In a year in which practically every industry came to a screeching halt, restaurateurs and chefs had to get creative, navigating pandemic pauses and supply chain hiccups with aplomb because, after all, everyone still had to eat.
We’re grateful to the Alamo City chefs who kept us in good spirits and even better food during these tough times, and also gave us some food for thought in terms of how our communities can best support each other.
These seven chefs are shining role models for their industry and for the city as a whole, and we’re thrilled to honor them at the annual CultureMap Tastemaker Awards, which highlights the persevering trailblazers of the San Antonio and Austin restaurant and bar scenes.
Learn more about our San Antonio Chef of the Year nominees below, then join us August 5 at Fair Market in Austin for the 2021 Tastemaker Awards, when we’ll announce the deserving winner. Limited tickets remain — get yours now!
Ceasar Zepeda, Sangria on the Burg
If there’s one thing chef Ceasar Zepeda knows, it’s what San Antonians love to eat. From the freshest ceviche to fluffy, buttery biscuits, and a whole lot of sangria, his restaurant concepts always win over even the choosiest of diners. So when he opened his eclectic neighborhood spot, Sangria on the Burg, in 2016, locals in the know flocked to the Oak Hills neighborhood to devour craft sangria and margaritas alongside colorful tacos and perfectly sloppy sliders. With his affable and charismatic disposition and his intrinsic culinary talent, we’re pretty sure that whatever delicious chow he’s dishing out, all of Alamo City will eat it up.
John Russ, Clementine
Yep, it’s true: When celebrated local chef John Russ was a kid growing up in New Orleans, his go-to snack was PB&J. Luckily for the throngs of San Antonio diners who would later swarm his darling neighborhood restaurant, Clementine, his grandmother set him on a more enlightened culinary path, one emphasizing French influence and global flavors. After attending culinary school, Russ brought his cooking expertise to San Antonio, to much praise. He’s bolstered in the biz by his equally talented wife, Elise Russ, an eminent pastry chef in her own right.
Louis Singh, Singhs Vietnamese
From successful food truck to super popular brick-and-mortar eatery, Louis Singh specializes in cooking up what he calls Vietnamese soul food. At Singhs Vietnamese, the menu is loaded with gratifying dishes — “a Vietnamese mother’s recipes told through her Texas son.” From his seasoned shrimp rice and crispy karaage chicken to his “winghs” and what could easily be the most noshable banh mi sandwiches in town (especially the brisket banh mi), Singh is serving up the kind of fare that warrants at least a once-a-week visit, like all good soul food does. And in the meantime, he’s no doubt making his mama proud.
Nicola Blaque, The Jerk Shack, Mi Roti
Universal rule: No jerks allowed — unless, of course, we’re talking about chef Nicola Blaque’s expertly seasoned Jamaican-inspired cuisine. With a mission to elevate and modernize Caribbean food (mission accomplished), Army veteran, Culinary Institute of America grad, and Jamaica native Blaque has been spicing up the San Antonio food scene since opening The Jerk Shack in 2018. Appropriately dubbed “artisan Caribbean cuisine,” The Jerk Shack features a mouthwatering menu of marinated meats (yes, Texas purists, you can get jerk tacos and jerk ribs here) and sharable sides. In 2020, she also opened Caribbean street-food joint Mi Roti, which highlights dishes featuring the humble yet tasty Caribbean flatbread.
PJ Edwards, Meadow
Comforting seasonal fare inspired by Texas and Southern classics become modern delicacies in chef PJ Edwards’ hands. And that makes a lot of sense, considering Edwards started cooking in his youth, spent years honing his craft, and cut his teeth under some of Texas’ most well-regarded chefs. At Meadow, he highlights the farms and ranches that make Texas-sourced ingredients so flavorful, bringing a seasonal and chef-driven approach to Southern classics like pork chops, fried chicken, burgers, and vegetable succotash. As beautiful as his plates are, Edwards never sacrifices flavor, even in seemingly simple dishes. Case in point: His grilled pimento cheese sandwich is superb!
Stefan Bowers, Playland
Why does a classically French-trained chef with years of restaurant experience focus all his creative efforts on making pizza? Because even for well-practiced pizza virtuosos, making the perfect pie can be extremely tricky — even more difficult than frying fish or searing meat, notes chef Stefan Bowers — but he definitely rises to the challenge. At Playland, Bowers opts not for trendier pizza styles, but for his custom sourdough crust, which he piles with an array of gorgeous toppings, some traditional, some not so traditional (local honey, zucchini, kale), to create the perfectly blistered, cheesy slice. Order from the House Pizza section of the menu for Bowers’ curated specialties. Our current fave: the Pandemic Bread, a 13-inch pizza with semi-dry mozzarella, pecorino cheese, olive oil, rosemary, and sea salt.
Steve McHugh, Cured, Landrace
One of San Antonio’s most celebrated chefs, Steve McHugh, a James Beard Award finalist, is perhaps best known locally for the farmhouse fare he crafts at Cured restaurant at the Pearl. (It doesn’t take much; one visit and you’ll realize it’s the cure-all for humdrum restaurants.) But ever the innovator, McHugh wasn’t satisfied with his Cured culinary triumph alone, so local McHugh fanatics can now also dine on his exquisite wood-fired dishes at Landrace, the elegant signature restaurant of the newly opened Thompson San Antonio hotel downtown.