October 25th, 2011

Child Advocates Chili Cook-Off Challenges the Tastebuds

Chili Cook-offs are in the air. It’s Fall. Or Summeronumero Dos. We were teased with a brief cold snap, but now we’re back to gasping in a balmy eighty-something degree stupor, like a dying fish on a riverbank. What could lure any rational Houstonian to indulge in not one, but nine bowls of piping hot chili? The reasons are obvious, my friend. Donations to benefit Child Advocates, Inc., Saint Arnold’s new Santo brew, and Sammy’s Wild Game Grill, Felix 55, Community Bar, Eatsie Boys, Haven, Beaver’s, Quattro, Shade, and Zelko Bistro, all moving beyond their signature styles to prepare the perfect pot o’ the hot stuff—that is impetus enough to brave a fall tradition in not-so-fall weather.

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Why is the sun this bright? The painstaking squint on my face gets me mistaken for a guy that hates children and chili alike. I get the quintessentially sarcastic, “You look happy to be here,” as I approach the ticket table. Not the first time I’ve gotten that tone in my life—definitely not the last. Smile, you’ve been looking forward to this all week. And you don’t hate chili, or children for that matter—just this weather, so find your happy place (perhaps Virginia-ish, where leaves actually turn colors and fall, as opposed to just dying and flaking from their branches like a sunburn). With beer ticket and clipboard in hand, members of the Child Advocates Young Professionals point me in the general direction of the competition. Pretty much anywhere between my 7 o’clock and 3 o’clock. Simple. Hard to screw up. Tea arrives. Let the tasting begin.

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First up, Zelko Bistro. The smallest bits of ground beef. A smooth blend. The thin textured body lays siege to a small piece of corn bread. “Here, I’ve paired it with Yeti Imperial Stout.” Yes! Yes, you have! It’s a light kick immediately followed by heavy handed suds. We wander on to Felix 55. Two different cuts of meat. Larger chunks that tend to be on the tougher side, which strikes me as odd, given the low heat cooking method of chili. The taste and consistency is more in line with a stew. The flavor, however, is easily recognizable as this event’s name-sake. Chili…not children.

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Beaver’s, you’re next. “Are you familiar with Beaver’s?” Yeah, probably too much so. Clogged many an artery at your little establishment. Again, this pot features bigger pieces of beef. A spice that lingers. Three different types of cheese for my topping preferences. This was a SOLID effort. And while we’re here, we might as well stroll next door to Community Bar. “Are you fellas tired of chili yet?” No. Heh, bring it on, funny guy. Meticulously cooked cuts of meat seem to trend in this section. None of that ground stuff. Juicy, cut-with-my-plastic-fork ribeye. A slightly thicker consistency than Beaver’s. No toppings. Another recipe adds indecisiveness to the difficult decisions ahead.

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How about we break the logical path and skip to Sammy’s Wild Game Grill. This one also proves to be a break in the beef trend, as it’s a mix of meats. Who wouldn’t expect that? Wild game and all. Ground meat, small enough that it practically blends with the body. The taste is mild, and in no way is that bad. I’d say this is your quantity chili, like Lonestar. Dispensable, but a fixture in the Texas social conscious. Next up-Haven. Smaller shreds of wild boar. The consistency of your Campbell’s hearty beef and barley. Onions and sour cream are available. I take it plain. Tea takes them up on both. The conclusion: without toppings, perhaps the best chili had thus far and with toppings—the worst.

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Must. Take. Break. Tea says he’s going to start takin’ only one bite per bowl to keep from pulling a Violet Beauregarde. You bluff, Mr. Jones. We both know an uncomfortable waist ain’t going to drive us to, well, waste those good recipes we’ve yet to try. Okay, Quattro. I am all for toppings. Lots of toppings. But, seeing as how we’re at a cook-off, I feel as though the toppings should not be the selling point. Cheese. Wontons. Other things. As far as I can tell it’s not bad. There’s just too much going on.

Two more to go. Hello, Shade. The folks serving, look as though they realize something is amiss. That feeling you used to get when turning in a paper, that for whatever reason, just hadn’t turned out quite like you’d have hoped. Falling short of potential. I get it. I’ll leave it at that. Eatsy Boys. The minimalist approach in terms of gadgets and ingredients behind the table. A thinner texture. Finely ground meat. Allspice. Cumin. Cinnamon. Completely different from everything else here. Am I just chili-worn—happy at the mere taste of something different? Is this King Chili? Or Queen Chili, for the ladies.

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Let’s grab a Santo. Find a seat. Wait for the announcements of the winners.

My Picks: 1. Zelko Bistro 2. Haven 3. Eatsy Boys

Official Winners: 1. Zelko Bistro 2. Community Bar 3. Haven

People’s Choice: Zelko Bistro

As Tea and I leave, completely stuffed – I can only hope this becomes an annual event.

— Richard

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