'Top Chef: Chicago': It's not a party without a pig

Lisa_topchefchicago Top Chef: Chicago abandons my fair city for the sunny shores of Puerto Rico, where we discover that raw plantains are nasty, that there's more than one way to skin (and dismember) a pig, and that nice girls do come last if they try to pitch their undercooked beans as al dente. Nice try, though.

This spoiler is resisting the urge to break into that song from "West Side Story."

The Final Four cheftestants are tanned, rested and ready, which is good, because they are almost immediately confronted with a plantain challenge. Plantains, for the uninitiated, look like bananas and taste like... well, not much, really. But fry those puppies up as tostones (plantain chips, basically) and you've got an addictive treat. Because frying, like bacon, makes almost everything better.

The mission: Create frituras -- luscious little plantain-based snacky things that will go well with beer. Lisa continues to fight last episode's war - the first thing she does is check out the proteins to make sure she won't pull a Spike. Stephanie admits that she's been too scattered in previous quickfires - she needs to narrow down the possibilities immediately and just focus on a few things.

Antonia makes the mistake of using plantain more as a garnish than an integral part of her dish - sorry, but plantain jam isn't enough. Richard tries to get a bit high-concept by serving plantain chips in ripe plantain salsa. Guest judge Wilo Benet agrees that raw plantains are pretty icky.

Finally, Stephanie wins a quickfire! Her advantage is revealed the next day, when they suit up for the elimination challenge. The cheftestants will be cooking for a passel of VIPs at the governor's mansion, and they each get a sous-chef from the latest eliminees. Stephanie gets to assign the chefs. Stephanie wins my approval by declining to screw over her competitors - she makes matches she thinks will actually work. She chooses notorious hothead Dale as her own sous chef, then assigns Spike to Richard, Nikki to Antonia, and Andrew to Lisa. Lisa is a bit peevish, because she burned a bridge with Andrew when she threw him under the buss. Of course, she also hates Dale, and Spike was pretty pissed at her, too. Lisa really didn't have a good match, because Lisa is insufferable.

While the cheftestants butcher their pigs, the sous chefs are running around San Juan's central market, which is this glorious amalgamation of fresh fruits, vegetables, spices, specialty foods, and assorted yumminess. It helps to speak Spanish, which Andrew discovers to his peril. I'm amazed that anyone working in a restaurant these days isn't at least conversant in Spanish.

Stephanie and Dale get on great, throwing out ideas and basically creating godlike food. One problem - Dale forgets to put the spice-rubbed pork bellies in the fridge overnight. Oh, crap. Stephanie ditches the dish (as well she should - no WAY was that meat safe after sitting out all night) and goes into damage control mode. I love that she doesn't panic or throw a tantrum (unlike Dale himself undoubtedly would). Dale actually comes up with a solution: a tropical fruit salad livened with chicharrones -- basically pork cracklings. It sounds delicious.

After the Ceremonial March of the Chafing Dishes, it's time to release the bigwigs. Richard's pork ribs glazed with Malta, a sweet malted soda, draws raves. Thankfully, so does Stephanie's chicharrones salad, as well as her coconut-braised pork on plantain pancakes. Lisa and Antonia don't fare so well - Antonia's pigeon peas are undercooked (and if you're going to serve food in Puerto Rico, at least get the pigeon peas right), while Lisa has a sweet potato and sweet plantain puree that tastes like candy, and her tostones aren't quite right.   

Richard and Stephanie get top marks, with Richard taking the prize. He gets a new car - which is great, but is he supposed to drive it home from Puerto Rico? He's in shock.

Antonia is spanked for her dry, underdone pigeon peas, and her explanation that she likes her beans al dente isn't cutting it. Plus, she heaped all of her food up on one plate, which is hardly chichi cocktail party style. Lisa gets flack for her super-sweet puree, and Gail tells her she seemed to focus more on the garnishes than the pig itself. In the end, Antonia is the one going home. Dammit! Lisa squeaks through AGAIN!

But Lisa isn't content with staying in the competition, again, against all odds, by once again being slightly less bad than the other person - she wants Stephanie and Richard to throw her a parade, or something. "I know you guys are upset that Antonia's leaving, but a congratulations would have been a little bit nice.... It just makes me feel like you feel like the wrong person went home." That's because they do, Lisa - and so does 91 percent of the people voting in tonight's poll. I barely restrain myself from flinging something at my television.

Highlights, thoughts and odds and ends

  • This recap is abetted by my brother-in-law, Jorge, who's from Puerto Rico, introduced me to the full range of Puerto Rican food, and shepherded me around that awesome market (as well as other fantastic places on the island.) Next time, try to get me into the governor's mansion, ok? 
  • If they just wanted Puerto Rican food, they could have stayed in Chicago - the city has the highest concentration of Puerto Ricans in the continental US outside New York. Just head over to Humboldt Park - plantains galore there! If they wanted beaches and palm trees and fabulous resorts... ok, Puerto Rico was probably the better choice.
  • When they broke out the plantains at the beginning, I joked that someone should make mofongo - if nothing else, because it's ridiculously fun to say. The dish itself is kind of tasteless (it's basically a big mass of mashed starch), but hey, Lisa gets points for even knowing it existed. Plus, she fried the mofongo into a fritter, which is always a good choice.
  • Dale is miserable when he realizes he ruined one of Stephanie's dishes: "If I get her sent home, I swear to god I will never forgive myself." Neither will I, Dale.
  • When will the cheftestants learn that rice = danger this season? This time, it's Antonia who has rice trauma, and dumps her rice out.
  • I love that Stephanie and Lisa were doing Jazz Hands at the end of the quickfire challenge.
  • The Assault on Precinct Pig was pretty dramatic. Lisa broke the tenderizing hammer, Richard hacked away with glee, and even Stephanie was doing a bit of rending and tearing on "[her] own Wilbur." Antonia is aghast - slip the knife in right and you can just pop the bones out of their sockets. "I know.. it sounds terrible," she says.
  • Richard talks about how his food comes with a story - but do you really want that story to reference canned pork and beans? Or talk about how your mom couldn't cook?
  • I'm amazed that Stephanie didn't mention her disaster in the kitchen at the judge's table. It makes her accomplishments that much more impressive.
  • Lisa, at the judges table, says her dishes were strong, but she allows that Richard's and Stephanie's food was "also very strong." I think what you meant to say there was "kicked my ass."
  • Apparently, in Lisa's world, the Caribbean borders Asia. Interesting.
  • Stephanie spent her break from Top Chef traveling around Southeast Asia, and incorporated Asian flavors into her dish. Lisa, who usually is all about Asian food, decides on a traditional Latin menu. Weird.
  • Gail, at the judging table: "There's no such thing as al dente beans..."
  • When Antonia leaves, she says her daughter will make her feel better. Of course, this is the same punk kid who told her that if she didn't win, she shouldn't bother coming home. Brat.
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