Special Events

Houston Rodeo Gold Buckle Foodie Awards 2022

Forget the diet. It's Rodeo time!
Forget the diet. It's Rodeo time! Photo by Lorretta Ruggiero

Houstonians are thrilled by the return of the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo. This year marks its 90th anniversary and celebrations have been in full force with the Rodeo Uncorked Best Bites, the Bar-B-Cue Contest and Tuesday, the Gold Buckle Foodie Awards.

We had the opportunity to sit with a variety of judges for the Gold Buckle awards from local radio and television hosts to Houston food writers and social media influencers. At one table sat an esteemed group of Houston chefs, some Top Chef and Master Chef competitors, that included Dawn Burrell, Evelyn Garcia, Aaron Bludorn, Suu Khin and Joseph Manglicmot.
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Berg Hospitality brings fine dining to the Houston Rodeo.
Photo by Lorretta Ruggiero
The event was held at The Ranch Saloon + Steakhouse from Berg Hospitality. The upscale dining venue made its Rodeo debut this year and owner Benjamin Berg was on hand to show off his new venture, a rodeo tent like no other. Giant wood  beams supported the canopy and blown-up photos of cowboys, horses and Western landscapes lined the walls. There was a fabulous a mix of lighting with wrought iron, crystal and antlered chandeliers giving the space a rustic, yet elegant, feel.
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Contestants and judges mingle before the tasting.
Photo by Lorretta Ruggiero
As with most rodeo events, there were smiling volunteers eager to please and make everyone welcome. The judges sat at long communal tables with several rodeo helpers assigned to each. Our table included Ruben Dominguez and Chelsea Edwards from Fox 26, Sarah Pepper and Jesse Watt from Mix 96.5 and Katie Stone, daughter of the late Cleverley Stone.

Our hosts welcomed us and we began the tasting and judging. In 2020, two days before the pandemic shut down the Houston Rodeo, the judges tasted different foods at each table. This year, the process was streamlined with the judges receiving the top three rodeo foods in each category that had already been voted on by the public.
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A Funnel Cake Monte Cristo is a wonderful thing.
Photo by Lorretta Ruggiero
First up was the Best Fried Food. We began with the Fried Jambalaya Roll from Cajun Cowboys. It was a great start. It was basically an egg roll filled with jambalaya and the roll elicited eye rolls of pleasure from the participants, at least at our table. The next fried food was the Funnel Cake Monte Cristo served with curly fries. Unfortunately, the fries had already taken a turn for the worse and were cold and tasteless but would probably be delicious when ordered at the Sills Concession stand. The Monte Cristo itself was scrumptious, delivering on the sweet and savory flavors that make the concoction so craveable. We were also served a Chicken Tender Basket with waffle fries from Holmes Smokehouse and they were pretty much what one would expect from fried chicken tenders done well.
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Check your teeth after biting into this beauty.
Photo by Lorretta Ruggiero
We were then presented with three items for Best Food-on-a-Stick. The Berry Racer Caramel Apple was pretty but since we were sharing each item, it had to be sliced at the table by our volunteer, an older cowboy from Amarillo. We are pretty sure this was the first, and last, time he has ever had to carve up a caramel apple. The green apple helped to tamper the sweetness of the white chocolate and caramel a bit but we each had a little difficulty chewing it. How one would eat this on the rodeo floor, we don't know.

