Oro by Nixta, the Star Tribune's 2023 restaurant of the year, will compete against nine other U.S. restaurants for a prestigious national award from the James Beard Foundation.

The finalists for the 2024 James Beard Awards, announced Wednesday morning, included Gustavo and Kate Romero's heirloom Mexican restaurant in northeast Minneapolis in the competitive category of Best New Restaurant.

In the regional Best Chef: Midwest category, two Minneapolis chefs will also advance.

Ann Ahmed is a finalist for Khâluna; Christina Nguyen for Hai Hai. Their recognition gives Minnesota a reprieve from the sting of the 2023 awards. Last year was the first time in two decades that no Minnesota chefs were recognized in the final list in the Best Chef: Midwest category.

The high-profile culinary awards, widely viewed as the industry's highest honors, recognize and celebrate excellence in restaurants and food media. The restaurant awards fall into 10 national categories and 12 regional categories.

Succeeding in the national Best New Restaurant category has the potential to launch a newer business to national acclaim. Owamni won this category in 2022.

The nomination catapults the Oro team from what was originally Nixta, a to-go taco stand selling heirloom corn tortillas, to the national culinary stage.

Gustavo Romero was already at the restaurant when his phone started buzzing with notes of congratulations. His wife and co-owner, Kate Romero, shared the good news. "It's unbelievable," said Gustavo Romero. "We're just very grateful and thankful for the support of the community — all the people who work with us, collaborated with us and bought our tortillas."

"We hope this represents more than just an award nomination, but an opportunity to put Mexican food where it should be, not just for us but for all the Mexican people who live in this country," he added. "Food is such a representation of culture."

Since opening in 2023, Oro has charmed diners and critics. In his review, Star Tribune restaurant critic Jon Cheng praised how chef Gustavo Romero's "artwork celebrates the tapestry of Mexican cultural heritage" via his signature tortillas, for which he uses nixtamalized corn. "We ate quietly, marveling at the way the tortillas draped like thick, expensive fabric; the way they cradled their delicious fillings," Cheng wrote.

Romero was looking forward to seeing his staff, "so we can hug and cry and celebrate together."

He's also looking forward to sharing the recognition with his fellow Midwestern chefs. "I'm so excited for Christina and Ann. The food we have in this town is on par with any other city. This is an opportunity to see that."

When the James Beard Award semifinalist list first came out in January, Ann Ahmed was in Laos with her family, cooking a meal in the place that has so inspired her. This time, she got an early morning text in Mexico on a spring break trip with her kids and husband/co-owner. "I thought it was an April Fool's joke at first," Ahmed said.

Ahmed's restaurant Khâluna opened in 2021, garnering three stars from the Star Tribune for "food that delivers on both exclusivity and pleasure — the kind that justifies multiple flights across continents and time zones."

"I'm so glad that Khâluna is on their radar and it stayed with them. It's a special place that I poured my heart and soul into. It came from a place of love."

Ahmed is feeling the love of this nomination and the recognition of a significant career. "It's been 19 years! I've always felt seen and recognized by our community, but to be seen on this platform — it's what chefs aspire to be on."

Christina Nguyen was driving when she saw a missed message from James Beard Award-winning chef Ann Kim. When she arrived she found out about her nomination. "I didn't even realize it was coming out today. I was very shocked. Like, is it real? It was a very cool passing-of-the-torch moment to find out from her."

Nguyen and her partner and spouse, Birk Stefan Grudem, opened their first restaurant, Hola Arepa, 10 years ago this May. Nguyen reflected on her journey since then, when the two were hoisting plywood walls. "We did everything ourselves because we were broke."

When the two opened Hai Hai in 2018, it was an immediate success. The Star Tribune gave it 3½ stars, calling it "one of those charmed restaurants where nearly every one of its well-engineered components fosters a single emotion: happiness." She was a semifinalist for Hai Hai four previous times; in 2019 and 2020, she moved on in the competition to become a finalist.

Since then, Nguyen has continued to evolve as a chef and boss. "The path of a restaurateur changes from being there every single minute of every single service to grow, train and trust people with your vision and flavors. I love that it gives me even more time to work on a new kind of creativity."

The 33rd annual James Beard Restaurant and Chef Awards, likened to the Oscars of the food world, will take place in Chicago on June 10.