Photo by Daniel Ortiz

Tastemaker Awards Houston 2023

Photo by Daniel Ortiz

The team from Aiko celebrates winning Best New Restaurant.

More than 1,000 haute and hungry Houstonians packed the 2023 CultureMap Houston Tastemaker Awards to toast the city’s best at Silver Street Studios.

Houston’s hottest, biggest, and preeminent food event is the crowning moment of our annual, weeks-long program that highlights and celebrates the hottest, most innovative, and most visionary of the city’s culinary, wine, and bar scene.

A who's-who party for the food world, the awards are a favorite for Houston's hospitality A-listers. Past winners become judges, star chefs chat and exchange numbers and snap selfies. The event is taken so seriously that RuchitHarneja, executive pastry chef for luxe Indian palace Musaafer, left his honeymoon to attend this year's ceremonies and host the restaurant's table.

This year’s Tastemaker Awards benefited Chris Shepherd's Southern Smoke Foundation, which he founded in 2015 to offer emergency relief funding and access to mental health services to members of the food and beverage industry. Through his popular Southern Smoke Festival, the organization has provided more than $10.4 million in grants to food and beverage workers in need. The nonprofit's reach extends through California, Louisiana, Illinois, New York, and Texas.

Fittingly, Shepherd, a James Beard Award winner and CultureMap's Wine Guy, served as emcee for the evening.

As always, a host of sponsors helped make the night a rousing success, including Dripping Springs Vodka, Goodstock by Nolan Ryan, Topo Chico, Uncle Nearest Premium Whiskey.

Guests pregamed at the VIP bar and lounge, others posted up in Silver Street's grand hall, while many snapped pics at the selfie stand and photo booth from Lucky Shots — a fave for Instagram stories and reels.

Ready to raise a glass, the crowd hit the bar for speciality sips and cool cocktails courtesy of the aforementioned liquor and drink sponsors. Libations included a Basil Sour, Lavender Lemon (a party pic fave), The Blinker (a refreshing whiskey/grapefruit cooler), a Cherry Old Fashioned, and a Strawberry Fields Mocktail.

Then, party people lined up for the city’s best bites and libations and hydration stationing courtesy of Topo Chico. Delectable and dazzling dishes included:

  • Blue Crab & Shrimp Campechana and Campanella from d’Alba Craft Kitchen & Cocktails
  • Mini Carrot Cake and a Carrot and the Stick Cocktail from Bludorn/Navy Blue
  • Smoked Snapper Ceviche with wonton crisps from Loro
  • Horchata Berlinesa & Pink Berry Corn Cake Donut from Papalo Mercado Ema
  • Riz a Djej: Lebanese rice with rotisserie chicken, roasted nuts, and garlic aioli from Craft Pita
  • Kobe Beef Nigiri with yuzu kosho and truffle aioli from Aiko
  • Chilled Crawfish Bisque with spring petit pois from Le Jardinier
  • Spicy Sesame Wontons with impossible meat from Dumpling Haus
  • Bluefin Tuna Pastor from Quiote
  • Spanish Octopus Salad with smoked piquillo pepper salsa and papas arrugadas from GJ Tavern
  • Quibani: Apricot compote scented with rose and cardamom, vanilla whip & almond tuile from Musaafer
  • Ceviche and Smoked Salmon from Golfstrommen
  • Braised Pork Belly and Sticky Rice from Dinette
  • Hazelnut Brioche with jivara glaze from EaDough Pastries & Provisions
  • Mushroom Swiss Kolache (made with Goodstock by Nolan Ryan beef) from burger-chan
  • Himalayan Heat Sliders (made with Goodstock by Nolan Ryan beef) from Cowboys & Indians
  • The Hottie Melt (made with Goodstock by Nolan Ryan beef) from The Waffle Bus
  • Cheeseburgers (made with Goodstock by Nolan Ryan beef) from b'tween Sandwich Co
  • Lira Rossa Corn Ricotta, Honey Cake, Praline Chouquette, and Pine Nut Orchidea from Goodnight Hospitality (Rosie Cannonball, March)
  • Couch Potato Cookie, Unicorn Bait Cookie, Star Crossed Lovers, Pistachio Cherry Financier, Chocolate Dipped Peanut Butter Cookie, Lemon Tarts, and Bacon Fat Gingersnaps from Fluff Bake Bar
  • Salted Egg Yolk Bread Pudding from LuLoo's Day & Nights

After a quick welcome, intro, and thanks to sponsors and staff, CultureMap editor Steven Devadanam gave a well-deserved shout out to our food editor Eric Sandler and then handed the mic to Shepherd, who led the awards ceremony with his signature casual vine.

The crowd packed the stage and roared for nominees including Pop-up of the Year, Pastry Chef of the Year, Neighborhood Restaurant of the Year, Bar of the Year, Best New Restaurant, and the hotly anticipated Chef of the Year and Restaurant of the Year.

Winners were chosen by a judges panel of restaurant industry experts — except Best New Restaurant, which was voted on by CultureMap readers. Get the full list of winners here.

Mark Clayton of Squable scored Chef of the Year; his partner Justin Yu notes that Clayton's "attention to detail on those very normal, overlooked flavors and textures on dishes that most diners take for granted that makes his food sing..."

