Houston Restaurants and Chefs Named 2023 James Beard Semifinalists

The Justins

The James Beard Foundation has now revealed the 2023 Restaurant and Chef Awards Semifinalists. These annual awards recognize some of the best food and beverage professionals in the country. Though the finalists won’t be named until March 29, it’s wonderful to see many of Houston’s top professionals being recognized. Numerous local chefs and restaurants are being considered for national categories as well as for Best Chef: Texas (including a first-time nod for a woman chef who has owned her own restaurants for decades).

Tony Nguyen and Christine Ha at a function for the James Beard Foundation.
Tony Nguyen and Christine Ha at a function for the James Beard Foundation. Photo by Ryan Baker.

In the coveted national categories, chef and owner Chris Williams of Lucille’s is an Outstanding Restaurateur semifinalist. Christine Ha and Tony J. Nguyen of Xin Chào received a nod in the Outstanding Chef category. Victoria Elizondo of Cochinita & Co., who also recently authored a cookbook called “Taco-tastic”, was named an Emerging Chef semifinalist. Tatemó, the strip-center restaurant turning out delightful dishes based on heirloom-corn masa, is among the Best New Restaurant semifinalists. James Beard Award Best Chef Southwest-winner Justin Yu has another feather for his cap, as Theodore Rex, helmed by executive chef Kaitlin Steets, was named for Outstanding Hospitality. 

Justin Vann and Sean Jensen, who have been some of Houston’s leading wine and beer professionals for more than 15 years, finally got a national nod. Their work at Nancy’s Hustle  garnered an Outstanding Wine and Other Beverages Program semifinalist nomination.

Pitmaster Greg Gatlin of Gatlin's BBQ at the Houston BBQ Festival
Pitmaster Greg Gatlin of Gatlin’s BBQ at the Houston BBQ Festival. Photo by Robert Jacob Lerma.

Moving on to the Best Chef: Texas category, pitmaster Greg Gatlin has landed his first semifinalist mention for Gatlin’s BBQ. (He also recently opened his second restaurant, Gatlin’s Fins & Feathers, which was named one of Houston Food Finder’s Best New Restaurants of 2022).

With the justified buzz surrounding the east side’s  “unapologetically Thai” restaurant Street To Kitchen, it seemed like destiny that chef Benchawan Jabthong Painter would also be a semifinalist. (We were recently honored to feature Painter and her husband, Graham, at The Perfect 10 Gala.)

Next up for the the Houston contingent of semifinalists is Ai Le of the family-operated, long-running Vietnamese restaurant Nam Giao in Bellaire — evidence that the James Beard Foundation judges are looking deeper than deep pockets and big names for worthy food. 

Finally, it’s satisfying to mention that chef and owner Kiran Verma of Kiran’s — “the godmother of Indian fine dining” — was named a Best Chef: Texas semifinalist. Verma started her career in Houston with Ashiana on the west side, then opened the original Kiran’s on Westheimer in 2005. After being forced to close due to the demolishment of the building, Verma relocated Kiran’s to its most opulent space to-date. In fact, she has doubled the footprint of the elegant Upper Kirby restaurant since opening in 2017

While there’s much to be happy and proud of, we greedily and unreasonably believe that Houston should be represented in every category. So, we have to point out some troubling omissions. There are no Bayou City semifinalists for Outstanding Bar, despite that segment of the industry being one of our local scene’s strengths. Though Houston’s Julep  won the category last year, there are numerous other cocktail bars also worth consideration. Plus, with wine bars now included in the category, establishments such as 13 celsius and Camerata are worthy of nominations. 

While Brennan’s in New Orleans is up for consideration (again), Brennan’s of Houston, a local hallmark of hospitality, isn’t, but should be. Other strikingly overlooked restaurants include Squable, Coltivare, Kata Robata and Riel. Since this year, Verma is finally honored, we hope that next year might put a spotlight on additional Houston chefs of equally long tenures, such as Mark Holley of Davis St. at Hermann Park. One also wonders if the judges ever make it to The Woodlands, as chef Austin Simmons and his restaurant, TRIS, are steadfastly ignored, and maybe no one made it to Katy or San Leon, as Phat Eatery and Pier 6 Seafood didn’t make it on the list this time.

Houston was also overlooked for Outstanding Pastry Chef this year. Though H Town Restaurant  Group‘s (Caracol, Backstreet Cafe, Xochi, Hugo’s and Urbe) Ruben Ortega was a finalist last year, we think he deserves another shot to win, as do several other area pastry chefs, such as Vanarin Kuch of Koffeteria, Rebecca Masson of Fluff Bake Bar, Stephanie Velasquez of Papalo Mercado (who’s already been selling her pastries for forthcoming Ema at local farmers markets) and Jody Stevens of JodyCakes.

Speaking of the H Town Restaurant group, how is it that Tracy Vaught and chef Hugo Ortega have not only not won Outstanding Restaurateur, but aren’t even semifinalists this year? Another restaurateur duo that merits consideration is Cori Xiong and Heng Chen of Mala Sichuan

With that incomplete wish list aside, all of the semifinalists deserve hearty congratulations for their hard work. We hope to see these names again as part of the James Beard Award nominees list, which will be released on Wednesday, March 29. As has been the case for the past several years, the James Beard Restaurant and Chef Awards Ceremony will be held on Monday, June 5 at the Lyric Opera of Chicago.

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