Handies Douzo/Facebook

For this year’s final category our coverage of the 2023 CultureMap Tastemaker Awards, we present the nominees for Chef of the Year.

By any measure, they’re a talented bunch. Of course, they serve delicious food, but these 12 individuals go beyond making dishes people want to eat. They mentor their coworkers and offer advice to colleagues at other restaurants. They raise money for local non-profits and use their platforms to advocate for causes that are important to them.

They’ve been recognized by national publications, the James Beard Foundation, and other markers of culinary excellence. They lead diverse teams of cooks, some of whom have gone to earn Tastemaker Awards nominations of their own.

Those are just some of the reasons why our committee of local restaurant industry experts selected them for recognition. Although only one will win at Thursday night’s Tastemaker Awards ceremony, they’re all worth patronizing.

Anita Jaisinghani - Pondicheri
Trends may come and go, but this veteran chef will continue to do what she always has — sharing her love for Indian flavors with Houstonians while supporting local farmers and advocating for sustainable living through quiet initiatives like Pondicheri’s popular Meatless Monday weekly special. Last year, she published her first cookbook, Masala: Recipes from India, the Land of Spices, which guides readers how to use spices like an Indian chef. Her food may sometimes diverge from traditional Indian cuisine, but it is always delicious.

Benchawan Jabthong Painter - Street to Kitchen
Already the winner of Rising Star Chef of the Year in the 2022 CultureMap Tastemaker Awards, chef Painter rose to a level of national prominence with a finalist nomination for Best Chef: Texas in the 2023 James Beard Awards. Its fitting recognition for a chef who serves “unapologetically Thai” flavors in her tiny East End restaurant. Diners will soon have another venue to sample her cooking when she opens The Preserve at Eculent, a small plates concept she’s developing in collaboration with Eculent chef-owner David Skinner.

Christine Ha and Tony Nguyen - Xin Chao
The union of these two chefs — Ha, a Masterchef winner and the culinary mind behind the Blind Goat and Nguyen, who rose to prominence locally for his Viet-Cajun fare at Saigon House — has produced dishes that unite Vietnamese techniques with Texas barbecue traditions. Dishes like smoked beef rib with rice noodles and smoked beef chicken dumplings demonstrate that these two great tastes do taste great together. The innovative mashup earned the duo a James Beard Award finalist nomination in 2022 and a semifinalist nomination in 2023.

Felipe Riccio - March
More than any dish he creates for the tasting menus at this fine dining restaurant, what defines Riccio’s cooking is the research he puts into every menu. By studying cookbooks, scholarly articles, and other sources, the chef learns what ingredients and techniques are essential to the region March features in its biannual menus, which allows the restaurant to dive deep in its interpretations of staple dishes. That March’s choreographed meals happen seamlessly from its diners’ perspectives is perhaps the greatest display of the chef’s craft and attention to detail.

Mark Clayton - Squable
This Heights restaurant has emerged as one of Houston’s most consistently satisfying restaurants under Clayton’s leaders. The chef, whose resume includes both Oxheart and Coltivare, utilizes as many locally sourced ingredients as he can to craft Squable’s diverse menu of pastas, small plates, and entrees. As a leader, he’s known for mentoring the chefs who work for him and being fastidious about producing as little waste as possible.

Niki Vongthong - Hidden Omakase
Prior to leading the kitchen at this exclusive, intimate sushi counter, this chef honed her skills at both Uchi and Aqui. The multi-course format allows Vongthong to craft perfect bites that blend dry-aged fish with housemade sauces and precisely-placed garnishes. We look forward to seeing what inspiration she found during a recent trip to Japan.

Patrick Feges and Erin Smith - Feges BBQ
When sitting down to a three-meat plate at this barbecue joint, it’s easier to remember that Feges is a self-taught pitmaster who honed his skills working for Ronnie Killen. Then, you chow down on signature items like the Korean braised greens, balanced salads, and Moroccan-spiced carrots and are reminded that Feges worked for Chris Shepherd at Underbelly and that Smith trained in New York working at star chef Thomas Keller’s three Michelin star restaurant Per Se. All that training results in a level of quality and consistency that’s rare at any class of restaurant — and means that their occasional wine dinners and other special events produce some can’t-miss culinary fireworks.

Patrick Pham and Daniel Lee - Aiko/Handies Douzo/Kokoro
Credit these two chefs for creating memorable sushi restaurants. Kokoro is the only restaurant left left from Bravery Chef Hall’s opening roster. Handies Douzo expanded from its original home in the Heights to a second location in Montrose. Aiko has earned raves for its four-tied omakase that gives diners a quality sushi experience for as little as $25 during happy hour. Recently, they opened Himari in Garden Oaks’ Stomping Grounds development, further expanding their reach by adding robata and tempura to their repertoire.

Ryan Lachaine - Riel
Diners at Riel know Lachaine for outgoing presence in the dining room, where he greets regulars like old friends and first timers like regulars. Listeners to CultureMap’s “What’s Eric Eating” podcast know him for his blunt observations and creativity use of profanity. While the personality does make for a memorable meal at Riel, its his creative culinary perspective — a blend of Gulf Coast ingredients mashed together with his Canadian upbringing and Ukrainian heritage — that has Riel one of Houston’s most consistently satisfying restaurants for six years.

Patrick Pham Daniel Lee

Patrick Pham and Daniel Lee operate five sushi restaurants.

Photo by Zach Horst

Houston's 10 best restaurants showcase city's dynamically diverse, world-class, and Michelin-worthy dining

Meet the Tastemakers

Our coverage of the nominees in the 2023 CultureMap Tastemaker Awards has reached the final two categories. First up are the 10 nominees for Restaurant of the Year.

March spanikopita

Photo by Zach Horst

March's new menu includes spanikopita.

These restaurants are a diverse lot. In terms of their settings, one is a humble-looking, hidden sushi counter in an office building, while another is a seafood restaurant in a food hall — a sharp contrast from March, which occupies a purpose-built space that's decorated with museum-worthy art. Some have beverage programs with extensive wine lists and spirits from around the world, while others are BYOB. A few of them serve a fewer than 50 people in an evening, while others may serve hundreds throughout lunch, brunch, and dinner.

They’re united by a commitment to serving consistently excellent food that utilizes high quality ingredients — many of them sourced from local farms and ranches. These nominees also set high standards for the service they offer their customers. When those elements are combined correctly, they create memorable experiences that keep us coming back again and again. That's why our panel of local restaurant industry experts has selected them for this recognition.

We’ll find out who wins next week at the Tastemaker Awards ceremony on Thursday, April 13. Tickets are sold out.

