Over the past two years, the restaurant industry has struggled to adapt to a constant stream of challenges. Shut downs, supply chain disruptions, and changes in the labor market have all compelled chefs, bakers, and other culinary professionals to change the way they practice their craft.
For a select group of people, that’s meant starting food businesses that don’t operate in a traditional restaurant setting. Whether it’s popping up at a bar or selling prepared items at farmers markets, these startups have developed their followings through word of mouth and strong social media presences.
The trend may yield long-term benefits for Houston’s culinary scene. One of this year’s nominees recently opened a permanent location, and three more have announced plans to do so in the coming months. That’s a win for Houston diners, particularly those who’d rather not stand in line to consume delicious eats.
Who will win? Find out May 25 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.
Scott Ache and Corey Dozier – Ghost Hand Pasta
United by their Italian-American heritage and a background in music and art, Ache and Dozier have created a pasta concept built around using traditional techniques to create unexpected flavors. Consider the “That Scene from the Exorcist;” one of their most popular items — the squid ink pope hat pasta that’s filled with mortadella, tossed in split pea butter, and topped with house made chili crema, mint, and crunchy wasabi peas — takes its inspiration from a vomit scene in the legendary horror movie. After popping up at various bars around town, the concept has found a home in the East End at wine bar How to Survive on Land and Sea, where it serves dinner Wednesday through Sunday.
Ally Barrera – Sweet Bee Bakehouse
When the pandemic disrupted her career working in restaurants, Barrera began a home-based business built around croissants, macarons, and other sweets. Her creative croissant flavors — think twice-baked blueberry vanilla, guava cream cheese, and pecan cinnamon roll — help her stand out from other bakers. While most weeks customers have to drive to Pearland to collect their pastries, inner loopers with a sweet tooth flock to her occasional pop-ups in more central locations.
Joseph Boudreau – Boo’s Burgers
Operating out of the Tipping Point coffee shop, Boudreaux’s burgers are grounded in good technique. The chef grinds his patties from a mixture of chuck and short rib and tops them with both housemade pickles and a signature burger sauce; they have a homemade quality where the components definitely exceed the sum of their parts. While the frequency of the burger pop-ups has dwindled a bit, diners can try his breakfast creations every weekend at the Tipping Point’s new location in the Heights (don’t miss the biscuits and gravy).
Emmanuel Chavez – Tatemó
After growing his business by selling tortillas and brunch items at the Urban Harvest farmers market, Chavez and his business partner Megan Maul recently made the leap to a brick and mortar space near Spring Branch. The permanent home allows Chavez to grow his artisan tortilla business (made with heirloom corn from Mexico) while also expanding his repertoire of dishes built around corn such as quesadillas, sopes, and tlayudas. Tatemó’s Saturday night tasting menus showcase the wide range of Chavez’s techniques in an intimate environment, and his collaboration pop-ups with like-minded chefs always feature creative riffs on familiar flavors.
Andrea de Gortari – The Bake Happening
This pastry chef has built a devoted following for her elaborate themed cakes that cover everything from movies to sports to a Guy Fieri-themed special for The Toasted Coconut’s appearance on Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives. The cakes don’t just look good; de Gotari offers more than a dozen cake flavors paired with any number of icings and additional fillings (everything from chocolate ganache to cookie chunks). Beyond her custom orders, de Gortari sells themed treats for holidays, like a 4/20-themed box that includes “almond matcha blunts” and a “Pineapple Express Poptart.”
Abbas Dhanani – Burger Bodega
Like John Cusack’s character Rob Gordon at the end of High Fidelity, Abbas Dhanani is making the leap from appreciator to creator. A noted food influencer on both Instagram and TikTok under the moniker houstoneatz, Dhanani applied the lessons he learned sampling smash burgers in New York and Los Angeles to create his perfect iteration: a double patty with melty cheese and his custom “bodega sauce.” After a series of sold out pop-ups, Dhanani will open a brick and mortar location on Washington Ave. later this year.
Victoria Elizondo – Cochinita & Co.
After the Politan Row food hall closed due to the pandemic, this talented chef found new ways to get her food to diners. Not only does she operate a restaurant inside Kickin’ Kombucha’s retail outlet in the East End, she also owns the Cochi’s Taqueria food truck that pops up at bars around town and the Cochinita’s Market line of tamales and salsas sold at venues like Henderson & Kane. Regardless of where diners sample Elizondo’s cooking, they can expect flavorful food that’s grounded in classic Mexican techniques and made with high quality, locally sourced ingredients.
Evelyn Garcia – Kin
After a year serving Thai food at Decatur Bar and then a brief stint at Politan Row, Garcia and her business partner Henry Lu have been serving casual, Southeast Asian-inspired fare at a number of markets around town. A recent multi-course dinner at the Houston Botanical Gardens previewed Jūn by KIN, the restaurant they plan to open in the Heights. If Garcia can keep up her winning ways on this season of Top Chef, the new endeavor could draw national attention.
Luis Mercado and Paolo Justo – Neo
Sushi super fans have been quietly flocking to a Montrose clothing store to experience Neo’s innovative tasting menus. The two Uchi veterans set themselves apart by using dry-aged fish with a depth of flavor not seen many other places — some of which are enhanced with generous servings of caviar, uni, and other upgrades. With an almost one-to-one ratio of chefs and servers to diners, the courses, which range from individual pieces of nigiri to composed plates, fly by, and the intimate atmosphere is ideal for special occasions.
Don and Theodore Nguyen – Khói Barbecue
These two brothers blend Texas barbecue techniques with their Vietnamese heritage to create exciting new dishes that marry the best of both cultures. Expertly smoked brisket and ribs gets utilized in creations such as Brisket Phở, Bò Lá Lốt sausage links, and Panang curry dip. While fans will have to stand in line for Khói’s bimonthly pop-ups for now, the brothers recently posted to social media that they’ve purchased land for a brick and mortar location.