This year is shaping up as another breakthrough one for Houston on a national level. Five chefs have been named James Beard Foundation award semifinalists, a notable cocktail bar has made its annual appearance on the list, and both partners in a husband-and-wife dream team have earned their own honors. Lastly, a new restaurant that's been getting props on a local and national level has landed in the Best New Restaurant category.
The Houston semifinalists are as follows:
Best New Restaurant: Helen Greek Food and Wine
Of all the semifinalist nods, this is the most heartwarming for those who know proprietor Evan Turner’s long and problematic fight to fulfill the dream of having his own restaurant. It took years. He worked one sommelier job after another at various restaurants before beginning a Kickstarter campaign. Ultimately, it failed to meet the fundraising goal, but what it did do was secure a business partner in Sharif Al-Amin. Turner brought former co-workers over from Table at Post Oak to Helen. William Wright truly seems in-step with Turner’s vision of seasonal Greek fare, and Donnie Carroll is almost as enthusiastic as Turner about the selection of Greek wine. (Truly, it’s hard to beat Turner on sheer enthusiasm.)
Outstanding Bar Program: Anvil Bar & Refuge, Houston
This is the fifth year in a row that Anvil Bar & Refuge has been named a finalist in this category. In 2011, co-founder Bobby Heugel was nominated for Outstanding Wine, Beer or Spirits Professional. This year, a great deal of credit goes to bar manager Terry Williams and the staff as Heugel now oversees many bars in Houston. Is 2016 the year this groundbreaking cocktail bar will make it to the finals? It sure seems overdue.
Tracy Vaught: Hugo’s, Caracol, Backstreet Café
This is a really proud moment for the dynamic husband-and-wife team of Tracy Vaught and Hugo Ortega. Ortega has been nominated repeatedly, but this is Vaught’s first year of recognition by the James Beard Foundation. She is one of Houston’s most longtime and successful restaurateurs, and this is a well-deserved nod. There’s extremely heavy competition in this category, including from some nationally known newcomers to Houston’s food scene. (See below.)
The Outstanding Restaurateur category has also been historically something of a men’s club. Since 2007, only one female has won Outstanding Restaurateur. That was Barbara Lynch of Barbara Lynch Grupo in 2014. The prior year, Lynch was inducted into the Who's Who of Food and Beverage in America. If anyone can make another breakthrough for women in the restaurant industry, though, it’s Vaught.
Ford Fry: State of Grace (Houston), The Optimist, St. Cecilia (Atlanta)
Fry is based out of Atlanta, but he grew up in Houston. Now that he has a restaurant in his hometown, State of Grace, we’re totally claiming this as another nod for Houston. State of Grace has been pretty much slammed with business since it opened. It’s helmed by chef Bobby Matos, whose food was well-received previously at Vallone Group’s Ciao Bello. As we mentioned in our recent review of State of Grace, Fry has been nominated for the Outstanding Restaurateur category every year since 2012, and we predicted he’d be nominated again this year. Here’s a new prediction: He’ll make it to the finals again, too.
Sam Fox, Fox Restaurant Concepts: North Italia & True Food Kitchen (Houston), The Arrogant Butcher, Culinary Dropout and others (Phoenix)
Arizona-based Fox Restaurant Concepts is another relative newcomer to Houston. North Italia opened in March 2015 and True Food Kitchen followed a few months later. Both are located in BLVD Place on Post Oak. Prior to the foray into the Bayou City, Fox was a solidly established restaurateur in Phoenix. He’s made it to the semifinals so many times — and not to the finals — that it’s becoming a cliché. He’s been on “the long list” (the list of semifinalists) every single year since 2008. Will this be the year Fox breaks through to the finals? It’s hard to say.
Outstanding Service: The Pass, Houston
No one ever doubts that Houston has great chefs and great food. Service, though, has still been an uphill fight. So, tremendous kudos goes to The Pass, chefs Seth Siegel-Gardner and Terrence Gallivan and the entire staff for getting Houston a rare nod on service. Others should take heed of this good example for the city.
Best Chef: Southwest
Manabu Horiuchi: Kata Robata
Houston’s best Japanese chef is no stranger to the James Beard semifinalist list. He has been named three times since 2012. He has not yet broken through as a finalist, which seems like a dire oversight. Perhaps 2016 is his year. By the way, we named Kata Robata's Sashimi For Two the No. 1 dish of 2015.
Hugo Ortega: Caracol
The husband of fellow semifinalist and restaurateur Tracy Vaught has been a James Beard finalist in the Best Chef Southwest category for five years straight. It seems like there are only so many times the chef is going to make it to the finals without actually winning. His chances, in our opinion, are very good for many reasons. From 1992 until 2014, Houston restaurants and chefs suffered a drought when it came to recognition from whatare considered the Oscars of the restaurant world. There’s a lot of catching up yet to be done to properly recognize a restaurant scene that’s been on a fast track since 2011.
It’s interesting that Ortega is specifically named here for Caracol as opposed to Hugo’s. That demonstrates good regard for his newer, Mexican coastal seafood restaurant as well, and we can imagine future nods for it as well as for beverage director Sean Beck. Beck was a semifinalist last year and it’s a bit distressing that he didn’t get the same nod this time around — but there’s always next year.
Seth Siegel-Gardner and Terrence Gallivan: The Pass
In the ongoing fight for the title of "best restaurant in Houston," two names continue to do battle: The Pass and Oxheart. (Fortunately, these guys are all good friends, so no blood has been shed — that we know of.) Chefs from both have made it to the semifinals this year. The Pass overtook Oxheart in 2015 for the No. 1 position on Alison Cook’s 100 Top Restaurants List of 2015 for the Houston Chronicle.
Justin Yu: Oxheart
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Like chef Hugo Ortega, the younger Justin Yu has made the James Beard finalist list year after year. He was a finalist in both 2014 and 2015 and a Rising Star Chef semifinalist in 2013. Oxheart has never stopped receiving national recognition since it opened, most recently on Bill Addison’s list of The National 38 for Eater. It held the No. 1 spot on Cook’s 100 Top Houston restaurants list for three years, and was finally unseated by The Pass & Provisions last year. (Oxheart was No. 2, so it’s not like it fell far.) Yu is every bit as much a contender for a finalist position as anyone else on this list. (Disclosure: The author has a minor financial stake in Oxheart.)
The finalists will be announced on March 15 live in San Francisco starting at noon. That is also the day we'll find out the nominees in the Book, Journalism, Broadcast Media and Restaurant Design Awards.
The 2016 James Beard Awards will take place at the Lyric Opera House in Chicago on Monday, May 2.
Even just among Houston chefs, the contenders for finalist positions constitute quite an exciting horserace. For Houston, the finalists announcement on March 15 just can’t come fast enough.