After having cancelled last year's event in the wake of Hurricane Harvey, the Food and Beverage Managers Association of Houston was back this year to reinstate one of the city's longest running culinary traditions. The 34th Annual Caesar Salad Competition took place last night at the Hilton University of Houston. Sixteen restaurants, bars, hotels, businesses, and breweries went head to head for the distinguished honor of winning one of the competition's four categories: Best Classic, Best Creative, Best Presentation, & Consumers' Choice.
Among this year's judges was Houston Press' own Carlos Brandon (yours truly), along with five of Houston's best and brightest culinary media talents. The 2018 participants brought new meaning to the word "salad" with a range of creative preparations as unique as they were conceptual. It's not all in the concept, however, as contestants were judged as much on taste and execution as they were on creative intention, and classic salads were judged on strict adherence to the original recipe.
The original Caesar salad is a simple tossing of romaine lettuce, croutons, and Parmesan cheese, dressed in a not-so-simple emulsion of olive oil, lemon juice, egg yolk, Worcestershire sauce, anchovy, garlic, and Dijon mustard. The salad is a standard at most Italian-American restaurants these days, invented in the 1920s by Italian restaurateur, Caesar Cardini, at his self-named hotel and restaurant in Tijuana, Mexico.
This year's award for best classic preparation went to one of the event's current heavy weights, El Meson. The Rice Village institution known for its Cuban food and Spanish tapas since 1981 has taken home a prize in the past three consecutive Caesar Salad Competitions. Winner of the 2015 best classic and 2016's best presentation, El Meson was back this year with an extremely well crafted salad that paired a garlic forward dressing with hints of lemon and just the right amount of anchovy flavor. The classic preparation was enough to earn back El Meson's rightful place as the king of the classic Caesar salad.
Another returning champ who was booted from the podium in 2016 but came back with a vengeance this year was San Luis Resort and Spa. All the way from Galveston, the island's premiere resort won best presentation in 2014 and both best presentation and most creative in 2015. This year, the resort was back to take the title for consumers' choice with a stunning salad that featured a perfectly fried oyster and slice of candied maple bacon with a slice of heirloom tomato.
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A surprise victor from among this year's participants was none other than the University of Houston Dining Services. In their own back yard, the university dining services team took home the award for best presentation with a delightful salad in a miniature red taco shell that caught the judges eyes.
The coveted most creative trophy went to the team from Le Bistro at the Culinary Institute Lenotre. The north Houston culinary school prepared a special vegan salad that won most creative for its perfect execution of the Caesar salad flavor profile using all vegan ingredients. This included fried egg plant, a dairy-less cheese, and an egg-less Caesar dressing that could have just as easily won the traditional competition on taste alone.
As usual, the event benefited the educational endowment of the Food and Beverage Managers Association, which funds scholarships for aspiring culinary and hospitality professionals in the Houston area. The association has established four endowments at the University of Houston and the Lenotre Institute, and to-date has raised more than $350,000 in scholarship funds for Houston area students.