For the grand finale, Shepherd called out Bludorn for the coveted title of Restaurant of the Year. Chef Aaron Bludorn and his managing partner Cheríf Mbodji gratefully accepted the award and hugged it out with Shepherd.

"We're going to Bludorn!" the chef/owner told us regarding his post-party plans. And why not?

Since its launch in 2014, our Tastemaker Awards have been the city’s defining food event where A-list dining names mix with casual fans. The electric crowd and eager participants made 2023 one of the biggest and brightest awards ever.

Our hearty congratulations to the winners and our thanks to the sponsors, participants, and fans. We’ll see you next year.

Photo by Julie Soefer

Here are the winners of best restaurant, chef, and more in CultureMap's 2023 Tastemaker Awards

Your attention please...

On Thursday, April 13, CultureMap held the awards ceremony for the 2023 Tastemaker Awards. Below are the winners in all 11 categories.

A panel of judges made up of local restaurant industry experts selected 10 of them, and CultureMap readers picked the winner of Best New Restaurant via a bracket-style, head-to-head tournament.

Most of these awards have “of the year” appended to them to acknowledge that they recognize the best of what’s happening in Houston right now. Even as we celebrate the winners’ achievements, we recognize that all of them have more to do. We admire their dedication to their craft, their grace under pressure, and their desire to improve. In a city with thousands of restaurants and bars, these are the best of the best.

Neighborhood Restaurant of the Year - Craft Pita
Certainly, much of Craft Pita’s success can be attributed to its high quality Lebanese cuisine that mixes locally-sourced ingredients with a few tastes of Lebanon, including olive oil sourced from relatives of owner Rafael Nasr. Despite the fast casual service model, diners receive a high level of service throughout their meal. Craft Pita’s employees genuinely seem happy to work there, which makes customers’ experiences a little more pleasant. No wonder it has already grown to two locations — with the distinct possibility of more to come.

Bar of the Year - Captain Foxheart’s Bad News Bar and Spirit Lodge
At a time when almost all of the other bars that opened on Main Street in 2013 and 2014 have changed hands, Bad News Bar (as it’s commonly known) endures. Houstonians keep walking through the unmarked door and climbing the narrow staircase for lots of reasons — great drinks, obviously, but also an incredibly deep, well-priced selection of spirits and bartenders who take their craft seriously. Whether popping in for happy hour during the week or coming in during a busy Saturday night, customers will find Houston’s best Old Fashioned and lots of other great drinks to lift their spirits.

Bartender of the Year - Kristine Nguyen, Captain Foxheart’s Bad News Bar
Speaking of long overdue recognition, our judges have selected this Houston hospitality veteran who has been previously nominated for her work at Nancy’s Hustle. As Nguyen shared in the Bartender of the Year article, she sees her role as facilitating her customers’ good times. She has suggestions about what people should drink, but only if they ask — which people definitely should, since the next cocktail or spirit someone tries at Bad News Bar could be their new favorite.

Wine Program of the Year - Nancy’s Hustle
As CultureMap wine columnist Chris Shepherd explained, Nancy’s Hustle’s wine list has been precisely curated by sommelier Justin Vann to pair well with its eclectic menu of butter-drenched comfort food. “Fun and funky, from sherry to orange wines to cider, the focus here is natural for sure,” he wrote. That focus, and the joy the restaurant’s entire front of house staff takes in sharing their favorite selections with customers, helped them secure this year’s award. Hopefully, it also earns Nancy’s the James Beard Award for Outstanding Wine and Other Beverages Program.

Pastry Chef of the Year - Shawn Gawle, Goodnight Hospitality
On a recent episode of CultureMap’s What’s Eric Eating podcast, Goodnight Partners Felipe Riccio and June Rodil shared what makes Gawle, the group’s executive pastry chef, so special. Here are their (lightly edited) replies:

Felipe Riccio: I don’t think we’d be where we’re at if Shawn weren’t part of the team. He really has pushed everyone to create more and to be attentive. His attention to detail is incredible. We are very lucky that June had a relationship with him, and that he was willing to come to Houston. I’ve relied on him a ton.

June Rodil: I met Shawn when he was working with my best friend at Robuchon in New York. This is the second time we’ve worked together. I’ve never seen so much growth in somebody in the almost five years we’ve been working together. He’s done the work, both at our place of our business and within himself. It’s been awesome to see.

Best Burger - Burger Bodega
It seems very 2023 that Houston’s most talked about new burger joint would be developed by one of the city’s most prominent food influencers. Abbas Dhanani, known for his houstoneatz accounts, rigorously researched every aspect of a classic smash burger, carefully developing the right size patty, properly tart pickles, appropriately tangy sauce, and, most importantly, the best smash technique for developing the crispy edges that add texture. Add in the restaurant's chopped cheese sandwich, craveable milkshakes, and a stylish, photo-worthy design, and it’s no wonder Burger Bodega regularly has a line out the door.

