How many ways can you make a Caesar salad? This past Friday evening, Houstonians were treated to a total of 19 ways at the 29th Annual Caesar Salad Competition, held at the Conrad N. Hilton College of Hotel and Restaurant Management at the University of Houston.
The event, hosted by the Food & Beverage Managers Association of Houston, has become an annual tradition in the Houston food world. For a minimal fee, entrants get to duke it out Caesar salad-style for bragging rights in a blind-taste contest whose proceeds fund scholarships in the culinary arts.
The fact that the judging is blind levels the playing field, ensuring that every entrant is critiqued by the same criteria: look, taste, and either creativity or adherence to classic Caesar style. This year, there were five entrants in the classic category, and 14 entrants in the creative category.
As one of the judges in the competition, I can say that the strongest differentiating factor in the classic category was taste. Almost all of the entrants looked the same, though there were slight differences in the cut of the salad (big chunks versus small chunks), the viscosity of the dressing, the flavor and crispiness of the croutons, and the way in which the cheese was sprinkled on top.
The winner among the five classic entries, The Houston Club, scored high points for a uniform coating of creamy dressing, coupled with small, easy to eat pieces of chopped romaine lettuce, and a healthy dose of freshly grated cheese.
The creative category was much harder to judge, though there were favorites that emerged quickly. A Caesar Martini by La Griglia, which was served in a mini martini glass complete with an olive and a small boquerones (anchovy), scored high on creativity and presentation, but lost points on taste due to the overpowering flavor of the boquerones.
A 48-hour pulled short rib slider on toasted pretzel bun with a Caesar salad slaw was probably the most delicious offering of the night for me, but was more pulled short rib than Caesar salad, losing points for creativity. The crowd didn't seem to mind this small technicality, awarding the Hilton Americas the People's Choice prize for their tasty mini buns.
I really enjoyed a Peruvian Caesar salad by Chef Masaru of Latin Bites, a single bite of endive with crispy-somethings and a Peruvian pepper-based dressing, but the ingredients used were so extensive that it didn't make as strong an impression as the more easily understood offerings. Much simpler to contemplate was the roast duck and Caesar salad roll by the new Westin Downtown, a play on the Peking duck, which was also very tasty but more a duck dish than Caesar salad.
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In the end, by score and general consensus, the judges gave the beautifully presented basket of tandoori Cornish game hen with vindaloo-spiced cashews and croutons, black garlic, and caramelized pearl onions tossed with romaine in a classic Caesar dressing high marks in presentation, taste, and creativity.
The winner for the most creative Caesar was Kiran Verma of Kiran's, for her Indian-inspired dish, which will soon debut on the restaurant's menu.
All hail Caesar!