Neither rain nor the Texas A&M versus Alabama football game could stop them from coming to Christine Ha's first pop-up dinner, Episode One: A Farewell to Summer.
The season 3 MasterChef winner took over the kitchen at MKT Bar inside Phoenicia Specialty Foods on Saturday, September 14. Word traveled quickly that the chef would be serving street-style dishes from her cookbook, the MasterChef competition and her family; anyone who wanted to taste Ha's food made sure they were at MKT Bar.
No table was left empty; in fact, more tables and chairs were brought in to accommodate the crowd of people wanting to sample Ha's creations. She created the menu as an ode to the last week of summer, with street-food dishes utilizing season-appropriate ingredients.
In street food-style, each dish (excluding the dessert) was served in a paper basket. Ha created a green papaya salad inspired by her winning dish on MasterChef: crisp, thin strips of green papaya were tossed with sweet beef jerky, crunchy jicama slices, candied peanuts and a fermented shrimp and honey vinaigrette, all topped with two flaky, delicate prawn chips. If there was one item that embodied summer cuisine, this was it. The light, crisp, refreshing salad was the perfect start to Ha's dinner.
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After only a few bites of the salad, you couldn't help digging into the chicken wings, which were prepared two ways. One batch was caramelized in fish sauce, which made the skin extra crispy, sweet and addicting. Ha also incorporated garlic, lime zest and mint to enhance the sweet fish sauce, and bird's-eye chile and cilantro to add a spicy kick. You can find this recipe in her cookbook, Recipes from My Home Kitchen.
The other chicken wings were created as a tribute to her husband's heritage. She coated chicken wings in a spicy red bean paste (which definitely helped distinguish the two wings) and vodka, caramel, garlic, apple cider vinegar and sesame seeds, making for one heck of a spicy wing.
The meal ended with a Thai-inspired dessert drink made with coconut milk, cream, lychee, longan, green grass jelly, palm seeds, jackfruit and coconut jelly. The top of the drink was just liquid, but once you dug your spoon down to the bottom, you could scoop out all the tropical fruits and jelly pieces. It was a welcome sweet refreshment after the spicy red bean paste chicken wing.
Judging by the looks of satisfaction on the faces of diners, Ha's first pop-up dinner was a success, and the Houston community is even more excited about the prospect of the chef opening her own restaurant. If we're lucky, "Episode One" means there will be a sequel to this fine freshman outing before then.