This Montrose-area restaurant’s mix of French and Gulf Coast influences has been a hit since it opened in 2020. While Houstonians have discovered a surprisingly large appetite for staples like lobster pot pie, baked Alaska, and short rib ravioli, executive chef Aaron Bludorn and chef de cuisine Chase Voelz continue to evolve the menu with additions such as a jollof rice-inspired crab rice originally created for a collaboration dinner with New Orleans chef Serigne Mbaye — one of many guest chef meals that always brings a little extra energy to the restaurant. Beyond the food and warm service, the restaurant also regularly raises money for the Southern Smoke Foundation, World Central Kitchen, and other worthy causes.

Located in downtown’s Post Market food hall, this seafood restaurant is led by Norwegian chef Christopher Haatuft in partnership with James Beard Award and Top Chef winner Paul Qui. Haatuft brings his passion for sustainability to the restaurant’s menu, which draws upon Gulf Coast, East Coast, and globally-sourced fish and shellfish. While it’s possible to eat an inexpensive meal built around dishes like fish nuggets and a snitter (a Norwegian, open-faced sandwich), the biggest culinary thrills are in expertly prepared bluefin tuna, whole red snapper, and luxurious shellfish platters. While the setting may lack some of the drama of our other nominees, the artful blend of European, Japanese, and Texas influences makes it must visit for serious diners.

Hidden Omakase
True to its name, this Galleria-area sushi restaurant is unmarked (first time visitors should look for the storefront decorated with Japanese comic books). Once seated at the intimate, U-shaped counter, chef Niki Vongthong and her team lead diners on a 12-15 course progression that includes both nigiri and composed plates. Hidden Omakase’s use of dry-aged fish, its carefully made housemade sauces, and chef Vongthong’s incorporation of her Thai heritage — we recommend paying extra for her duck larb hand roll — into the menu all help make for a memorable meal.

Kata Robata
Part of what makes this Upper Kirby sushi restaurant so compelling is its breadth. From familiar fare such as the $12 katsu don lunch special and lobster mac and cheese to an elaborate omakase that utilizes fish flown in from Japan, Kata Robata caters to just about every taste. Daily specials showcase seasonal ingredients, and an extensive beverage list features includes a wide range of sake, spirits, wine, and beer. To borrow a term from baseball, it's a five tool player — the rare unicorn that does everything well all the time. No wonder it's constantly packed for lunch and dinner seven days a week.

Le Jardinier
This restaurant in the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston offers a vegetable-forward menu that mixes locally-sourced, seasonal produce with luxurious ingredients like French white asparagus, Ora King salmon, and Dover Sole. Its elegant dishes are delivered with service worthy of its sister locations in New York and Miami that each hold one Michelin star. A dining room that features the dramatic, wall-sized tapestry Color Flash for Chat and Chew, Paris Texas in Seventy-Two and a view of the museum’s sculpture garden enhances the restaurant’s refined atmosphere.

What sets March apart from other Houston restaurants is how carefully choreographed every aspect of its meals are. From a sip of vermouth in the lounge to the final mignardise, the March experience is precisely calculated to attend to its diners’ needs. The recently introduced Greek menu demonstrates extensive research and precise technique with its modern interpretations of classic dishes such as spanakopita, moussaka, and souvlaki. Similar effort goes into sourcing the right wine pairings for each dish. If Michelin inspectors ever make their way to Houston, we predict they'd recognize March with at least two stars.

This ultra-exclusive omakase counter evolved into a complete restaurant over the past year. Renovations upgraded the kitchen’s capacity — paving the way for Neo to serve diners six nights per week and for reservations to be available via Tock. Chefs Paolo Justo and Luis Mercado took the next step in their careers, too, collaborating with former Pujol head chef Alex Bremont on a series of sold out dinners that blended Mexican and Japanese techniques. While the specific pieces of what nigiri the chefs serve may vary depending on what’s ready in the dry-aging case or which local produce the chefs are employing, the highly personal service and intimate atmosphere are constants.Expect both chefs' recent travels to manifest as ever more exciting new dishes.

Six years in, Riel remains as vital as its ever been, a testament to the discipline and focus of chef-owner Ryan Lachaine and his team. Asking this restaurant’s fans to pick their favorite dish from the menu of elevated comfort food is bound to cause an argument. When someone says butter burgers, someone else might say caviar tots — but wait, what about the truffle pierogi or the kimchi carbonara pasta or the cabbage rolls. Thankfully, the shareable format means a group of friends can get all of their favorites at every meal. Finish your meal with a shot of bourbon for the full Riel experience.

As it prepares to celebrate its fourth anniversary this month, Squable maintains its status as one of Houston’s most consistently delicious restaurants. Chef Mark Clayton’s European-inspired menu blends staples like the marinated mussels on toast and the signature French cheeseburger with seasonal items that keep things fresh. General manager Terry Williams oversees a beverage program that includes both an eclectic, globally-sourced wine list and a spirits selection worthy of its sister concepts Anvil and Better Luck Tomorrow. A recent upgrade to its patio has made this Heights restaurant an even more comfortable place to dine.

Xin Chao
Texas barbecue meets Vietnamese techniques at this restaurant that unites Masterchef winner Christine Ha with Saigon House’s Tony Nguyen. The dynamic duo earned a James Beard Award Best Chef: Texas finalist nomination in 2022 for their menu, which features dishes such as Viet-Cajun roasted oysters, beef rib fried rice, fried chicken that’s marinated in lemongrass and buttermilk, and a wagyu flat iron steak served in the style of bo luc lac. A full menu of creative, Asian-influenced cocktails (both alcoholic and non-alcoholic) enhances the food.

Photo by Julie Soefer

CultureMap Wine Guy Chris Shepherd uncorks the best bottles at Houston's top 10 programs

Wine Guy Wednesday

Editor's note: Long before Chris Shepherd became a James Beard Award-winning chef, he developed enough of a passion for wine to work at Brennan's of Houston as a sommelier. He maintains that interest to this day. When Chris expressed interest in writing about wine-related topics for CultureMap, we said yes.

In this week's column, he visits the nominees for Wine Program of the Year in the 2023 CultureMap Tastemaker Awards(buy tickets here).Take it away, Chris.

You hear every year that it’s a great time to drink wine in Houston. You know what? It’s always a great time to drink wine in Houston! Why? Houstonians drink a lot of wine. Which means we get a lot of badass allocations from wineries and distributors from around the world.

The CultureMap panel of experts have selected this list of restaurants and wine bars as Houston’s best wine programs 2023, and they’ve asked me to write my thoughts on each. Luckily, I frequent many of these spots to drink wine!

Here’s the common theme — each of these lists have such amazing choices that I traditionally will let the sommelier pick because I want to try something new, something I haven’t had, and something they are truly loving. Not only are the wine lists so darn good right now, so are the people writing them and working the floor.

