The Great Banh Mi Cook-Off Was Really Great

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Creativity was on display in abundance Wednesday night at The Great Banh Mi Cook-Off competition organized by non-profit Vietnamese organization, Boat People SOS (BPSOS), as a fundraiser for their domestic violence programs.

It started with the organizers, who successfully pulled off a change of venue at the nth hour due to inclement weather. The event had originally been scheduled to take place on the rooftop parking garage of Khon's in Midtown, but by 3:30 p.m., organizer Mitchell Lam made an executive decision to switch venues to Kim Son Restaurant (one of the cook-off participants). Facebook notices, tweets, and no doubt several phone calls and texts later, everything had been moved and the threat of bad weather successfully sidestepped.

Close to 300 attendees turned out to sample creative banh mi sandwiches created by 11 Houston-area chefs and restaurants, many of whom were competing for the first time. Favorites emerged quickly as Greg Morago of the Houston Chronicle, Lily Jang of KHOU, Renia Butler of the blog Gristle and Gossip, and myself sat down to perform the serious job of judging each of the entries.

Conor Moran and Joao Paulo Frankenfeld, the food truck and catering duo behind Copper Chefs, was a clear early standout. Their banh mi of pulled pork slow-cooked in white wine, topped with pickled carrots, cucumbers, Jack Daniel's chicken liver pate, cilantro mayonnaise and almonds, was impressive all around in terms of taste, creativity, and presentation. Each oblong mini baguette (donated by Parisian bakery), had been toasted on a FireDisc grill. Slathered with clarified butter, the delectable taste of the buttery crisp bread lingered on the palate, while the pork-pate-pickle-cilantro mayo combo was striking for how well the flavors melded together.

Pak Tsui of Fat Bao's red tomato sardine and pate banh mi was also pretty amazing. A riff on the Vietnamese way of eating sardine and tomatoes, his team sauteed the sardines in an aromatic tomato sauce, then stuffed the banh mi with sardines, pork pate, pickled watermelon and pickled serrano peppers. Though the presentation was simple, the umami savoriness of the sardines shone brightly against the sweet pickled fruit and pepper, and the fact that they'd brought a small toaster oven to crisp up the bread with French butter was an added plus as well.

Nick Nguyen of Giau Bar 'n Bites scored high points for presentation and taste with his crostini-style presentation of banh mi. He topped a rounded slice of toasted banh mi bread with juicy pork belly, which he'd sauteed with green peppers, red peppers and Thai chilis. The bread had been slathered with spicy mayo, and the mini-tower topped cilantro and quail egg. This story continues on the next page.

Cantonese chef Hoi Fung of Fung's Kitchen worked alongside his daughter and pastry chef Dory Fung, presenting a banh mi of prime rib slow-cooked for four hours, topped with Persian cucumber, carrot, cilantro, onions, lettuce. They finished it off with a sauce of reduced braising liquid with black vinegar, Maggi seasoning, and sugar, and smeared the bread with Beurdelle French butter for a French-meets-Chinese take on the Vietnamese banh mi.

Rounding out the entrants, there was Tao La of Kim Son, who had a duo of two traditional banh mi, one with Chinese-style char siu pork, the other with chicken teriyaki; Edwin Chanas of Hearsay Gastro Lounge with a banh mi of house-made pastrami pork belly topped with quail egg, pickled carrots, daikon, cucumber, basil, with a Kewpie mayonnaise and butter spread; LJ Wiley of Taco Nuts food truck with a coriander roasted pork banh mi topped with pickled onions, herb salad, crispy pig skin chicharron and spread with pork fat mayonnaise; Ben Rabbani of The Flying Saucer, with a 128-hour sous vide pork butt banh mi topped with salsa verde, pickled onion, carrot and cilantro; Christian Gonzales of Culinary Creations Catering with a beautifully presented seared, togirashi crusted ahi tuna banh mi, sriracha and cilantro lime aioli, unagi glaze, pickled carrots and jalapeños, cucumber, cilantro and peppermint; and Darius King of Chef King and Co with salmon banh mi with sweet potato and cilantro cream.

The big winner of the night was team R&D BBQ, helmed by Ryan Cooper and Dale Ellington. The barbecue pop-up duo pulled out all the stops with an instantly mouthwatering banh mi sandwich stuffed to the hilt with their signature juicy, 24-hour smoked brisket. They topped it with jalapeño compressed in lime and fish sauce, sweet spiced pickled carrots, szechuan pickled cucumbers, micro cilantro and chili threads to garnish, and finished it with a sriracha hoisin bbq sauce and a spread of homemade brisket mayo (made from the fat drippings of the brisket). All of this was presented on a Vietnamese hoagie made by Drew Gimma of Common Bond. As if that weren't enough, Cooper, whom you can find behind the bar on most days serving wine at Camerata, thought out of the box and decided to do a wine pairing with his barbecue banh mi.

"The wine is Schloss Vollrads 2011 Spatlese Riesling," he says. "I chose it because we needed acidity to cut through the richness of the meat. It's also a rich sandwich, so we needed a wine with some weight to stand up to it, which is why we went with a Spatlese. Also, with the heat from the bbq sauce and the jalapeños, the residual sugar makes for a refreshing compliment. It wasn't an easy pairing with all of the flavors going on, but Riesling is one of the most versatile food pairing wines in the world."

R&D BBQ -- which doesn't even have a food truck or a brick and mortar at this point -- won the cook-off with full sweeps, taking first place with the judges, and then winning the as the People's Choice favorite as well.

Congratulations to all the participants and to BPSOS for pulling off a memorable first time cook-off while raising much needed funds (to the tune of $4-5K) for a worthwhile cause. What a great event.

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