December 5, 2023

Food City

The Best Darn Food City Uou Can Get

Why Houston is a better food city than Philadelphia

Food is a serious and competitive business in Texas: The best barbecue in the Lone Star State is a never-ending debate. Our love for Tex-Mex and tacos runs deep. Cajun, Mexican and Vietnamese restaurants — old and new — hold their own against the country’s best. Steak is basically its own food group.

But if there’s one cultural marker that rallies Houstonians together more than Texas’ most iconic foods, it’s our devotion to the Astros.

During a recent meeting, one colleague joked orange blood runs through his veins. The septuagenarian millionaire Jim “Mattress Mack” McIngvale is betting $10 million on the Astros hoisting the Commissioner’s Trophy — all while promising to give rebates to customers who bought mattresses costing $3,000 or more at his Gallery Furniture. Heck, even Elton John didn’t want to interrupt the Astros’ playoff run, canceling his farewell-tour stop at Minute Maid Park next week.

The World Series may be kicking off between the Astros and the Philadelphia Phillies on Friday, but as a recent East Coast transplant, I have some news for anyone rooting on the City of Brotherly Love: Y’all have an uphill battle.  

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Let’s just say that Philadelphians are better off reminding everyone that their greatest athletic achievement was Sylvester Stallone’s fictional Rocky Balboa running the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. 

As the largest city in Pennsylvania, Philadelphia has been dubbed New York City’s sixth borough. Every baseball fan knows what just happened to the Yankees.

Until the first pitch is thrown, the Astros’ hometown can bask in its culinary superiority. Houston may give Philadelphia a few crumbs here and there, but in true Southern hospitality fashion, we’ll have a broom ready to sweep everything up.

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Buc-ee’s vs. Wawa (1-0)

The Buc-ee's Mascot poses with Darrel the Barrel during the announcement of the collaboration of Buc-ee's with the Don't Mess With Texas Program at the Katy Buc-ee's.

The Buc-ee’s Mascot poses with Darrel the Barrel during the announcement of the collaboration of Buc-ee’s with the Don’t Mess With Texas Program at the Katy Buc-ee’s.

Craig Moseley/Staff photographer

The cult following behind convenience and gas stations Buc-ee’s and Wawa is well known to Texans and New Englanders alike, but let’s end any debate here on which one is better.

Wawa fans harbor a nostalgic love for the chain’s hoagies, clean bathrooms, snack selection and an affordable breakfast sandwich known as the Sizzli.

Philadelphians, have you heard of leveling up? Buc-ee’s offers basically everything Wawa does — and more.      

If we want to harp on the tired trope of “Everything is bigger in Texas,” there’s no better example than Buc-ee’s. Texans will plan road trips just so they can make a pit stop at one of the sprawling stores.

As a former New Yorker, I’ve stopped at many Wawas during trips to Philly while driving down Interstate 95. The Sizzli egg sandwich everyone loves should be renamed the Fizzli because the eggs are often overcooked.

At Buc-ee’s, customers can scan a wall of house-made jerky, shelves of chips and candy, stations of barbecue and, of course, Beaver Nuggets.

When Wawa opened a flagship location in 2018 near Independence Hall in the heart of Philadelphia, it clocked in at 11,500 square feet. Even a small Buc-ee’s is larger; the New Braunfels location, at 68,000 square feet, is believed to be the largest convenience store in the world.

Like the Astros, Texans know what it takes to win: Go big or go home.

Boudin vs. scrapple (2-0)

Boudin vs. scrapple
Boudin vs. scrappleChronicle file

Neither boudin nor scrapple are known for using the most prime cuts of pork.

Over the summer, I tasted an exceptional version at Wm. Mulherin’s Sons in Philly’s trendy Fishtown neighborhood. It was crisp and shaped like a McDonald’s hash brown and fried to a golden hue.

But outside of Eastern Pennsylvania, scrapple is rare to find — for good reason. Too many scrapple recipes taste like wood-chip shavings, which even a few dashes of hot sauce can’t rescue.

Boudin, on the other hand, is widely available throughout the South. From Savannah to Beaumont to Spring, this sausage — stuffed with a bits of pork, rice and a mix of spices — can be found in restaurants, convenience shops and gas stations.

Its versatility also means Houstonains can find it in Cajun restaurants or even at a strip center in the suburbs: perhaps Robin’s Snowflake Donuts and Cafe, where a boudin egg roll was one of the most memorable dishes I’ve eaten since moving here.

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Kolache vs. stromboli (3-0)

Variety of kolaches from The Kolache Shoppe.

Variety of kolaches from The Kolache Shoppe.

Carla Gomez / Carla Gomez

Kolaches can boast any number of fillings and even workmanlike varieties are often edible. The fluffy, sweet bread makes the Czech pastry as good for breakfast or a road trip snack.

The stromboli, an Italian American creation with roots in Philadelphia, usually features a bread or pizza dough that encases oozing cheese and cold cuts. Wouldn’t you just rather eat a slice of pizza?

Banh mi vs. Philly cheesesteak (4-0)

Banh mi vs. cheesesteak
Banh mi vs. cheesesteakChronicle file

Phillies fans could only dream of a rivalry with the Astros that is as heated as the Philly cheesesteak debate between Geno’s and Pat’s.

This rivalry over Philadelphia’s signature food is a cultural obsession and attracts tourists. But, for as many people who pick sides between the rivals, which are located across the street from each other, there are better versions found at less well-known spots.

A sloppy cheesesteak also feels particularly one note compared to the banh mi, a ubiquitous fixture in Houston, thanks to the city’s large Vietnamese population. I like a classic version filled with cold cuts, like Vietnamese ham and pickled carrots, as much as the more creative riffs, like catfish.

Before you argue that it’s an apples-to-oranges debate, as a friend in Philly did, don’t forget we’re talking about arguably the most popular sandwiches in both cities. Both dishes involve a protein that’s stuffed between bread. 

Perhaps a baseball analogy would help here: The sliced rib-eye steak, caramelized onions and provolone in a cheesesteak can be highly satisfying. It’s like how the Phillies depended on slugger Bryce Harper to advance to the World Series.

A banh mi is more versatile, just like the Astros’ deeper roster that makes Houston the favorite.