Best Pop-Up - Khói Barbecue
Pitmaster Don Nguyen’s Vietnamese-influenced barbecue concept has come a long way since he started serving beef rib nigiri under a tent at local breweries. Now, Nguyen, who reached the finals of season three of the Food Network show BBQ Brawl, draws crowds of smoked meat obsessives for signature items such as brisket pho and beef rib curry. He's achieved enough success that his curry barbecue sauce is bottled for use at home.

Khói acquired property north of downtown where its hosted pop-ups with two of Austin’s top barbecue joints — LeRoy & Lewis and Interstellar BBQ. Could it become the home of a permanent restaurant? Only time will tell.

Best New Restaurant - Aiko
In the end, our Best New Restaurant tournament came down to a battle of Washington Avenue — Aiko vs Burger Bodega. Readers preferred the casual sushi restaurant known for its affordable omakase to the smash hit smash burger concept. We suggest celebrating the victory by visiting Aiko during its new happy hour, which features $25 and $45 omakase menus that are served daily from 5-6:30 pm.

Rising Star Chef of the Year - Emmanuel Chavez, Tatemó
Chavez might be the Larry David of Houston’s food scene. Not because he’s grouchy or self-centered — he’s actually very self-deprecating and quick to give both his team and partner Megan Maul credit for their roles in Tatemó’s success. Rather, just like Curb Your Enthusiasm makes Seinfeld seem a little less interesting, eating Chavez’s nixtamal creations makes everyone else’s tortillas seem a little bland by comparison. How does he get so much corn flavor and essence into every bite? Whatever sorcery is involved, we hope he follows this award with the James Beard Award for America’s Best New Restaurant.

Chef of the Year - Mark Clayton, Squable
Editor’s note: We asked Squable partner Justin Yu to explain what impresses him about Clayton's work. His (lightly edited) response is as follows:

Mark modernizes classics based on his history of cooking in fine dining in three cities — New Orleans, Portland, and Houston — and travels in Europe. His attention to detail on those very normal, overlooked flavors and textures on dishes that most diners take for granted that makes his food sing: adding pickle backs pulled from his kitchen larder to raw oysters; adding a cheesy, queso-y spread of raclette to Squable’s famous French Cheeseburger; and crisping his meticulously-built lasagna on the griddle so that all the bites can taste like the corner piece,

Mark leads by example, with a calm intensity and reverence for excellent technique. You’ll find him expediting on the line as much as he’ll also be cooking alongside his cooks at brunch and helping the dishwasher get out of a bind when it gets busy. Mark is a chef’s chef, the hardest worker and an example that people look up to.

Restaurant of the Year - Bludorn
If the only thing chef Aaron Bludorn, his wife Victoria Pappas Bludorn, and their business partner/operations director Cherif Mbodji accomplished at their Montrose-area restaurant consisted of discovering Houstonians’ limitless appetite for lobster pot pie, smart wines, and warm hospitality, it would have been enough to earn citywide recognition. Instead of only focusing on their own success, they’ve gone above and beyond by hosting collaboration dinners with chefs from across the country, raising money for nonprofits such as the Southern Smoke Foundation and World Central Kitchen, and generally using Bludorn’s growing national reputation to shine a spotlight on Houston. Taken together, they’re setting a high standard for community involvement and raising the bar for what a Houston restaurant is capable of. That’s why Bludorn is the Restaurant of the Year.

Bludorn exterior
Photo by Julie Soefer

Restaurant of the Year, Bludorn.

Courtesy of Kristen Nepomuceno

Houston's 11 best bartenders stir up superb sips and stellar service

Meet the Tastemakers

One thing separates the nominees for Bartender of the Year in the 2023 CultureMap Tastemaker Awards from the other individual categories. As primarily service professionals, they interact with the public in a way that our chef nominees are not required to.

While chefs mostly stay in their kitchens with their colleagues, customers can sit at a bar and have a conversation with a bartender. We suggest that you do, because these 11 professionals know a lot about wine, beer, and spirits. That's part of the reasons why our panel of local restaurants industry experts selected them.

Even more importantly, they’re good at sharing that knowledge without being snobby or condescending. They bring people in. If someone wants a vodka soda or a Jack and Coke, that’s okay, too. They’re here for you.

We’ll find out who wins at the Tastemaker Awards ceremony next Thursday, April 13. Tickets are sold out. For those who missed out, we’re too polite to say we told you so, but hopefully, we’ll see you next year.

Alejandro Medina - La Niña Blanca Mezcaleria
After a lengthy stint at Anvil, Medina moved on to East End hangout spot Lil’ Danny Speedo’s Go Fly a Kite Lounge and La Niña, a pop-up mezcal bar. He tells CultureMap that he’s been traveling to Mexico frequently to meet with mezcaleros and tequileros. His goal is to share the stories behind the spirits in the hope that it encourages consumers to explore beyond the big names.

Kristen Nepomuceno

Courtesy of Kristen Nepomuceno

Kristen Nepomuceno slings martinis at Refuge.

Christian Tellez - Rosie Cannonball
After working at downtown whisky bar Public Services, Tellez became part of the Rosie team two years ago. At Rosie’s, he leads a cocktail program known for its use of seasonal ingredients and a selection of non-alcoholic creations. When he’s not trying to convince diners to try a new amaro, he’s usually playing guitar — including rediscovering his interest in mariachi.

