Now in its fifth year, the annual No Holds Barred Chili Cook-off at Shady Tavern has become a neighborhood institution in the Heights. This year -- appropriately enough -- the competition benefited the Houston Heights Association. The HHA itself also won Fan Favorite, which came with a cash prize as well as the money raised by the cook-off. You can't say the Heights doesn't support its own.
This was my third year to judge the competition, and my second time to judge it without suffering from food poisoning. (The food poisoning wasn't from the chili, but rather from a fancy restaurant.) And it was the Holy Cowboys' second time to win the competition, which they did handily.
The team, captained by cooking competition veteran Ken Cooley, uses Saint Arnold's Divine Reserve in its chili, hence the name. It was the unanimous vote for first place in this year's judging panel, which also included Flaming Patties owner/chef Stiles Smith and a 10-year-old named Samuel. In presenting first place, I told the team that their chili -- which featured a perfect amount of cumin and plenty of meat, but no beans -- had been our platonic ideal of what a chili should be.
Afterward, Cooley told me how I'd torn apart his entry in the Saint Arnold One Pot Showdown last year, writing: "While using Divine Reserve in a dish isn't a new tactic, using three at once and shooting the entire proverbial wad was certainly new, if not appreciated. Divine Reserve numbers 7, 8 and 9 couldn't have been more different in taste and complexity, leading to a very confused and ultimately horrid chili."
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Cooley told me remembered the "horrid" line most of all, and I cringed. It's never fun being confronted with past negative statements, even if you still stand behind them. But Cooley surprised me: "I went back to the drawing board," he said. And vowed to work on his chili until it was Grade A-stuff.
It worked, and the crowning dollop of lime-infused sour cream on top of their winning chili certainly didn't hurt either.