Local Spotlight

Go Pig or Go Home: How Things Went Down at the 1st Annual Suckling Pig Throwdown

Check out our slideshow of the Suckling Pig Throwdown.

Leave it to Kata Robata Executive Chef Manabu "Hori" Horiuchi to assemble a cast of chefs worthy of an Iron Chef all-stars competition. Because that's what happened on Sunday night at the 1st Annual Suckling Pig Throwdown, when 13 of Houston's finest chefs came out strutting their stuff for all they were worth.

The main ingredient? Suckling pig. The prize? Bragging rights as the Suckling Pig Throw Down King and a gold pig trophy.

Approximately 300 food-lovers, Kata Robata regulars and industry heavyweights attended the friendly competition, which had the happy feel of a super-fun, food-filled party. There were people everywhere, eating, drinking, smiling, laughing, snapping photos and ogling the food.

A large tent had been erected directly in front of Kata Robata for the chefs to set up their stations. To the far right, Chef Ryan "Heinous" Hildebrand's team from Triniti could be seen rapidly chopping up black poke-brined suckling pig, for their sliders of soft and sweet Hawaiian bread filled with moist, chopped pork, pink peppercorn, pineapple and sesame slaw.

Chef Randy "The Ravenous" Rucker of Restaurant Conat was doing pâté-like tranches of thick-cut head cheese, roast suckling pig, and his mother Bootsie's awesome sweet and spicy pickles.

At the next booth, Chef Raymond "The Venomous" Vandergaag of The Tasting Room City Centre had a crate full of crispy spiced chicharron, while squares of crisp-skinned suckling pig sizzled on an iron-cast hot-plate. He also had a pork pâté and pork meatball that he was serving with pickles.

Chef Steve "The Slaughter" Marques of The Tasting Room Uptown Park offered suckling pig five ways: pork rillette, fresh garlic sausage, head cheese, bacon-toffee oatmeal cookie, and most notably, a bacon-bourbon-ginger-beer-hard-cider-cocktail which he called a "pig's fart."

Chef Terrence "The Terror" Gallivan and his partner Seth "The Savage" Siegel-Gardner chose a deli theme for their offering, hand-shaving glorious porchetta to make a mortadella-stuffed porchetta sandwich on an olive-salad bread with chow chow relish and a grilled ramp cheddar cheese. Each sandwich was wrapped in butcher paper and sealed with a sticker debuting the logo for their upcoming restaurant, The Pass and Provisions.

Chef "Iron" Mike Potowski of Benjy's on Washington came up with Japanese-inspired stuffed inari (tofu skin), mixing the pork with an Asian-flavored pickled slaw, which was topped with Sriracha for a nice spicy kick.

At the Kata Robata booth, Chef Gabe "Young Guns" Medina offered a dashi-brined suckling pig that was painstakingly hand-charred with Japanese coals to give the skin a really defined crisp. Served with cherry blossom sticky rice, and a red miso sauce, the flavors and textures were similar to that of Peking duck, only supercharged in a tastier Japanese way, and with crispier skin.

Chef Michael "Make It Rain" Pellegrino of Max's Wine Dive had arguably the most creative and eye-catching plate of the night. A huge, three-foot pig made out of pretzel bread looked like it was just for show until he cut it up and revealed an entire suckling pig baked inside of it! The pork was sliced, sauteed, and served on the pretzel bread with a tangy, deep yellow "kitchen sink" mustard. On the side, little baby piglets could be seen as well, which were also stuffed with pork.

Not to be outdone, Chef Ryan "The Ripper" Pera of Revival Market offered a Korean-inspired dish, a smoked pork rice bowl with local vegetables and quail egg, which reminded me of bibimbap and kim-chi fried rice at the same time.

And last but not least, Chef Ronnie "The Ravenous" Killen of Killen's Steakhouse offered four different preparations of suckling pork, including barbecued ribs, crisp pork belly, pulled pork, and pork tamale. A charming Chef Johnny Wesley was also giving away free hugs when people voted, another draw, for sure.

All this was happening outside in the tent, while inside, Kata Robata was bestowing upon patrons hot and cold dishes like butter-sauteed scallop topped with shiitake mushroom, panko crusted jumbo tempura shrimp, cold soba noodles, several rolls, fresh sushi and more. On the patio, St. Arnold's beer was being served on tap. Virtuoso Selections was on hand with free sake tastings, and at the bar, Christa Havican and David Long Wong were doing refreshing cocktails of watermelon-honeydew-mint agua fresca with Treaty Oak Rum and mint for a mere $5.

Judges Katharine Shilcutt of the Houston Press, Greg Morago of the Houston Chronicle, Chef Chris Shepherd of Underbelly, Teresa Byrne-Dodge of My Table Magazine and Patricia Sharp determined the Top 3 of the evening, crowning Ryan "The Ripper" Pera as the Suckling Pig Throw Down King, which also earned him a grand prize ticket to Japan with Sushi Club of Houston Founder, Carl Rosa.

Michael "Make it Rain" Pellegrino of Max's Wine Dive came in second, and Mark Gabriel "Young Guns" Medina came in third.

Chef Ronnie "The Ravenous" Killen and Team Killen's Steakhouse won the People's Choice for the night, and with it, the highly coveted golden pig trophy, which Killen proudly showed off for the rest of the night.

Congratulations to Kata Robata, Recipe for Success, the winners, and all the chefs who participated, because every single offering was delicious in its own right. Is it too early to say this will go down in history as one of the best Houston food events, ever? Can't wait to see what happens next year.

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Mai Pham is a contributing freelance food writer and food critic for the Houston Press whose adventurous palate has taken her from Argentina to Thailand and everywhere in between -- Peru, Spain, Hong Kong and more -- in pursuit of the most memorable bite. Her work appears in numerous outlets at the local, state and national level, where she is also a luxury travel correspondent for Forbes Travel Guide.
Contact: Mai Pham