13 Celsius
13 Celsius is a staple wine bar in this city and has been a fixture for a very long time (since 2006!). Their extensive — let me say again…extensive — wines by-the-glass selection is so large because the Coravin system keeps their wines fresh. Last time I visited, I had a fantastic bottle of Bruno Paillard “Assemblage” Extra Brut 2012, but they can also tempt me with their natural reds. Don’t sleep on the Hayu Wine Farm. You don’t see a lot of this, and it’s always delicious. They also have a great selection of reds from Piemonte. Nebbiolo is one of the greatest grapes around.

While you’re sitting there, don’t miss out on the mortadella panino. It’s legendary.

Bludorn is one of my favorite places to cozy up at the bar, order a cocktail from Fabio, and eat a few snacks. When it comes to wine, I always ask Molly Austad and her team to narrow it down to her favorite three bottles at the moment, and we’re never disappointed. It’s a really well-rounded list with a little bit of everything.

Last time I was there, I drank a really earthy Cru Beaujolais. It was perfect with the black truffle chicken — their pairing suggestions are on point. They have a fantastic selection of wines by-the-glass, and there is always an excess of Southern Rhone wines on the list that make my wife and me smile.

Lees Den
I visited Lees Den recently not knowing what to expect. I was so pleasantly surprised. I think owner Benjy Levit, sommelier Chrisanna Shewbart, and the team really have this place humming. The list is chock full of wines I want to drink with some of the best pricing I’ve seen in Houston in a very long time. The space is warm, and the staff is friendly.

I had a bottle of Comte Lafond Grand Cuvee—I haven’t seen this bottle since I was buying wine at Brennan’s. It made me almost giddy. And at $65, it was an absolute steal. You can find steals on almost any list if you know what to look for. Lees Den has an entire list of steals! It’s a playground. Even better, it shares a floor with a killer bottle shop.

Light Years
I’m glad I live in Montrose because I have a wine bar/bottle shop like Light Years near me. During the pandemic, my wife and I ordered cases and rode our tricycles over to pick them up!

Light Years is a natural wine bar, and the best part about natural wines is that I don’t know nearly enough about them. But I am learning, and that’s the fun of going to Light Years. The team is always helpful and walks me through everything. I’m always introduced to something new. Another thing about natural wine? The large format selection is always really good and affordable. And you know I love a magnum.

The March wine list is full of the allocated and the hard-to-find. To say this list has reach is an understatement — full of the producers you want to be drinking. It’s powerful without a lot of filler. Just gander at the selection of bérêche & fils! Champagne not your thing? Hopefully Burgundy is. Or Italian. Or California. Or Spain.

The March team has done a great job of accumulating back vintages of really cool wines. You want some Jordan back to 1984? They have it.

Funnily enough, I rarely look at the list when I’m at March, because the pairings with the tasting menus are so stunning. I do order from the list in The Lounge or — little known fact — when I’m downstairs at Rosie. While Rosie Cannonball has its own fantastic list, the March wine list is also available. This is something you should take advantage of.

Nancy's Hustle
What an absolute fantastic job Justin Vann has done with this wine list. A huge congrats on being named a James Beard finalist! Fun and funky, from sherry to orange wines to cider, the focus here is natural for sure.

Nancy’s Hustle doesn’t just create a list — they create a list for their menu. The wine list is curated to match the style of food they’re serving. That’s really unique and very cool. You’re not going to see some of the bigger names you know, and that’s quite all right. This is Justin and team working hard to curate wines specifically for their menu and what they like to drink. The homepage of their website says it all: “We like butter, natural wine, cider, and cocktails that pair well with food.” And they nailed it.

I’m a huge fan of Nobie’s. The menu is fun, the bourbon list is expansive, but I really love to go to Nobie’s because of the list Zeb Ulon has put together. When I go in, I tell him what I’m feeling wine-wise, and let him roll. He always brings a bottle he is truly in love with — many times lesser known, giving these wineries a voice.

Again, this list is built to go with the food. The team at Nobie’s always brings the party (if you’ve been to Southern Smoke, you know their booth is the party booth every year!) and their wine list is no exception. It’s fun, it’s joyous — always ready for a party. And it’s really smart.

Pappas Bros. Steakhouse
If you want to talk about an amazing list with depth of vintages, selections, styles, and all-around “oh my gosh, they have that on the list!”, this is the spot. If you know enough about wine, you can have fun looking through the list for that steal. Or, be very frank with the somms and tell them your price point and what you like, and they’ll find you the best bottle at the very best value.

If you want to go all-in, saddle up! This is the place to do it. They’ve been purchasing and collecting wine for 25 years. They have it!

Just last week, they hosted a multi-vintage Chateau Lafite Rothschild dinner and pulled every bottle from their cellar. I really wish CultureMap would have picked up a ticket for me to attend this once-in-a-lifetime dinner—maybe next time! (hint, hint) Their commitment to wine education and training is so good here that I’ve run into former Pappas Bros. sommeliers in restaurants all over the country.

State of Grace
I think State of Grace has one of the most helpful wine lists in Houston. Every single bottle has tasting notes, so you know exactly what you’re getting into when you order. The Sparkling section is very well laid out with amazing choices (is it obvious I love sparkling wine?). Their Pinot Noir selections are outstanding — a good selection of price points with the best selections at each price point. Their Italian section is very extensive — lots of Barolos, which is one of my favorites. Any time I see Paolo Scavino, I’m in!

Street to Kitchen
Much like the restaurant itself, the wine list at Street to Kitchen is unassuming and overachieving. It’s a funky little space deep in the East End. Everything here is small and mighty. Co-owner Graham Painter has done a good job of pairing unique, interesting, and approachable wines with chef Benchawan Painter’s food.

It’s unabashed but still very playful. Unapologetic but fun. Street to Kitchen shows you that not every wine list needs to be giant to be great.

March restaurant wine cellar
Photo by Julie Soefer

March has a deep list.

Contact our Wine Guy via email at chris@chrisshepherdconcepts.com.

Chris Shepherd won a James Beard Award for Best Chef: Southwest in 2014. Last year, he parted ways with Underbelly Hospitality, a restaurant group that currently operates four Houston restaurants: Wild Oats, GJ Tavern, Underbelly Burger, and Georgia James. The Southern Smoke Foundation, a non-profit he co-founded with his wife Lindsey Brown, has distributed more than $10 million to hospitality workers in crisis through its Emergency Relief Fund.

Cafe Louie/Facebook

Houston's 10 best pastry chefs conjure sweet and savory treats

Meet the Tastemakers

“Sweet” may be the first word that comes to mind with desserts, but it certainly isn’t the only one. “Tart,” “comforting,” “herbaceous,” and “satisfying” all have their roles to play, too.

The nominees for the 2023 CultureMap Tastemaker Awards Pastry Chef of the Year understand that sweetness needs to be balanced. They know that a sprinkle of salt makes any chocolate dessert taste more chocolatey or that roasting strawberries brings out their sweetness. With their diverse skills, they produce savory items that leave people wanting more and sweets that are, if we’re being honest, better than anything grandma ever made.

