy’s Hustle has had to alter its operations in the face of the pandemic. The restaurant has operated as to-go only, which allows it to keep paying for employees’ health insurance while limiting the potential for contracting COVID-19.
They’re not alone in finding creative ways to operate despite the challenges posed by the virus. Rosie Cannonball claimed the Goodnight Charlie’s patio to offer a new menu of food and drinks meant to be enjoyed outdoors. Buffalo Bayou Brewing erected a massive tent in its parking lot to provide more outdoor seating. Two Headed Dog has been selling its signature frozen cocktails to-go.
Hopefully, this year’s awards inspire diners to patronize both our nominees and their local favorites. Whether dine-in or to-go, these establishments need support if they’re going to survive. Now, meet our 2020 Tastemaker Awards winners.
Restaurant of the Year: Himalaya
Think of this as a lifetime achievement award for Kaiser Lashkari’s essential Indo-Pak restaurant. Himalaya didn’t necessarily take a step forward in the last 12 months — although Lashkari did earn his first James Beard semifinalist nomination in 2019 — so much as it has remained a consistently excellent place to dine. Even picking a favorite dish is almost impossible, but building around chicken hara masala, steak tikka, and lamb biryani will result in a satisfying experience.
Chef of the Year: Jason Vaughan, Nancy’s Hustle
This award feels like a fitting arc for the chef, who won the Tastemaker Award for Rising Star Chef in 2018 and earned his first James Beard Award semifinalist nomination earlier this year. Credit Vaughan for creating Nancy’s menu of instant classics — who knew Houstonians had such a deep affection for smoked trout roe — and for keeping things fresh with specials. We look forward to trying his take on pizza and fermented vegetable dishes at the upcoming Tiny Champions.
Rising Star Chef of the Year: Felipe Riccio, Rosie Cannonball
Riccio brought the lessons he learned in Europe at acclaimed restaurants Osteria Francescana and Azurmendi to Montrose where he blends Spanish and Italian techniques with locally sourced ingredients to create Rosie Cannonball’s utterly craveable dishes. The restaurant’s small vegetable plates, including the essential blistered bean salad, demonstrate both the chef’s respect for ingredients and the benefits of the restaurant’s wood-fired oven and grill. If March, the chef’s fine dining tasting menu concept, lives up to expectations, Riccio will be a Chef of the Year nominee for many years to come.
Best New Restaurant: MAD
Few restaurants transport diners to another world quite the way MAD does. From the eye-popping decor by Spanish interior designer Lazaro Rosa-Violán to chef Luis Roger’s menu that uses modernist techniques to add levity to a meal, MAD captures Madrid’s manic energy. No surprise that its fans propelled it to victory in our Best New Restaurant tournament. The restaurant has been a smash hit since it opened last summer.
Neighborhood Restaurant of the Year: Les Ba’get
Increasingly, a talented group of chefs and pitmasters are exploring the intersection between traditional Texas flavors like barbecue and Vietnamese cuisine. From food truck to a tiny restaurant in Montrose to its spacious home in Garden Oaks, Les Ba’get has been at the forefront of adding smoked brisket and braised beef belly to spring rolls and banh mi. Beyond staples like vermicelli bowls and its signature short rib pho, an eclectic menu of small plates and a range of creative cocktails help keep diners coming back for more.
Best Pizza: Pizaro’s Pizza Napoletana
Get you a pizzeria that can do both, or, in this case, three things. Pizaro’s serves classic, wood-fired Neapolitan pizza, a foldable New York pie, and deep dish Detroit. Regardless of style, diners can count on fresh ingredients and classic flavors. Limited-time specials — like the recent pizza that featured barbacoa from Feges BBQ and a birria-style consomme dipping sauce — help keep things interesting for regulars.
Brewery of the Year: Buffalo Bayou Brewing Company
Buffalo Bayou has long been one of Houston’s most creative breweries, serving up endless variations on its core lineup and creating one-offs brews that become fan favorites. Moving into its new, 28,000-square-foot facility in Sawyer Yards not only means an endless supply of Crush City IPA; it also provided a platform for chef Arash Kharat to put his passion for pizza to good use. By setting up a massive tent in its parking lot, Buff Brew allows people to continue enjoying its food and beers while dining outside in relative safety.
Pastry Chef of the Year: Julia Doran, Nancy’s Hustle
Doran earned this recognition for almost three years of work at Nancy’s, but she’s stepping things up considerably since the start of the pandemic. Whether it’s baking breads and cookies for the restaurant’s to-go offerings or participating in the nationwide Bakers Against Racism movement, the chef has been a leader for both her colleagues at the restaurant and her peers citywide. Like Vaughan, we can’t wait to see what she comes up with at Tiny Champions.
Bar of the Year: Monkey’s Tail
With a combination of creative cocktails and classic American food, Monkey’s Tail has been drawing an audience to Lindale Park since it opened last summer. Partner Greg Perez’s cocktails and a strong craft beer selection offer plenty of choices for quenching someone’s thirst, and the Mexican-inspired menu of burgers, pizza, and wings is as tasty as it is affordable. Perhaps no item better illustrates the approach than the bar’s happy meals: a slice of pizza or a burger with a beer and a shot for only $8.
Bartender of the Year: Lindsay Rae, Two Headed Dog
After years of working at Poison Girl and leading the team at Grand Prize, Rae and business partner Billy Boyd opened Two Headed Dog in Midtown. Rae’s exuberant personality — friends are greeted with high-fives, hugs, or both (pre-pandemic) — fuels the bar’s welcoming atmosphere, and her skills at creating syrups, infusions, and frozen cocktails means patrons get their drinks quickly. Until we can sing along to punk rock classics with her on Two Headed Dog’s patio, patrons can get some of the bar’s best drinks to-go.
Wine Program of the Year: Public Services Wine & Whisky
Like the name says, count on this elegant downtown establishment for its eclectic selection of international wines and a diverse range of whiskies from around the world. The “Sherry” sign in the window points to what sets Public Services apart from other wine bars: a huge selection of fortified wines. For the most complete experience, pair that Sherry with a whisky aged in Sherry casks.
Hero Award: Chris Shepherd, Southern Smoke Foundation
The Southern Smoke Foundation has been helping restaurant workers in crisis since Hurricane Harvey, but the nationwide shutdown of restaurants due to the pandemic challenged the organization as never before. It staffed up by hiring unemployed hospitality workers to handle the crush of applications and forged national connections to raise money as quickly as possible. Even while he was working to keep his own restaurants open, Shepherd, our inaugural Houston Tastemaker Hero Award winner, has served as a tireless advocate for the organization he founded. The results speak for themselves: over 1,200 people nationwide have received more than $2.7 million in funds.