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My man Francesco slicing that Prosciutto di Parma to order.EXPAND
My man Francesco slicing that Prosciutto di Parma to order.
Photo by Kate McLean

Big Flavors At Taste of The Nation Last Night

Think about the last time you were hungry, but really hungry, and had to wait what felt like an eternity to eat. And as you slowly became more and more full, and the red began to fade, you relaxed back in your seat to sigh, all better now.

All better for most, but not everyone, by far. Some children, a lot of children, without the means to feed themselves experience this type of hunger as a normal scenario. Imagine trying to learn on an empty stomach, and now with summer upon us, imagine what they'll do in place of school-provided meals.

Last night, a stellar cast of characters from our restaurants, bars and bakeries came together for Houston's Taste of the Nation, a country-wide event benefitting No Kid Hungry. Through school meal and summertime programs, among advocacy efforts, No Kid Hungry makes a big difference in the lives of hungry children all over the nation. Ryan Pera (Agricole Hospitality), Becky Masson (Fluff Bake Bar), and Alba Huerta (Julep) together chaired the event. Here are a few tastes to remember:

Hot out the gates, Brasserie 19 was rocking escargot. Many wondered if the shell was real. Chef Jaime Salazar confirmed indeed it was real and if it happened to be your first snail experience, he recommended you turn the shell into a keychain to commemorate the event. The last lemon garlic slurp really hit the spot.

Justin Yu and Jason White of Theodore Rex brought their darling dish, the tomato toast, to the ball. It's been 182 days, 12 hours, and nine minutes since I had it last and it was really nice to see each other again. The crispy, crusty flax seed and rye pain de mie, was like earth to the bright, umami tomato flavors resting above. White also noted the bread is vegan AND dairy free adding, "for all walks of life."

Nick Fine and Chris Shepherd stood nearby at the newly opened UB Preserv, a twist on the wildly successful Underbelly. The smoked boudin dumpling resting on top of a tangy sauce made from creole mustard and black vinegar made a great wake up call bite. Fine even said he cut the scallion garnish with a light saber… I don't know if anyone else there could say the same.

Right across the street, Becky Masson with Fluff Bake Bar served wooden kitchen spoons with velvety Cacao Barry cremieux, tart and floral passion fruit purée and a sprinkle of hazelnut crunch on top. Flavorful, playful, a great bite. Next to the spoons were perfect little pops displayed from a tray of sprinkles. On the inside was, again, a good mouthful of crispiness and rich chocolate. "What do you call them?" "Caramel crack." Pretty much.

A pinball shot away was Roegels Barbecue Co, who represented the barbecue tribe well with a housemade pastrami, mustard and kraut Reuben. The peppery crusted, moist brisket under a grainy mustard squirt was allll thattt.

Major "chilled Sherry on the porch" feels from Juleps crush-worthy Tuscaloosa High Ball.EXPAND
Major "chilled Sherry on the porch" feels from Juleps crush-worthy Tuscaloosa High Ball.
Photo by Kate McLean

Otto Sanchez and his clean-cut army from La Table held down the fort in terms of technical pastry delights. The banana tart and its layer upon layer of intricate caramelization flavor really did the trick. What I love about Sanchez is his aptitude to always bake it just a little bit longer. It's that extra darky-dark that really takes it to the next level.

Mala Sichuan brought something interesting, as always. Chilled umami jelly, a starch made from mung bean that's solidified with gelatin, with fermented soy bean. "Stir it around," she said. The texture was really fun to eat and as I was bracing myself for a mouthful of Sichuan peppercorn, and waited, it appeared perfectly at the end, popping its head up to whisper, "ello!"

Tinys Milk And Cookies brought moist, melty, chocolate chip cookies in paper bags. After the where's the milk panic moment subsided, I realized mint lemonade goes well with cookies too.

Eating ice cream from Fat Cat Creamery really does make you feel like a fat cat leisurely lapping up cream from a bowl. "The guy who brings us our eggs hooked us up with some mint too," he explained. The texture of their ice creams really does scream, someone brought them eggs and the wild mint flavor in the blackberry mint tasted like it had been hacked off a bush nearby. The Thai tea ice cream was great too.

Expect exciting new things at Izakaya in terms of dumplings and ramen, Phillipe Gaston was spooning up some legit egg-y ramen noodles with a Pork Tonkatsu spin. He gets them shipped fresh from Sun Noodle in Hawaii, a go-to among many chefs serious about their ramen. And after stirring in a blob of earthy gomae sesame paste, it made a great lil' bowl of ramen.

"I like margaritas," said Laurie Harvey, beverage director of Cherry Pie Hospitality. She must because she makes a really good one. The State Fare Margarita made with reposado tequila was danger zone delicious. I had to get far, far away.

Alba Huerta brought Julep's Tuscaloosa High Ball. It was so refreshing it actually made you want to be sitting outside in the humidity watching a polo match, or something. The distinct Sherry presence was a fun addition. In fact, chilled Sherry drinks should do quite nicely in Houston this summer. Linda Salinas dutifully slapped the mint before garnishing.

Ryan Lachaine of Riel provided a great pit stop. He served a tart and cold strawberry soup with blue crab. The refreshing palate cleanser was an oasis in a sea of solid foods.

Tortillas-on-point award definitely goes to Sylvia's Enchilada Kitchen. The fresh corn tortilla flavor, while typically a muted flavor among many enchiladas, sang loudly through the melty cheese and her famous chili gravy. "It comes from in here," she pointed to her heart. "An act of love." Yeah girl, we can tell. She explained how she dips the tortillas in chili sauce and lets them rest overnight before working with them twice more. If you don't have trays of these cheese enchiladas in your freezer for 3 a.m. emergencies, I'd suggest you remedy that soon.

The smoked almond and banana chocolate from Cacao & Cardamom Chocolatier had really big flavors for just a small guy. Smoke plus almond plus banana was a great combination, the pineapple avocado chocolate was a fun bite too.

Cacao & Cardamom pack a lot of flavor in little bites.EXPAND
Cacao & Cardamom pack a lot of flavor in little bites.
Photo by Kate McLean

Luis Roger of BCN went and got Iberico heads to make sausage from. Of course, he did. The sausage was served on top of a bite of crisp baguette and garnished with onion confit. In case you don't know, Spanish Iberico is the best ham in the world (don't tell the Italians.) Think black Spanish piggies dining upon forest-floor acorns. That nuttiness really does shine through.

And the Italians were present as well, just down the way, serving 36 and 18-month Prosciutto di Parma. The tradition and complexity of Prosciutto di Parma really delivers every time… I visited that booth. Like a Brian McKnight slow jam you just want to dance in the corner alone too… I miss you.

Welcome to the party, Nancy's Hustle. Loved the crunchy cracker ya'll served with the lamb tartare.

Indianola, a new restaurant from Agricole hospitality set to open in EaDo soon brought the chicken flavor alright with a chicken and shrimp meatball po'boy. Between the chicken liver and soy and sake glaze this po'boy was levitated. While typical po'boys have 80 percent bread flavor, here the scenario was flipped. I forsee chef Paul being this years' Brit we love to embrace.

I probably could have organized my attack a little better in terms of meal progression, but then again, nah. And did I walk out the doors, past the valet and across the parking lot to my car with a lobster roll from Bernie's Burger Bus? Yes, yes I did.

Fluff Bake Bar had a strong set right there.EXPAND
Fluff Bake Bar had a strong set right there.
Photo by Kate McLean

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