Top Chef Houston Power Rankings, Week 13: A Raw Deal In Heartbreak City

I don’t know, guys. I’m all for late season twists, but this latest episode of Top Chef Houston felt like a nasty curve with a 3-2 count. In the bottom of the 9th. With the bases loaded. And drug dealers have kidnapped YOUR WIFE! Sorry, halfway through that I realized I was bad at baseball metaphors.

On a serious note, it’s taken me a while to start writing this week’s rankings, simply because I was just that bummed out. I’ve had favorite contestants go home before (shout outs to Chris Scott, Isaac Toups, Fati) but never in such a way that felt quite this unfair. Arbitrary, like an uncaring universe. Could it have even been helped? Are we all just doomed to a life of sadness? This episode made me want to smoke French cigarettes and stare at the sea.

South Park Emo Kid Life Is Pain
Comedy Central

Fine, I’ll stop wallowing and finish this. So, as teased in the previous episode, this episode took the chefs to that world famous UNESCO city of gastronomy, Tucson, Arizona, where the beer flows like wine.

First stop on their sojourn in glorious Tucson (Oh Tuscon, my Tuscon!) was the El Charro cafe, the oldest, continuously operating Mexican restaurant in the United States. As if that wasn’t cool enough, it’s also the place that invented the chimichanga. They invented it? The chimichanga?! Incredible!

Mugatu Piano key necktie

Which, according to legend, happened when someone accidentally dropped an entire burrito in the deep fryer. Mmm, “accidentally,” sure. C’mon, man, this is America, we don’t need “accidents” to invent deep-fried shit, it’s just what we do.

It was there that the four remaining chefs learned all about carne seca, a Mexican-style beef jerky that the El Charro dries by basically hanging it from a giant clothesline above the restaurant like a pair of sneakers. I dunno, man, I think if I wanted to get a look at some dry roast beef I’d have my editor’s mom pull down her underpants (okay last mom joke this week, I swear).


Top Chef Padma Outfit
NBC Universal

Carne seca, more like carne sexy, am I right? Yes, “pockets and belts” was definitely the dominant theme with Padma’s designer this season. I’m beginning to think this dude (or lady) just made 30 different motorcycle jackets out of different materials. “HERE’S A MOTORCYCLE JACKET MADE FROM SATIN! HERE’S A MACRAME MOTORCYCLE JACKET! THIS MOTORCYCLE JACKET I MADE OUT OF OLD TOENAIL CLIPPINGS!!”

Hey, man, are you okay?

Anyway, the quickfire challenge (this season’s last) challenged the chefs to incorporate El Charro’s world famous carne seca into a dish highlighting the carne seca. Maybe it should’ve been a bad omen when Damarr reacted to the carne seca like a dog when you rub peanut butter on its gums. He chewed that for a very long time. He did not seem to be having a good time.

After that, it was off to the Sonoran Desert (the most biodiverse desert on Earth!) to bone up on the local fruits, spices, and herbs and stuff. The chefs’ challenge would be to make two dishes; one salty, one sweet; highlighting the local cactus and local pepper — the chiltepine, the only chili pepper native to North America.

Have we ever had such a late-season challenge that was such a gift to one contestant in particular? I know I should probably be the one to answer that question, seeing as how I’ve been writing weekly recaps of this show for like seven years now, but honestly I mostly summon all my strength for a few terrible mom jokes every week and then pass out in a sweaty heap with no memory of the past two hours. Trust the process.


  • Quickfire Challenge Top: Evelyn, Sarah*. *Winner.

  • Quickfire Challenge Bottom: Buddha, Damarr.

  • Elimination Challenge Winner: Evelyn.

  • Eliminated: Damarr.


4. (-1) ((Eliminated)) Damarr Brown

Damarr Brown Top Chef Houston
NBC Universal

AKA: Catchphrase. James Beard. Screech. Dusty. Drew Barrymahi. Chew-bacca.

Elimination Challenge Dish(es): Pork shoulder glazed in prickly pear barbecue sauce with chiltepin pikliz.

Quotable Critiques: “The pork is beautifully cooked, but there’s not a lot of chiltepine flavor.” “Damarr’s cake makes me want to go back and back and back.”

Yes, I’ve been in the tank for Damarr basically since the beginning. What can I say, he’s one of the most genuine reality show contestants I’ve ever seen. He brought sincere emotions to super corny spon-con challenges, I don’t even understand it.

Damarr maybe tried to soften the blow of his future elimination by grilling an avocado in the quickfire. C’mon, man! Just say no to cooked avocado! I think Padma was as aghast as I was — she did spend most of her teen years in California, after all. For her part, guest judge Carlotta Flores, owner of the El Charro, didn’t seem to mind and chalked Damarr’s bottom-half finish up to a lack of texture.

But it couldn’t soften the blow enough. Damarr got eliminated during a challenge in which he had to cook ingredients he’d never used before, two episodes after Last Chance Kitchen ended, for a dish that received at worst mildly positive reviews. The heartbreak! The disrespect! Tom Colicchio how could you! Un. Fucking. Believable. This world is a toilet filled with rotten turds and we’re all circling the bowl.

