Rodeo's Best Bites Competition Crowns the Winners

"I have a fun fact for those of you in the judging room tonight," came the voice over the loudspeaker. The three dozen or so people judging the Best Bites portion of the Rodeo Uncorked!® Roundup competition stopped talking in anticipation.

"If you eat all 81 food samples and all the wine samples we're presenting tonight, you'll have consumed eight pounds of food and two gallons of wine."

We all groaned. Though I'd been pacing myself through the first 12 dishes at my tasting table, I was still full by the time I was called over to the Super Panel to determine the finalists, and I imagine other judges were as well.

Nearly 5,000 people turned up last night to help kick off the Rodeo season with great eats and a lot of wine. Most of Houston's favorite restaurants were in attendance, passing out everything from barbecue to raw oysters to mac and cheese to chocolate galore.

The Popular Choice award, given by the crowd, went to Chocolate Pizazz, who brought a wide variety of decorative chocolate-covered pretzels and pretzel sticks. And, as usual, Royer's Round Top Café, always a crowd favorite, took home second place for Bud "The Pieman" Royer's delicious pies. The Pieman is a staple at every Rodeo, and his pies are always a favorite.

Desserts were big winners this year, as Mister French's Gourmet Bakery's sugar cookies got second place in the Showmanship category. The delightful cookies were beat by Catering to Your Taste Buds's crawfish shooters. Catering to Your Taste Buds also won the Showmanship Award last year.

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The Tasty Traditions Award went to Mario's Seawall Italian Restaurant in Galveston for "Mommas Meatballs," hefty beef meatballs with a great Parmesan flavor and slightly spicy garlic tomato sauce, for which I'd gladly make the trip out to Galveston. Mario's also picked up an award from the judges in the Trailblazing Appetizer/Entrée category.

Third place went to Indian restaurant Kiran's -- an unlikely winner at a competition so known for barbecue and seafood. But chef Kiran created wonderful (and generously portioned) bison burgers with cumin and caramelized onions and a large potato wedge with cayenne pepper and black salt on the side.

Mario's meatball took home second place, while first place went to chef Randy Evans of Haven for his take on Frito Pie. He purchased tiny Frito bags and filled them with juicy wild boar chili, cheese and fresh diced onions. It was difficult for me not to eat the entire bag of Frito Pie in front of me, even when I knew I had more food coming, because it was so tasty. One of my fellow judges proclaimed he was a chili snob, but even he was loving Haven's dish.

We finished the evening with an array of wonderful desserts, but there was a clear winner in this category as well. Second place went to Ooh La La Dessert Boutique, who wowed with a giant serving of white chocolate bread pudding with a side of crème anglaise laced with quite a bit of liqueur.

First place in the dessert/cheese plate category went to Annie Rupani of Cacao & Cardamom Chocolates for the second year in a row. This year she wowed with a tiny but beautiful bite of dark chocolate with a pineapple habanero filling. Spicy, sour, sweet and totally unexpected!

In spite of a few technical difficulties -- we heard from a number of restaurants that they had no power due to overloaded circuits -- all the chefs and caterers produced some pretty impressive dishes, which bodes well for the upcoming Rodeo season eats. I hope someday I'm hungry again.

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