‘Top Chef’ Houston Recap: Win Sandwich

The final four travel to Tucson to cook with local ingredients, including carne seca, chiltepin, and cactus
Top Chef - Season 19
Sarah Welch prepares carne seca gravy over polenta with soft egg, morels, and blackberry salsa for the Quickfire Challenge. // Photograph by David Moir/Bravo

It’s the penultimate episode before the finale and everyone is looking refreshed after a two-week break. Buddha Lo, being Buddha and a Top Chef nerd, proudly says he used the time off to study up on Native American and Mexican cuisine.

Sarah Welch says she’s experienced the highest of highs and lowest of lows, but she’s on the upswing after having notched a win in the final Elimination Challenge in Houston before the final four headed to Tucson, Arizona.

Both Damarr Brown and Evelyn Garcia talk about how their respective personal sacrifices and Evelyn starts tearing up.

The final four head to downtown Tucson to El Charro, the country’s oldest Mexican restaurant with continuous operation by one family. They’re greeted by host Padma Lakshmi and El Charro owner and chef Carlotta Flores. El Charro is known as the originator of the chimichanga, but even more importantly it’s renowned for carne seca, which translates to dried meat. For the Quickfire, the cheftestants have to create a dish with the carne seca.

Sarah talks about how she and her fiancé Cameron Rolka (read more about the couple here) broke down a deer last year and made jerky so she’s going hard on that Pure Michigan life, throwing in morels and flavors that complement venison. Her dish is carne seca gravy over polenta with soft egg, morels, and blackberry salsa. She’s afraid it’s weird.

You know whose dish is weird? Buddha’s with his “upside down” tostada with carne seca guajillo, chipotle, and queso. It’s more like a tostada on top with everything underneath it. He just can’t seem to not pun with every dish.

Top Chef - Season 19
The final four — Buddha Lo, Evelyn Garcia, Damarr Brown, and Sarah Welch — visit Mission Garden to learn more about the ingredients they’ll be using for the Elimination Challenge. // Photograph by: David Moir/Bravo

Damarr makes grilled avocado with carne seca vinaigrette, fried tortillas, and grilled corn.

Evelyn says she grew up with carne seca and is familiar with the ingredient, so she does creamy grits with guajillo, carne seca, and chayote relish.

Buddha and Damarr are on the bottom, with Buddha’s “upside down” tostada being greasy and Damarr’s dish lacking texture. Sarah emerges as the winner, and with her previous Elimination Challenge victory and this Quickfire under her belt, she calls it a “win sandwich.” No immunity for her but she does get an extra 30 minutes to cook during the Elimination Challenge, which is to create a sweet and savory dish highlighting the chilpetin pepper and cactus.

They head to Mission Garden, which is described on its website as “a living agricultural museum of Sonoran Desert-adapted heritage fruit trees, traditional local heirloom crops, and edible native plants. Sarah looks like a kid in a candy store, getting excited over figs, quince, tomato, herbs, and other crops. She remembers the challenge is all about cactus and chilpetin, so she tries to rein it in.

She gets into the kitchen and uses her 30 extra minutes to explore cactus, experimenting with candying and pickling. She attributes her knowledge of food to her parents. For her savory dish, she’s planning a chilpetin chimichurri over grilled lamb with grape salad and smoked yogurt and a cactus tart with cactus caramel and saguaro ice cream for her sweet dish.

Top Chef - Season 19
Judges Tom Colicchio and Kristen Kish check in on Sarah Welch (far left) as she prepares her sweet and savory dishes for the Elimination Challenge. // Photograph by David Moir/Bravo

The ice cream machine isn’t on her side today as most of it ends up on the floor and on her. She asks Buddha for liquid nitrogen advice, and he says not to overthink it.

The two of them are up first to serve the judges their savory dishes. Buddha’s dish is a Mission Garden tom yum with turnip wrapped dumpling, calamari noodles, and prawns. Head judge Tom Colicchio says both dishes are extraordinary. Guest judge Kristen Kish (winner of Top Chef: Seattle and former Michigander) says it’s her favorite dish of the night and she doesn’t even like lamb.

Evelyn and Damarr are next, serving nopal relleno with shrimp puree, raw nopal and marigold, and pork shoulder glazed in chiltepin BBQ sauce, pikliz with chilpetin grilled nopales, and red bean puree, respectively. The judges like Damarr’s barbeque sauce, but the rest of the dish feels disjointed. Evelyn’s is innovative and fresh but familiar at the same time.

For the sweet course, Sarah laments Buddha’s dessert looks like it belongs in a museum while her ice cream has turned soupy.

While Sarah’s dish doesn’t look museum-worthy, the judges like the flavor and how she highlighted the saguaro flavor in the ice cream. Buddha’s looks beautiful but some comment that the prickly pear flavor was lost with the liquid nitrogen.

Top Chef - Season 19
Buddha Lo and Sarah Welch present their dishes to the judges. // Photograph by: David Moir/Bravo

Damarr and Evelyn serve their desserts, with Damarr offering up a prickly pear cake glazed with prickly pear topped with buttermilk cheese, saguaro, and frozen mango. Evelyn’s sour orange and sweet lime curd with saguaro pod meringue, prickly pear granita, basil flower, and quince looks deceptively simple — especially compared to the other’s cakes, tarts, and liquid nitrogren snow — but the judges are impressed by the creativity and elegance of the dish.

Evelyn reigns supreme and she is overcome by emotion by the win because she used ingredients that she grew up eating.

Tom says there weren’t a lot of mistakes today, but one dish didn’t come together — and it’s Damarr who’s sent packing his knives.

And then there were three: It’s Buddha, Evelyn, and Sarah facing off in the finale where they’ll have to make the best meal of their lives.

Catch this season of Top Chef at 8 p.m. on Thursdays on Bravo. For more information, visit  bravotv.com.

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