With only four contestants remaining, Top Chef: Houston is winding down and preparing for its eventful finale in Tucson, Arizona. And while some may wonder why Tucson in a Houston-focused season, the latest challenges are paying interesting homages to Native American and Mexican cuisine with its required use of cactus and Indigenous peppers — some of which are not just relevant to Houston, but also the fabric of our country.
Warning: Spoilers ahead. Here’s a recap of Top Chef: Houston episode 13.
Quickfire: With only four people left, chefs are feeling the pressure of the competition but are also encouraged by how far they made it. Sarah Welch is feeling confident with the competition’s move to Tucson — as if she’s leaving some of her baggage behind in Houston and starting anew. Damarr Brown and Evelyn García are reflecting on the sacrifices and hard work they’ve put in. Buddha Lo, who has used the two-week break to prepare for the finale and learn more about Native American and Mexican cooking cuisines, is thrilled at the opportunity to learn more in Tucson — the first UNESCO City of Gastronomy designated in the United States.
The episode begins with a lesson from Carlotta Flores, the owner of El Charro Cafe, which is not only the country’s oldest Mexican restaurant, but it’s also home to the chimichanga and the most famous carne seca — thinly-sliced meat that is dried in the sun. In their last Quickfire competition of the season, chefs are required to make a meal using carne seca.
Lo creates an “upside-down tostada” with carne seca, guajillo, chipotle, and queso that seems like a better idea in theory and incorporates a fried tortilla that is too greasy, according to Flores.
Intended to be respectful of the ingredients, Brown grills an avocado and pairs it with a carne seca vinaigrette, fried tortillas, and grilled corn, but it lacks texture.
García’s creamy grits dish with guajillo, carne seca, and chayote relish with yuzu is named the second favorite of the day, with Flores saying that it has inspired her to use more grits at her restaurant — major bragging rights for the Houston chef.
And Welch creates a festive and colorful carne seca gravy over polenta with a soft egg, morel mushrooms, and blackberry salsa. She’s convinced judges are going to question her choices, but instead, Lakshmi calls it interesting, and Flores praises it as a unique dish she wants her chefs to taste. Welch ultimately wins the challenge and her first Quickfire, earning 30 minutes of additional cook time.
Maria Mazon, chef and alumna from Top Chef: Portland, and Jesús Manuel García, a board member of Mission Garden, welcome chefs to the Sonoran Desert in Arizona, home of more than 300 species of cactus and the chiltepin, the only native pepper in the United States. After taking in this history and agriculture lesson, judges are required to make two savory dishes — one with cactus, and one with chiltepin.
With García being the only one to have used either chiltepin or cactus in her cooking, Lo acknowledges that García is at a clear advantage. However, the Houston chef can’t help but think how her competition might be even more creative at using the ingredients without having a set idea of how they’re typically prepared.
Welch again incorporates various aspects of the garden, crafting lamb with chiltepin vinaigrette with a grape salad and smoked yogurt — an elegant dish with texture, according to Mazon. Dessert proves a little more challenging for Welch, who has difficulty with the kitchen’s churner and ends up spilling the ice cream base all over herself. She quickly turns to liquid nitrogen, thanks to a suggestion from Lo, and crafts a gooey cactus tart with saguaro flower and cactus caramel. While too saucy for some, Jesus García says it tastes just like a saguaro.
Judges praise Lo’s use of chiltepin and the layered flavors in his “Mission Garden tom yum soup” with turnip-wrapped dumplings, calamari noodles, and jumbo prawns. His vibrant “cactus with cream” dessert with cactus cake, cactus seed ice cream, and a bright pink prickly pear “snow” also impresses judges, but with at least one judge noting that they wanted more cactus flavor.
García decides to prop up the nopal cactus — a humble ingredient often used at home in her Mexican-El Salvadorian household to create a nopal relleno. Inspired by a chile relleno, García accompanies her nopal relleno with shrimp puree, raw nopal, and marigold that captivates judges for its creativity and unique quality.
Most have never tried a Relleno using nopal, and García’s dessert — a sour orange and sweet lime curd with saguaro pod meringue, prickly pear granita, basil flower, and quince — also takes direct notes from the Miracle Garden, and makes judges feel like they’re back in the desert. This earns her, her third elimination challenge of the season, and makes her one step closer to winning it all.
Though Brown’s dessert — a prickly pear cake glazed with prickly pear topped with buttermilk cheese, saguaro, and frozen mango — was a delight, reminding judge Tom Collichio of Brown’s masterfully-made carrot cake, the chef’s savory dish falls short.
Brown uses newfound skills, prompted from YouTube, to create a pork shoulder that incorporates a barbecue sauce made with prickly pear cactus and chiltepin, a Haitian pickled relish with chiltepin, grilled nopales, and red bean puree. Despite the chiltepin being the crux of the challenge, judges say the flavor of the pepper didn’t come through, resulting in his elimination.
The competition continues in Tucson with a rustic-style cooking challenge for the finale — complete with people riding horseback. The preview shows Lakshmi informing judges that they’ll be making the best dish of their lives, and finally, the winner of Top Chef: Houston will be crowned.