Food by VICE

Houston’s Diversity Is What Makes Its Food Scene Incredible

That’s the beauty of Houston—there’s no zoning. In most cities, you’d say, “I go down to my favorite sandwich shop on the corner,” but in Houston, that’s a banh mi shop.

by Chris Shepherd
Jan 14 2016, 7:30pm

All photos courtesy of Julie Soefer Photography.

Our food at Underbelly isn't fusion food. Because fusion is forced. That's always been the big question: "Do you consider this fusion?" And my answer is "no, man." Fusion is like wasabi mashed potatoes. That shit just shouldn't go together. This is something that happens that's heartfelt, and true.

I was born in Nebraska, raised in Tulsa, Oklahoma, and then I came down here to Houston in '95. I was 22 at the time. I came to go to culinary school, not really understanding the city.

Growing up in Oklahoma, if we went out, Steak and Ale was the place to go. That was it. My mom cooked things like Swiss steak, meatloaf, chicken, and things like that. Not the diversity that I have now.

Crispy whole Vermillion snapper and long tail bass with masala vegetables. Photo courtesy of Julie Soefer Photography

Crispy whole Vermillion snapper and long tail bass with masala vegetables.
Photo courtesy of Julie Soefer Photography Vinegar pie, salt brittle.

I think Houston was [diverse] back then too, I just didn't know it. There was an old Chinatown, but the east side of Downtown couldn't support the influx of people and the families that were growing, so they basically picked Chinatown up and moved it. That's the beauty of Houston—there's no zoning. In most cities, you'd say, "I go down to my favorite sandwich shop on the corner," but in Houston, that's a banh mi shop.

I'd get up at 5:30 AM every day, go to school, get done with school at 2, be at work at 3, work until 11 or midnight, go home and do homework until 1 AM, sleep for three or four hours, and get up. I knew that's how it had to happen. That's when I fell in love with the city, basically.

In the 90s, there was Café Annie, Brennan's, and shortly after that, Mark's. There was Tony's, which is Italian. As a young cook, that's what you see—I didn't really see the other side of Houston too much. I started working at Brennan's, thinking I was doing amazing food, and it was fun.

But that's when I started to learn the city more. Cooks talk, cooks go out to eat, and cooks learn. Coming from Oklahoma, I didn't even know what Vietnamese food was, and that was when I first found out.

Photo courtesy of Julie Soefer Photography

Underbelly is located in a historic building in Montrose, one of Houston's most eclectic neighborhoods.

The thing about Vietnamese food that appealed to me so much was the crisp, clean flavors. Because I grew up in Oklahoma, and all you could get there was eggrolls. All of a sudden, I'm wrapping things in herbs and lettuce leaves, like, what the hell am I doing? And then dipping it in... what is this fish sauce stuff? It was a flavor that I didn't understand, and then it was like the lights came on. I needed to know more, and this is the city to do that in. Someone said to me, "Well, you should try pho." And I was like, "What is pho?" It was like teaching a child. Suddenly, that's what I was eating three to four times a week.

Bellaire Boulevard runs about six miles, and then Bissonnet is the same way on the other side. It's basically six miles of strip centers, grocery stores, temples, and restaurants, and just amazingness. Dim sum halls that can seat 1,000, and then there's the little dim sum place two blocks down the street that can only seat 30, and the menu's in English, Chinese, and Vietnamese. Our Koreatown is north of I-10, and it's a good size too. El Salvadorian is everywhere, Thai is sprinkled throughout, and then the Middle Eastern part is around Richmond. There's another section that's like little India.

International food is just everywhere. Where I'm at right now, I can go have pho in any direction, I have some of the best Szechuan across the street, and there's a Lebanese place across the street from that, and it's all freaking delicious.

Photo courtesy of Julie Soefer Photography

Chef-owner Chris Shepherd on the Underbelly line.

A few years ago, when thinking of opening Underbelly, I didn't go stage around the country; I went and staged in little ethnic joints around Houston. We were doing culinary tours for the city, and that's when it started. I was going into restaurants and being told, "No, you can't have that—that's for the Thais." I realized that when I go eat Thai food, there's more stuff that I should eat than pad Thai. I started conversations with waiters every time I'd go in: "What would you have?"

Eventually I'd ask if I could come work there, and they'd look at me like I was crazy. I was like, "I just want to step in your kitchen for a day, and see how you do things." So that when we do it, it may not be the exact same dish, but its flavor profiles are going to be the same, and the technique will be a thoughtful understanding of how it's actually done.

I went and staged in mom-and-pop Vietnamese places, and little Thai kitchens, with three Laotian ladies looking at me like, what are you doing here?. I would just say, "Well, I'll clean your greens for you," or, "I'll peel papayas for you," or whatever. I wanted to break down that barrier and learn from them. Now when I go and have dim sum at this little tiny 30-seat place, the owner, Lisa, pulls me in the back to show me things. You learn food through people.

These stages were before I opened Underbelly in 2012, and I basically took a year to build this. At Underbelly, we rewrite the menu every day, depending on what our farmers and ranchers bring in. Pretty much every week, we get a whole animal in from a local farm—pigs, goats, steers. Outside of a little bit of herbs and citrus, garlic, and shallots, everything we use on the menu is from around us. It's amazing that if you work with a farmer and you commit, they will grow pretty much anything for you.

Photo courtesy of Julie Soefer Photography

Underbelly's charcuterie board: two-year Mangalitsa prosciutto, cha lua (Vietnamese sausage wrapped in banana leaf), Large Black Tesa, Angus bresaola, peanut-finished Lonza, peanut-finished gooseneck, head cheese, house-made pickles and mustard.
Photo courtesy of Julie Soefer Photography The Korean braised goat and dumplings.

My sous chefs and all my cooks and I sit down and talk about food, and we cook what we want to eat. For a while, I'd see them come in with something like Subway, and say, "Why are you eating that shit? Go to this banh mi place, you need to get Himalayan, you need to go get Pakistani food." Now my cooks are going out and eating all these different things, and we cook what's inspired us throughout the city. "We had turnip cakes at this place—I want to try making those." Maybe daikon is in season, so we go ahead and figure out how to integrate it with our cuisine.

It really kind of boomed here in Houston in the past 30 to 40 years where you're talking about all these cultures mixing, in all industries, medical or oil or fishing or farming, making it the new creole city. When we talk about creolization, that's something that is not forced—it just happens. It's happening all over the country, but it really has happened here with dramatic effects. We don't have a significant ethnic majority. It's just this melting pot. Without having the zoning, you have everything. We've got very, very, very expensive houses next to dumpy apartments. Then right next to that, there's a bar in the middle of the neighborhood. That's this city and what makes it beautiful.

In terms of "New Creole" food, when you talk about what creole is, it's cultures that are combining into one area and becoming one, right? New Orleans was a creole city. In New Orleans in the 1700s and 1800s, you had the Spanish, African, and Caribbean all coming into one area, and now that's pretty much stopped. But that hasn't stopped here in Houston.

I can have anything I want to eat and it's all right around here.

The one item that we always keep on the menu is very Korean, and it's a braised goat and Korean-style dumpling. Traditionally, you wouldn't see goat in it, but goat is very much Texas, and I can always get goat, because it raises so well here. When we first opened, we tried it with rabbit and lamb, but goat just works, man. The flavors and combinations, this is what our region is. Because I can always get goats from my farmers, and this Korean dish is so amazing, and it blends so well together.

That's probably the one dish that's not going anywhere.