This year’s nominees produce cookies, cakes, breads, kolaches, doughnuts, pop tarts, ice cream, and more. Their inspiration comes from both childhood favorites and culinary traditions the span the globe. Even people who claim not to like dessert will probably find something to devour from this distinguished group.

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 now.

Alyssa Dole - LuLoo's Day & Night
After a extensive career that’s seen her work everywhere from Coltivare to Pinkerton’s Barbecue, Dole has found a home at this bakery and cafe in Garden Oaks. Working in partnership with Blood Bros. BBQ, LuLoo’s serves sandwiches on Dole’s bread and a range of sweet and savory pastries, including Australian-inspired sausage rolls and barbecue kolaches. Upstairs, Dole leads LuLoo's Bakeshop, a wholesale bakery that supplies breads to Blood Bros. and a number of other Houston restaurants.

Kelly Helgesen - Nancy's Hustle
After a successful career in Chicago that included a Zagat “30 Under 30” award for her work at Lula Cafe, Helgesen moved to Houston to reunite her professional relationship with Nancy’s executive chef/co-owner Jason Vaughan (both are alumni are legendary seafood restaurant L20). At Nancy’s, she maintains the quality of menu staples like the savory parmesan cheesecake (and those English muffin burger buns Justin Verlander is so fond of) while also adding seasonal specials such as a recently-introduced buttermilk sherbet with roasted strawberries and sesame puff sticks. We’ll keep our fingers crossed that she finds a way to share her bagel-making skills with Houstonians on a more regular basis at some point in the future.

Kripa Shenoy - EaDough Pastries & Provisions
This chef comes to Houston via New York City, where she worked at Marea, which recently held one Michelin star and earned the 2010 James Beard Award for best new restaurant in America. At EaDough, a to-go only kiosk along the Columbia Tap Rail hike and bike trail, Shenoy turns out a breakfast-focused roster of sweet and savory pastries that includes kolaches, muffins, cookies, scones, and croissants. Later this year, Houstonians will experience more of her talents when she opens Auden, a vegetable-forward, globally inspired restaurant, with her husband, chef Kirthan Shenoy.

Lucianna Emiliani - Louie's Italian American
After beginning her career in Houston, Emiliani moved to California, where she worked in L.A. for the acclaimed Tartine Bakery. She returned home to help her brother, chef Angelo Emiliani, open Cafe Louie (named for her), where she earned raves for her croissants, morning buns, and other viennoiserie. When Cafe Louie evolved into Louie’s Italian American, she developed a couple of classic desserts for the menu, including a tiramisu that’s among Houston’s best. Thankfully, her croissants are still available at Saturday morning pop-ups and coffee shops around Houston.

Marie Riddle - Bludorn/Navy Blue
Like so many of the people behind both Bludorn and Navy Blue, Riddle comes to Houston via New York, where she worked for legendary French chef Daniel Boulud and Milk Bar founder Christina Tosi. At Bludorn, Riddle and her team oversee a revolving roster of desserts that includes the restaurant’s signature Baked Alaska. For Navy Blue, the flavors lean a little lighter, with standouts that include a tart Key Lime Pie and the carrot cake she’ll serve at the Tastemaker Awards ceremony.

Rebecca Masson - Fluff Bake Bar
It’s almost hard to believe Fluff started selling pastries at Revival Market 12 years ago. Now firmly established at its location near the Heights, Masson has earned an impressive reputation, and a previous Tastemaker Awards win, for signatures like the Veruca Salt cake, Couch Potato cookie, and the Star Crossed Lover (Rice Krispie treat topped with caramel and covered in chocolate). Fans know to line up early on Saturday mornings, because weekly specials such as croissants, barbecue kolaches, and quiches sell out quickly.

Ruchit Harneja - Musaafer
After learning to cook from his mother and grandmother, this pastry chef traveled the world, racking up experiences in India and Europe before joining the opening team at the Galleria’s fine dining Indian restaurant. In press materials, the chef describes his style as incorporating unexpected ingredients such as fresh green chilies, garlic, ginger, fish, and meat. Those skills have served him well on the current season of the Food Network’s Spring Baking Championship: Easter, where a hickory-smoked honey cake won a challenge — and a temporary spot on Musaafer’s menu.

Shawn Gawle - Goodnight Hospitality
Part of Goodnight’s commitment to offering world class dining experiences included recruiting Gawle, a veteran of Michelin-starred restaurants in Chicago and the Bay Area, to come to Houston. Under his direction, the company’s pastry program includes a complex range of sweet and savory items that ranges from cookies and canale at Montrose Cheese & Wine to Rosie Cannonball staples like Focaccia di Recco and Basque cheesecake to March’s elegant plated desserts and diminutive mignardise. Balanced flavors, seasonal ingredients, and refined techniques are the ties that bind all of his efforts.

Stefani Velasquez - Papalo Mercado/Ema
At both the stand in downtown’s Finn Hall that she operates with her business partner, chef Nicolas Vera, and at a weekly booth at the Urban Harvest farmers market, diners count on Velasquez nostalgic desserts inspired by Mexican pan dulce and other traditions. A veteran of Hugo Ortega’s H-Town Restaurant Group, Velasquez’s output covers a wide range, including conchas, pop tarts, her signature horchata-filled Berlinésa, and specials that utilize Vera’s nixtamalized masa. The chef adds that she uses eggs from her father’s farm and as much seasonal produce as she can.

Vanarin Kuch - Koffeteria
The past year has been a busy time for the chef-owner of this EaDo bakery and cafe that’s devoted to serving flavors inspired by Houston’s diverse immigrant communities. By winding down Koffeteria’s wholesale operations, Kuch has been able to expand his output with more sweet and savory offerings that range from a Chinese sausage taco and breakfast sandwiches on housemade buns to matcha latte croissants and Cambodian elote cornbread. In addition, occasional Cambodian dinners and dessert omakase services allow Kuch to demonstrate a diverse set of skills that go far beyond his daily (and very delicious) grab-and-go creations.

Lucianna Emiliani
Cafe Louie/Facebook
Lucianna Emiliani
Photo by Kirsten Gilliam

Houston's 16 best new restaurants compete for coveted Tastemakers title

voting is open now

In 10 of the 11 categories for the 2023 CultureMap Tastemaker Awards, our panel of local restaurant industry experts pick the winners. The exception is Best New Restaurant.

For that category, we ask CultureMap readers to vote for their favorites in a bracket-style, head-to-head tournament of 16 restaurants that opened in Houston in 2022. Our readers have a pretty good track record of identifying quality establishments, as demonstrated by the James Beard Award finalist nominations that two former winners — Blood Bros. BBQ and Xin Chao — earned last year.

