On October 12, the New York Times released its 2021 Restaurants List. The fifty picks, which comprise “the most vibrant and delicious restaurants in 2021,” include five Texas businesses that showcase the diversity of our state’s gastronomy. Among them are two Mexican restaurants, a barbecue joint, and a soul-food eatery. According to the introduction, together all of the picks “reflect the rich mosaic of American dining.”

But the list and the restaurants named on it do much more than that. The editorial feature comes at a time when restaurants continue to struggle from the impact of COVID restrictions, the prohibition of mask mandates, and staffing shortages. One of the businesses recognized, Sylvia’s in Brownsville, is among them. Dallas native, Texas Monthly contributor, and New York Times food staff writer Priya Krishna describes the humble diner awash with Dallas Cowboys memorabilia as standing apart from the myriad taquerias lining the border city’s Southmost Taco District “for dishes like the machacado con huevo a la Mexicana, dried shreds of rich beef and eggs encased in a giant, buttery, almost translucent tortilla.” 

Sylvia’s is one of my favorite Brownsville haunts, for its gigantic breakfast tacos like the one Krishna mentions (the machacado con huevo was our taco of the week back in November 2019). Sylvia’s owner Norma Almaza says the New York Times distinction couldn’t come at a better time for the 22-year-old restaurant. She hopes the recognition marks the beginning of the end of the challenges she and her restaurant have faced over the last year and a half. I’m excited for Almanza. I’ve been visiting the Brownsville diner since 2013 but never thought it would receive such a big national accolade. Almaza is floored: “I’m honored! This is huge,” she says. 

Several hours north, in San Antonio, is the Carnitas Lonja Mexican seafood spin-off, Fish Lonja. The shack at the back of owner Alejandro Paredes’s restaurant lot is brightly colored and has only recently been reopened after spending much of the COVID pandemic closed. Paredes, who was named a James Beard Foundation Chef Award semifinalist in 2020, says recognition is always great and this New York Times nod is especially surprising and thrilling. “Now people know I can do more than carnitas,” he laughs, adding that he hopes the national coverage will allow him to take Fish Lonja from a weekend-only operation to a daily, afternoon, and evening dining option. In her write-up, Krishna describes Fish Lonja as “exceptional. The menu winds through various Mexican coastal cities, and each offering is distinct.” Dishes take inspiration from many stretches of Mexico’s coastline, including Sinaloa, Guerrero, and the chef-owner’s native Michoacán. 

He and Almanza want to make it clear that all of this fame is due to the people who gave their small joints a chance. Mexican food is often relegated to local or state nods. But this list, and a recent one by Food & Wine naming Suerte executive chef Fermín Núñez as one of the magazine’s picks for best new chefs, seems to show a shift of focus.

The other Texas restaurants recognized on the list are Roots Southern Table in Farmers Branch, Blood Bros. BBQ in Bellaire, and Birdie’s in Austin. Writer Brett Anderson describes Birdie’s as “an order-at-the-counter natural-wine bar and cafe recently opened in an old taqueria by a talented young couple who relocated from New York.” He’s aware such a lead-in is ripe for a comedy sketch. Thankfully, there is far more to love. “Chef Tracy Malechek-Ezekiel’s bright, graceful food,” he writes, is at “the leading edge of what makes eating great in this booming town.” The vanilla soft-serve drizzled with olive oil pressed with tangerines makes for an ideal end to a visit, according to Anderson.

Birdie’s is just one of the new ventures that, as the list’s introduction also states plainly, have made “their way through the roughest stretch the restaurant business is likely to endure.” Chef Tiffany Derry’s restaurant, Roots Southern Table, is tucked away in the Dallas suburb of Farmers Branch, which writer Krishna admits isn’t exactly a “renowned dining destination.” But that will hopefully change with Derry’s talent, which has given us treats like “her mother’s gumbo, punctured by a fat blue-crab claw and bathed in a rich, dark roux.”

In suburban Houston, Anderson homes in on Blood Bros. BBQ. The strip-center smoked-meat operation is owned by pitmaster Quy Hoang and brothers Terry and Robin Wong, and specializes in pan-Asian takes on Texas barbecue. From day to day, there might be “brisket burnt-end steam buns and smoked chicken karaage . . . char siu pork banh mi and Thai green curry boudin balls,” writes Anderson. Blood Bros. BBQ is a favorite of barbecue editor Daniel Vaughn, because, as Vaughn asks, “Who in Houston wouldn’t want to line up for Thai green chile boudin?”

Texas Monthly’s restaurant critic, Patricia Sharpe, succinctly summarizes the list: “The five Texas selections confirm what I’ve seen more and more often since the pandemic hit: the flavors are elevated, the settings are down-to-earth.”