The theme of this year's Houston International Festival may be Australia, but at Celebrate Australia, the main food event of the festival, the best eats were decidedly Texan in nature.
The barbecue cook-off competition, the first of what the International Festival hopes to make an annual event, brought together chefs from around town to prepare barbecue in whatever style they chose. The event was limited to 200 guests, who strolled around Hermann Square Park in front of City Hall sampling the dishes and listening to a live band playing hits like "Land Down Under," Men At Work's classic song about Australia.
Barbecue dishes were judged by both the guests (people's choice award) as well as a panel of judges including myself, Eric Sandler of CultureMap; J.C. Reid of the Houston Chronicle; Peter Remington, the publisher of Houston Modern Luxury; and Ron Jenkins, a board member of the Houston Festival Foundation.
In all there were ten barbecue dishes to taste--ten juicy, spicy, glazed hunks of meat to indulge in as we wandered the festival grounds. The proteins used included pork, beef, shrimp and the most traditional in Australia, lamb. Jason Gould of Cyclone Anaya's, the lone Australian in the bunch, chose to cook lamb, as did Dwayne Carrington of Fiesta Mart. Everyone else prepared either pork or beef with the exception of Ray Salti, owner of Sorrel Urban Bistro, whose chefs created what he called "shrimp on the barbie" in a nod to the Australian slang.
Other participating chefs and restaurants included Kevin Bryant of Eleven XI, Donald Chang of Nara, Susie Jimenez of Trenza, Bob Iacovone of Fish & the Knife, Joe Gerardi of Fleming's Steakhouse, Staci Davis of Radical Eats and Patricia Alvarez-Burdette of Mr. Peeples.
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After the crowd and judges had eaten their fill (some of us going back for seconds) there were two clear winners. In second place, Iacovone with Fish & the Knife created a fall-off-the-bone-tender pork rib that had been simmered in a slightly spicy thin chili sauce and served on a bed of vinegary mustard-based cole slaw. The cole slaw was, thankfully, devoid of mayonnaise or that sickly sweet flavor that the barbecue side dish so often falls victim to. The meat itself was tender and juicy, and the slightly sugary barbecue sauce drizzled on top had just the right balance of sweetness and heat.
The winner of the evening was Eleven XI, though. Chef Bryant pulled out all the stops--first de-boning a pork loin, then stuffing it with jalapeños and wrapping it in thick bacon before deep frying the whole shebang. He then sliced it and served it on top of smoky creamed corn. The effect was very Texan, but upscale, much like Eleven XI itself. It was a well-deserved win from the fella who came up just short at our own Iron Fork competition, but continually wows diners at his Montrose eatery.
The people's choice winners have yet to be announced, but we'll update when the results are in.
There are just a few days left of the 44th annual International Festival, but there are still plenty of performances to catch before the event wraps up on May 4th. Check out the online event calendar for details, and be sure stop by all the food vendors for an international tasting. There's bound to be more shrimp on the barbie somewhere.