Two Houston Restaurants & One Chef Selected as 2023 James Beard Award Nominees
Some Houston restaurants, chefs and beverage professionals can bask in the glow of becoming 2023 James Beard Award nominees today. Breaking into this level of consideration for a James Beard Foundation Award is an honor unto itself. The competition is incredibly stiff, as it ranges across the state for the Best Chefs: Texas category and nationwide for honors such as Best New Restaurant.
The Houston nominee in that particular category — Best New Restaurant — is Tatemó, the masa-focused eatery in an unassuming strip center at 4740 Dacoma. The accolade demonstrates how far chef Emmanuel Chavez and partner Megan Maul have come from humble beginnings of selling tortillas at pop-ups, night markets and farmers markets.
Even in its current space, Tatemó has established its reputation despite limited mealtimes: tasting menu dinners Thursdays through Saturdays, lunch on Saturdays and brunch on Sundays. It’s competing with nine other restaurants in this category: Causa in Washington D.C., Dept of Culture in New York City, Kann in Portland, Oregon, Lupi & Iris in Milwaukee, Neng Jr’s. in Asheville, Nolia in Cincinnati, Obélix in Chicago and fellow Texas restaurants Don Artemio Mexican Heritage in Fort Worth and Restaurant Beatrice in Dallas. Candidates must have opened between January 1 and September 30, 2022.
Another national nod for Houston is a nominee in the Outstanding Wine and Other Beverages Program category: Nancy’s Hustle, located east of downtown Houston at 2704 Polk. The accolade particularly highlights the careers of co-owner Sean Jensen and beverage director Justin Vann. Jensen’s path has included being an expert in both beer and wine at places such as The Hay Merchant — an expansive craft beer bar in Montrose which is now closed — and Vann’s own bar, Public Services Wine & Whiskey, which he co-owned with chef Justin Yu. It sadly didn’t survive the pandemic. Afterwards, roles would reverse, and when Public Services closed, Vann would go to work at Jensen’s subsequent endeavor, Nancy’s Hustle.
“I think I speak for the gang when I say we’re just super proud of the whole space, the food, the drinks, the service — and we’re proud to be doing it in Houston, Texas,” said Vann. We do know that Houston is not often represented in consideration for this national award, and we’re proud to be among restaurants that have at least made the list.
In addition to being a restaurant imbued with an intriguing selection of wines — a crisp, well-curated list that also extends to Spanish cider and sake — Nancy’s Hustle has garnered acclaim for chef Jason Vaughan’s menu from a number of national publications. Competing for this award are COTE in New York City, Lazy Bear in San Francisco, OTOTO in Los Angeles, and Spencer in Ann Arbor.
It’s worth also mentioning a Texas nominee in a different beverage-focused category: craft cocktail lounge Las Ramblas in Brownsville, which is up for Outstanding Bar. Additionally, Lucia in Dallas is being considered for Outstanding Restaurant, and both La Casita Bakeshop, Richardson and Kuluntu Bakery, also in Dallas, are up for Outstanding Bakery.
That brings us to the one Houston nominee for Best Chef: Texas — Benchawan Jabthong Painter at Street to Kitchen on the east side of Houston. It’s located at 6501 Harrisburg next to a gas station, which just goes to show that marble floors and chandeliers aren’t needed to garner acclaim for the most important aspects like food and service. (It’s also testament to how far the James Beard Award Foundation has come in growing past its exclusionary history.)
“Oh my Buddha!” said Painter when asked for her reaction to the news. “This is my American dream — as a woman, as an immigrant — coming true!” Her menu, in her own words, is “unapologetically Thai” and guided by her own native upbringing and experience, resulting in fragrant curries and legitimate heat and pungency in dishes such as som tam (green papaya salad). Other Texas chefs competing in this category are Reyna Duong of Sandwich Hag in Dallas, Emiliano Marentes of (the admittedly beguiling) ELEMI in El Paso, John Russ of Clementine in San Antonio and Ernest Servantes and David Kirkland of Burnt Bean Co. in Seguin.
We’ll wait with bated breath to see if any of the Houston nominees return with a shiny, heavy medal until the night of Monday, June 5. That’s when the James Beard Restaurant and Chef Awards Ceremony will be held at the Lyric Opera of Chicago.
Phaedra Cook has written about Houston’s restaurant and bar scene since 2010. She was a regular contributor to My Table magazine (now closed) and was the lead restaurant critic for the Houston Press for two years, eventually being promoted to food editor. Cook founded Houston Food Finder in November 2016 and has been its editor and publisher ever since.