Throughout our Dining Dispatch series, we’ve taken you behind the scenes for a regional AFWF dinner at Jason Dady’s BIN555 in San Antonio and shown you the gourmet feast of a lunch we co-hosted at Houston’s Provisions. Now, we’re bringing you a special look at our most recent Culinary Food Tour expedition through a few of Chris Shepherd’s favorite lesser-known Houston restaurants. We dubbed the experience one of “international locavorism,” and you can see why…
Chris Shepherd is known for being a phenomenal chef with a food story that incorporates the international flavor of Houston – so when he suggested that we get away from his acclaimed restaurant, Underbelly to embark on a bus tour of some of his favorite ethnic restaurants in H-town, we had one word for him: yes! We gleefully revved the engines and headed east for a culinary reprieve from the madness of SXSW.
I walked into the wine bar at Underbelly to meet the other 20 or so culinary adventurers, sipping on a selection of wines from family-owned wineries. Underbelly is a warm, unfussy joint, where every detail from the art on the walls to the heavy wood tables, to the seemingly endless jars of house-made pickles feels well thought out and personal.
To be honest, it was hard to leave. After a three-hour drive, the awaiting bus seemed far less appealing than Shepherd’s seared Mako shark, or Korean braised lamb and dumplings…but the opportunity to follow this fascinating chef down the rabbit hole of his personal favorites renewed my Ken Kesey-inspired, “you’re either on the bus or you’re off the bus” spirit. And so we set out with Shepherd at the helm, passing cold beers down the line.
“If you don’t have a restaurant you go to that treats you like family, you need to find one.”
This was his directive as he talked us through the three stops that would follow. His love of family seems to be the pinnacle of his food philosophy. At Underbelly, he serves wines sourced exclusively from family-owned wineries and buys his produce from local farmers. He knows all of their stories. “I only buy whole animals,” he said. “Animals that are humanely raised, by people I know. Our animals only have one bad day.”
Stop 1: Asia Market
Som Tum – Thai Papaya Salad
Kee Mao Noodle with Shrimp
Green Curry Chicken
Mango with Sweet Sticky Rice
Our first stop – Asia Market – is in fact just that: a market. The small convenience store could barely seat our whole group, but as we sat under the fluorescent lights staring at aisles of various Asian products, I had the distinct feeling that this was going to be good.
Our host family emerged with a gloriously bright Thai Tea, followed by dish after dish of incredibly tasty, and surprisingly spicy Thai creations. Each item was ordered for us in its mildest incarnation, yet tongues sizzled and sinuses cleared with every nibble of Kee Mao Noodle with Shrimp and Green Curry with Chicken, only to be soothed and sated by a dish called Som Tum – a Thai Papaya salad served over cool, milky rice.
Chris told us that he just kept coming back and asking questions: “How do I make this?” “What’s the spice in that?” Eventually, they took him in.
Stop 2: Saigon Pagolac
Bo La Lot: Beef wrapped with betel leaf
Banh Xeo: Vietnamese crepe
Bo Nuong Vi: Beef marinated in lemongrass
Chao Tom: Charbroiled shrimp wrapped on a sugar cane
Ca Nuong: Grilled whole catfish
Soda Xi Muoi: Salted plum soda
Our second stop, Saigon Pagolac, was a more traditional restaurant, tucked into a strip of other shops. Our table was set for us with a signature drink called Soda Xi Muoi – salted plums with soda water. I took an enthusiastic taste and regretted it instantly. It was a flavor I would only tolerate if it had proven (or let’s face it, rumored by a shaman) to have medicinal effects.
But I digress… plenty of my co-eaters enjoyed the flavor, and said it improved when paired with the five dishes that followed, beginning with Bo Nuong Vi, a lemongrass marinated beef that arrived raw, along with bowls of assorted greens and aromatics, lovely raw veg, rice wraps, and small oval layoutdles to cook the meat. It was in the act of collective cooking, and learning how to properly handle and wet the rice paper, when we all suddenly became neighbors.
Dishes continued to arrive – Ca Nuong – grilled whole catfish that fell off the bone, Chao Tom – charbroiled shrimp wrapped on a sugar cane – a crispy, rubbery, sweet kabob that was nothing short of strange, and ultimately delicious Bo La Lot – beef wrapped in betel leaves, like a paleo dolma, and finally, Banh Xeo, a Vietnamese Crepe made of pan seared rice flour and filled with shrimp, pork and vegetables. Chris told us this dish was served more often at home, and that made sense. It was the dish that tasted like home – like that random Tuesday night when your mom made breakfast for dinner.
We cheered for the owner who handed us each a to-go menu, with all the dishes highlighted. I’m sure my compadres will be going back. But for now, we were all fat and happy and wondering how on earth we were going to tackle the third and final stop: London Sizzler…
This was the stop I was most looking forward to. And no, it isn’t a steak house. It’s an Indian restaurant, but more specifically, a British Indian restaurant whose chef is half Indian, half African and from England.
I’m no food writer. I don’t even have the vocabulary to describe the dimension of flavor in the nineteen plates that proceeded to arrive, including five types of Naan, chutneys, lamb and chicken kebabs, samosa, vividly pink jeera wings, goat curry cooked on the bone, Masala Bhindi, a spicy stir-fried okra that we collectively moaned about.
It was the meal that won the night, that had us talking about nothing but food, each of our faces falling into our particular, “to die for” expression. When our tremendously attentive waiter asked if anyone wanted a to-go box, most of the hands at our table darted into the air, and those that won them joyously loaded up.
On the way back to Underbelly, everyone on the bus was laughing and chatting and digging for new adjectives to describe varying levels of “stuffed.” My mind was spinning with inspiration – first, fantasizing about having this adventure with some of our Austin family of chefs and then, daydreaming about exploring on my own, and revisiting old favorites like Casa Colombia on East 7th Street, before chasing down a table at the latest notable restaurant in town.
After all, food is about more than just what’s new. It can be fascinating and innovative. It can make for beautiful photographs and fill the pages of dozens of magazines on a monthly basis. But at its essence, it is the centerpiece of culture and community.
Chris Shepherd proves you can have it all. He invents thrilling palates, gets featured in those aforementioned magazines and still stays connected to every person and every family in his food chain. He tells the story of Houston – the adopted city where his own story continues to unfold.
“I can’t wait to see his next chapter at the Austin Food & Wine Festival!”