*edited July 7, 2016 to omit the incorrect statement that Adrian Cruz was Iron Chef RGV in 2012 and 2013; Chef Jesse Castellon actually won the fifth and final RGV Iron Chef in 2012 hosted by the Cimarron country club.
“It’s a battle. It’s something big. It’s an opportunity for the RGV to make history,” says chef Adrian Cruz about the James Beard Foundation’s nationwide Blended Burger Project.
Immediately recognizable to anyone familiar with the RGV, a concha as the top bun of his burger is surprising, but it’s only the first of many unexpected components in the entree that could further reinforce the RGV’s emerging position on the culinary map.
“A concha is a Hispanic thing that needs to get out there,” says Cruz, a self-taught culinary artist who has been working as a chef for over 16 years. “This competition is opening the door for the Valley, and Texas. There are a lot of like, French foods, for example, that are mainstream – baguettes, macaroons, pretzel buns – so why not concha buns?”
Yes, they are meant to be dipped in coffee. As you can imagine, a traditional concha bunch falls apart in the burger, even the wonderful ones that come from Orchard Lounge’s mother restaurant, which has a bakery. Fighting for its position in the top 10 after months of voting, this concha bun has been modified to hold up under pressure. “I tweaked it when the blended burger competition came out,” says Cruz. “My brother and I came up with a brioche style bun with a concha top.” (High egg and butter content give it a rich and tender crumb).
The pink, black, and chocolate sweet topping counterbalances the inside patty, which is the second savory, salty, and spicy surprise: it is made of 25 percent mushrooms, the qualifying factor for entry into the Blended Burger Project. According to the James Beard Foundation, “Simultaneously achieving nutrition, sustainability, and flavor is a core value of America’s food system.” Local chefs are doing their part to participate in this shift towards sustainable dining in the RGV by introducing meat substitutes that are not just palatable, but gourmet.
“There has to be a healthier way to eat a burger,” says Cruz. “And portabella mushrooms are like steaks; you can grill them and fry them and they have a nice, meaty texture and taste.” The concha burger patty is a blend of shiitaki mushrooms, beef, and chorizo to further reinforce the South Texan flavor profile. “A lot of combinations give you all the flavors,” says Cruz.
“In order to get the balance, we have the sweet and savory blend with the smoked gouda to give it the smoked flavor. A lot of people know that bacon goes very well with sweet – we include applewood bacon, and a chipotle aioli (an egg-and -oil-based, mayonnaise-like spread). We include some Enokitake (Japanese string mushrooms), butter lettuce, pickles, onions, and cucumbers.” The veggies are done in house with a citrus vinaigrette that makes them pop. “The pickled onions give you acidity that brings out the flavor of the meat, but the homemade strawberry fig jam spread on the concha balances it,” says Cruz. Then you get to the egg fried in duck fat. Who doesn’t love an egg in a burger? “You can get it any way you want, but I like to serve it with the gooey center falling all over the cheese,” says Cruz.
With over 9,500 votes as of June 25 and still a month to go in the competition, the Concha Burger is fighting to stay in the top 5. “Those are the ones that go to New York to cook their burger for 1,000 people. It might be the nominees that get to go on Oct. 16,” says Cruz. “If we can stay in the top 5, we made it.”
He is hoping to get more support from the RGV. “We’re not doing this just for us; we’re doing it for the Valley – for Texas – because we’re the only ones representing in thw top 10. A lot of the competitors are corporate restaurants, but we’re the new kids on the block.” He is eager to do well in the competition and get some recognition for the RGV’s culinary talents. “Last year I was in San Jose; I got to try out different restaurants and meet a lot of chefs. They told me, ‘You’re very talented – what are you doing in Texas? There’s nothing down there.’ That was when I realized I had to come back.”
Cruz has been working alongside his brother with the Orchard Lounge for only a few months, but he is enjoying the creativity he is able to freely incorporate into his dishes. “Here I have the chance to pick my colors and then pick my food. Every day find something to do! I’m an artist; I used to paint. I think, ‘What can I use in this dish to use these colors?’ Presentation is everything.”
Cruz has a large online following and has made several TV appearances. In September, he will be a U.S. chef ambassador for the chefsroll.com blog. “My work speaks for itself,” says Cruz. “I’m also a Cardinal international plating artist. I have about 15 dishes posted with them. I like to inspire young chefs; they tell me, ‘You make me want to pick up my plating skills,’ which is great.”
He explains that the chefs that are young are hungry, and the older ones are hungrier – worried that the younger ones will take them out. But on the other hand, the older ones are passing torches. “I’m all about sharing,” says Cruz. “I’m sharing myself and my style with another chefs, who share it through their food with other people and that’s what I want. If you develop a recipe and just hold on to it, you’re not going to go far.”
He is quick to point out that he is not alone in raising the bar for next-level dining in the RGV. “There are a lot of talented chefs down here, but we need more chefs to step forward and do the work that they want,” he says. “Texas Monthly only goes as far as San Antonio. But we’re down here and we have what you want.”