Chef Chris Shepherd is more than just a restaurant owner (and James Beard award winner) to Houston, Texas. He's also something of an ambassador: Shepherd aims to tell "the story of Houston food" with Underbelly. The restaurant celebrates the diversity of its home with a focus on locally sourced ingredients and whole animal butchery. The menu changes daily, with influences ranging from Vietnamese to Salvadoran to Mexican.
"Houston is unique," says Shepherd. "We have the high-end restaurants and the mom and pop spots. And in the past couple of years the mom and pops, the ethnic joints, have become very focused and very determined to show the public what they can do—they're stepping it up. It shows what this city is all about."
We asked Chef Shepherd to choose a few favorites. If he took you on a tour of the best restaurants in Houston, this is where you'd go.
Killer BBQ: BBQ spots are like fighting words! Gatlin's and Feges. Feges is a pop-up. He used to be one of my cooks and he makes one of the best briskets I've ever had. I look forward to wherever he pops up next. Gatlin's has awesome ribs and sausages.
Burger time: Lankford Grocery is just an awesome burger joint. They're using hand-pounded patties, cooked to order, nothing frozen and it's just a good, fall-apart burgers. I don't need gourmet burgers in my life. I just want something tasty.
Excellent Asian: There are so many good places. Asia Market for Thai—it's an incredibly small Thai restaurant with a grocery store attached. It's some of the most authentic and true food there is in the city, in fact some of the best in country. It's just a couple of Thai ladies in the back cooking. The papaya salad is off the charts, as well as this salted preserved duck egg curry they do for me.
For classic Vietnamese, I'd say Saigon Pagolac Restaurant. They do the 7 courses of beef and it's amazing. The Chao Tom is great too, it's pureed shrimp wrapped around sugar cane and then roasted. The banh xeo is something you don't see very often and it's one of the best in the city. For pho, I'd go to Pho Binh.
For Sichuan, I'd do Mala Sichuan.
Best Mexican: El Hidalguense. It's the purest form of Mexican in the city. It's one of those places that does food from their region, there's spit-roasted goats in the dining room. They have this lamb barbacoa that's insane, everything is very authentic.
Favorite grocery store: I'd go to H Mart. It's a Korean grocery store in one of the better food areas that we have. Everything is delicious.
Caffeine kick: I go to Blacksmith for coffee. They pour one of the best cups of coffees I've had. I'll stop in pretty much every morning for a cortado or a pour-over.
Creative cocktails: Anvil Bar and Refuge has great cocktails and it's right down the street from us. I just walk in and say I want a cocktail and they make him something different and good every time.
Vegetarian: I'd do Indian and go to London Sizzler. The Masala Bindhi is awesome.
Dessert: Honestly I'd have to say Underbelly. I like our pastries, they're homestyle and delicious and that's what I want. [Pastry chef Victoria Dermond] changes it all the time, we do vinegar pie with salt brittle, that's always on the menu. We do a fried pie. Right now it's a blackberry cobbler fried pie. My pastry chef is incredibly talented, it's all about comfort food. She's part of the original crew we hired and I told her she could run her own program and she's a rockstar.