Elena Vann - Quiote
After spending a couple of years at The Toasted Coconut, the tiki-inspired bar that shares a space with Quiote, she moved to the intimate agave bar when it reopened last year. Vann’s cocktails utilize a range of Mexican spirits, including a martini riff made with Condesa gin that’s distilled in Mexico City. Outside of the bar, her work as a hand-poked tattoo artist can be seen on Houstonians with an appreciation for the art form.

Himanshu Desai
At Musaafer, Desai crafted theatrical cocktails that paired with chef Miyank Istwal’s creative interpretations of classic Indian cuisine and one of Houston’s most opulent dining room. As his Instagram account name @liquid__chef implies, Desai takes pride in incorporating culinary techniques into his preparations, a practice he says he learned while working in Dubai. Although Desai recently departed the Indian fine dining restaurant, we can’t wait to see what he does next.

Josh Alden - Reserve 101
As Reserve 101’s beverage director, this experienced bartender helped evolve the downtown spot from being known primarily for its extensive whiskey selection to being equally well regarded for its cocktails and hospitality. Recently, he’s begun working at Refuge, Anvil’s stylish, service-focused sister concept, where he's already earning raves from regulars for his outgoing personality. “I'm neither a cocktail historian nor a scientist but I take pride in pulling what matters most from those worlds to make great drinks for the person in front of me,” he explains.

Kristen Nepomuceno - Refuge
After working at Squable, Bobby Heugel recruited Nepomuceno to work as head bartender at Refuge due to her outgoing personality and strong interpersonal skills. “I value hospitality in its truest form as act of kindness, respect, and love,” Nepomuceno says. “Lucky for me, I’m able to work alongside a community of people who share those same values.”

Kristine Nguyen - Captain Foxheart's Bad News Bar & Spirits Lodge
It can be difficult to know what to order from Bad News Bar’s massive (and well-priced) spirits selection, but Nguyen is there to help. She tells CultureMap she sees her role as helping customers have the best time possible. “I believe bartending should be about the people and having fun, not about me and what I like or want people to drink,” she explains.

Rebecca Burkhart - Johnny's Gold Brick
As the bar’s longtime general manager (a role previously held by her husband, Justin Ware), Burkhart guides Johnny’s staff as it creates its signature monthly cocktail menus. She says she considers herself lucky to work with and mentor the bar’s talented staff. For her own cocktails, she works hard to get all the details right, including using garnishes from the bar’s garden.

Taylor Morris - William Price Distilling Co.
A veteran of Onion Creek and How to Survive on Land and Sea, Morris welcomes drinkers to the popular tasting room that’s part of this Garden Oaks distillery. The creative menu uses William Price’s spirits that include rye whiskey, gin, and its signature coffee liqueur. Ask her about one of her favorite cocktails — a classic daiquiri made with the distillery’s Jamaican rum.

Thomas Marsella - 13 Celsius
Navigating the Midtown wine bar’s extensive selection can be tricky for even the most knowledgeable oenophiles, but Marsella has the knowledge and experience to guide the bar’s customers to something they’ll enjoy. Asked about something he’d like people to know about him, Marsella replies that he really enjoys karaoke. “I left behind a previous career as a touring musician to fully devote my time to the service industry, but still love to hop on a stage to perform,” he explains.

Zulcoralis Rodriguez - Anvil
Prior to joining the team at Anvil, Rodriguez spent four years at San Antonio’s legendary Esquire Tavern. Her interest in bitter and savory cocktails can be sampled via the Navarrese Sour, her current contribution to the bar’s seasonal cocktail menu that includes Calvados and pacharan, a Spanish liqueur. Patrons may notice that she wears hearing aids to compensate for being legally deaf.

“I’m very proud to have accomplished so much personally and professionally having in mind the challenges that I face everyday,” she shared last year. “I’m open to the dialogue if anyone wants to explore this industry with a disability.”

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.

Photo by Terence Tang

Houston's best burgers smash the game with exotic add-ons, beefed-up buns, and more

Meet the Tastemakers

Before we dive into the nominees for Best Burger in the 2023 CultureMap Tastemaker Awards, let’s acknowledge one thing. No matter what our judges select as the winner, some people will be mad.

After all, arguing about where to find the city’s best burgers is as much our civic birthright as complaining about construction on The Loop or thinking the Texans have finally turned the corner (we’re counting on you, DeMeco). We could double the number of nominees and still get angry comments about some neighborhood favorite that got left out.

Still, we’ll put this group of nominees against any other 10 Houston burger purveyors anyone cares to name. It covers a range of styles, from the super hot smash burger trend to fancy restaurant burgers that are topped with exotic cheeses and use buns that are baked in-house. It also covers a range of prices, with the least expensive coming in at just $5.

So fire away in the comments if you must. We can take it.

Then go try these burgers for yourself. Because, frankly, they’re f*cking delicious.

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 our emcee (and Best Burger nominee) Bun B reveals the winners. Buy your tickets before they sell out.

