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Underbelly: The Taste of Home

Chef Chris Shepherd incorporates Houston's disparate cuisines into one wonderful menu.

It's one of our biggest cafe slideshows this year, but Underbelly's gorgeous dining room, inviting wine bar and vibrant kitchen merit all the photo coverage. Take a look.

At the top of Underbelly's simple, one-page menu is a bold statement: "Houston is the new American Creole city of the South," one that residents of New Orleans — long the country's main Creole metropolis — would certainly challenge to the death. But bold has long been the modus operandi of larger-than-life chef Chris Shepherd, whose new restaurant more than lives up to this claim in its diverse menu that's short and sweet yet wide-ranging in its array of cuisines: from Korean-style braised goat and pleasantly chewy dumplings in a fiery red gojuchang chili sauce to a German schnitzel with its always-present partner, red cabbage, the constantly-changing dishes on Underbelly's menu aim to tell the "story of Houston food" one influence and ingredient at a time.

That's why you'll see a Vietnamese-inspired pulled chicken salad with cabbage, carrots and nuoc mam next to a dollar store hybrid dish of "lamburger helper" complete with cavatappi noodles and a sharp bechamel sauce that calls to mind the flavor of Cheeseburger Helper, if the boxed dinner were made with local cheese and topped with fresh heirloom tomatoes.

The chef's signature Juicy Lucy burger is back.
Troy Fields
The chef's signature Juicy Lucy burger is back.

Location Info

Map

Underbelly

1100 Westheimer Road
Houston, TX 77006

Category: Restaurant > New American

Region: Montrose

Details

Hours: 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. and 5 to 10 p.m. Mondays through Thursdays, 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. and 5 to 11 p.m. Fridays, 5 to 11 p.m. Saturdays.
Grilled cheese and gazpacho: $12
Akaushi pot roast: $18
Shrimp and grits: $15
Korean goat and dumplings: $12
Red snapper: $27
Milk bar: $8
READ MORE
SLIDESHOW: Peek Inside Underbelly
BLOG POST: Underbelly's Underpriced Wine List Gives Us More Reasons to Love It

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One night, it's a Middle Eastern-inspired dish of red snapper over steel-cut oats swimming in yogurt, olive oil and dill. The next day, it's a slow-braised cut of Akaushi beef that falls gently apart over buttery potatoes, reminding me of my East Texas grandmother's similarly savory pot roast (if she'd had access to the Texas version of Kobe beef, that is). And creamy, Indian-spiced milk bars served with toasted rice-flavored Cloud 10 ice cream (locally made ice cream that Shepherd purchases from Kata Robata's pastry chef, Chris Leung) take their place on the dessert menu next to Mexican-inspired cantaloupe licuado-style smoothies served with homemade granola.

But what's most striking about Shepherd's menu is that for its bold claim and mission, the flavors contained in each of the dishes are pared down and stunningly simple. Rarely do they overreach and, so, rarely do they miss the mark. It's a refreshing kind of refusal to gild the lily — and one that matches the pared-down dining room, the straightforward wine and beer list with its barely marked-up selections and the overall feel of what is one of the most comfortable restaurants in the city.

"This is the most laid-back 'upscale' restaurant in Houston," remarked my dining companion one day over a lunch of grilled cheese sandwiches stuffed full of Redneck Cheddar, chilled tomato gazpacho with cool wisps of crunchy cucumber and charred Gulf shrimp over creamy grits saturated with homemade pimento cheese, that most Southern of sandwich fillings. He's right. And perhaps — although he is correct — it's wrong to call Underbelly "upscale." The prices certainly don't reflect the word. But maybe that's for the best — Houston isn't an upscale city. It's down-home, it's relaxed and it takes all comers with wide-open arms, just like Underbelly does.
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When Shepherd first left his name-making post as executive chef at Catalan and endeavored to open Underbelly, he began staging in restaurants across the city. But unlike chefs who stage at high-end restaurants in upscale restaurants, Shepherd instead worked at places like Thanh Phuong — a family-run Vietnamese hole-in-the-wall in Pear­land which specializes in game meats — and Vieng Thai, long held up as Houston's best — if most eccentric — Thai restaurant, in a shoddy strip mall along Long Point.

