Tuesday, August 18, 2009

It's the Pork Belly Throwdown, Fools!

Homer: What?! Lisa, are you saying that you’re never going to eat any animal again? What about bacon?
Lisa: No.
Homer: Ham?
Lisa: No.
Homer: Pork chops?
Lisa: Dad! Those all come from the same animal.
Homer: Heh heh heh. Ooh, yeah, right, Lisa. A wonderful, maaaaagical animal... Heh heh heh.

Latent in Homer’s philosophically persevering words is the idea of an animal so miraculous that it provides us with a waterfall of pork-flavored sundries. The pinnacle, of course, is pork belly, the happiest pork product of all. [Dreamy sigh.]

As it turns out, pork belly is to a chef what Megan Fox is to a guy: Lusty delicious. So when Jenny mentioned a pork belly throwdown, chefs from the far reaches of the city (well, kinda) came scurrying to throw their hats into the proverbial ring. And the match was set.

Last night more than 100 of us gathered at Catalan to pork our way through a buffet of pig-product-n-beans. Kitchen camaraderie overflowed into the adoring crowd, creating an atmosphere of warmth contagious. And then Christmas came early for the intrepid panel of judges (one of whom claims to have had a hamburger beforehand), which made its way through the TWELVE pork belly dishes concepted and created by some of the city’s most inspiring chefs. The line-up included such all-stars as Cody Vasek (VOICE), Randy Evans (Haven), Randy Rucker (Rainbow Lodge), Jonathan Jones (Beaver’s Ice House), Manubu Horiuchi (Kata Robata), and Ryan Pera (The Grove), among others, all strutting their culinary stuff in a no-holds-barred, epic battle for burly greatness. Daaaaang!

When the smoke cleared, one contestant reigned supreme. First place went to VOICE’s sous chef, Cody Vasek, whose offering included sweet-and-sour pork and a mesmerizing “pork ’n bean” ice cream sandwich. Of note: Cody also won the fried chicken throwdown, so with this victory, he now officially owns the Htown Throwdown and can back up any verbal trash.

As one of the hovering beasts begging tastes off the ever-benevolent judges, my favorite offering was the pork belly torta from Randy Evans. This? Was a thing of beauty: a messy titan of a dish oozing with pork belly and fresh avocado on a pillowy bread vessel. Randy, if you can hear me, please put this on the menu at Haven. Please...?

Yes, sports fans, the Pork Belly Throwdown was a fun and hilarious event which showcased Houston’s amazing pool of culinary artists. Above all else remains the simple and indisputable sign of a successful food nerd event: it’s nearly 24 hours later, and I’m still full.

Shout out to my fellow mooching Chowhounds!

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Houston’s Hidden Gems

The thing I love about Houston is that there’s rock star food around every corner. And I’m not talking about the Catalans, DaMarcos, Textiles, and Reefs. I’m talkin’ tiny, hole-in-the-wall, mom ‘n pop, I-give-you-$10-and-you-give-me-change, delicioso restaurants that shock you to the core. I mean, come on -- we live in a city where the best tacos are handed to you through the window of a truck. Where people pay tolls for Chinese take-out. Where strip malls can house the city’s finest.

We are blessed to have some of the best ethnic restaurants in the country and too often we take them for granted. Few cities have the range of ethnic cuisines that we do, and even fewer represent them respectably. But Houston exalts the little guys hiding in every nook. Just don’t avert your eyes or you’ll miss them.

Tucked into a nondescript block of Beamer well south of Hobby airport lies the Pho Binh trailer and the best soup in Houston. Double true. No, it’s not a truck. It’s a trailer: a temporary building with a weensy kitchen and two tiny rooms packed with tables. The gracious staff turns out bowl upon bowl filled with broth so pure you want to bathe in it. Meats like chicken, rare beef, and pork meatballs, are moist-tender-delicious, and the long, smooth noodles slip-slide down with the greatest of ease. It is, quite simply, perfection in a bowl. That said, be sure to get there early; they run out of this pho goodness each and every day.

I snorted a little when my friend told me -- with a straight face -- that the Chevron station at the corner of Lawndale and Broadway had amazing tacos. She seemed fairly adamant about it, though, so I decided to play along. And in we walked. Right up to the taco stand encased in a gas station’s food mart. And I traded my skepticism for a plate of humility, for I what I received was fluffy eggs and sweet, smoky chorizo softly wrapped in warm housemade tortillas. Simply fantastic. So convinced was I that these tacos would suck that I didn’t even tote my camera. This picture was taken with another friend’s iPhone. Tee hee!

Barbecue joints are to Houston what weeds are to my yard: prevalent. But Pierson’s is different. Located on a desolate strip of TC Jester, Pierson’s brightens up a converted house with a humble nod. Enter the miniscule, formica'd dining room, place your order at the counter, and grab a seat -- if you’re lucky -- at one of the three tables. Soon you will be rewarded with tender brisket and the best ribs in town, all served with a hearty, unassuming smile. Meats are well smoked: crisp-charred on the outside to protect a moist and juicy interior. Even the potato salad and slaw are deserving of fanfare. But seriously, if this brisket were a man, I’d marry it.