3. (+1) Sarah Welch

Sarah Welch top chef houston 19
NBC Universal

AKA: Ms. Marvel. Lula Roe. Aunt Frances. Kooky Librarian.

Elimination Challenge Dish(es): Lamb chop with chiltepine vinaigrette.

Quotable Critiques: “I think Sarah absolutely nailed this dish.” “Sarah’s dish, it’s a sticky sweet bold goodness.” “Sarah’s dessert was a little too soupy for me.”

Yes, Aunt Frances won the quickfire using ingredients she was just as unfamiliar with as Damarr. Yes, Tom said that her lamb was a worthy of being served at a three-Michelin star restaurant, and as an unabashed lamb piggy I absolutely would’ve ordered that on a menu. Yes, I’m just as biased against Sarah’s chilly, WASPy, faux-chipper Midwesternness as I am for Damarr’s low-key earnestness.

Where was I going with this? I don’t even know anymore. No matter what my brain is telling me about Sarah peaking at the perfect time and tearing through a million chefs in a row in Last Chance Kitchen, my heart is still sandbagging her. Dammit, Sarah! Couldn’t you have screwed up just a little this episode? Not even Sarah battling an uncooperative ice cream machine (classic food show cliché) and spilling half her ice cream base down her shirt could keep Damarr in the competition this week.

My tinfoil hat conspiracy theory is that Buddha was playing 10-dimensional chess when he helped Sarah use the liquid nitrogen for her ice cream, elevating a competitor he thinks he can defeat (Sarah) one he perceives as his greatest challenge (Damarr). Not really, but it’s fun to make stuff up.

2. (even) Evelyn Garcia

Evelyn Garcia Top Chef Houston 19
NBC Universal

AKA: Cuddles.

Elimination Challenge Dish(es): Nopal relleno with shrimp purée.

Quotable Critiques: “This wasn’t just a great dish, it made me feel creatively inspired.”

Look, I like Evelyn. How could you not? But to state the obvious, a challenge involving ingredients that Evelyn was the only chef familiar with felt like a massive gift to Evelyn. To her credit, she rose to the occasion and won, against some stiff competition, and that nopal relleno did look both delicious and inspired. It may have been a familiar ingredient, but she still found a way to take it out of her comfort zone. I go back and forth about ranking Evelyn at number one. I guess the only reason I’m not is that I can’t imagine things going so easily for her twice in a row.

1. (even) Buddha Lo

Buddha Lo Top Chef Houston Season 19
NBC Universal

AKA: Mr. International. Big Pun. Asian Ben Mendelsohn. The Salad Nazi. Arnold Schwarzenegger. The Terminator. Moneyball. Big Data.

Elimination Challenge Dish(es): Mission Garden Tom Yum

Quotable Critiques: “My mouth is still warm and throbbing and glowing a little bit.”

Buddha unlocked his “Vacation Mode Buddha” skin this week:

Buddha Lo hat top chef 19

Nothing says “just here for the vibes” like visible nipples. I like to think Buddha just cut the corks off one of these hats:

Australian cork hat

Jokes aside, it’s a tough, some might say controversial, nay, BRAVE decision ranking Buddha at number one. But for all his goofy Australianness, Buddha just seems like a Top Chef assassin designed for this exact purpose.

Buddha said he’d been “studying up” on indigenous and Mexican cuisine for this challenge (he always trusts the data) but he also noted that this study didn’t include actually working with any of the ingredients. In the quickfire, Buddha decided to make a “tostader,” and not just a regular tostader like anyone could, but an upside-down tostader. In Australia, the tostaders circle counter-clockwise.

That actually sounded like a pretty good idea (is Taco Bell’s Mexican Pizza just a form of upside-down tostada? Discuss.) but its conceptual genius was undermined by its execution. For all his genius, Buddha apparently couldn’t figure out how to fry a tortilla at the proper temperature and ended up having to double fry, ending up with a greasy tostada shell. “NAAAURRR! This tostader belongs in the dunny, mate.”

For the elimination challenge, Buddha said he was going to make a tom yum inspired by his dead dad and I thought he was done for. Aside from his marry me pasta, Buddha, unlike virtually every other Top Chef contestant, is usually at his worst when he does heartfelt family recipes with a story. This time it did feel like he was learning, because although he did choose a heartfelt family dish, he prepared his soup Buddha-style, with meticulously carved decorative ingredients and insanely labor-intensive dumplings inside. He didn’t win but he fared okay.

This competition is shaping up as a pick-em between perennial favorite Buddha, whose food almost always looks catalog ready, and regional advantage-haver Evelyn and even streaking Sarah. I guess I’m seeding Buddha at number one, partly out of inertia and partly because he just seems like he knows how to play this game the best.

Read the rest of our Top Chef Power Rankings here. Vince Mancini is on Twitter.