Just as winning one of the judges’ prizes is extremely difficult, so too is winning the Best New Restaurant tournament. To keep things interesting, round one always matches up restaurants that have a common tie, whether it’s geography, style of cuisine, or something a little more ephemeral. Let the debates begin!

Voting is open now. People may vote once per matchup. The results are closely monitored for cheating and other shenanigans, so don’t even try to game the results. Round one ends at 11:59 pm on Monday, March 27.

Which restaurant will win? Find out April 13 at the Tastemaker Awards party. We’ll dine on bites from this year’s nominated restaurants before emcee Bun B reveals the winners. Buy tickets now before they sell out.

Hamsa vs Navy Blue
Arguably the toughest first round matchup, these two restaurants have more in common than their locations in Rice Village. They’re both sister concepts of established eateries — Bludorn for Navy Blue and Doris Metropolitan for Hamsa — and both made Texas Monthly’s list of the state’s best new restaurants. Vote now to determine whether Hamsa’s hummus and falafel or Navy Blue’s oysters three ways and whole Dover sole will move on to round two.

Marmo steaks
Photo by Kirsten Gilliam

Porterhouse, filet, and cowboy ribeye at Marmo.

Marmo vs il Bracco
This pairing features a steakhouse that makes its own pasta and an Italian restaurant that serves a great steak. Marmo has been a hit in the Montrose Collective with its creative pastas, dry-aged beef, and nightly live music. Similarly, diners are flocking to il Bracco for its housemade pastas, fried artichoke appetizer, and Italian-inspired cocktail menu. It will be up to voters to decide which meatball moves on.

Dinette vs Moon Rabbit
The two modern Vietnamese restaurants that have captivated the Heights square off in this matchup. At Dinette, founding chef Cole Hoang blended his northern Vietnamese heritage with techniques he refined while working for chef Christine Ha at the Blind Goat and Xin Chao to create dishes such as soft shell crab banh mi and a Vietnamese-style pizza (he has subsequently parted ways with the restaurant). Led by chefs Tam Nguyen and Rudy Vasquez, Moon Rabbit has earned raves for its well-executed takes on staples like shaking beef and lemongrass pork banh mi. Both restaurants serve good cocktails, but only one will move on to round two.

Burger Bodega vs Loro
This matchup features two restaurants that serve tasty burgers. Before launching his smash burger concept, food influencer Abbas Dhanani traveled to Los Angeles and New York to taste all the best versions. For its Asian smokehouse, the Uchi team partnered with legendary pitmaster Aaron Franklin to learn all the techniques necessary to produce consistently excellent smoke-kissed meats. Now it’s time to determine whether Loro’s boozy slushies or Burger Bodega’s mango lassi milkshake move on in the tournament.

Aiko vs Aya Sushi
Our sushi matchup features two restaurants that have embraced omakase. At Aiko, diners choose from $35, $55, and $95 options that include nigiri, handrolls, and crudo. At Aya Sushi, veteran sushi chef Yoshi Katsuyama offers his customers both a chef’s tasting and a premium tasting that can include more than 15 courses. Of course, both restaurants also have extensive a la carte offerings and daily specials, but we encourage you to take the plunge with a tasting — and to pick one restaurant to move on.

The Warwick vs Karne Korean Steakhouse
Both of these restaurants offer a fresh take on the steakhouse. At The Warwick, look for Southern classics like shrimp and grits and smoked ribs as well as a couple nods to the restaurant’s location as a former Houston’s in the form of a Hawaiian ribeye and a Thai noodle salad. Karne offers its diners the signature Karnivore platter that provides a sample of its best meats and banchan as well as some splurge-worthy dishes like oysters topped with uni. Diners will find an eye-catching design and photo-worthy cocktails at both establishments, but only one will make it to round two.

Cucharita vs Tatemó
Now comes the old school vs new school Mexican matchup. A sister concept to Montrose staple Cuchara, Cucharita serves a range of breakfast favorites including tacos, waffles, and all the egg dishes — including caviar. Tatemó has earned regional and national attention, including a James Beard semifinalist nomination, for its nixtamalized masa creations that use heirloom Mexican corn. Vote to decide whether Cucharita’s corn waffles or Tatemó’s masa pancakes make it to round two.

Amrina vs Gatlin’s Fins & Feathers
Admittedly, pairing an Indian fine dining restaurant with a Southern restaurant devoted to fried chicken and seafood seems like a bit of a curious matchup, but these two restaurants are united by the way they offer unique perspectives on familiar dishes. For example, Amrina serves dishes such as whiskey naan, jackfruit samosas, and tandoori leg of lamb with gold leaf that are distinct from the versions at other, similar establishments. Of course, Gatlin’s Fins & Feathers produces craveable fried chicken and shrimp, but it’s globally inspired dishes like grilled jerk chicken and sweet ‘n spicy miso wings that set it apart. Sadly, only one restaurant will earn a spot in round two.

Courtesy of Jūn

Meet the 13 rising star Houston chefs heating up our vibrant restaurant scene

meet the tastemakers

The time has come to begin celebrating the nominees in this year’s CultureMap Tastemaker Awards. As always, we begin with Rising Star Chef of the Year.

This category covers a diverse range of chefs. Some of this year’s nominees own and operate their own restaurants. Others work in prominent roles for some of Houston’s most dynamic restaurant groups. Some have already received regional and national attention, while others are still flying a little under the radar (but not for long).

Either way, they’re all worth getting to know, because our panel of judges think these are the chefs who will be leading Houston’s culinary scene in the years to come. Whether they’re serving diners an elaborate omakase or an expertly executed mushroom-Swiss burger, visiting these chefs comes with more immediate rewards, too.

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 now. VIP tickets are almost sold out, and general admission isn’t far behind.

Angelo Emiliani - Louie's Italian American
After bursting onto the scene with his Angie’s Pizza pop-up, chef Emiliani earned widespread praise for Cafe Louie, the Mediterranean-influenced all-day concept he opened with his sister, pastry chef and fellow Tasetmaker Awards nominee Luciana Emiliani. When that didn’t find the audience he hoped for, the chef leaned into his Italian American heritage with a red sauce concept that showcases his considerable pasta making skills — along with a crave-worthy chicken parm.

Emmanuel Chavez - Tatemó
Already known for the heirloom corn tortillas and brunch items he served at the Urban Harvest farmers market, chef Chavez announced his presence on the Houston scene with Tatemó’s brick and mortar location. In the intimate, 13-seat room, Chavez and his team serve tasting menus built around different preparations of heirloom corn varieties he imports from Mexico. A seven-course meal could include a quesadilla, ceviche with corn milk, and a corn consomme, among others. While Chavez has already been recognized by both Esquire magazine and the James Beard Foundation, his affordable Saturday lunch and Sunday brunch services allow more people to experience his modern Mexican cuisine.

