A Texas-Sized Food Fight at the Rodeo's Best Bites Competition

With a nearly endless bounty of fine food and wine that stretched over an area larger than a football field, guests at last night's Best Bites Competition at the Houston Livestock Show & Rodeo were hard-pressed not to get their money's worth for the $100 ticket price it took to get in the door to the popular event. The only thing that would have made it better would have been if Barcaloungers were parked in the aisles, for convenient mid-gorge napping purposes.

As guests worked their way from booth to booth, they dropped Mardi Gras beads into the collection boxes at tables with the best food. Some restaurants hustled manically to get as many beads as possible, knowing that the booth with the biggest bead count at the end of the night would win the coveted Popular Choice award, while other restaurants calmly served up their butternut squash bisque or sliders, happy just to have an appreciative audience.

And while the lines moved remarkably swiftly for an event of this size, some lines snaked and looped throughout the crowds: Many people were hungry for the reopened Brennan's famed turtle soup or the down-home comfort food and pie served up at Royer's Round Top Cafe as the affable Bud Royer himself held court. Some booths pulled out all the stops, like the live blue crab array that greeted guests at the Goode Co. Seafood table, while others pulled out all the talent: Michael Kramer at the VOICE booth, Jason Gould at the Cyclone Anaya booth (he's about to enter into a partnership with the Houston chain), Michael dei Maggi at the Rockwood Room booth and other executive chefs proudly dished out their goods for the crowd.

But aside from the Popular Choice award, there were still two other main awards yet to come last night.

A large panel of judges, including the Rodeo's Chairman of the Board -- Butch Robinson -- alongside media personalities like Miya Shay and Michael Garfield and food writers like John Demers, Teresa Byrne-Dodge, Jenny Wang, Greg Morago, Sarah Rufka and me, was sequestered at the rear of Reliant Center. In just one short hour, the judges had plowed through more than 60 different entries, ranging from cupcakes to cuts of beef. It helped that each table only had 10 entrees, appetizers or desserts to judge.

At our table, the favorites were the mushroom cappucino soup with truffle foam from VOICE (although the judging was technically supposed to be entirely blind, it couldn't be helped that we recognized dishes from our favorite restaurants), the sherry-spiked turtle soup from Brennan's, the baby back ribs with pork-filled ravioli from Valentino Vin Bar and a pulled wild boar sandwich with jalapeno pickles and fried onions on a sweet bun that came from HCC's culinary arts department. We were especially impressed with the last entry after we found out where it came from (which, don't fret, happened after the judging was over).

It turns out that at least one of our top choices made the cut, too, as the overall winners were announced. In the Trailblazing Entree / Appetizer category, the winners were:

1st Place: Sage 400, with edamame hummus, tuna tartare and miso Chilean sea bass
2nd Place: Del Frisco's Double Eagle Steakhouse, with sliced beef tenderloin, macaroni and cheese and bread pudding
3rd Place: Valentino Vin Bar, with the aforementioned baby back ribs and ravioli

In the rather broad Two-Stepping Bread / Cheese / Dessert category, the winners were:

1st Place: Killen's Steakhouse, with creme brulee bread pudding (we wholeheartedly endorse this medal; it's the best bread pudding anywhere, ever)
2nd Place: Veldhuizen Cheese, with a hand-crafted artisan cheese selection

And in the Popular Choice category, the overall winners were:

1st Place: Hasta La Pasta (yes, we were surprised, too), with Southwest chicken cannelloni and chocolate bread pudding with cabernet ice cream
2nd Place: Del Frisco's Double Eagle Steakhouse, once again, with their sliced beef tenderloin entry

And even if a restaurant failed to place in the competition last night, they got thousands more eyes (and tongues) on their food just for being there -- which is worth its weight in any saddle, chaps or belt buckle they could have brought home.

For more photos from the event, check out our slideshow.

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Katharine Shilcutt