Burger Bodega
Before launching Burger Bodega as a pop-up, owner Abbas Dhanani traveled to Los Angeles and New York to research smash burgers. Ultimately, he settled on a procedure that serves the thinnest, most crispy patties in Houston. They’re paired with American cheese, housemade pickles, and Bodega sauce on a potato bun. The result is a craveable sandwich that’s just the right portion when served as a double cheeseburger.

At this Galleria-area restaurant, diners really can have it their way. The ordering process allows customers to pick the size of their patties, the number of patties, the type of bun, cheese, extra proteins, sauces, and veggies. When the choices are this compelling — the options range far beyond the usual tomato/lettuce/onion to cover everything from sambal mayo and scallion aioli to kimchi relish and ghost pepper flakes — finding the exact perfect combo can tricky. The best plan is to go several times until you get it just right.

Cantina Barba
It’s not obvious that the cheeseburger would be among the most popular dishes at this agave-obsessed taqueria, but that’s part of its charm. The classic build — a quarter-pound patty, American cheese, housemade pickles, and a tangy sauce — helps explain the popularity, as does its very reasonable $7 price. Those who are feeling particularly ambitious could add the contents of any of the restaurant’s signature tacos to the burger for an even bigger burst of flavor.

La Lucha
Ford Fry’s seafood-oriented, comfort food restaurant in the Heights doesn’t try to hide the inspiration for its signature Pharmacy Burger. The yellow paper its wrapped in nods to Whataburger and the name references the Avalon Drug Store, which had a diner-style counter during the chef’s childhood (its legacy continues as Avalon Diner). The restaurant’s beefy double cheeseburger gets topped with mustard, mayo, chopped lettuce, onions, and pickles. Crunchy, gooey, fatty, and rich, it will satisfy the burger craving for any hardcore carnivore.

Monkey's Tail
The Chango burger’s slim proportion — a 3-ounce patty — makes it snackable. Toppings like relish and Valentina mayo give it a compelling mix of sweet and spicy flavors that contrast with the crispy, smashed beef. At just $5 for a single or $9 for a double, it’s an irresistible deal and a necessary component of any visit to this popular bar in Lindale Park.

Nancy's Hustle
The cheeseburger at this popular bistro had a viral moment last year when then-Astros pitcher Justin Verlander gave it a shout out during an in-game interview. As it happens, the future Hall of Famer and his wife, supermodel Kate Upton, regularly dined at the EaDo bistro. Served on a housemade English muffin made with buttery brioche dough, the burger satisfies with its combination of good beef, American cheese, chopped onions, pickles and aioli.

On the menu since the restaurant opened in 2019, Squable’s French cheeseburger distinguishes itself with its “stout beef patty” — a custom blend of short rib, chuck, and a round — that's crowned with a thick layer of melty cheese that blends raclette and cheddar and a little maitre d' hotel butter. Chopped cornichons provide acidity, and the house made bun is sturdy enough to keep the whole thing together. At brunch, find an even more decadent version that comes topped with cheddar, lardons, dijonaise, and a fried egg.

The Burger Joint
Now with three locations, The Burger Joint has a flexible menu of burgers with creative toppings that satisfy a diverse set of cravings. Sure, it’s possible to get a regular cheeseburger with its familiar Angus beef, but why not opt for something a little more fun like the Mexi burger (grilled ham, avocado, queso fresco) or the Opa burger (lamb, pickled onions, feta). Spice hounds will seek out the Fire burger that’s topped with both jalapeños and serranos. Monthly specials and the recent addition of a halal patty help keep things fresh.

The Toasted Coconut
Weighing in at six ounces, the tiki-inspired bar’s “World Famous Cheeseburger” starts with two smashed patties that are topped with housemade pickles, chili aioli, and diced red onions. That’s served on a housemade Hawaiian bun that uses a little pineapple juice and brown sugar in the dough. “The result is a well-balanced smashed burger that benefits from the sweetness of the Hawaiian bun and the smoky kick of the aioli,” Ali Khan wrote for Texas Highways. We couldn’t have said it better.

Trill Burgers
Developed by California restaurateur Andy Nguyen and Houston hip-hop legend Bun B, the Trill Burgers burger is a classic smash burger that’s topped with cheese, pickles, onions, and Trill sauce, a tangy, Thousand Island-style dressing that ties it all together. The classic combination has been a hit, earning a prize on Good Morning America and playing to long lines throughout the entire run of this year’s Houston Livestock Show & Rodeo. Expect a similar frenzy when the concept’s brick and mortar restaurant opens in the former James Coney Island space on Shepherd Drive.


The Best Burger category is brought to you by Goodstock by Nolan Ryan. The Tastemaker Awards event will feature a Burger Throwdown where attendees will have the opportunity to vote for their favorite slider.

burger-chan burger
Photo by Terence Tang

The compelling burger-chan offering — with an egg.

Photo by Becca Wright

Houston's best food pop-ups tempt diners with creative 'cue, exotic eats, and smash burgers

Meet the Tastemakers

Of all the categories in the 2023 CultureMap Tastemaker Awards, Best Pop-Up/Startup is distinct. First introduced in 2021, it recognizes food-based businesses that don’t operate in traditional bar or restaurant settings.

