Best Food We Found at the Houston Rodeo This Year

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We covered food at the Houston Livestock Show & Rodeo carnival last week during the World's Championship Bar-B-Que Competition, but many vendors didn't start serving until the rodeo officially started on yesterday. We went back to see what new tasty goodies we could find. This was what we found on-the-fly--the Gold Buckle Foodie competition is tomorrow, so we'll follow up with a list of the official winners.

If you've been to the Houston Livestock Show & Rodeo before, then you know it's a vast property. We explored the two huge tents of food set up next to NRG Center as well as some vendors that extend around the back of Kids Country.

For those of you who are hoping for a quality alcoholic beverage to go with your selections--good luck. Your best bet is to head to the lovely Champion Wine Garden instead and if you don't like wine--well, sorry. We didn't see any craft beer at all, and it's a real pity because most of the food we tried would have been even better with great beer alongside. Skip those margaritas by-the-yard, too. Those scary neon green and pink abominations are completely gross. They taste like they were made with Sprite syrup and Zima.

Another advantage to the Wine Garden is that even after the booths had closed around 9 and 10 p.m., the Wine Garden stayed open until 11 p.m. On Fridays and Saturdays, it's open until midnight. So, why jump in your car and fight your way out of the parking lot when you can chill with a glass of good wine instead?

We've included booth numbers so you can find these places. "KC" means Kids Country (located between NRG Center and the carnival) and "RP" simply means "Reliant Park"--a holdover from before NRG acquired Reliant Energy, the prior namesake and sponsor of the park.

8. Shrimp Gumbo

Yeah, most people go for the fried alligator at this booth, but we aimed for the shrimp gumbo instead. Is it the best shrimp gumbo we've ever had? No, but it was chock-full of little shrimp, celery and was made with a light brown roux. The sign on the booth says "New Orleans Shrimp Hotel," but the actual company is Cajun's Unlimited, which is how they're listed in the rodeo guidebook, too. Cost: $6. Booth RP55.

7. A Heap Of Spicy Chips

It's a good thing we had a lot of places to check out last night, or we would never have stopped eating these chips, which also came from Cajun's Unlimited. These deeply crisped little gems come out in a huge mound enrobed in paper towels and are generously spiced with Cajun seasoning. Cost: $5. Booth RP55

6. Tex-Mex For A Cause

Did you know you can eat some pretty decent Mexican food and help kids the same time? Well, we didn't either, but fortunately we ran into a friend who pointed out the Go Tejano Diner. If you didn't know what it was all about, you'd just assume it's another booth. In this case, though, it's ran by volunteers and the money raised goes to the rodeo scholarship fund. The food's not bad, either. We dined on soft corn tacos with tender fajita meat and Mexican rice (which leaned a bit on the salty side, but we've seen far too many bland renditions in this town to care) which mixed nicely with the creamy refried beans. Cost: $9.50. Booth RP40.

5. Crunchy Kettle Corn

Head out of the tent closest to the front of Reliant Center then hang a left toward the carnival, then just follow the smell of toasting popcorn. When you see the big truck and enormous kettle, you will have found Kettle Corn of Texas. Kettle corn is a little different than normal popcorn. It has a very light, sweet coating but also has some salt so it really sets your taste buds a tinglin'. The proprietor we talked with last night said that 10 years ago, no one knew what kettle corn was and "you couldn't give it away." Now, he sells bag after bag of it. We can see why. Cost: Cost: $4 (small), $6 (medium) or $9 (large). Booth KC 506.

4. Chocolate-Covered Bacon

Kettle Corn of Texas also sells crispy bacon enrobed in dark chocolate. Really, it's in the same flavor family as the kettle corn--a combination of sweet and salty. However, in the case of the bacon, it's also creamy and smoky. Cost: $4 Booth KC 506.

3. "Fried Bacon"

Admittedly, we really love bacon. In this case, what we got wasn't quite what we expected. We imagined battered and deep-fried slices of bacon, but that's not what this was. The fried bacon at the Sills Funnel Cake booth is actually thin pieces cooked in funnel cake batter. The resulting asymmetrical shapes are reminiscent of ginger root. This is one for the funnel cake lovers, as the bacon adds a touch of saltiness. It's quite pleasant if you know what to expect. Cost: $6. Booth RP 120.

2. Curly Fry Loaf

Holy Carb Loading, Batman! We can only recommend this for groups of four or more because this monstrosity probably has 4,000 calories. At Tad's Bodacious Burrito, a mass of curly fries is loaded into the bottom of a fry basket. As it deep fries, it melds into one giant loaf. Of course, we had to gild the lily with chili and cheese, because that's how we do. The massive size of this thing means it takes about 10 minutes to fry properly, so have some patience if you order it. Cost: $12.50. Booth RP 65.

1. Polonia

If you're looking to dine on homey, filling, tasty food that's akin to you'd go out to a restaurant for, then you must stop by the cute wooden building that houses Polonia. The combination plate of real Polish sausage, tangy, slow-cooked cabbage with pork, potato-stuffed pierogi and a cabbage roll stuffed with more pork was easily the best food we had last night. Cost: $14. Booth KC 500.

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