100 Favorite Dishes 2012

No. 1, Korean Braised Goat and Dumplings at Underbelly.

100 Favorite Dishes

This year leading up to our annual Best of Houston® issue, which came out last week, we counted down our 100 favorite dishes in Houston. This list comprised our favorite dishes from the last year, dishes that are essential to Houston's cultural landscape and/or dishes that any visitor (or resident) should try at least once. Here's our No. 1 pick.

I don't think it's any secret that Underbelly is my favorite restaurant in Houston at the moment. I'm completely in love with the highly unique "Mutt City" cuisine that chef Chris Shepherd and his talented team are creating and re-creating every day, and equally in love with the overall accessibility of it all.(I'm far more comfortable with the John T. Edge-coined term "Mutt City" than "New American Creole.")

The dish has Southern, Korean and Mexican influences.
Katharine Shilcutt
The dish has Southern, Korean and Mexican influences.
Chicken pot pie
Photo by jeffreyw
Chicken pot pie

Underbelly is not a fancy restaurant. You don't have to wear a tie and jacket and you don't have to spend an entire paycheck to eat well. You can drop in nearly any time of day or night — the bar, which serves only beer and wine, is open until 2 a.m. every day of the week except Sunday and serves an assortment of the restaurant's most popular dishes — and you can always feel at home in the big, open dining room that showcases the equally wide-open kitchen. There's a sense of comfort and community here that is unexpected in such a hyped-up, over-talked restaurant, but — while it's easy to see where all the well-deserved hype comes from — I've never quite gotten the feeling that any of this has gone to Shepherd's (or anyone else's) head.

Instead, Shepherd is content to keep turning out dishes that are reflective of his personality and of Houston itself: boisterous, warm, welcoming and highly diverse. Just as Houston takes all comers, so does Shepherd embrace all of our "native" cuisines in his cooking — Vietnamese to Middle Eastern, Mexican to Korean, German to Thai. And his Korean braised goat and dumplings is, to me, the dish that's most reflective of this open-arms attitude.

Is it a spicy Korean twist on old-fashioned, Southern-style chicken and dumplings? Sort of. Is it a nod to the tender cabrito found in old-school Mexican joints like El Hidalguense? Sort of. Is it a spin on the ruddy, sesame-studded Korean goat stew found at places like Bon Ga? Sort of. Is it all of these and more? Yes — and that's the point.

But even if you don't care about the backgrounds and influences that went into creating the braised goat and dumplings (and you shouldn't have to in order to enjoy a dish), you'll care about the tingle that sparks across your lips and tongue like Black Cats as you take your first few bites of the shredded goat in deep red gojuchang sauce. Once that tingling sensation settles down into a low hum, you'll start noticing the rich, dusky flavor of the goat and the sweet, nutty pops of sesame seeds that are scattered across the top of the dish.

And when you get to the "dumplings," prepare for something that's quite unlike traditional Korean mandu and more like thick, tube-shaped gnocchi that's been pan-fried until slightly crisp at the ends. Get through that initial crunch and the dumplings have a complex texture that's both enjoyably chewy and slightly tough. Complex and thought-provoking textures are as appreciated in Asian cuisines as the flavor of the food itself, and to see this so well translated into an American dish makes me grin every time I eat it — just as I can't stop smiling over every dish at Underbelly, a restaurant which has captured the Houston culinary zeitgest of the moment in the most charming and disarming of ways.

Season's Eating

Bring on the Cool Weather
Five fall foods we're looking forward to the most.

It's fall, you guys. We made it. In the words of noted pot roast and red cabbage fan Gerald R. Ford, our long national nightmare is over. At least until April.

Granted, the autumnal equinox only just took place this past Saturday. And it's still pretty damn hot outside. But the cooler air has been sneaking into town in the mornings for the last week or so, tempting us all with a hopeful taste of the lower temperatures we didn't get to fully embrace last year.

And with those brisk, stirring breezes come visions of the fall foods that simply aren't as enjoyable during Houston's almost eternal summer: pecan pies, pumpkin pies, Starbucks lattes flavored like pumpkin pies (shut up), buf bourguignon, bun bo hue, pozole, coq au vin, roasted butternut squash, roasted acorn squash, roasted apples (try them; trust me) and so much more.

Besides the bounty of cool weather produce that will start showing up in farmers' markets — spinach, kale, beets, cauliflower, broccoli, pumpkin and more — these are the dishes we're looking forward to eating the most once the temperatures finally drop.

5. Pot roast

Like former president Ford, I love a good pot roast. I love coming home to one even more — the scent of slowly braised beef, roasted potatoes and sweet carrots hitting you with a welcoming thickness the moment you open the front door — so thank God for Crock-Pots. If you want to cook your pot roast in the oven the old-fashioned way, all the better in cold weather, too: There's nothing quite so icky as heating up the house with a full-tilt oven in the summer.

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