Evelyn Garcia and Henry Lu - Jūn
This dynamic chef duo met when working at some of New York City’s top restaurants. When the pandemic forced Garcia to pivot — first by closing her stand at the Politan Row food hall and then by joining Top Chef’s Houston-based season — she invited Lu to join her in Houston. Garcia initially earned attention for her Thai-inspired dishes, but adding Lu’s Chinese-American heritage to the mix allows Jūn to incorporate a more diverse set of influences. Although the restaurant is new, it’s earning raves for everything from its Gulf shrimp aguachile to fried chichen that's marinated in shrimp paste and other spices.

Jacob Coronado - Nobie's
Anyone who’s been to Nobie’s knows that it feels like a bit of a house party, and Coronado makes sure everyone has a good time. “Every night he laughs and dances and makes sure the guests at the house party are full,” chef-owner Martin Stayer tells CultureMap. When he’s not dancing, Coronado oversees a kitchen that turns out the housemade pastas, craveable vegetables dishes, and snackable items that keep the party going all night long.

Jerrod Zifchak - Navy Blue
Aaron Bludorn didn’t have to look too far into his past to find a chef to lead Navy Blue, his seafood restaurant in Rice Village. Not only did Zifchak succeed him as the executive chef of New York’s Cafe Boulud, he also worked as a chef at legendary three-star Michelin seafood restaurant Le Bernadin. At Navy Blue, Zifchak shows off his French skills with dishes like swordfish au poivre and the puff pastry-topped mussel bisque. He’s also embracing his new home on the Gulf Coast with credible takes on blackened snapper and New Orleans-style barbecue shrimp.

Madalyn Lester - Quiote
A veteran of restaurants such as Theodore Rex and Nancy’s Hustle, chef-owner Martin Stayer hired Lester to execute the mostly raw seafood dishes that are served at this intimate mezcal bar inside the Toasted Coconut. By blending her Mexican heritage with her professional experiences, Lester serves menu staples like a sweet potato tostada and scallop crudo as well as creative specials like king crab tamales.

“Madalyn literally makes every dish,” Stayer says. “She conceptualizes, preps, prepares and serves every dish going out, and not many chefs or restaurants can claim the same thing. It’s pretty awesome.”

Matthew Young - 1751 Sea & Bar
A veteran of one-star Michelin restaurant Mina and three-star Michelin restaurant Alinea, Young came to this Heights-area seafood restaurant after stints at Guard & Grace and Sixty Vines. The chef brought a fresh perspective to the restaurant’s menu by adding dishes such as a whole fish special that rotates based on the day’s catch. Although 1751 is closing this week, he’ll play a key role in assisting Sambrooks Management with the openings of Andiron, a live fire steakhouse, and the Memorial location of The Pit Room.

Michael O'Connor - Better Luck Tomorrow
“Rising star” may be a bit of a misnomer for this veteran chef, whose resume includes time working for Bryan Caswell and as the longtime executive chef of Vic & Anthony’s. Still, he’s shown a more creative side of his culinary personality while leading the kitchen at Bobby Heugel and Justin Yu’s casual bar in the Heights, such as running a Windy City-worthy Italian beef sandwich that appeared on the menu when The Bear went viral.

“He’s able to intertwine use of his very rigorous years of classical training mixed in with his love of cuisines from different cultures and his understanding of our kitchen from being a patron for so many years at BLT to make something both fun enough for a bar setting, unique to our city, and reliable for the Heights,” Yu tells CultureMap. “It’s been a joy to see him undertake these new endeavors as part of his long, storied career in Houston.”

Luis Mercado and Paolo Justo - Neo
Building on their win for Best Pop-up/Start-up in last year’s Tastemaker Awards, Mercado and Justo continued to develop Neo into one of Houston’s most sought after bookings. Sometimes, the Uchi veterans explore the intersection of Japanese techniques with Mexican flavors, as they did when they collaborated with former Pujol head chef Alex Bremont on a sold out dinner series — think a kampachi crudo with grilled pineapple that nods to al pastor. Or they can bust out a purely delicious butter-basted hen of the woods mushroom packed with umami. Either way, diners always leave delighted.

Tim Reading - GJ Tavern
Initially, the East Coast native moved to Houston to work for Hugo Ortega at Caracol. From there, he made a splash at Ixim at Bravery Chef Hall, but he’s found a home at Underbelly Hospitality’s casual downtown restaurant. A decadent mushroom-Swiss burger demonstrates that the chef isn’t afraid to go retro, and his crispy roast chicken and toothsome mushroom cavatelli demonstrate his sound culinary techniques. Beyond his skills in the kitchen, Reading’s entertaining carpool karaoke sessions make him an entertaining Instagram follow.

Victoria Elizondo - Cochinita & Co.
If there’s one work that describes this chef, it’s her resiliency. When Politan Row closed, she developed a line of tamales that could be sold in area markets and found a new home at Kickin’ Kombucha in the East End. Her flavorful tacos — served on housemade, nixtamalized tortillas, natch — put a fresh spin on traditional preparations like cochinita pibil, barbacoa, and mole almendrado. That cuisine would be more than sufficient to earn this nomination, but Elizondo goes above and beyond by serving as an advocate for her fellow DACA recipients and sharing some of culinary secrets via a cookbook titled Taco-tastic.

Jun restaurant Evelyn Garcia Henry Lu
Courtesy of Jūn

Chefs Evelyn Garcia and Henry Lu, Jūn.

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Standout Houston-born Broadway star shines as Best Actor nominee in upcoming Tony Awards

and the tony goes to...

Left to right Alex Newell, Caroline Innerbichler, Kevin Cahoon, and Andrew Durand in SHUCKED

Matthew Murphy and Evan Zimmerman

(Left to right) Alex Newell, Caroline Innerbichler, Kevin Cahoon, and Andrew Durand in Shucked.

Houstonians tuning into the 76th Annual Tony Awards on Sunday, June 11 honoring Broadway's best and brightest have an inspiring special reason to cheer.

Kevin Cahoon, a graduate of the Kinder High School for the Performing and Visual Arts, is in the running for Best Actor in a Featured Role in a Musical for his performance in Shucked. He plays Peanut in the show, which Variety called "surprise delight of the Broadway season."

"It is a lifelong dream come true," Cahoon tells CultureMap. "I am gobsmacked. And every time someone brings it up, it's like hearing it for the first time. I keep pinching myself."

A Houston star is born

Cahoon said he knew from a very early age he wanted to perform. At age six, he began working as a rodeo clown. HIs father was a calf roper who met his mother at a school rodeo club. Over his next decade, Cahoon would go on to perform in rodeos across Texas and Oklahoma, including at the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo.

By age 10, he was enrolled in TUTS' Humphreys School of Musical Theatre and was performing on the mainstage. That's where he met Vanessa Garner, who became his HSPVA classmate and the founder of the Nashville Theatre School.

