Spam, liquid smoke and sweat at Back of House Brawl

Chef Stephen Hopcraft chops for his life at a recent Back of House Brawl.
Photo: Bill Hughes

Where were you at 1:30 a.m. on Sunday? If the answer isn’t Tommy Rocker’s, you missed one of the Valley’s most entertaining food events. Don’t cry. The Back of House Brawl goes down every other weekend, so you can catch the next one.

Here’s the concept: Two high-profile chefs—armed only with their own knives—are handed surprise ingredients, which must be used in their dishes. The chefs have 40 minutes to cook and plate eight servings in unfamiliar quarters—the inside of someone’s else’s food truck—with judges tasting and determining the winner, Iron Chef style.

BOH Brawl is the brainchild of ex-Sloppi Jo’s owner Jolene Mannina, who started the event in an effort to draw industry folks to her weekly gourmet food-truck showcase. A rotating lineup of trucks gathers at Tommy Rocker’s each Saturday at 10 p.m., and Brawls begin later in the night (well, morning), with the next one scheduled for December 3.

The Details

Back of House Brawl
At Saturday Night Truck Stop, Tommy Rocker’s, 4275 Dean Martin Dr.
Saturday Night Truck Stop online

This past week’s competition saw STK executive chef Stephen Hopcraft go up against Joe Zanelli, chef de cuisine at Wynn’s Lakeside Grill. Their required ingredients, selected by previous competitor Ben Jenkins from Michael Mina, were goat cheese, Maitake mushrooms, pickled ginger shoots, Medjool dates, loup de mer (Mediterranean sea bass) and Yukon gold potatoes. Considering previous competitions have included Spam, liquid smoke and praline rose, Jenkins seemed remarkably reserved with his choices.

Hopcraft picked Redneck Kitchen, one of the Valley’s newer trucks, for his mobile kitchen, and Zanelli chose the Yellow Lunch Box. The countdown began, and the two men scurried off.

Both chefs wound up creating crispy-skin loup de mer dishes, Zanelli’s served atop a ragout of bacon, tomatoes, mushrooms and potatoes, and drizzled with a pickled ginger juice and butter reduction. The dish, which came with a goat cheese-stuffed date, was delicious, quite an achievement for food conceived, prepared and plated in 40 minutes.

Hopcraft, a Top Chef alum, served his fish nestled on a mushroom potato rösti (essentially hash browns) with a caramelized onion and date-infused cream, along with goat cheese and pickled ginger garnish. His fish and rösti were perfectly cooked, but the date flavor got lost in an overwhelming pepper sensation, the result of a last-moment decision to throw jalapeños into the mix.

Ultimately, Zanelli was declared the victor by a narrow margin, although each chef churned out some tasty food, given the conditions. Entertaining culinary theater that’s worth staying up late for … or setting an early alarm.

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