In a year that saw the food and beverage industry recovering from the devastating effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, Dallas-Fort Worth’s talented and hard-working culinary stars deserved to be celebrated at the 2021 CultureMap Tastemaker Awards.
The winners have finally been revealed.
For weeks, we’ve dedicated a special editorial series to highlighting nominees in more than a dozen categories, including best restaurants, chefs, bars, and bartenders. A panel of expert judges helped select all of the winners, except for Best New Restaurant. That was determined by you, our readers, in a bracket-style tournament.
In addition to favorite categories like Rising Star Chef of the Year and Neighborhood Restaurant of the Year, we threw in a delicious new wildcard category: Best Ghost Kitchen, that all-important takeout trend that emerged during the pandemic.
We also handed out two Hero Awards to spotlight individuals who’ve done outstanding work to support the restaurant industry during these tough times.
On August 19, the winners were crowned at an awards ceremony and tasting event at Fashion Industry Gallery, emceed by comedian CJ Starr.
Now, let’s raise a glass to the 2021 Tastemaker Award winners:
Restaurant of the Year: José
Park Cities hotspot features contemporary Mexican-inspired cuisine and a mixology program with artisanal spirits, highlighted by a collection of tequilas and mezcals. What was good became better when chef Anastacia “AQ” Quinones joined as chef. A firm believer in modern Mexican, this CIA graduate and 2018 Tastemaker Award winner has channeled her creativity to build and layer complex flavors into every bite at José. In the midst of the pandemic, they conjured up a ghost kitchen called Provecho Pollos with roast chicken and homey Mexican soup.
Chef of the Year: Matt Balke, Encina
A native of Texas, Balke earned degrees in business marketing and hotel restaurant management from Texas Tech, then a degree from the Culinary Institute of America in 2007. He worked at the legendary York Street, as well as Bolsa, Bolsa Mercado, The Rustic, and Smoke, and was chef at Bolsa when it closed in 2020. He and his partner Corey McCombs took over the lease once Bolsa closed, and opened Encina, their warm neighborhood restaurant featuring New American cuisine, cocktails, wine, and beer in October. He’s a return Tastemaker nominee, having been nominated for best chef once before in 2017.
Rising Star Chef of the Year: Carol Nguyen, Ngon Vietnamese
Nguyen began cooking Vietnamese food after moving to the U.S., in an effort to recreate dishes and flavors she missed. She worked in New Orleans before opening Crazee Crab, a Cajun restaurant in Grand Prairie, in 2014. In 2020, she opened Ngon, doing food from the heart, featuring dishes from her native Vietnam as well as the food she loves to eat, rooted in her love for home cooking and Ha Noi upbringing, and inspired by food served by street vendors in Vietnam. Family runs throughout: It’s named for her mother and she uses recipes from her grandmother.
Best New Restaurant: Monarch
Downtown restaurant at The National, a residences-plus-hotel in downtown Dallas, is a newcomer to Dallas that vows to change the local Italian scene, via dishes like a $55 lasagna and a $12 side of charred asparagus. Its skytop perch affords amazing views, making it the latest special-occasion choice. It comes from gregarious Chicago chef Danny Grant, who has his sights set on Dallas with other openings in the works.
Neighborhood Restaurant of the Year: Edoko Omakase
Ambitious restaurant in Irving is from Sara Nam, whose aunt owns Edoko Sushi & Robata in Richardson and kindly allowed her to use the Edoko name; and chef Keunsik Lee, who’d worked at Nobu, Japonais by Morimoto in Chicago, and Wasabi Sushi in Fort Worth. They opened in March 2020, possibly the worst month in history to open, but they’ve attracted a following thanks to their “omakase” offering, in which diners leave the ordering up to the chef. No question that put them on the foodie map but their menu also boasts a host of affordable sushi options and bento boxes at lunch — just what you need to win over the locals, too.
Best Ghost Kitchen: TLC Vegan Kitchen
Vegan chef Troy Gardner was one of the first to introduce a ghost kitchen concept when he debuted TLC in May 2020. He offers a lengthy selection of vegan items which you can get in family-style meals or boxed lunches. The menu features chili; chicken-fried steak; lasagna with house made ricotta, mozzarella, & Parmesan; and desserts including chocolate lava cake and banana foster pudding.