"She's my date to the Tonys," Cahoon notes.

For Cahoon, attending HPSVA gave him more than just an opportunity to hone his skills as an actor and a launching pad for a career that, thus far, has spanned three decades.

"HSPVA really was a safe haven for smart, talented, brilliant oddballs to feel supported," he sats. "I was a gay kid. I wasn't out, but the writing was on the wall. And it wasn't an easy daily existence in middle school. But I got to HSPVA and it was this school full of unicorns in the best possible way!"

He graduated from HSPVA in 1989 and went on to earn his BFA from NYU's prestigious Tisch School of the Arts.

"Houston is one of the most diverse cities in the country, and growing up here caused my heart, my mind, my eyes to be open to people of other backgrounds," says Cahoon. "When I hit New York City, I'd already been exposed to people from so many different backgrounds, and a lot of that was true at HSPVA, too."

Once he arrived in New York, he stayed.

From PVA to Broadway

Following graduation from NYU, he made his Broadway debut in The Who's Tommy, stepping into the ensemble as a replacement after the show opened. He originated the role of Ed, one of the hyenas in the original Broadway cast of Disney's The Lion King.

He was in the original casts of The Rocky Horror Show as Phantom and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang as the Childcatcher, and originated the role of George in The Wedding Singer, the musical based on the Adam Sandler film of the same name.

Television audiences will know him as Ed Clark in Fox's Monarch and Hugo from seasons two and three of A Series of Unfortunate Events on Netflix, as well as that streaming service's season three of Glow, where he played Bobby Barnes.

Shucked and awe

Shucked, with a score by Brandy Clark & Shane McAnally and book by Robert Horn, is nominated for nine Tony Awards. The musical tells the story of Maizy and Beau, two residents of the fictional Midwestern community of Cobb County who are forced to call off their wedding when the corn crop gets blighted.

As corn is the lifeblood of this community, Maisy heads off to the big city looking for help and a way to save the crop. The show's corniness has been compared to the classic "Hee-Haw" comedy TV show, and its earnestness has been delighting audiences and critics. Cahoon's Peanut is something of the show's everyman, serving as county clerk, resident philosopher, and more. He's the guy with lines like, “I think if you have time to jump in front of a bullet for someone, they have time to move.”

The New York Post called his performance "brilliant."

"It's been peaks and valleys, peaks and valleys," reflects Cahoon on his journey with Peanut in the show, which as taken 12 years from development to the Great White Way. He's been part of it for a decade, through workshops and readthroughs. A pre-Broadway run in D.C. was shuttered due to the pandemic.

So, having the show finally arrive on Broadway is a triumph.

"Audiences tell us, ''I'm from Nebraska,' 'I'm from Ohio,'" says Cahoon. "And they've never felt like they've seen themselves in a positive light in a lot of media."

For Cahoon, playing Peanut is a joy.

"I love that does everything in the town," he says. "And he tries to keep everyone's spirits afloat. He looks at the world, which can be unfair and sometimes unjust and he still has this positive, sunshiny view of it. This is one of the great gifts of my career."

Kinder in the house

At the Tony Awards on Sunday, Cahoon won't be the only HSPVA representing H-Town. While his is the only performance by an alumni that's nominated for an individual award, Sterling Overshown, HSPVA Class of 2012, wrote the music for Ain't No Mo, nominated for six Tony, including Best Play.

Meanwhile, Fernell Hogan, Class of 2015, is in the musical Kimberly Akimbo, which received eight nominations, including Best Musical. Jarvis B. Manning, Jr., Class of 2005, is in Some Like It Hot, nominated for 13 Tonys, including Best Musical. Brandon Lee, Class of 2001 plays trumpet in that show's orchestra.

A standing-o representation, indeed.


Watch for Kevin Cahoon on The 76th Annual Tony Awards, broadcast live on CBS and Paramount+ at 7 pm Sunday, June 11.

Veteran Houston French chefs are not opening a French restaurant in River Oaks


Three Frenchmen have teamed up to open a new restaurant in the River Oaks Shopping Center, but Cocody may not be quite what people are expecting.

Chef David Denis, his brother, front of house specialist Sylvain Denis, and chef Lionel Debon worked together at Le Mistral, the acclaimed French restaurant in the Energy Corridor that closed in 2019. More recently, the Denis brothers have been operating Bistro 555, the Memorial-area French restaurant. Their business partner, Edwin Bosso, grew up in French-speaking Ivory Coast before coming to Houston, where he attended Rice University and started a successful career as a consultant.

Those biographical details would seem to suggest that Cocody will also be a French restaurant, but that's not the case. Instead, the team is creating a restaurant that's merely "French-influenced," according to press materials.

“Cocody is French-influenced because its leadership came from France. The owners are originally from the French-speaking Ivory Coast. All three operating partners got their training and built their early careers in France, including at a number of Micehlin-star (sic) restaurants,” publicist Mark Hanna writes in email. “The menu, on the other hand, will be a variety of dishes they have created for Cocody which can't be so easily labeled. There will be a lot of influences from all over, including Houston and Texas.”

We'll have to wait a bit to learn more about the specific dishes that will be created by the blending of French training with Texas influences, as the menu is still under development.

Considering the neighborhood, not opening a French restaurant in that location seems wise. After all, Cocody will have to distinguish itself from Brasserie 19, the restaurant across the street from its location at 1971 West Gray that has been serving French-influenced dishes such as escargot and trout almondine to River Oaks diners for more than a decade.

Whatever food the chefs decide to serve, they will do so in an elegant dining room with an Art Deco-inspired decor that includes a free-standing metal bar, a chef’s tasting room, and illumination by hundreds of shimmering crystal lights. It will also be quite large — with a 7,000-square-foot interior and a 2,000-square-foot patio.

As for the rest, Houstonians will have to wait and see what kind of not-French food this team of French chefs comes up with.

Rendering by Winn Wittman Architects

Reagan's favorite things: Father's Day finds, luggage to love, a super summer sweat sesh, and more for June

your must-have list

Editor’s note: We originally met entrepreneur Reagan Bregman in 2021 when we were the first to report the launch of her athleisure line, Exiza. Her brand quickly drew rave reviews for its ethical, sustainable practices, great fits for every body type, and effortlessly cool vibe.

Fast forward to 2023, and Reagan is a new mom to adorable baby Knox, still overseeing Exiza and its new line, a sought-after influencer and guest host, and a social media tastemaker. (Oh yeah, she’s also married to a nice gentleman named Alexwho is really, really good at baseball, business, and paying it forward.)

With so many of her fans constantly asking and commenting on her fab finds, we’ve recruited this Houston star to spotlight some of her favorite things — and where to find them — for a new column. Take it away, Reagan!

