Of all the categories in the 2023 CultureMap Tastemaker Awards, Best Pop-Up/Startup is distinct. First introduced in 2021, it recognizes food-based businesses that don’t operate in traditional bar or restaurant settings.
These entrepreneurs reach consumers in a variety of ways, including online sales, farmers markets, and pop-ups at bars and breweries. That scarcity — and the if you know, you know aspect of occasional service — helps motivate people to experience these creations before they’re gone.
The trend shows no signs of slowing down. Consider this year’s Best New Restaurant and Rising Star Chef of the Year categories that feature several former Best Pop-Up/Startup nominees, including Neo, Tatemó, and Louie’s Italian American. How many of this year’s nominees will make the transition to full-time restaurants remains to be scene, but all are worthy of recognition.
Photo by Becca Wright
Trill Burgers has been a smash hit (get it?).
Who will win? Find out April 13 at our Tastemaker Awards ceremony. Dine on bites from this year’s nominees, sip cocktails from our sponsors, and witness as our emcee Bun B reveals the winners. Buy your tickets before they sell out.
Ally Barrera – Sweet Bee’s Bakehouse
Some of the Houston area’s best croissants come from Barrera’s Pearland kitchen. Expertly laminated with a crispy exterior and a delicate interior, they’re a sight to see. In addition to traditional flavors, Barrera prepares croissants filled with flavors such as hazelnut chocolate, guava cream cheese, and Doritos. The chef contributes more sophisticated, plated desserts to 5Kinokawa, the omakase restaurant in the Heights.
Andrea de Gortari – The Bake Happening
Houstonians turn to The Bake Happening for elaborate custom cakes — say, a chocolate cake with peanut butter buttercream and salted caramel that’s decorated with images from the TV show Justified or Godfather-themed cookies complete with a severed horse head. De Gortari raised her profile with a winning appearance on an episode of Food Network’s Christmas Cookie Challenge. She regularly participates in pop-up markets that promote BIPOC creators or in support of the LGBTQIA community.
Andy Nguyen and Bun B – Trill Burgers
Arguably, the California restaurateur and Houston hip-hop legend have teamed up to create the city’s most successful pop-up of all time. People line up for hours for a Trill Burger, and it earned the prize of America’s top burger spot from a panel of celebrity judges on Good Morning America. Credit the simplicity of a classic smash burger that gets a boost from its signature Trill sauce and sauteed onions. Trill Burgers will utilize the momentum from another successful run at the Rodeo to launch its eagerly anticipated brick and mortar restaurant in the Montrose area.
Don Nguyen – Khói Barbecue
For a man with a day job, Nguyen devotes considerable effort to making his Vietnamese-influenced barbecue. Not only did he reach the finals of season three of Food Network’s BBQ Brawl and begin bottling his signature curry sauce, he acquired property north of downtown to serve as Khói’s base of operations. That’s good news for people who look forward to Nguyen’s barbecue brisket pho, beef rib curry bowls, housemade sausages, and other creations. The property has also allowed Khói to host collaboration dinners with other pitmasters.
No other chef in Houston may hustle harder than Jane Wild. She serves her “food for rebel souls” every Saturday at the Urban Harvest farmers market, every Sunday at either the Heights Mercantile or Rice Village markets, and at other markets around town. Regardless of where they find her, Houstonians will find Wild serving all manor of sweet and savory pastries, from breakfast muffins that contain an egg to gluten-free bagels, cookies, and her signature salted honey pie.
Joseph Boudreaux – Boo’s Burgers
Operating at the Tipping Point coffee shop and at pop-up markets around town, Bourdreaux’s smash burgers utilize good techniques. The chef developed a custom burger grind that mixes chuck and short rib, makes his own pickles, and tops them with a signature sauce. Recently, the chef has expanded his repertoire by serving gumbo and collaborating with Houston chef Dawn Burrell on a Thanksgiving-themed pop-up.
Joseph Quellar and Cindy Conde – JQ’s Tex-Mex BBQ
Quellar and Conde have built their business around birria tacos that use smoked brisket that’s bathed in consomme, covered in cheese, and cooked on a griddle until the corn tortilla gets nice and crispy. The duo have also built a following for their smoked fajitas tacos and brisket tamales that get a boost from housemade salsas. A permanent weekend residency at Heights-area coffee shop Amsterdam Company means obtaining the tacos will be easier than ever.
Suu Khin – Burmalicious by Suu
This Houstonian reached the finals on season 11 of Masterchef, Gordon Ramsay’s competition cooking show, by serving dishes inspired by her Burmese heritage. Building on that success, she’s making the transition from home cook to pop-up chef with a series of sold out dinners, appearances at different markets, and a recent collaboration with Musaafer chef Mayank Istwal. Anyone who’s sampled dishes such as samosa salad, crab curry, and laphet knows that Khin has a bright future in Houston’s culinary world.
Willow Villarreal and Jasmine Barela – Willow’s Texas BBQ
This dynamic duo put their spin on traditional barbecue by including elements of their Mexican heritage. Villarreal, who had a winning guest appearance on the barbecue-themed episode of Top Chef’s Houston-based season, turns out expertly-prepared brisket, ribs, sausage, and other proteins. Barela contributes sides such as jalapeno creamed corn, cole slaw, and her signature marinated tomatoes. Look for them at bars and breweries across the inner loop.