The second stick entry was the Beef K-BOB from Saltgrass Steakhouse. It was cooked quite on the rare side which left it extremely tender, easy to eat and it was well-seasoned. The Spice Corn Dog arrived late due to a back-up with the contestants from CornDog With No Name. They had three entries for the event so it was understandable. It was a simple corn dog with a tiny bit of heat from the jalapeno inside but what stood out was the perfectly fried and light batter. This was a winner for us but not everyone agreed.
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When its says All Meat Stuffed, it means it.
Photo by Lorretta Ruggiero
When it came time for Classic Fair Food, the volunteers brought out some hefty dishes. Though it was a little disconcerting sharing and passing food around in the time of COVID, one just has to say a little blessing and hope for the best at this point. We are vaccinated, boosted and had a brief case of COVID so here's to hoping for immunity.
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We're suckers for loaded fries.
Photo by Lorretta Ruggiero
Our table dug into the All Meat Stuffed Baked Potato from Harlon's BBQ, a regular winner at the Gold Buckle Foodie Award. It was a massive baker topped with smoked turkey, sausage, brisket and tender ribs. It won first place in its category, giving owner Candace Harlon another notch in her Gold Buckle belt. The Pulled Pork Baked Potato from Saltgrass Steakhouse was much easier for one diner to eat with meltingly tender barbecue pork atop a more reasonably sized baked potato. The Brisket Cheese Fries from Spring County Kitchen was one of this writer's favorites but most of the people at our table were unimpressed. Well, we can never get enough of loaded fries and for carnival food, it offers all the comfort one would expect of cheesy, meaty French fries.
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Chef Suu Khin watches the Bonfire Funnel Cake get torched.
Photo by Lorretta Ruggiero
The Most Creative Food category was surprisingly uncreative. The Steak Salad from Saltgrass Steakhouse was delicious with the sum of all its parts but hardly innovative. However, these were the top three winners out of 7. Harlon's Stuffed Turkey Leg was a tad on the dry side, filled with a rice dressing. The Bonfire Funnel Cake from CornDog With No Name was torched tableside, giving the marshmallows on top the flavor of a campfire roast. Topped with a couple of graham crackers and a light chocolate drizzle, it deservedly won first place in its group.
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This writer appreciated the freshness of the Island Slaw.
Photo by Lorretta Ruggiero
We judges were getting down to the wire with a few popping antacids and discussing waistband adjustments. Our still smiling volunteers brought out the three dishes for Best New Flavor. We were served another egg roll, this time a Bacon Mac & Cheese Egg Roll from The Finer Diner. While our table found it rather bland, it must have pleased the others because it took home first place. The Brisket Bacon Melt was a messy affair and difficult to share among seven people. We felt that we couldn't really give it its due as such but it won second place. Personally, we enjoyed the creativeness of the Island Slaw from Island Noodles, a welcome addition to all the barbecue and meat-heavy entries.
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Pretty is as pretty does and this funnel cake needed to do just a little bit more.
Photo by Lorretta Ruggiero
Finally, the event was capped with Best Dessert. The Fried Red Velvet Cupcake from Sills Funnel Cakes wowed our table. The Chocolate Turtle Cookie Sandwich was fine but not a spectacular dessert. The Yellow Rose Funnel Cake was topped with a pretty yellow bloom but it had all of the judges wondering where the standout flavor was. We figured the drizzle of icing had a citrus hint but not enough to give it the edge. Still, it was a perfectly done funnel cake and that's what carnival goers expect.
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Candace Harlon always brings her energy to the awards ceremony.
Photo by Lorretta Ruggiero
After the tasting, judges and contestants adjourned to the bar area and waited for the winners to be announced. Some of the judges lamented the fact that this year's entries weren't as over-the-top as previous Gold Buckle participants. There were no Hot Cheetos to be seen on anything, a trend that may be going the way many food trends do.
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The owners of CornDog With No Name are solid gold.
Photo by Lorretta Ruggiero
When the winners were announced, the vendors each posed with their ribbons as their photos were taken while the panel of judges and rodeo volunteers cheered their hard work.

For those whose appetites have been whetted by the Gold Buckle Foodie highlights, the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo runs through March 20 and Houstonians can give these foodie businesses their support while enjoying some damn fine eats.

HLSR 2022 Gold Buckle Foodie Awards Winners

Best Fried Food:

1st: Deep Fried Jambalaya Roll - Cajun Cowboys
2nd: Funnel Cake Monte Cristo Basket -  Sills Concessions INC
3rd: Chicken Tender Basket - Holmes Smokehouse

Best Food-on-a-Stick:

1st: The Berry Racer Caramel Apple - Munch-oes Bakery
2nd:Beef K-BOB on a Stick - Saltgrass Steakhouse
3rd: The Spice Corn Dog - CornDog With No Name

Classic Fair Food:

1st: Harlon's All Meat Stuffed Potato
2nd: Pulled Pork Baked Potato - Saltgrass Steakhouse
3rd: Brisket Cheese Fries - Spring County Kitchen

Most Creative Food:

1st: The Bonfire Funnel Cake - CornDog With No Name
2nd: Harlon's Stuffed Turkey Leg - Harlon's BBQ
3rd: Steak Salad - Saltgrass Steakhouse

Best New Flavor:

1st: Bacon Mac & Cheese Egg Roll - The Finer Diner
2nd: Brisket Bacon Melt - Spring County Kitchen
3rd: Island Slaw - Island Noodles

Best Dessert:

1st: Fried Red Velvet Cupcake - Sills Funnel Cakes
2nd: Chocolate Turtle Cookie Sandwich - Munch-oes Bakery
3rd: The Yellow Rose Funnel Cake - CornDog With No Name
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Lorretta Ruggiero is a Houston Press freelance writer based in Cypress, Texas. She loves entertaining her family and friends with her food and sparkling wit. She is married to Classic Rock Bob and they have two exceptionally smart-aleck children.