Texas had a pretty quiet night at the James Beard Restaurant and Chef Awards ceremony on Monday, June 5, at the Chicago Lyric Opera. The only prize it won was for Best Chef: Texas—which, by definition, it couldn’t lose. That accolade was given to Benchawan Jabthong Painter, of Street to Kitchen, a Thai restaurant in Houston offering dishes such as stir-fried cashew chicken (with banana chiles and mushrooms) and classic tom yum hot-and-sour soup.
The final tally was a stunning comedown from the list of 41 Texas semifinalists for the awards generally referred to as the Oscars of the restaurant industry. There had still been hope when that number was pared to 13 after the first round of eliminations. But that small hope was dashed when, one after another, winners from other states accepted awards for each of the five categories in which Texas was still competitive (Outstanding Restaurant, Best New Restaurant, Outstanding Bakery, Outstanding Wine and Other Beverages Program, and Outstanding Bar).
Last year Texas won two national restaurant and chef awards out of 38 nominations: chef Edgar Rico, of Austin’s Nixta taqueria, took the prestigious Emerging Chef award, and Julep, in Houston, won for Outstanding Bar Program.
Despite the disappointing overall showing this year, it was a delight to watch Painter share her heartfelt acceptance speech.“I moved to Houston eight years ago with the hope that one day I would stand right here, and today that dream has come true,” she said. “I am really happy!” She thanked her husband for being the one “who always told me he believed in me, no matter what.” She also thanked her staff. (The restaurant’s Facebook page had noted Street to Kitchen would be closed for two days so the whole staff could go to Chicago.) And she thanked Justin Yu, a former employer of hers and a well-known Houston chef who himself won a Beard award in 2016 for Best Chef: Southwest; at the time he owned the restaurant Oxheart.
The James Beard Foundation has undergone a two-year experiment to expand the diversity of its winners and the types of restaurants they represent. (The awards were officially suspended during the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020 and 2021; they resumed in 2022.) Now the nominees and attendees are far more varied than before. And the restaurants are more varied too.
To cite only two Texas examples whose chefs were nominated this year, Ana Liz Taqueria, in the city of Mission, is located in a strip center and serves at least some of its scratch-made tortillas on paper plates. Sandwich Hag is a Vietnamese restaurant in Dallas with an order window, a metal roof over a very casual outdoor seating area, and a sign that says, “We reserve the right to refuse service to assholes.” Previously such casual restaurants would not have made it to the finals, no matter how impressive the food.
During its pandemic hiatus, the Beard Foundation undertook a massive retooling of its awards process with the explicit purpose of broadening its base. Judging by the audience at the gala over the last two years, that goal has been achieved. On the other hand, there have been unexpected results too. Previous nominees affiliated with prominent, highly regarded restaurants, who would have been expected to get another shot at a medallion, were surprisingly missing from even the long list. This year, those included Steven McHugh, chef and co-owner of Cured, in San Antonio, and chef-owners Diego Galicia and Rico Torres of Mixtli, also in San Antonio. (In the past it has not been unusual for a chef to be nominated three or more times before winning a Beard award.)
But it may be too early to pass judgment on the revision in procedure. Any change is bound to take more than two years to play out in its final form. No doubt many hours will be spent rehashing the results and their meaning going forward. And the process will be tweaked and refined. As one of the official tasters (evaluators) affiliated with the process said in an interview last year: “Improvement will be gradual. You can’t go from step one to step ten all at once.”
In other news announced at the gala, the Mexican restaurant Joe’s Bakery & Coffee Shop, in East Austin, was one of six dining establishments nationwide to receive America’s Classic awards, honoring beloved status in the community. The restaurant, still in the family after more than sixty years, serves tacos and pan dulce at breakfast and carne guisada and barbacoa at lunch.
During the James Beard media awards on Saturday evening, Texas Monthly taco editor José R. Ralat won in the Columns and Newsletters category—his second win in two years—for his Tex-Mexplainer series. Also, Austin native Rick Martínez received the foundation’s international cookbook award for Mi Cocina: Recipes and Rapture From My Kitchen in México: A Cookbook.
Disclosure: Texas Monthly restaurant critic Patricia Sharpe was on the foundation’s national Restaurant and Chef Awards Committee from 2012 to 2018 and, before that, on the state voting panel for many years. Texas Monthly taco editor José R. Ralat is a member of the James Beard Restaurant and Chef Awards Committee.