Pastry Chef of the Year: Corey Thomson, Fearing’s
A graduate of Le Cordon Bleu in Austin, Thomson has been executive pastry chef for The Ritz-Carlton, Dallas for the past 10 years. He oversees all aspects of the pastry operation including the dessert program at Fearing’s, as well as the creation of showpieces for display at The Ritz-Carlton Club Lounge. He also competed on the second season of Netflix’s Sugar Rush, where he and teammate Zach Manasan won $10,000.
Bar of the Year: Cosmo’s
Cosmo’s was founded in 2000 — a lifetime ago in bar years — by brother & sister Gerald Stogsdill & Debra Peña, who created a chill-funky-retro vibe, plus crafty martinis that were ahead of their time. Bar manager and now business partner Jackson Tran has given Cosmo’s a second life, adding family Vietnamese recipes to the menu, such as pho and grilled pork chop with braised collard greens that have drawn a new appreciative audience of foodies.
Bartender of the Year: Liz Mitchell, Thunderbird Station
Mitchell started out at Goodfriend Beer Garden and Burger House in East Dallas, where she worked for five years before joining the “Double Wide family,” the collection of cool bar spots owned by hospitality whiz Kim Finch that also include Single Wide on Greenville Avenue. Mitchell currently presides over Thunderbird Station, the groovy retro bar and restaurant on the edge of Deep Ellum, where all the food and cocktails are super fun. Mitchell’s approach is to always try to make a personal connection before she serves you a drink.
Wine Program of the Year: Veritas Wine Room
Henderson Avenue charmer has a strong neighborhood bar vibe, but with adventurous wines and a knowledgeable staff. They’re known for their weekly wine specials and frequent tasting events, which post-pandemic, they’ve recently resumed, not a minute too soon. For $45, you typically get 15 one-ounce pours from a broad range of incredible wines the owners have amassed over the years. If you want to make some new wine-savvy friends, hit up their $2-off happy hours weekdays from 3-6 pm.
Hero Award: Meaders Ozarow
The owner and founder of Empire Baking Co. has always made giving an essential part of her business, via generous donations of her baked goods to nonprofits and charities.
Restaurant of the Year: Hatsuyuki Handroll Bar
Sushi chef Jun Mo Yeon, a former owner of Daan Sushi Asian Bistro & Bar in Grapevine, opened this small, quaint spot in 2018, the first sushi bar in Fort Worth to specialize in hand rolls, or temaki — cylindrical-shaped sushi rolls enclosing rice, fish, and vegetables. Rolls are made on the spot, while you watch, and are handed to you by the sushi chef who made them. Fillings include salmon, tuna, scallops, yellowtail, crab, eel, toro, and lobster. They’re a returning Tastemaker nominee, having been nominated for Best New Restaurant in 2019.
Chef of the Year: Felipe Armenta, Tavern, Towne Grill, Maria’s
Armenta is a return nominee, having been nominated for best chef in 2020, and more than deserving. He’s one of Fort Worth’s prolific restaurateurs, with a portfolio of eateries that includes The Tavern, Pacific Table, Maria’s Mexican Kitchen (which earned a Tastemaker nomination this year for Best New Restaurant), and the recently opened Towne Grill, and seems to be growing every day.
Best New Restaurant: La Onda
Latin-inspired cocktail, seafood, and caviar bar does a unique and fun take on Mexican and South American culture and cuisine. It’s the first joint venture for local couple Victor and Misty Villarreal; Victor, who recently had a pizza concept called Abe’s Kitchen and has worked at restaurants such as Grace and Clay Pigeon, is handling the food, while Misty oversees the drinks.
Bar of the Year: Tulips
First mid-sized music venue the city has seen since the Caravan of Dreams is also one of Fort Worth’s favorite neighborhood bars, with crafty cocktails, not to mention a Jewish deli and coffee menu.
Hero Award: Jon Bonnell
This chef and owner of Bonnell’s emerged as a leader during the pandemic, pivoting early with to-go meals at an affordable price, while also helping and supporting his peers.