I first met Theodore Peck, co-founder of The Food Experiments, while covering last year’s Pork Experiment at Club deVille.
This amateur cooking competition, the first such event that Peck and partner Nick Suarez hosted outside of Brooklyn, consisted of an afternoon of pork debauchery featuring 20 contestants from Austin and surrounding areas vying for the title of best pork dish and a chance to represent Austin for the national championship in Brooklyn, NY.
Thanks to the success of Austin’s Pork Experiment, Brooklyn Brewery signed on as the main sponsor and the Food Experiments launched a 16 city tour this year, including a stop in Austin.
In mid-February I received an email from Peck announcing the Austin Taco Experiment, to be held at ND Austin on Sunday March 11, and asking me to be one of the judges. Having thoroughly enjoyed last year’s event I gladly agreed.
In the email exchange that followed, I also agreed to give Peck a taco tour of Austin to get his mind and taste buds ready for the contest. I started leading tours of Austin’s Mexican and Tex-Mex food scene in 2005 for the Texas Hill Country Wine and Food festival and have continued doing so as one of my multiple gigs.
Armed with a cooler full of Brooklyn brews, Peck and photographer Clint Elmore met me at El Chilito, where we started the tour catching up over breakfast tacos.
It was hard to decide where to go eat since we have so many excellent tacos in a wide variety of settings, but with location and time constraints in mind I narrowed the tour down to six other spots: La Michoacana meat market, Panaderia Chuy, El Meson, Izzoz Tacos, Takoba, and Zandunga Mexican Bistro where we ended the tour, stuffed to the gills, with lobster tacos and shots of tequila.
After sharing enough taco knowledge to make him almost an expert, I met Peck again at the Taco Experiment, where 16 contestants poured their heart and soul into creating a fabulous selection of tacos. Alongside my fellow judges Addie Broyles from the Austin American-Statesman, Virginia Wood, Food Editor of The Austin Chronicle, Stacy Franklin, co-owner of Franklin BBQ, and food blogger Stella Floyd of Stella Cooks, I diligently tasted and took notes from the presentations of each of the contestants. Choosing our winners among so many tasty entries was not easy, but it was lots of fun.
I really enjoyed the super-spicy offering from team Outer Spice, created from a Portland, Jamaica original recipe. The smoked jerk pork was slow roasted over applewood and allspice leaves and seasoned with the traditional Scotch Bonnet peppers.
I also liked the spicy almond-green onion sauce that team El Alto served with its Carnitas Borrachas braised in Brooklyn Lager, and I absolutely loved the beer- braised tongue taco from team Talking Tacos who came all the way from Houston to compete. The tongue was falling apart tender, seasoned with ancho and cascabel chiles, and served in a homemade corn, beer, and duck fat tortilla topped with the traditional chopped onion and cilantro.
Team No BS BP made a great effort with a beautifully presented braised pork taco topped with green apple butter and pickled shallot, celery and jalapeño relish.
Returning champions The Holy Smokers, a duo of zany pastors from a church in Temple, wowed with their Grec-Mex taco: gyro-style lamb, beef and pork served atop a pita-tortilla smeared with habanero humus, then topped with a cucumber pico de gallo and jalapeño tzatziki. Although it included many flavors and textures, they layered well and everything was complementary. Both the judges and the people loved it, earning 2nd place on both ballots.
The judges’ first prize went to Austin blogger ZestyBeanDog for her ah-ma-zing, locally-sourced homage to duck. Tender pecan-smoked duck with crispy skin bits nestled in a duck fat corn tortilla, topped with a yuzu slaw and crunchy shoestring tortilla strips, and drizzled with a spicy aioli made with duck eggs and Brooklyn Lager.
The enthusiastic sold-out crowd walked around tasting samples from all contestants and quenching their thirst with Brooklyn brews and Chameleon Cold Brew coffee before casting their ballots to determine the Grand Prize winner, as lively music from DJ Jester – The Filipino Fist filled the air.
The winner, who will represent Austin in the national competition on December 16, was another blogger, Liz Arredondo from Sous Me Alchemy. Her painstaking effort included making her own spinach tortillas, queso fresco, and Mexican crema to top her slow roasted pork with avocado-tomatillo sauce really paid off. She will certainly represent us well!
In the end, the results were the following:
First Place: Zesty Bean Dog / Smoked Duck Pastrami Tacos
Second Place: The Holy Smokers / Grec-Mex Pitatilla
Third Place: Outer Spice / Jamaikame Crazy
First Place / Grand Prize Winner: Sous Me Alchemy / Tacos Amores
Second Place: The Holy Smokers / Grec-Mex Pitatilla
Third Place: Talking Tacos / 512 Pecan Porter Lengua Tacos
The Theo Prize For Experimentation went to the fabulous Mary Helen McNally of Mary Makes Dinner for her Frío Tillo Taco. Ok, this was not really a taco but a tiny corn tortilla sandwich filled with roasted tomatillo buttermilk ice cream. Yeah, and it was great. After so much spicy food this treat was what we all needed.
Congratulations to all the winners and participants, everyone really outdid themselves. Stay tuned for next year's Food Experiment, too. Theo Peck is already talking tamales.