These entrepreneurs reach consumers in a variety of ways, including online sales, farmers markets, and pop-ups at bars and breweries. That scarcity — and the if you know, you know aspect of occasional service — helps motivate people to experience these creations before they’re gone.

The trend shows no signs of slowing down. Consider this year's Best New Restaurant and Rising Star Chef of the Year categories that feature several former Best Pop-Up/Startup nominees, including Neo, Tatemó, and Louie’s Italian American. How many of this year’s nominees will make the transition to full-time restaurants remains to be scene, but all are worthy of recognition.

Trill Burgers cheeseburger smash burger
Photo by Becca Wright
Trill Burgers has been a smash hit (get it?).

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 our emcee Bun B reveals the winners. Buy your tickets before they sell out.

Ally Barrera - Sweet Bee's Bakehouse
Some of the Houston area’s best croissants come from Barrera’s Pearland kitchen. Expertly laminated with a crispy exterior and a delicate interior, they’re a sight to see. In addition to traditional flavors, Barrera prepares croissants filled with flavors such as hazelnut chocolate, guava cream cheese, and Doritos. The chef contributes more sophisticated, plated desserts to 5Kinokawa, the omakase restaurant in the Heights.

Andrea de Gortari - The Bake Happening
Houstonians turn to The Bake Happening for elaborate custom cakes — say, a chocolate cake with peanut butter buttercream and salted caramel that’s decorated with images from the TV show Justified or Godfather-themed cookies complete with a severed horse head. De Gortari raised her profile with a winning appearance on an episode of Food Network’s Christmas Cookie Challenge. She regularly participates in pop-up markets that promote BIPOC creators or in support of the LGBTQIA community.

Andy Nguyen and Bun B - Trill Burgers
Arguably, the California restaurateur and Houston hip-hop legend have teamed up to create the city’s most successful pop-up of all time. People line up for hours for a Trill Burger, and it earned the prize of America’s top burger spot from a panel of celebrity judges on Good Morning America. Credit the simplicity of a classic smash burger that gets a boost from its signature Trill sauce and sauteed onions. Trill Burgers will utilize the momentum from another successful run at the Rodeo to launch its eagerly anticipated brick and mortar restaurant in the Montrose area.

Don Nguyen - Khói Barbecue
For a man with a day job, Nguyen devotes considerable effort to making his Vietnamese-influenced barbecue. Not only did he reach the finals of season three of Food Network’s BBQ Brawl and begin bottling his signature curry sauce, he acquired property north of downtown to serve as Khói’s base of operations. That’s good news for people who look forward to Nguyen’s barbecue brisket pho, beef rib curry bowls, housemade sausages, and other creations. The property has also allowed Khói to host collaboration dinners with other pitmasters.

Jane Wild
No other chef in Houston may hustle harder than Jane Wild. She serves her “food for rebel souls” every Saturday at the Urban Harvest farmers market, every Sunday at either the Heights Mercantile or Rice Village markets, and at other markets around town. Regardless of where they find her, Houstonians will find Wild serving all manor of sweet and savory pastries, from breakfast muffins that contain an egg to gluten-free bagels, cookies, and her signature salted honey pie.

Joseph Boudreaux - Boo's Burgers
Operating at the Tipping Point coffee shop and at pop-up markets around town, Bourdreaux’s smash burgers utilize good techniques. The chef developed a custom burger grind that mixes chuck and short rib, makes his own pickles, and tops them with a signature sauce. Recently, the chef has expanded his repertoire by serving gumbo and collaborating with Houston chef Dawn Burrell on a Thanksgiving-themed pop-up.

Joseph Quellar and Cindy Conde - JQ's Tex-Mex BBQ
Quellar and Conde have built their business around birria tacos that use smoked brisket that’s bathed in consomme, covered in cheese, and cooked on a griddle until the corn tortilla gets nice and crispy. The duo have also built a following for their smoked fajitas tacos and brisket tamales that get a boost from housemade salsas. A permanent weekend residency at Heights-area coffee shop Amsterdam Company means obtaining the tacos will be easier than ever.

Suu Khin - Burmalicious by Suu
This Houstonian reached the finals on season 11 of Masterchef, Gordon Ramsay’s competition cooking show, by serving dishes inspired by her Burmese heritage. Building on that success, she’s making the transition from home cook to pop-up chef with a series of sold out dinners, appearances at different markets, and a recent collaboration with Musaafer chef Mayank Istwal. Anyone who’s sampled dishes such as samosa salad, crab curry, and laphet knows that Khin has a bright future in Houston’s culinary world.

Willow Villarreal and Jasmine Barela - Willow's Texas BBQ
This dynamic duo put their spin on traditional barbecue by including elements of their Mexican heritage. Villarreal, who had a winning guest appearance on the barbecue-themed episode of Top Chef’s Houston-based season, turns out expertly-prepared brisket, ribs, sausage, and other proteins. Barela contributes sides such as jalapeno creamed corn, cole slaw, and her signature marinated tomatoes. Look for them at bars and breweries across the inner loop.

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Rock icon Bono's daughter makes her own sweet music in Flora and Son

in bloom

The new Apple TV+ film Flora and Son centers on a single mother and her teenage son, a situation that typically calls for an uplifting story about the mother’s struggles trying to support the two of them, and the bond that develops between them as go through the troubles together. While that element exists somewhat here, it goes down a much different path that’s both saltier and equally as rewarding.

