My first experience at a Houston restaurant was at a place called Vieng Thai — it was also the first time I’d been told “no” at a restaurant.
Most chefs travel the world and stage in kitchens in Paris, Tokyo, and Rome… I had all those influences in my own backyard.
I tried to order Yum Nham (spicy salad with sour pork sausage, ginger and peanut). That was my first realization that there were menu items for Americans and menu items for people native to the culture. I made it my mission to learn the difference.
Luckily, I was living in Houston, a city recently ranked as the most ethnically diverse city in the country (from a study by Rice University). I traveled around the city trying dishes – not dishes that you’d find at every restaurant (Pad Thai, for example) – but dishes that were true to the culture. I ate spit-roasted goat at El Hidalguense (Mexican, specifically from Hidalgo), live octopus at Dadami (Korean), Banh Cuan at Thien Thanh (Vietnamese) and Masala Bhindi at London Sizzler (Indian). Sinh Sinh, a restaurant in Chinatown, even has two menus – one for Americans and one for everyone else. So I asked for the “other” menu.
CRAWFISH & NOODLES
CRAWFISH & NOODLES
Cua Rang Muoi (Fresh Blue Crab Stir-Fry)
Ca Nuong (Whole Roasted Fish)
Combo #5 (Rice cakes, Tapioca cakes, Rice flour tamale, Crisp mochi)
Chef Chris Shepherd, along with other popular Houston chefs, hosts a series of culinary tours called “Where the Chefs Eat.” The tours focus on giving locals and tourists a taste of the restaurants that inspired their menus. This photo gallery takes you to some of the stops on Chris’s tour.
It was this exploration that inspired me to open a restaurant like Underbelly. Cooking was something I had always done since I was a child – my parents would let me cook dinner once a week – and when I realized I’m not a 9-to-5 person, I enrolled in culinary school. Seeking great ingredients from local farmers was just an innate approach for me, but it wasn’t until these explorations that I really began to mold the cultural diversity of the city into my ethos. Most chefs travel the world and stage in kitchens in Paris, Tokyo, Rome for this. I had all those influences in my own backyard, and instead staged in kitchens in Houston.
Language isn’t a barrier for knowledge, since food is a universal language.
I spent four days learning about Thai food from the cooks at the 20-seat Asia Market in The Heights, for example, and every time I visit HK Dim Sum, I go into the kitchen and learn something new.
Language isn’t a barrier for knowledge (I want to spend some time learning from the chefs at Mala Sichuan, who don’t speak English), since food is a universal language.
I attribute a lot of my success to this diverse foundation, and in return I hope a meal at Underbelly serves as a jumping-off point to explore everything else we have in our city. That’s why I give guests a list of places I think they should visit when they recieve their bill. I believe if they visit at least one place on that list before they come back to Underbelly they will not only understand my food better, but will also expand their own culinary horizons.
Photography: Bao Troung
On the Tour
Other Spots to See
Owner & Executive Chef at Underbelly
Chris Shepherd is the recipient of the James Beard Foundation’s Best Chef Southwest Award in 2014. Known for his affable personality, Chris so enjoys interacting with people that he’s made a point of lowering the counters at the kitchen line and adding a community table, making it easier for him to interact with guests at his iconic restaurant, Underbelly.
Enjoy the rest of our walkable Houston city guide that lets you easily ditch your car and explore three neighborhoods by foot or bike.
Museum District / Montrose
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