The Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo is famous for many things. Trail riders and mutton-bustin'. Sold-out concerts and carnival rides galore. And lots of animals, be they livestock or party people. Most importantly, the annual event has raised $500 million since 1957 for educational scholarships for young Texas scholars. Currently, 2,300 young people are benefiting from those funds at 80 different Texas colleges and universities.
Besides all the good it does for education and the community, the HLSR also brings culinary delights with its Rodeo Uncorked Best Bites, BBQ Contest and most recently, the Gold Buckle Foodie Awards this past Thursday. It's an event that showcases some of the Fair favorites and introduces new foods from the bounty of vendors that keep festival goers sated and happy. I was fortunate to be a judge for the competition and got to sample some of the over-the-top and creative flavors that this year's vendors have in store for rodeo attendees.
After squeezing my minivan into a parking space between a multitude of pick up trucks, some duallies, most sporting grille guards, I was lucky to get whisked to NRG Center by a cheerful golf cart driver. Despite the wind whipping around us, she was smiling and talkative. Once in the venue, I made my way past numerous booted and hatted committee volunteers and participants toward the end of the hall where the awards were being held.
I was the first judge to arrive (I take check-in times very seriously) and was told to choose any seat. The tables held bottles of water, oyster crackers, pickles and grapes. Palate cleansers we were told. Other judges began to trickle in, mostly food writers, bloggers, television and radio personalities. My table mates consisted of Chris Chicago, host for NGEN, a Christian pop and hip hop radio station located in Humble, and three young bloggers from GrubClubHTX: Vicheka Im, Chrystal Linson and Neil Lescano.
Our two Table Captains, Kimberly and Pamela, introduced themselves. Kimberly is a veteran rodeo volunteer, having done it for 16 years, despite her young age. It runs in her family. Her father is also involved with the Commercial Exhibits Committee. Pamela was a newbie to the event. I told her so was I. We were all in for a treat.
Emcee Harry Miller got the party started, despite having spent a little time on Willie Nelson's bus the previous evening. Miller is also a veteran committee person and serves on the Board of Directors for HLSR. He warned the judges to "Pace Yourselves" while the various foods began to make their way to the six tables. There were eight categories and the strategy was changed a bit this year with different tables judging different foods in order to streamline the process and not overwhelm each person with 80 items to sample.
Our table's first entry was exactly what I expected Rodeo food to be. It was an overlarge corn dog topped with cheese sauce and Flamin' Hot Cheetos. As Harry Miller stated, "Hot Cheetos are the new bacon". The spicy Cheetos also made their way onto a turkey leg. Both the Flamin' Hot Cheetos turkey leg and corn dog from Biggy's BBQ took home prizes that day so maybe Miller's right. Personally, I could do without the Cheetos and cheese because the sausage inside the corn dog was delicious. This was not a wimpy weiner. We were off to a good start.
Our table was served a chili sausage sandwich with waffle fries and another dish that stood out because of its sweet corn pudding. Then, things turned a bit, well, boring. We received breakfast tacos, then kettle corn. Both were perfectly respectable items but when you hear other tables receiving ribs and sausage, loaded baked potatoes and poutine the green-eyed monster of free food jealousy rears its head. After our table received a spicy nut mix, Chris Chicago said, " I think we're getting punk'd." However, Kimberly soon returned with a Ribeye Steak Sandwich from Burton Sausage. That put us in a more congenial mood. The tasty shaved ribeye was topped with caramelized onions and mushrooms on a toasted bun with a side of barbecue sauce. I was judicious with the sauce because the combination of meat and vegetables was delicious on its own.
Our table captain said she would dive in and fight for something spectacular. Eventually, our table got the envious glances as Kimberly served us Michelaguas from Fruteria Cano. There were five different flavors but we all agreed that the strawberry horchata was the best. If you want a refreshing non-alcoholic beverage at the rodeo, the $12 Michelaguas are full of fruit and served with a straw wrapped in a fruity roll up spiced with Tajin.
For Best Food-on-a-Stick our table was served the Tornado Potato a spicy, yummy spiraled potato on a stick but when we saw Big Bubba's Bad BBQ's Big Sticks being passed around, our captains kindly commandeered them for us so we could get a taste. That was a good thing because it was one of the best bites of the day. I didn't try the chicken but the pork was beautifully cooked; slightly sweet, slightly crispy, slightly charred. Perfect.
There were a few odd items like the Pregnant Pickles, a concoction of dill pickle chips deep fried in peanut butter batter and drizzled with a peanut butter sauce. In my maternity years, they might have been a craving. They were not as strange tasting as I expected, so if you are adventurous, give them a try. The Chicken Fried Bacon, however, I could eat all day. And the Loaded Waffle Fries from Holmes Steakhouse were a hit.
The Best Dessert category ended our fair foodie feast with our table receiving a Brookie, an oversized cookie topped with ice cream and whipped cream and the Brownie Ice Cream from Fried What! Both were decadent and exactly what would please little cowpokes when they get tired from rides and sheep petting. The sugar and carbs will revive them. Or their parents.
By the end of the meal our table had settled into a comfortable friendship, just in time to say goodbye. The winners were announced, with Candace Harlon of Harlon's BBQ livening the ceremony with her vivaciousness. Teams proudly accepted their ribbons and plaques in the reflected, faded glory of the Astrodome. Gold Buckle Foodie Awards 2020 was under the belt buckle. Or over it, actually.
Here are the winners for each category:
Classic Fair Food:
1st: Ribeye Steak Sandwich-Burton Sausage
2nd: Big Daddy Cheetos Cheese Corn Dog- Biggy's BBQ
3rd: Harlon's All Meat Stuffed Potato- Harlon's BBQ
Most Creative Food:
1st: Loaded Waffle Fries with Shredded Pork or Beef-Holmes Smokehouse
2nd: Flamin' Hot Cheetos Cheese Turkey Leg- Biggy's BBQ
3rd: Nitro Cotton Candy Lemonade- The Float Saloon
1st: Big Sticks (pork or chicken)- Big Bubba's Bad BBQ
2nd: Foot Corndog- Holmes Smokehouse
3rd: Cookie Dough- Sweet Cheeks
1st: Ribs and Sausage Platter- Saltgrass Steakhouse
2nd: Loaded Baked Potato- Yoakum Packing Company
3rd: Loaded Baked Potato with Beef- Burton Sausage
Best Fried Food:
1st: Donut Chicken Sandwich- Get Fried
2nd: Fried Red Velvet Cupcake with Homemade Buttercream Icing- Sill's Funnel Cakes
3rd: Nashville Hot Chicken Tenders-Big Bubba's Bad BBQ
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Best Specialty Food:
1st: Big Bayou Bloody Mary Mix Original-Big Bayou Cocktail Sauce
2nd: Chocolate Cobbler-All of Us
3rd: Cattle Drive Corn Chip Casserole- PDQ Meals
Best New Flavor:
1st: Deep Fried Cookie Dough Sundae- The Original Minneapple Pie
2nd: Pretzel Cheese Dog-The Float Saloon
3rd: Michelagua- Fruteria Cano
1st: Deep-Fried Cheesecake- Granny's Cheesecake
2nd: Brookie- Totally Baked Cookie Joint
3rd: Brownie Ice Cream- Fried What!
Best Cowboy Names Overheard: (my personal category)