Introducing the winners of the 2022 CultureMap Tastemaker Awards. This collection of restaurant industry professionals represents the best of Houston’s culinary scene.
As a reminder, our judging panel of past winners and Houston restaurant industry experts selected the winners in nine of this year’s categories. CultureMap readers selected the winner for Best New Restaurant in a parenthesis-style head-to-head tournament.
Finding the theme that unites them is elusive. Maybe that’s the goal. This year’s winners span a wide range of areas, from a small establishment that shares its parking lot with a gas station to an upscale establishment known for its lobster pie. One of our winners doesn’t have a dining room, but serves up some of Houston’s most satisfying Filipino fare. Another operates from a clothing store.
Maybe that’s the theme. In Houston, you shouldn’t judge a restaurant by its environment. Delicious meals can happen wherever passionate people dedicate themselves to their craft. Let’s celebrate their accomplishments and look forward to next year.
Neighborhood Restaurant of the Year – Click Virtual Food Hall
What makes chef Gabe Medina’s ghost kitchen concept so compelling is how many cravings it can satisfy. From Japanese cuisine and Filipino dishes to burgers, pastas and vegan dishes, Click offers something for almost everyone. A wide delivery radius from her home in Rice Military means plenty of inner curlers can experience Medina’s designs.
Bar of the Year – Tongue-Cut Sparrow
This price is a bit bittersweet. As much as people enjoyed Bobby Heugel’s formal Japanese-inspired cocktail bar, the entrepreneur has transformed the space into Refuge, a new concept that preserves some aspects of Tongue-cut’s elevated service — warm towels and elegant glassware, for example – but in a more lively atmosphere. While it may be defunct for the time being, this award recognizes that the bar helped inspire a wave of other intimate, upscale cocktail lounges that have made Houston a more fun place to drink.
Bartender of the Year – Sarah Crowl, Better Luck Tomorrow
Nominated for her work at both Coltivare and Rosie Cannonball, Crowl finally wins the award in her role as manager of Bobby Heugel and Justin Yu’s laid-back patio bar. Wherever she works, count on drinks made with ingredients from season and Instagram-worthy toppings. She’s also been among Houston’s leading advocates for mocktails, because even people who don’t drink alcohol deserve a tasty drink.
Wine of the Year Program – Tiny Champions
Rather than selecting a restaurant with thousands of selections, our judges opted for Sean Jensen’s tidy list of a dozen options by the glass and around 50 bottles. Fittingly, the selections are sustainably produced wines that pair well with the restaurant’s eclectic pizzas and pastas. As an example, Jensen cites the Donnhoff Estate Trocken Riesling; the acidity of the wine pairs well with the campanelli prawn pesto.
Pastry Chef of the Year – Christina Au, Blacksmith
A veteran of places like Common Bond and four-star hotels in California, Au has found a home as pastry chef at one of Houston’s top cafes. Menu staples like Blacksmith’s signature cookies received new attention, and Au’s weekend specials, a range of sweets like cheesecake, chocolate cake and his classic instant millionaire pie, sell out quickly. Likewise, her occasional pop-up appearances feature a variety of mouth-watering dishes such as pop pies and the candy bars she served at tonight’s prices.
Best Pop-Up – Luis Mercado and Paolo Justo, Neo
These two Uchi veterans have won a devoted following for their carefully crafted omakase progressions that feature dry-aged fish. Held inside a Montrose clothing store, the intimate experience features an almost one-to-one relationship between staff and diners, which means a very personal experience. As chefs evolve, they incorporate a more diverse array of influences, as in a recent green curry lamb breast that draws inspiration from both Mexican-style mole verde and a dish served in the not-to-be-missed South Asian restaurant Aga’s. Of course, reserving the seats to try these new creations might be a bit more difficult now.
Best New Restaurant – d’Alba Craft Kitchen & Cocktails
In the end, the tournament came down to fine dining Le Jardinier versus this neighborhood restaurant in Garden Oaks. Kudos to d’Alba for pushing his fans to win the title.
Fans of the restaurant know d’Alba for its welcoming atmosphere, expansive patio, and Italian-inspired dishes by chef Geoff Hundt. Combine these assets with the hospitality of owner Daut Elshani, who applies his experiences opening several nightlife hotspots to a family-friendly destination that already looks like a neighborhood staple.
Chef of the Year – Aaron Bludorn, Bludorn
Few chefs who have moved to Houston have made a bigger impression in as short a time as Aaron Bludorn. His work in New York at the Michelin-starred Café Boulud and his participation in Netflix’s Final Table cooking competition attracted attention at first, but it was how Bludorn embraced his adopted hometown that really stands out. From serving food at the Southern Smoke festival ahead of his restaurant opening to his recent fundraiser for World Central Kitchen which featured a collaboration with Truth Barbecue pitmaster Leonard Botello IV, the chef does not never miss an opportunity to contribute to their community. Expect him to play an even bigger role in the community as he prepares to open his new Navy Blue seafood restaurant later this year.
Rising Star Chef of the Year – Benchawan Painter & Restaurant of the Year – Street to Kitchen
Two of this year’s top prizes go to this humble East End restaurant that is dedicated to serving ‘resolutely Thai’ cuisine. Painter, known as “Chef G” to friends and regulars, blends culinary traditions she learned from her family growing up in Thailand with professional experiences at restaurants like SaltAir Seafood Kitchen and Theodore Rex to create Thai dishes that incorporate local ingredients. On Fridays and Saturdays, she creates unique dishes using farm-fresh produce and high-quality proteins that are not to be missed.
Dining at Street to Kitchen is a real family affair. Graham Painter, the chef’s husband, oversees the front of the house and helps guide diners through the menu that mixes familiar dishes like pad Thai with more regional specialties. Those who forget about BYOB will find Thai beer at the nearby gas station.