Tyson Cole knows delicious tacos ain't all about the Tex-Mex. During the Rock Your Taco Showdown at the Austin Food & Wine Festival, Austin's sushi master seized the grand prize for his foldable, flavorful crispy pork jowl concoction.
Nine chefs from around Texas and the nation competed at the culinary cookoff in Republic Square Park as Top Chef Judge Gail Simmons, Food & Wine Publisher Christina Grdovic and Host of Bizzare Foods Andrew Zimmern devoured their way through each sampling to pick the taco champion. The winner was determined from combined scores of flavor, presentation and creativity.
"[Austin] could be considered the barbecue capital of America, the taco capital of America, the street food capital of America. You could make an argument for any of those three."
Some of the nation's most respected and talented chefs including Cole, Tony Mantuano, Masaharu Morimoto, Marcus Samuelsson, Christina Tosi, Jonathan Waxman, Michelle Bernstein, Tim Love and Elizabeth Karmel competed for the titile as Mayer Hawthorne & The County played soulful, dance-worthy music on stage. The creative dishes included Berstein's crispy sweetbread taco; Cole's crispy pork jowl taco; Love's cabrito and chiles taco; Karmel's DIY brisket taco; Mantuano's flaming shrimp taco; Morimoto's toro taco, Samuelsson's chicken taquito; Tosi's Dave Chang taught me everything I know taco; and Waxman's skirt steak taco.
Cole joked that he, Philip Speer and Paul Qui were prepping a traditional Tex-Mex bean burrito for the competition before fessing up that he was creating an Uchi-inspired crispy pork cheek taco. Cole says the cheek took several days to prepare before finally being served at Saturday night's event. The winning dish was surrounded by a Moo Shu wrapper and topped off black lime, cilantro and grilled corn.
"I try not to worry so much about the competition. I really just want to put out the best food that I can," Cole says. "We wanted to do a taco that was Uchi, Uchiko-esque, almost like a raw fish taco, a fatty meat or pork. We thought the jowl was perfect."
In pondering what he anticipated each of his competitors would make, Cole says he expected the chefs would not stay within their culinary comfort zones. "Christina Tossi is a pastry chef, but I wouldn't assume that she is going to stick with that. I guess Morimoto would do a sushi taco, but we have no idea what he'll put together," he says.
Each of the judges expressed delicious excitement for the Saturday-night event and expected the judging would be neck-and-neck throughout the tasting competition. Food & Wine Publisher Christina Grdovic believed the winner would be determined from tiny differentiations in flavor and creativity. "The chefs that are competing have such a cross section of different styles, cuisines and personalities, and it will be interesting to see what each of them pulls out," she says.
Grdovic admits she isn't around the traditional Tex-Mex taco each and every day, as many Austinites and Texans are. "Being a New Yorker through and through, the taco craze hasn't come to New York the way it is in Texas and California. I wish there were more tacos here, so I'm excited about the competition because I certainly don't get enough tacos in New York," she says. "I can't even begin to imagine all the different ingredients we're going to be dealing with."
Top Chef's Simmons said she was anticipating that the high taco standards and expectations of Texas and Austin would push the chefs to deliver their best renditions. "Every time I'm in Austin I have great tacos, and since the competition is in Austin, there is a great standard to measure it to," Simmons says. "I have a feeling we're going to get some pretty complex tacos. Over the last couple of years, the taco has opened itself to incredibly diverse versions. There are people who believe in the purist Mexican taco and then there are all these delicious global renditions. Even in Austin itself there are some great global interpretations of tacos, such as The Peached Tortilla."
Bizzare Foods' Zimmern has sampled thousands of tacos in his life and says that the portable dish has become one of his favorite foods. "Tacos are one of the world's most famous semi-portable foods. Imagining all of the chefs putting their personal spins on flavor, texture, temperatures in a handy vessel is really exciting," Zimmern said. "I'm most excited about the fact that this is taking place in Austin because the city could be considered the barbecue capital of America, the taco capital of America, the street food capital of America. You could make an argument for any of those three. There are so many young chefs down there cooking some avant garde food, and I think that's because the people of Austin really enjoy being experimented at. That is a very sophisticated statement about the dining community here."
After announcing the winner of the taco competition, Simmons stressed that each of the chefs were "creative with their proteins," and Zimmern finished off Simmons' statement by saying the winner was someone who "thought the whole thing through from stem to stern." In the end, Tyson Cole's crispy pork jowl taco helped Austin capture the title for best taco. "There were some extraordinary tacos, and we had a really tough time," Simmons says. "We decided the winner is hometown boy Tyson Cole."
Cole says he hopes to continue to highlight the city of Austin as well of its cuisine. "[This award is] quite symbolic because this is the first year of this event," he said. "I can't wait to see what we do tomorrow and the years to come."