Eve Hewson and Oren Kinlan in Flora and Son

Photo courtesy of Apple TV+

Eve Hewson and Oren Kinlan in Flora and Son.

Set in Dublin, Ireland, the film follows Flora (Eve Hewson), a single mom to Max (Oren Kinlan), who gets in a fair bit of trouble. She shares custody with her ex, Ian (Jack Reynor), and their antagonistic relationship, along with Max being a teenager, likely has an effect on how Flora and Max get along. A typical interchange between mother and son has them calling each other all sorts of bad names, although there rarely seems to be any true animosity behind their arguments.

When a guitar Flora refurbishes for Max goes unappreciated, she instead starts taking online lessons herself with an American named Jeff (Joseph Gordon-Levitt). She’s no less brash with him, but her sincere interest in learning how to play and in finding out more about Jeff’s music opens a new door for Flora. Soon, a discovery that Max is making music of his own on his laptop helps them communicate better than they have in a long time.

Flora & Son is the latest music-focused film from writer/director John Carney (Once, Sing Street), and he once again finds the sweet spot in telling a personal story enhanced by song. Flora has more than a few rough edges, making her a less-than-ideal protagonist, but the heart of the character shines through precisely because she has no filter. Once music is added to the equation, it become that much easier to see the type of person she is and why you should root for her.

Both Hewson and Gordon-Levitt are charming actors, so they establish a connection through a screen well. Fortunately, though, Carney chooses not to leave it at that, adding a slight fantasy element to some of their scenes by having Flora imagine Jeff in the room with her. A romantic element naturally arises, but it’s the unexpected way in which two lonely souls find each other from across the world that makes them the most interesting.

There are a couple of decent songs that come out of the process of all of the music-making, but nothing that you could truly call an earworm. Instead, it’s the feeling you get seeing the characters interact when they’re sharing music with each other that makes the film sing. Only one character could be classified as a professional musician, with the rest of them making music for the pure joy of it, an emotion Carney translates well in his storytelling.

Hewson (the daughter of U2’s Bono, in case you were unaware) is having a moment after 15 years in the business. She has a boldness that serves her as well in this role as it did in the recent Apple TV+ limited series, Bad Sisters. This is Kinlan’s first major part, and he acquits himself well. Both Gordon-Levitt and Reynor are seasoned actors who know how to make the most of their limited scenes.

The depiction of a mother/child relationship in Flora and Son is atypical, but it still winds up in a great spot thanks to the power of music and some fine performances. Carney’s love for both songs and filmmaking has yielded some memorable movies over the years, this one included.


Flora and Son opens in select theaters and on Apple TV+ on September 29.

Spectacular SPI sandcastles, F1, ACL, and more Texas travel tidbits in October

where to travel right now

Fall is finally here, and with the (hopefully) cooler temps will come the chance to get outside and enjoy autumn activities all around Texas. Can't decide where to take a quick vacation, road trip, or staycation? Here are 11 events, special celebrations, and hotel happenings to help plan a getaway in October.

Along the Gulf Coast

What better way to celebrate the arrival of spooky season than by seeking out haunted ghost experiences in Corpus Christi? The Heritage Park Museum will showcase four reportedly haunted houses, and phantom chasers will delight in visiting the USS Lexington during the "Haunting on the Blue Ghost" event, October 6-31, to glimpse any ghostly crew members lurking about the vessel. The abandoned Nueces County Courthouse also has some ghouls of its own, with reports of voices, noises, and screams being heard following a hurricane that devastated the area more than a century ago.

Summer might be over, but a trip to the beach is always in the cards on South Padre Island. The annual Sandcastle Days falls on October 5-8, drawing the attention of sandcastle-building experts, food and craft vendors, and free family-friendly entertainment. Then, from October 19-21, classic cars and motorcycles rev up the brand new Chrome in the Sand Festival. The weekend will consist of live performances, car shows, a poker tournament, and more. Tickets for the Chrome in the Sand Festival begin at $20 for general admission, $55 for VIP, and $500 for VIP tables.

Around Austin

It's finally festival season down in the Texas Capital, beginning with the iconic Austin City Limits Music Festival at Zilker Park for two consecutive weekends from October 6-8 and 13-15. Luckily for Texas travelers, CultureMap's got the scoop on all things ACL – from can't-miss acts, to new eats, and more. One-day general admission tickets begin at $170. Weekend One tickets are waitlisted, but there are still one-day general admission tickets available for Weekend Two. Weekend passes for both weekends are waitlisted.

Following ACL, Austin will race to the Formula 1 United States Grand Prix at Circuit of the Americas from October 20-22. Red Bull Racing has already won the 2023 Constructors' Championship after its longstanding driver Max Verstappen won the Japanese Grand Prix, and Verstappen is well in the lead to win his third-consecutive World Drivers' Championship title. Three-day general admission wristbands are $475, two-day GA is $425, and three-day parking passes are $275.