And between stages, Shepherd worked on plans for Underbelly that included a full-scale butcher shop in the kitchen to carry over his own strong suit as a master carver of meat and jack of all animal parts. He committed to purchasing whole animals from area ranchers, and began feeding them special diets meant to turn their flesh into something unique, such as feeding sake dregs from a Texas sake producer to the lambs destined for the butcher's table. He began buying not only fresh-caught Gulf fish but the by-catch — excellent but extraneous fish and tiny, soft-shelled shrimp that would otherwise be thrown away after being hauled up in a fisherman's net — championed by local seafood paragons like P.J. Stoops.

Shepherd not only let the city's influences wash over him like a baptismal font, he also absorbed the hard-won knowledge and forward-thinking ideas of his peers and colleagues. He assembled a dream team to work both the front and the back of the house: sous chefs Ryan Lachaine and Lyle Bento, butcher Peter Jahnke (who is about to move to San Francisco, but who has made a significant impact in his time there), sommelier Matthew Pridgen, and bartenders like Chris Frankel, who has contributed smashingly fun wine cocktails to the menu in his days off from Anvil Bar & Refuge down the street.

It became clear that he was determined to bring something entirely different to the table at his restaurant when it finally opened — so clear that the buzz for Underbelly was reaching a deafening roar before it ever welcomed its first visitor. Time recommended eating at the "meat-driven new restaurant" ahead of the impending 2012 apocalypse, noting: "No worries about clogging your arteries on your last day on earth." On Underbelly's own website, the bio for Shepherd presumptuously designated him as "the iconic Houston chef." Could Underbelly possibly live up to all of the hype, both from within and without?

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10 comments
chaz
chaz

Underbelly was a huge disappointment for us, definitely not good for a big group, specially if you are hungry. The prices certainly don't reflect the word "upscale"?? huhhh....I mean, 70usd for a 'family style' serving of venison which comes in a regular size plate and rather small size meat serving, a serving that would barely fill up a normal (not quite hungry yet) human being..looks like underbelly's family servings work very well for a family...of one. And 15usd for a astonishing plate of coppa featuring 5 (yes, a whole 5) thin slices of cured meat? I don't think so mr shepherd, not for us anyway.

FattyFatBastard
FattyFatBastard

I went to Underbelly with 2 friends to try the lamburger helper. We all agreed it tasted a whole lot like hamburger helper. Unfortunately for us, that wasn't a good thing.

BP
BP

Underbelly was a poor experience for me. Seafood was subpar (later learned it was due to Tropical Storm Debby, only after ordering, and only after remarking to a waitress), Pork was overcooked 50s style, the sommelier/ general manager acted like he couldn't care less, and menu didn't reflect what we ordered. Disappointed all around. Highlights were reasonable wine prices, and korean dumplings. I get that its a seasonal, different menu every day kind of place, and that would be enjoyable if the menu actually reflected what they had. Bread with a berry butter shouldn't come with an herb replacement. If you don't have it, tell me, and then I'll make a decision accordingly. Everything just felt rushed, from the service we received to the quality of the food.

Sampsondelilah
Sampsondelilah

Wonderful rev on wonderful rest. I really love Shep's sensibility of being open-minded about all sorts of cuisine and learning from it. Actually doing it. There is the dreaded fusion thing going on, but it's not a marketing centerpiece, just his appetite for flavors that are all over the place and good.

JP
JP

Dammit!!! That should say Pridgen, not Pringle....my bad.

JP
JP

Very good review, for a very good restaurant. My wife and I were big fans of Catalan, and unfortunately, had Catalan expectations with regards to the food at Underbelly. We were pleasantly surprised with the difference, and look forward to our next visits. I feel an extra special note needs to be made for Mr. Pringle, who has introduced/paired some of the best wines that my wife and I have enjoyed. He's in his element, and damn good at what he does. Very lucky to have Chris, Pringle, and the rest of the crew local to us....we'll be first in line when the "LEG" is ready...

Patrick Pringle
Patrick Pringle

That Korean goat dumpling dish is so damn good. I've been told by the staff, if it ever comes off the menu, the fully expect a diner's revolt.

Kelli
Kelli

Man I can't wait to eat here!!!! Loved him at Catalan, love Hay Merchant and I imagine this will easily become my favorite restaurant!

 
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