"We shucked 1,500 oysters tonight," said chef Randy Evans, owner of Haven and its raw bar, Cove. His table at the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo's annual Rodeo Uncorked!® Roundup and Best Bites competition was littered with the remnants of oyster shells. The sauces in front, including Cove's signature truffle-and-Crystal hot sauce, were nearly depleted.
Evans had borrowed a special tray from Brennan's -- where he was once executive chef -- that normally holds ice sculptures, filled it with crushed ice and brought along three of his best oyster shuckers, including sous chef Jean-Philippe Gaston. The oysters went quickly, but it still wasn't enough to net Cove or Haven a prize at last night's competition.
The Popular Choice award, given by the hundreds of guests who pack Reliant Center for the food competition each year, went to Royer's Round Top Cafe. Bud "The Pieman" Royer was parked in front of his booth all night, passing out pies and warm smiles in his garishly colored apron, as he does each year at the Rodeo.
Jonathan's the Rub netted a second-place Popular Choice award for its lobster tacos. Each homemade corn tortilla was filled with roughly one claw's worth of meat. "How can they afford to do this?" I heard someone exclaim in awe as he walked away with the little prize.
Best Bites and the Rodeo Uncorked!® Roundup kick off the annual Rodeo season each year, but for the restaurants that participate, it's all about the awards. Several new restaurants entered this year's competition, and were richly rewarded for their efforts. Chief among them was Killen's BBB -- the upcoming barbecue restaurant from chef Ronnie Killen, who also owns the popular Killen's Steakhouse in Pearland.
Killen's BBB won the Trailblazing Appetizer/Entrée Award for its barbecue short ribs, a smoky hunk of meat that practically fell from the bone. Its inside was a rosy pink, while the outside sported the kind of peppery, crusty char that indicates Killen's BBB will be a very serious 'cue spot when it opens later this year.
Second place went to the cute, portable and very tasty pork tacos from Molina's Cantina -- a crowd and judge favorite every year. And third place went to newcomers Frank's Americana Revival, which served up short rib sliders with shaved ham and debris on a soft, barely sweet bun with a creamy coleslaw buffeting the meat.
These awards -- separate from the Popular Choice awards -- are given by a panel of judges behind the scenes who taste through all of the entries before sending the best from each category up to a final "Super Taster" panel. This was my fourth year to judge, and my second on the Super Taster panel. But this year's entries proved far more difficult to pare down than in previous competitions.
"The restaurants really stepped up their game," noted fellow judge Teresa Byrne-Dodge of My Table Magazine.
There were two clear winners in the dessert category, however: a beautifully decorated mango-filled chocolate from Cacao & Cardamom Chocolates, another newcomer who won first place in the Two-Stepping Bread/Cheese/Dessert category, and a custard-soaked bread pudding from Joyce's Seafood and Steaks that won second place.
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It came as no surprise that both entries won additional awards last night as well. The Rookie Award went to Cacao & Cardamom Chocolates, while the Tasty Traditions Award went to Joyce's Seafood and Steaks, which has been serving the classic dessert since 1997.