Meet the Tastemakers
Houston's 9 best neighborhood restaurants deliver diverse dishes for everyday cravings
The Neighborhood Restaurant of the Year category in the 2023 CultureMap Tastemaker Awards recognizes restaurants that are almost always there for their customers — meaning that they serve both lunch and dinner and are open at least six days a week.
Those minimum requirements allow us to recognize a diverse group of establishments. From a vegetarian-friendly barbecue restaurant to a staple of Houston’s South Asian community, our nominees serve cuisines from around the world. Their histories range dramatically, too. While most have opened in the past few years, another celebrates its 25th anniversary in April.
They’re united by their casual atmospheres, relative affordability, and flexible menus that serve many cravings, including vegan and vegetarian. They’re also friendly and welcoming, which is why they’re staples of their respective neighborhoods.
Who will win? Find out April 13 at our Tastemaker Awards ceremony. Dine on bites from this year’s nominees, sip cocktails from our sponsors, and witness as we reveal the winners. Buy your tickets before they sell out.
Aga's Restaurant & Catering
If the only criteria for this award were customers served, Aga’s would dominate almost every other restaurant in Houston. Not only is its massive dining room almost constantly full, the endless parade of to-go orders serves as another demonstration of its popularity. Picking favorite dishes from the massive menu is tricky. Building a meal around its goat chops and other Pakistani barbecue platters is always a good idea. Don’t overlook the goat curries, particularly the Peshawari karahi and the white karahi. Ease the burn with a mango lassi.
Give credit to Raffi Nasr and his Peruvian mother Claudia for some impressive accomplishments. Not only did they establish Craft Pita as a staple for Lebanese cuisine in the midst of the pandemic, the restaurant earned a sufficient following to open a second location in West U. Credit for the success starts with family recipes that utilized quality local ingredients, and the savvy use of products from high quality local purveyors like Phoenicia and Michael’s Cookie Jar. Olive oil from the family's own groves ties the restaurant to its Lebanese roots.
For more than 10 years, Ana Beaven and her team of female cooks have given Montrose a taste of Mexico City. From the range of corn-based dishes — everything from pork belly gorditas to a huiitlacoche tamal — to menu staples like ceviche and mole verde, diners count on Cuchara for flavorful, well-executed fare. A potent lineup of agave-based cocktails offers plenty of pairing options, and the lively patio fills up in nice weather. No wonder the restaurant expanded into the adjacent Max’s Wine Dive space and spun off a breakfast-oriented sister concept (more on that in the our Best New Restaurant tournament).
d'Alba Craft Kitchen
This restaurant with locations in Garden Oaks and Midtown has the flexibility to feed the whole family for a weeknight dinner and a date night destination on the weekends. At Garden Oaks, kids play while their parents sip craft cocktails or a glass of wine. In Midtown, friends share spinach artichoke dip, prosciutto pizza, or the signature balloon bread. Both locations are united by their expansive patios, warm service, and a flexible menu that caters to a wide range of cravings.
Chefs Shiva and Rick Di Virgilio, the couple behind Midtown’s Oporto Fooding House, have created another compelling dining destination with this Portuguese-Indian restaurant in the M-K-T development. The bright, open dining room and a patio that looks out onto the Heights Hike and Bike Trail provide a comfortable setting. With a range of vegetarian and meaty dishes, diners will find enough options to suit almost any craving. Highlights include the crab pani puri, three chili paneer, and masala lamb chops. House made breads, including the bullet naan and sweet potato kulcha, enhance any meal. Pair them with selections from the wine list or a range of creative cocktails.
A business that began as a pop-up at bars like Grand Prize and Johnny’s Gold Brick has evolved into a staple of the Urban Harvest farmers market and a brick and mortar restaurant in Sawyer Yards. Chef Elaine Won and her daughters, Ashley Lai and Amiley Lai, sell more than just dumplings — not that the well-seasoned morsels of pork, chicken, or vegetables aren’t among the best in Houston (they are) — but the menu also includes credible wonton soup, Chinese barbecue pork, chili garlic noodles, and more. Regardless of the dish, the use of family recipes and classic techniques ensures people will want to chow down again and again.
This barbecue restaurant has been a key contributor to Spring Branch’s status as one of the city’s hottest neighborhoods for new restaurants. Not only did its smoked meats earn it a place in Texas Monthly’s list of the state’s 50 best barbecue joints, but the vegetable sides — everything from loaded mashed potatoes and dirty rice to Moroccan-spiced carrots and the signature Korean braised greens — offer compelling choices for all but the most hardcore carnivores. Even non-barbecue eaters will find a smash burger, fried chicken, and salads. A children’s play area keeps youngsters entertained while parents sample selections from the well-chosen wine list.
With the Montrose staple on the cusp of its 25th anniversary, this re-nomination for our 2018 Neighborhood Restaurant of the Year winner serves as recognition of its consistent excellence. The housemade pastas range from the pure comfort of spaghetti and meatballs to the unapologetically spicy bucatini amatriciana. Paulie’s shrimp BLT serves as a simple retort to anyone who thinks Houston restaurants don’t make good sandwiches, and the salads keep health-conscious diners happy. A smart, well-chosen wine list — no surprise coming from the owner of Camerata — and those signature iced shortbread cookies further enhance the experience.
Goodnight Hospitality’s European comfort food restaurant works hard to charm its customers. From the stylish design (those terrazzo floors!) to the glass of sparking lambrusco that’s served to every adult, the restaurant does a lot to put people at ease. Anything made with dough, particularly the Focaccia de Recco and wood-fired pizzas, are always a good place to start. The massive wood-burning grill gets puts to use in other compelling ways, adding a little char to blistered green beans, a proper sear to the pork chop, and a crunchy crust to the Basque cheesecake. Not only does the wine list offer plenty of pairing possibilities, but a few zero proof cocktails allow even non-drinkers to find a favorite sip.