The scorching days of summer are officially here — look at all those 97s and 98s on your weather app this month! For me, that means looking for sunscreen and makeup that doesn't feel heavy when I'm out in the Houston sun or traveling for those outdoor, daytime away games.

Summer also means working up a sweat, and I've found an exercise platform that caters to my crazy-hectic days. Since you gotta hydrate after working out, I've teamed up with a local company that makes water that's good for you — and good for the planet.

My favorite thing for June? It's a first Father's Day for my special someone. With two Dads on my list now, I've rounded up some guy gifts that will hopefully help with Father's Day shopping inspo.

Reagan Bregman Alex Bregman Knox BregmanOur columnist with her two favorites.Photo by Alex Bregman

Hot tips for summer essentials

FORM online workouts

FORM online fitnessStay fit anywhere with FORM online.Photo via FORM

I love a good summer sweat sesh, but I don’t always have time to hit the gym. FORM online workouts are my favorite thing to do when I only have 20 to 30 minutes max. This digital exercise platform was started by Sami Clarke and her workouts are so effective and — this is super-important — never boring. Plus, the variety is great, so you're never in a rut.


Supergoop foundation Supergoop sunscreen is weightless and odorless — perfect under makeup.Photo via Supergoop

We all know how that the Houston summer sun can be intense. With my days full of indoor and outdoor activities, I always travel with Supergoop Unseen Sunscreen because it doesn’t feel like sunscreen and it’s so easy to use on the go. And ladies, it looks great under makeup — always a plus!

Tula Radiant Skin Brightening Serum Skin Tint Sunscreen

Tula Radiant Skin Brightening Serum Skin Tint Sunscreen Broad Spectrum SPF 30Face the sun with Tula Radiant Skin Brightening Serum Skin Tint Sunscreen.Photo via Tula

I have tried so many light foundations, but this one has stuck with me for years. I love it because it's lightweight and evens out your skin without feeling like you have makeup on.

This foundation is great for layering other liquid products — like blush and lip gloss — for that perfect dewy, summer makeup look. Find it at Ulta or Sephora.

HOW Water

HOW Water Reagan BregmanHOW water is good for you and the planet.Photo via DrinkHowWater

My Number One goal this summer is to drink more water. So it was great timing when HOW — a Houston-based water brand — approached me. The company was founded by Bob Peebler, who launched the Ruggles Green restaurants. His HOW (Hyperpure Oxygenated Water) is ultra-filtered and injects 98 percent oxygen into the water.

When I started Exiza, it was important that everything we do as a company is sustainable. That's why I agreed to work with HOW: the bottles are made with infinitely recyclable packaging, which is great for the planet.

(Editor's note: While Reagan Bregman is a HOW brand spokesperson, HOW did not compensate CultureMap for this mention; this is an columnist-curated and editorially approved selection.)

Chic weekend jetsetting in the bag

Beis Luggage

I love love love Beis luggage. The thoughtfulness that went into the design of these bags truly shows when you go to pack. All my friends and I have the weekender bag and I have almost every size of luggage they sell. They just came out with a kids version as well!

BEIS luggageBEIS black luggage is anything but basic. Photo courtesy of BEIS

BEIS luggage kidsTraveling kiddos will love these bright BEIS pieces.Photo courtesy of BEIS

Better travel for travel

Ride Alto

Alto revs up your airport rides. Photo courtesy of Alto

Given our busy travel schedule, I need a safe and reliable way to get to and from the airport. Alto rides are monitored and the company uses their own branded cars. The drivers are always so kind and professional and I always recommend to my girlfriends — especially if traveling alone or going to and from summer parties/festivities.

I love that each car has a fragrance and I can choose my playlist — before getting in the car! Also important for traveling moms: Alto drivers will wait as long as you need once they arrive; no need to rush out.

Sporty gifts for Active Dad

Diamond days: Home Run Dugout

Home Run DugoutHit the cages with Dad at Home Run Dugout.Photo via Home Run Dugout

I'm a little biased, of course, but I think a day at Home Run Dugout in Katy is great guy time. Catch the 'Stros, grab a burger and beer, and hang. And be sure to show off that grand slam swing in the batting cage.

For Dad's inner Ricky Bobby: Formula Go-Karting

Formula Go-KartingGet your need for speed with Formula Go-Karting.Photo courtesy of Hidden/Formula Go-Karting

As the poet Ricky Bobby once said, you’re either first or your last. If your Dad lives by those rules and has a need for speed — but doesn't have time to train for Monaco, Indianapolis, or Talladega, book a trip to NRG Parkway this December.

Formula Go-Karting rolls into town on December 2 and 3 for serious speed racing. Tickets start at $65. (Bonus points if your Dad dresses up like Ricky Bobby's dad.)

Dad gear goals


Municipal shirt T-shirt Reagan's favorite thingsDad will look fit in a Municipal fit.Photo via Municipal

This clothing brand from my husband's friend Mark Wahlbergis so massive right now. Shop workout gear (4 am!) and cool streetwear like a T-short of hat for that Dad drip. But don't stop at Dad — check out the women's line, too!


G/FORE shoesDad can go way beyond typical golf gear with G/FORE.Photo via G/FORE

If he's a golfer, this brand has the best modern golf shoes and apparel and goes way beyond typical course wear. I’ve gifted these Debossed Skull & T’s Gallivanter Golf Shoes to my Dad and they were a hit.

Savoring Father's Day

Getting spicy: Breggy Bomb Gift Set

Okay, this one may be an obvious for our household, but we love some good steak or a burger with El Jefe, or my personal favorite, grilled salmon seasoned with Brush Dust. The gift set is perfect for a dad who loves to grill and is sure to impress the next time you have friends or family over — or Dad needs to flex with his buddies.

Breggy Bomb Gift Set What else you gonna grill with?Photo via Breggy Bomb

No lime required: Flecha Azul Tequila Reposado

Flecha Azul TequilaFlecha Azul Reposado Tequila is a serious sip.Photo via Flecha Azul Tequila

This one is a great gift for Dads who love tequila. I discovered it this year, and I love the Reposado. It's light, crisp, and hits with citrus, praline, vanilla, sandalwood, and even some baking spice. This brand is also owned by Mark Wahlberg and is sure to be super sipper for summer. Find it online or in Houston Spec's or Total Wine stores.

A true tear-jerker Father's Day gift

Father's Day book WonderblyThis custom Father's Day book from Wonderbly is a real page-turner.Photo via Wonderbly

The sweetest story: Personalized Dad book from Wonderbly

For new dads — like my husband — I think this is such a sweet, sentimental gift. You can customize the book title, names, and the story, and preview everything before you order. Get on this quickly as the deadline to order for Father's Day is coming.

Also, I really really hope Alex doesn’t read this part before before Father’s Day. (Editor's note: Alex, this gift is a smoke screen. She's really getting you a tie.)