F1 racecarRace to Austin for the Formula 1 United States Grand Prix. Photo courtesy of Circuit of The Americas

In the Hill Country

It's never too late for a day by the pool, and the luxurious Lantana Spa at the JW Marriott San Antonio Hill Country Resort and Spa has opened reservations for their renovated pool cabanas with a special VIP poolside service and deluxe amenities. The private, two-person Canyons, Preserve, and Oaks Spa Cabanas each include an unlimited mimosa service, shaded seating and chaise lounges, a dedicated server from 11 am-5 pm, and more. Cabana reservations can be made by resort guests or in addition to a spa service, and rates begin at $400.

Nonprofit trade association Texas Hill Country Wineries is bringing back its Texas Wine Month passport this month for a self-guided journey through 45 local wineries with special discounts scattered along the way. With participating estates scattered throughout popular weekend destinations like Fredericksburg, Johnson City, and New Braunfels, it’s a chance to explore the Hill Country and soak in those autumn vibes. Wine passport-holders can visit up to four wineries daily to get the most out of a weekend getaway. Individual passes are $85, and couples' passes are $120.

Speaking of wineries, one Marble Falls-based winery is hosting regular events throughout October, which is perfect for those holding a Texas Wine Month passport. Every Saturday and Sunday, folks can venture out to Flat Creek Estates & Vineyard for their effervescent Bubbles and Brunch from 11 am to 3 pm. And if the trip transforms from a brunch outing into an all-day affair, guests catch live music from local Texas bands during the winery's weekend music series from 2-6 pm. Ernie Vasquez and Evan Grubbs are scheduled the weekend of October 7-8, and Stephen Daly and Andrew Lopez will play on the weekend of October 14-15.

Throughout Texas

If searching for beautiful fall foliage around Texas is at the top of the priority list, cabin rental agency Smoky Mountains' prediction map is the perfect guide to help estimate when the leaves will begin changing throughout the state and the U.S. The map predicts most of Texas will have minimal-to-patchy changing leaves by the end of October, and most of the state's trees will be at their color-changing peak in November.

Dallas-based luxury bus operator Vonlane added 60 new weekly departures to meet anticipated high demand for the fall travel season. There are now more than 430 trips per week departing Vonlane hubs in Dallas, Fort Worth, Houston, Austin, and San Antonio. Travelers can book their trips online for both one-way or round-trips, with fares beginning at $119.

Two unmistakable cutesy pink trucks are going on tour throughout Texas this month, with stops in several major cities. That's right – the cult craze Hello Kitty Cafe Truck and Barbie Truck are bringing a horde of new branded clothing and accessories to adoring fans in Houston, Austin, and San Antonio. Houstonians can head to First Colony Mall to say hi to Hello Kitty on October 7, then head to Baybrook Mall in Friendswood to catch the Barbie Truck on October 21. Barbie will stick around to visit The Woodlands Mall on October 28.

In Waco

The annual Magnolia Silobration at The Silos will celebrate the 20th anniversary of Chip and Joanna Gaines' Waco-based home design and lifestyle empire from October 19-21. Fixer Upper fans can visit the Silos to enjoy a three-day adventure of local artisan and food vendors, live music performances, shopping, and more. The festival is free, but note that certain ticketed experiences like the 20th anniversary tour, weekend rooftop passes, and Evenings with Chip and Jo are sold out.

Houston’s oldest craft brewery taps new chef for its buzzy beer garden and restaurant

Saint Arnold's new chef

Houston’s oldest craft brewery has found a new chef to lead its popular restaurant. Chase Reid is now the executive chef at Saint Arnold Brewing Company’s beer garden and restaurant.

Hired a couple of months ago, Reid replaces chef Ryan Savoie, who had been with the brewery since 2013. A French-trained chef, Reid came to Saint Arnold’s attention after well-regarded stints at Hop Scholar Ale House in Spring and the Historic Hill House and Farm in Willis.

“I’m thrilled to join the talented team at Saint Arnold and build on the legacy they’ve created in Texas,” Reid said in a statement. “I love the creativity that comes with cooking and have always been passionate about craft beer. I’m very much looking forward to combining the two.”

Recent visitors to Saint Arnold have gotten a first taste of the chef’s work with pizza specials and new additions such as a house made bratwurst burger. He’s also the culinary mind behind Saint Arnold’s recent Doughnut Sunday offerings that pair freshly fried treats with different beers from the company’s portfolio on the firs Sunday of every month. Overall, he’s focused on maintaining the quality and consistency that has been the restaurant’s hallmark since it opened in 2018.

Reid will more formally introduce himself to the brewery’s fans at the upcoming Great Pumpkin Beer Dinner. Held on Halloween night, the meal will feature a five-course menu paired with seasonal and limited release beers, including 2013 Pumpkinator, 2023 Pumpkinator, and 2020 bourbon barrel-aged Pumpkinator with cocoa nibs. See the full menu and purchase tickets ($125) on the Saint Arnold website.

“Chase’s enthusiasm for both food and beer got all of us excited to have him joining our team,” Saint Arnold founder Brock Wagner added. “Our Beer Garden & Restaurant is a welcoming place to enjoy our world class beers. We have the same standards for our food as we do for our beer and are always working to elevate and create an experience that will keep our guests coming back again and again.”