Presenting the winners of the 2022 CultureMap Tastemaker Awards. This collection of restaurant industry professionals represents the best of Houston’s dining scene.
As a reminder, our judges’ panel of former winners and Houston restaurant industry experts selected the winners in nine of this year’s categories. CultureMap readers selected the winner of Best New Restaurant in a bracket-style, head-to-head tournament.
Finding theme that unites them is elusive. Maybe that’s the point. This year’s winners cover a wide range of ground, from a tiny establishment that shares its parking lot with a gas station to an upscale establishment known for its lobster pot pie. One of our winners doesn’t have a dining room, but it does serve some of Houston’s most satisfying Filipino food. Another operates out of a clothing store.
Maybe that’s the theme. In Houston, it’s important not to judge a restaurant by its environment. Delicious meals can happen anywhere passionate people devote 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 the sheer number of cravings it can satisfy. From Japanese cuisine and Filipino fare to burgers, pastas, and vegan dishes, Click offers something for almost everyone. A wide delivery radius from its home in Rice Military means many inner loopers can experience Medina’s creations.
Bar of the Year – Tongue-cut Sparrow
This award is a little bittersweet. As much as people enjoyed Bobby Heugel’s formal, Japanese-inspired cocktail bar, the entrepreneur has transitioned the space into Refuge, a new concept that preserves some aspects of Tongue-cut’s elevated service — hot towels and elegant glassware, for example — but in a livelier atmosphere. Although it may be gone for now, this award acknowledges that the bar helped inspire a wave of other intimate, upscale cocktail lounges that have made Houston a more fun place to imbibe.
Bartender of the Year – Sarah Crowl, Better Luck Tomorrow
Nominated for her work at both Coltivare and Rosie Cannonball, Crowl finally takes the prize in her role as bar manager at Bobby Heugel and Justin Yu’s casual patio bar. Wherever she works, count on drinks made with seasonal ingredients and Instagram-worthy garnishes. She’s also been among Houston’s leading advocate for zero proof cocktails, because even people who don’t drink alcohol deserve a flavorful beverage.
Wine Program of the Year – Tiny Champions
Rather than select a restaurant with thousands of selections, our judges opted for Sean Jensen’s tidy list of a dozen by-the-glass options and about 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 wine’s acidity pairs well with the shrimp pesto campanelli.
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 the in-house pastry chef for one of Houston’s best coffee shops. Menu staples like Blacksmith’s signature biscuits have received new attention, and Au’s weekend specials, an array of sweets like cheesecake, chocolate cake, and her instant classic millionaire tart, sell out quickly. Similarly, her occasional pop-up appearances feature a variety of craveable dishes such as pop tarts and the candy bars she served at tonight’s awards.
Best Pop-Up – Luis Mercado and Paolo Justo, Neo
These two Uchi veterans have earned a dedicated 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 ratio of staff to diners, which means a highly personal experience. As the chefs evolve, they’re incorporating a more diverse array of influences, as in a recent lamb belly in green curry that’s inspired by both Mexican-style mole verde and a dish served at essential South Asian restaurant Aga’s. Of course, reserving the seats to try these new creations might be a little 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. Credit to d’Alba for turning out its supporters to take the title.
The restaurant’s fans know d’Alba for its welcoming atmosphere, expansive patio, and chef Geoff Hundt vegetable-forward, Italian-inspired fare. Combine those strengths with the hospitality displayed by owner Daut Elshani, who applies his experiences opening several nightlife hot spots to a family friendly destination that already feels 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 little time as Aaron Bludorn. His legacy working in New York at Michelin-starred Café Boulud and his star turn on Netflix’s Final Table cooking competition show attracted some initial attention, but it’s the way Bludorn has embraced his adopted hometown that really stands out. Whether it’s serving food at the Southern Smoke festival before his restaurant opened or his recent fundraiser for World Central Kitchen that featured a collaboration with Truth Barbecue pitmaster Leonard Botello IV, the chef never misses an opportunity to contribute to his community. Expect him to play an even more prominent role in the community as he prepares to open his new seafood restaurant Navy Blue later this year.
Rising Star Chef of the Year – Benchawan Painter and Restaurant of the Year – Street to Kitchen
Two of this year’s top prizes go to this humble East End restaurant that’s dedicated to serving “unapologetically Thai” cuisine. Painter, known as “Chef G” to friends and regulars, blends the culinary traditions she learned from her family while growing up in Thailand with professional experiences at restaurants like SaltAir Seafood Kitchen and Theodore Rex to create Thai dishes that incorporate locally-sourced ingredients. On Fridays and Saturdays, she creates one-off dishes that utilize farm fresh produce and high quality proteins that are truly can’t-miss.
Meals at Street to Kitchen are a true family affair. Graham Painter, the chef’s husband, oversees the front of the house and helps guide diners through the menu that blends familiar dishes like pad Thai with more regional specialities. Those who forget to BYOB will find Thai beer at the gas station next door.