With Southern Smoke instigator and Underbelly and One Fifth chief recruiting top, fellow James Beard-accolated chefs from elsewhere in the country along with some of the city’s very best chefs cooking barbecue and meat-laden dishes from notably excellent products, this was simply the best food that I have ever had at a food event. I have been to a number of food-centric events over the years, judging a number of them, including the Best Bites event at the Rodeo a few times, but nothing compared to both the best of the dishes and, more so, the overall quality of the dishes.
With just one minor stumble in one of the dishes – a piece of cracklin’ that was part of a roasted pork, that should have been more crackling, it was still quite tasty, if more chewy than I would have liked – the preparations were all excellent, restaurant quality excellent, top restaurant quality excellent. And, this was even consuming the items on paper plates with wooden spoons outside while standing. It didn’t hurt that it was a gorgeous day, balmy with clear skies and manageable humidity following a cool front and, definitely contributorily, that the hometown Astros had beaten the Yankees the night before in Game 7 of the AL Championship to advance to the World Series for only the second time in franchise history. This helped put me, and seemingly most everyone else, in an even better mood.
But, with the food so good, had the ‘Stros faltered the night before, I would have been at least been temporarily moved out of my funk by the food. With line for the fried chicken from Justin Yu and company of Oxheart, and now Theodore Rex and Better Luck Tomorrow, immediately too long for my tastes, I first visited the table with Kata Robata’s Executive Chef Manabu "Hori" Horiuchi, who was serving Japanese-style shumai neatly on plastic spoons. These Chinese-inspired dumplings filled with shrimp and pork -- about which I am somewhat sure -- were topped with a properly complementary bright, Vietnamese chili sauce and were silky and delicious. These were the probably the best dishes at the Cochon555 event a few months ago, which Hori won easily. He’s not only regarded as Houston’s top sushi chef…. Next was a healthy side of succulent, flavorful roast pork with a side of what the chef term “Italian stuffing” that also went quickly. The folks from Hugo Ortega’s restaurants – Hugo’s, Caracol and Xochi – at least one of the establishments, were served a surprisingly ample trio of dishes: seafood paella, a tamal, and pumpkin-filled empanada. Each were delicious, with the empanada pleasantly surprising me for being more savory than sweet on the interior while encased and a fresh and light enough dough. A relatively short line away from the Houston chefs while checking on what proved to be the interminable Franklin one, led to what was nearly my favorite dish of the afternoon: a giant coal-fired oyster on the half-shelf with plenty of oyster liquor and flavorful bite-sized accompaniments of which was not sure, but surely worked. I even had to risk a burn to consume the excess oyster liquid from the heated shell. The dish was from Ashley Christensen, a James Beard Award winning chef with several restaurants around Raleigh, North Carolina.
Portion sizes were generally generous, which was nice, especially given the length of some of the lines. This helped make the event seem even a little friendlier. But, I was getting full well before I had planned. Running into Matthew Pridgen, the beverage director for Underbelly and One Fifth, he made sure to direct us to David Chang’s booth, which, in a corner of the grounds, was being unduly overlooked. Chang of Momofuku fame, a couple Michelin stars and a starring role in the excellent first season of “The Mind of a Chef,” teamed with another one of his top chefs, Matthew Rudofker, to served barbecue beef ribs with kimchi over a slice of processed white bread. Falling off the bone moist, the soft slices and shreds of beef were rich and delicious, slightly spiked nicely both for texture- and flavor-wise with the crisp kimchi bean sprouts. I had to go back for a second round of what probably was my favorite of the day. Being exhorted to grab as many ribs as I wanted, I could only grasp at three piles of beef, as the ribs quickly slid away. Delicious.
In addition to Franklin’s barbecue, I had hoped to sample some of Rodney Strong’s South Carolina-style whole hog barbecue, but I was sated at that point. Nicely crafted Old Fashioned’s featuring Knob Creek and plenty of drinkable and fare-friendly wine further helped get me there, and quite enjoyably.
I read that Southern Smoke raised over $500,000 to help those impacted by Hurricane Harvey, which is terrific, and reason alone to have attended. With the quality of the cooking, there was even many more reasons to do so. If you enjoy great food, and fun, food-centric party, you should plan on attending next year. I certainly will.