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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 Shepherd, whose restaurant more than lives up to this claim in its diverse menu. From Korean-style braised goat and pleasantly chewy dumplings in a fiery red gojuchang chile 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.
"This is the most laid-back 'upscale' restaurant in Houston," remarked a friend 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. 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 as Underbelly does.
Lone Star Brews
The top 10 Texas beers of 2012.
Taking a look back just four years to former Houston Press food critic Robb Walsh's list of Top 10 Texas beers from 2008 shows what a difference a few years make. While Walsh's list holds some very solid selections, like Pale Moon and Live Oak Pilz — as well as one carry-over to this list — the sheer diversity and depth of what is available now highlight the slim pickings on that list. Need further proof? His No. 1 pick, Elissa, isn't even the second-best IPA that Saint Arnold brewed this year.
Honorable Mention: Deep Ellum Darkest Hour
The beer that put Deep Ellum on our radar late last year also happens to share its name with a completely awesome metal band — a band with a Houstonian as a member, no less. We've been waiting for the re-release of this seasonal for ten months. The last batch lasted about a week in Houston and with good reason: It rocks.
10. Saint Arnold Divine Reserve No. 12
This year's Divine Reserve release gets props for a couple of reasons. Much like DR 11 (which has been re-released as Endeavour), Divine Reserve was enjoyable for the casual beer drinker yet complex enough to satisfy the beer nerds. It's also enjoyable fresh — something we simply don't feel DR 9 and DR 10 can claim — as well as being suitable for aging.
9. Austin Beerworks Peacemaker
As we remember it, a handful of ABW's year-round brews could have made this list, but since Austin Beerworks pulled out of Houston, we can't really remember what they taste like. A friend was nice enough to bring back a stash of our favorite, Peacemaker, recently. Drinking the white can was kind of like hooking up with our ex: It turns out she was as awesome as we remember, but the whole experience kind of just stirs up bad memories, so we just stopped halfway through and cried ourselves to sleep.
8. Live Oak Hef
Texas's strong German heritage isn't quite dead yet, especially if Live Oak has something to say about it. This is the old standby. The only carry-over mentioned in Walsh's original article, Live Oak Hef isn't just one of the best beers in Texas, it's arguably one of the best Hefeweizens in the entire country. If you don't like this, you don't like beer.
7. Jester King Le Petit Prince
It seems Jester King may have started to really get a grasp on its wild yeast and souring bacteria flavor profiles. We've seen some great stuff in their last three or four releases. We all know Jester King brews great beer, but things have been a bit uneven the past ten to 12 months, and — if we are being honest — we aren't quite over the death of Black Metal. If Le Petit Prince is any indication, Jester King is headed in a good direction.
6. Lakewood Temptress
This beer shot onto the scene with a bang recently and considering we can't get The Temptress here in Houston just yet, we still hear a lot of buzz about it. Velvety and smooth as silk, it reminds us of our very first Southern Star Buried Hatchet. This one is bound for bottles very soon, so you should see it at bottle shares soon, we imagine. Or just have someone from Dallas ship you some; it's worth it.
5. 512 Pecan Porter
The once and future king of Texas craft beer — first one to explain that reference in the comments wins a cookie. It's rare to find a beer drinker who doesn't enjoy Pecan Porter. If you do come across one, it's more likely they've simply never had it. Famous for offering myriad one-off variants of their beers, 512 produces a bourbon barrel-aged double pecan porter that is not to be missed.
4. Peticolas Velvet Hammer