I used to think that pop-up dining events were popular because they were a here today, gone tomorrow sort of thing, but with so many fine local chefs in limbo while waiting for their restaurants to open -- Oxheart Restaurant, Pilot Light Group, Restaurant Conat, and Underbelly, to name a few -- pop-ups have become so ubiquitous that chefs are going the extra mile to make them memorable.
To make this Sunday's brunch pop-up stand out, Chef Jonathan Jones ("JJ") and Master Chef contestant Alvin Schultz went with a theme that is as fun as it is familiar to many: drunkenness. And, to give it a bit of ballsy irreverence, they took aim at Sunday's most prominent activity, churchgoing, and came up with a brunch that they christened "La Iglesia Borracha," or, the drunken church.
If the theme was "let there be booze," then I can't think of a better place to host a drunken church party than Houston's tequila-infusion temple, El Gran Malo, with its fantastically painted walls paying homage to Mexican Lucha Libre wrestlers. It was the perfect venue in spirit and ambiance, with its indoor/outdoor, ice-house-type set-up, a great place for friends to gather for great chef-driven eats and outstanding tequila-based cocktails.
Sound like it would be a hoot? Well, that's because it was. We arrived at 11:30 a.m. (brunch started at 10 a.m.) to find a full patio and dining room, snagging the last available table, and ordering what we later found to be some of the last dishes before they sold out.
In anticipation of the sellout, we ordered the minute we sat down, and we ordered a lot.
We started out with what was probably one of the best Bloody Marys I've ever had, made of Prasek's beef jerky-infused tequila, Bloody Mary mix, and a spicy-salty chicharron rim. It was named "Maria is a jerk," but if you ask me, it should have been "Maria makes a kick-ass Bloody Mary."
Jody Cakes' pecan cinnamon "Booty Cakes" topped with honey butter came out first, and they were so good, I would have been happy if we'd stopped there. The soft, moist, pecan-crusted cakes were an instant hit at our table, earning two thumbs up from my friend Minh, who later proclaimed it as his favorite among all of the dishes.
For me, the seemingly simple, deep-fried "JJ & Alvin's Big Ballz" took home the day's prize for Most Unexpectedly Delicious. They took a traditional Vietnamese "banh bao" bun stuffed with pork and egg, and threw it whole into the deep fryer. The result was a beignet-donut-like concoction that was crispy, sweet, savory and undeniably good. At least three people I talked to commented on how surprisingly good they were, and to me, they were a revelation because the normally soft, white bao dough had been completely transformed. So good.
Pastrami hash with root vegetables, which had been topped with a fried duck egg, was also very hearty and flavorful, the egg adding that extra oomph to take it next level, though I just wished the house-cured pastrami chunks had been smaller. The large-ish meat chunks, though bursting will flavor, were on the chewy side, and would have been easier to eat if they had been cut smaller.
Schultz's Master Chef dish, which he called the "Loco Moco," may have sounded and looked a bit "loco," but it came out tasting anything but. The dish was served in a square bowl lined with sticky rice and inlaid with a large, crispy wonton bowl; on top of that were mounds of tender, coffee-braised beef shank covered in marrow-mushroom gravy and Sriracha. A delicate, slightly transparent, but perfectly poached 63.2 degree egg sat on the side, ready to be broken so that the runny yolk coated everything.
Yes, it was complicated. Yes, there were a lot of ingredients. But taste-wise, the blend of rich, gooey yolk, braised beef, crispy wonton, and sticky rice was like an Asian-fusion answer to fried chicken and waffles. It was hearty, yet tasty, and it made you just want to keep eating. No wonder it was one of the first dishes to sell out. Wow.
Next up were the "Cup 'O Noodles," a noodle soup made of fresh ramen noodles in JJ's signature spicy pozole broth, with house-cured crispy bacon, a 63.2 degree poached egg, homemade kimchi, and wispy bonito flake topping. Served in a large Styrofoam soup cup labeled "cup of noodles," this more than any of the other dishes could've been somebody's hangover helper. The hearty, thick broth and noodles with spicy kick embodied morning-after comfort, exemplifying the theme of something you'd eat at La Iglesia Borracha. As with most pop-ups where food is in high demand, there was really no pacing in terms of the delivery, and we received the majority of the mains at the same time, meaning that hot dishes received our attention first.
Because it was a cold dish, the Texas Rio Star grapefruit ceviche, which would typically have been a starter, ended up being sampled last. The picture-perfect dish was beautifully presented and garnished with a bright-pink radish sliver that looked like a flower. The leche de tigre marinade, which the menu proclaimed would "Make you strong like bull," was spot-on, a milky-yellow drinkable marinade with well-balanced tang.
The ceviche itself was made of shrimp and Gulf black drum. Personally, I typically don't care for shrimp ceviche, because the texture -- somewhere between a cooked shrimp and raw shrimp -- is not quite crisp and not quite mushy, and sometimes ends up being rubbery or powdery. The rather large-cut chunks of Gulf black drum ended up being a bit too fibrous and hard to eat as well. Oh well, we were pretty full at this point anyway, and this was just a small blip in what was otherwise a wholly memorable meal.
We also tried El Gran Malo's surprisingly smooth blue cheese and olive tequila infusion made with Houston Dairy Maids blue cheese. It sounded a bit off-putting and strange when it was suggested, but as with all the infusions I've tried at El Gran Malo, it's something I won't forget anytime soon, in a good way.
At the time of this writing, there are no set plans for future pop-ups at El Gran Malo, but based on Sunday's event, I'm hoping that La Iglesia Borracha will return for a few more encores. To stay abreast of future pop-ups, follow JJ @PapaBeav and Alvin Schultz @AlvinSchultz on Twitter.
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