To be sure, March 27, 2019, wasn’t the historic moment Houston had been hoping for. For weeks local foodies had been looking forward to the day when, for the very first time, the finalists for the Oscars of the food world, the James Beard Awards, would be announced right here in our town—at Hugo’s on Westheimer, namesake restaurant of beloved Beard Award winner Hugo Ortega. More than ever the city felt like it was becoming the center of the culinary universe. We even had an impressive 11 semifinalist nominations to brag about.
But when the elite crowd of chefs and journalists gathered to watch the James Beard Foundation deliver the list of finalists, presenter after presenter read name after name, restaurant after restaurant, and not once was Houston called. It was almost shocking. One minute the place was filled with an anticipatory buzz; the next the air seemed to have been sucked right out of the room.
The strangest part about the whole thing was that over the three years leading up to that moment, the Bayou City finally had been getting some well-deserved national recognition. In June 2016 Anthony Bourdain had visited Houston to film an episode of Parts Unknown, extolling our cuisine and culture. Over the next couple of years the rest of American media would catch up: David Chang traveled here for his Netflix show Ugly Delicious; Andrew Zimmern ate crawfish with Chris Shepherd and clowned around with Kaiser Lashkari for The Zimmern List; GQ called us the “New Capital of Southern Cool”; and multiple national best-of lists featured Houston restaurants like Nancy’s Hustle, Theodore Rex, Xochi, and UB Preserv.
A few months after that fateful day at Hugo’s, we decided to call up Mitchell Davis, chief strategy officer of the James Beard Foundation, for his thoughts on Houston’s scene. His reply was interesting. In Davis’s view, the sheer quantity of high-quality eateries here is what makes us notable. “My biggest takeaway from the three days I was there for the announcements was it wasn’t enough time,” Davis said. “I couldn’t eat at three-quarters of the places I wanted to try.”
Celebrity chef Marcus Samuelsson, who visited Houston in March to film an episode of his PBS travelogue show No Passport Required, echoed Davis’s remarks. What does he find special about us? The D-word. “It’s super-diverse,” he said. “America’s landscape of chefs is becoming more diverse, and Houston is a major outpost for that. West African, Vietnamese, Mexican … it’s all there.”
That means we have not only great Vietnamese restaurants, but also a new generation of chefs who are combining Vietnamese with classic Gulf Coast cuisine, Japanese with Texas barbecue. Our chefs are collaborating and innovating, creating cuisine that can’t be labeled as anything other than Houstonian.
No one restaurant, it seems, can tell the whole story. But put them all together, and a picture of a city begins to emerge. “Houston is full of stories to tell that are surprising—not for the people who live there, but for the people on a national stage,” says Davis. “That’s another reason Houston is situated to explode in the food world.”
Okay, we were denied James Beard Awards in 2019. But as the incredible new restaurants we featured this year attest, we’re writing our own history, and lucky Houston diners are the better for it.