For anyone who loves a great Caesar salad, Houston’s annual Caesar Salad Competition is a must-see — or, make that, a must-taste. This Friday, October 9, marks the 31st annual staging of this madcap toss-up, which, so far as I can ascertain, is the oldest Caesar salad competition in the United States and certainly one of Houston’s wackiest food throw-downs.
Love the old-fashioned, strictly interpreted Caesar salad? The competition has a Classic Caesar Salad category for that, with the trophy going to a salad that is sublimely balanced, with exactly the right marriage of lemon and garlic, mustard and anchovy, Worcestershire and parmesan.
More a gourmand daredevil? Then you’ll want to focus on sampling from the Creative Caesar Salad category, where a Caesar salad can take many forms – not all of them even a salad as you think you know it. In recent years I’ve seen (and tasted) Caesar salad sushi, Caesar salad tacos, cold Caesar salad soup, even a Caesar salad popsicle. Several years ago the entry from 17 Restaurant at downtown’s Alden Hotel turned Caesar salad inside out: Imagine a deconstructed Caesar salad that begins with a tempura-fried heart of romaine lettuce topped with Caesar dressing that has been made into jelly-like croutons. Crazy!
Or consider some of these other Creative entries: baby romaine tossed in vanilla Caesar dressing with shrimp, crab and chipotle crème fraîche and served in a tortilla cup; Creole Caesar Napoleon with crab and mandarin orange segments, served layered in a martini glass; a Caesar sprouting from an avocado “flower” with a shot of chilled sake as its chaser; and Southwest Caesar salad with grilled shrimp, cotija cheese, pumpkin seeds, corn, black beans and crisp tortilla strips. (Yep, that popular menu item at Olivette restaurant at The Houstonian Hotel began life as a Caesar Salad Competition entry.)
A category for Best Presentation was added about a decade ago, and this has inspired chefs to dress in costume, decorate their tables and, basically, let their imaginations run wild. The 2005 winner for Best Presentation was Rickshaw restaurant’s bite-sized Caesar that was served on a skewer in a martini glass of parmesan broth, the stemmed glass decorated with a hand-folded origami crane.
The Caesar Salad Competition was tossed together 31 years ago by sommelier Guy Stout and Randy Fournier, the manager for global dining at the Hess Corporation. “I thought it would be fun to see who made the best Caesar in town,” said Stout. “I grew up in Dallas and used to make Caesar salads as a waiter at Dominque’s. Everyone who makes Caesar salad thinks theirs is the best. I am no exception. I think mine is the best, too.”
In some parts of the country, this is the month for apple cider, wine making and harvest festivals. In Houston, however, if it’s October, then it’s time to break out the garlic, tear up the lettuce and let it fly. Hail, Caesar!