Wine Time

Odd Pair: What Wine to Serve with Frito Pie?

There is perhaps no dish that inspires connoisseurship among Texans as much as Frito Pie.

Shrouded in mystique and lore, this mighty staple of rigorously authentic Texas gastronomy, speaks to the citizens of our state like no other in our culinary canon. By combining indigenous ingredients and formulas -- Fritos, invented in San Antonio, and chili con carne, actually known simply as chili in our state, as one adoptive Texan learned dutifully when he made the mistake of calling "turkey chili" chili -- this supremely Texan of victuals marries all the things we love best: Fat and spice.

And while many among us would argue that true Frito pie must be served in a Fritos bag, I am always willing to turn a blind eye to authenticity when I visit Cullen's "Upscale American Grille" down on Space Center Drive, where the chili is made using pasture-grazed beef and the pie is served in a cast-iron skillet topped with crème fraîche (instead of sour cream, an ingredient whose authenticity in this dish is questionable at best in any case).

I love the faux Frito pie at Cullen's in part because it's simply delicious -- comfort food in an "upscale" setting. But I also love this dish at Cullen's because of sommelier Ryan Robert's excellent wine list there.

Yes, his list has all of the usual suspects that you would expect at an "upscale grille" steakhouse (Silver Oak Joke, anyone?).

But beyond his obligation to the jock-strap-wearing and dick-wagging clientele that frequents his fine establishment (which resembles a Las Vegas casino), Ryan is a bona fide wine lover. And his list reflects not only the tastes that he expects from his clientele, but also a more refined and informed palate that speaks to wine nerds (not geeks, mind you) like me. What's even better is that his pricing, especially when it comes to the many little European gems on his list, is extremely reasonable.

My first impulse for pairing the venue's Frito pie is a desire for fresh, clean, bright acidity.

Think Weinbach Pinot Blanc from Alsace (France) for just $45 (!) or Urki Txakoli from the Basque country for $42.

In what I call a "counterpoint" pairing, the freshness and acidity of the wines will "cut" through the fattiness of the dish and temper its heat.

But I could also go for a "counterpart" pairing, where the aromas, flavors, and textures of the wine "mirror" those in the dish.

To me this dish SCREAMS meaty, juicy, rich Southern Rhône. Think Amadieu Côtes-du-Rhône ($45) or if you want to go big, reach for Domaine du Vieux Télégraphe Châteauneuf-du-Pape La Crau ($160, a lot to spend but an exceedingly fair price for a wine of this caliber).

The best news is that Ryan is almost always working the floor at his restaurant (at least every time I've been there). And he loves nothing more than the challenge of pairing a great wine with the Frito pie.

What wine do you pair with your Frito pie? Please share your recommendations in the comment section.

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Jeremy Parzen writes about wine for the Houston Press. A wine trade marketing consultant by day, he is also an adjunct professor at the University of Gastronomic Sciences in Piedmont, Italy. He spends his free time writing and recording music with his daughters and wife in Houston.
Contact: Jeremy Parzen