Anyone who's been to a state fair or a rodeo, or even a small-town festival, has likely paid too much money for a funnel cake, turkey leg or hot dog. And they probably didn't taste very good.
At the Houston Gastrodome (the name of the food pavilion at FPHNYE!) in Sam Houston Park downtown, some of the city's top chefs have endeavored to reinvent festival food for the better with upscale interpretations of what they feel should be the standard. Eight Houston restaurants -- Uchi, Nara, Fluff Bake Bar, El Big Bad, Lowbrow, Prego, Boheme and Radical Eats -- are reinterpreting dishes like corn dogs and fried chicken for a more discerning crowd, while keeping the price points similar to what you'd probably pay at the state fair, $4 to $10 per item.
Because party-goers will be dancing and jiving (and drinking) for hours, they're going to need sustenance, and that's where the Gastrodome comes in. But a few lucky guests will get to eat for free and help crown a winner of the best festival food at this year's event.
Some of what the chefs are making has been announced already, and the dishes really do sound like inspired riffs on classics. Uchi executive pastry chef and culinary director Philip Speer has reimagined the traditional hot dog, constructing it out of crispy tonkatsu, a breaded, deep-fried pork cutlet. It will be topped with tonkatsu sauce (a sweet and slightly spicy tomato-based sauce), home-made pickles and bonito flakes and served with Little Soya soy sauce on the side.
Nara, on the other hand, is going traditional -- traditional Korean. Though his dish may seem new to us, chef Don Chang says that Korean dumplings with Gochujang sauce and beef are a Korean street food staple.
"We want to educate people about Korean food, and this is a great chance to show off one of our favorites," says Chang.
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Rachel Merk of Lowbrow is working with a beloved dish that, unless you're originally from the Deep South, you may never have heard of. Hoppin' John is a southern New Year's food traditionally made with black-eyed peas, rice, bacon and chopped onions. Merk has updated it with quinoa, house-made tasso ham and fried Brussel sprout petals, but she has, of course, retained those lucky black-eyed peas.
Prego is staying true to its Italian roots with Italian-influenced chicken strips crusted in parmesan cheese with a feta dipping sauce. Pastry chef and event man Matthew Zoch says the recipe is a new one for the event, but the idea isn't exactly new.
"We all like to chow down on it in the kitchen after service," Zoch says. "It's something we always mix together after a long event for all of our employees. We combine leftover stuff, and this is one of our favorites."
In order to sample the offerings, you must have a ticket (general admission available online for $50), and be one of the first 50 people to show up to the Gastrodome at 4 p.m. on New Year's Eve. These folks will also be able to vote on their favorite foods and pick a winner, along with a panel of judges comprised of local food writers and media personalities (including yours truly). Two trophies will be awarded: One to the judges' pick, and one to the crowd favorite. Best of luck to the competing restaurants, and happy eating to all of us!