This year leading up to our annual Best of Houston® issue, we're counting down our 100 favorite dishes in Houston. This list comprises 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.
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 (another John T. Edge-coined term I'm far more comfortable with than "New American Creole") 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.
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.
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The list so far:
No. 100: Chili cheese mac at Jus' Mac No. 99: Texas turkey sandwich at Spec's No. 98: Custard at Petite Sweets No. 97: Caprichos mixtos at Taqueria Monterrey Chiquito No. 96: Pineapple-wasabi burger at Lankford Grocery No. 95: Farmer's MKT Pizza at Phoenicia's MKT Bar No. 94: Potatoes at Money Cat Brunch No. 93: Breakfast tacos at Sunrise Taquito No. 92: Hot dog at Tacos D.F. No. 91: Avocado gelato at Frozen Cafe No. 90: Chicken sandwich at JerryBuilt Homegrown Burgers No. 89: Beer-battered asparagus at Hearsay No. 88: Honey Badger omelet at Kraftsmen Cafe No. 87: Pastelitos de carne at El Jalapeño No. 86: Pancakes at Union Kitchen No. 85: Wild boar and crab pizza at Boheme No. 84: Breakfast croissant at BB Donuts No. 83: Pretzel at Anvil Bar & Refuge No. 82: Short rib sandwich at Shepherd Park Draught House No. 81: Grilled shrimp po-boy at Pappadeaux No. 80: Dahi puri at Shiv Sagar No. 79: Aporreado at Los Corrales No. 78: Oxtail francobolli at Aldo's Cucina Italiana No. 77: Tonkotsu at Cafe Kubo's No. 76: Spinach danish from Angela's Oven No. 75: Pupusas at El Petate No. 74: Pheasant dog at Sammy's Wild Game Grill No. 73: X-Tudo burger at Friends Pizzeria No. 72: Esparragos gratinados at Tintos No. 71: Gua bao at Yummy Kitchen No. 70: Geisha dog at Happy Endings No. 69: Oyster po-boy and gumbo at Goode Co. Seafood No. 68: Ceviche at Sirena Seafood No. 67: Caldo de mariscos at Taqueria Arandas No. 66: Banana pudding at Pizzitola's No. 65: Fried catfish and gumbo at Cafe-A-La No. 64: Soft-shell crabs at Banana Leaf No. 63: Macaroni and cheese at Vic & Anthony's Steakhouse No. 62: Torta burger at El Gran Malo No. 61: Black bean burger at Ziggy's No. 60: Parillada at Pampa Grill No. 59: Peanut butter and jalapeño jelly burger at Wicked Whisk No. 58: Eggplant involtini at Giacomo's Cibo e Vino No. 57: Lone Star dog at James Coney Island No. 56: Sushi at Sushi Miyagi No. 55: Palestinian chicken at Al Aseel No. 54: Roast beef sandwich at Local Foods No. 53: Mexico City plate at Molina's Cantina No. 52: Tacos at Brothers Taco House No. 51: Branzino at Lucio's BYOB No. 50: Beef sweetbreads at Feast No. 49: Golden Doomba Special at the Rice Box Truck No. 48: Malted waffle at City Cafe No. 47: Banh mi bo kho at Cafe TH No. 46: Chicken fried steak at Triple A No. 45: Larissa plate at Harry's No. 44: Spaghetti carbonara at Coppa Ristorante Italiano No. 43: Wings and grits at The Breakfast Klub No. 42: Frito pie at C&D Burger Shoppe No. 41: Pollo con mole at El Gallo de Jalisco No. 40: Fried avocado taco at H-Town StrEATs No. 39: Rigatoni in bolognese sauce at Paulie's No. 38: Chorizo kolaches at Peña's Donut Heaven No. 37: Sashimi at Dadami No. 36: Half-pound burger at benjy's No. 35: Fried chicken at Haven No. 34: Whole-fried speckled trout at Liberty Kitchen No. 33: Moules congolaise at Jeannine's Bistro No. 32: Pancakes at Fountain View Cafe No. 31: Pineapple with chile en polvo at Canino's No. 30: Fried chicken at Barbecue Inn No. 29: Dirty Burque at Green Seed Vegan No. 28: Egusi at Finger Licking Bukateria No. 27: Brisket and turkey at CorkScrew BBQ No. 26: Menudo at La Mexicana No. 25: Shrimp and grits at Shade No. 24: Kinilaw at Reef No. 23: Lamb at El Hidalguense No. 22: Gumbo at Danton's No. 21: Chicken-fried water buffalo at The Hay Merchant No. 20: Roasted cauliflower at Roost No. 19: Truffled egg toast at Dolce Vita No. 18: 63-degree egg at Brasserie 19 No. 17: Drunken foie gras at Philippe No. 16: Beet salad at Triniti No. 15: Yogi thali at Pondicheri No. 14: Bialy and lox at The Hot Bagel Shop No. 13: Ribs at Gatlin's No. 12: Venison carpaccio at Thanh Phuong No. 11: Camarones henesy en hamaca at Arturo Boada Cuisine No. 10: Prosciutto and arugula pizza at Pizaro's Pizza Napoletana No. 9: Crawfish at The Hideaway on Dunvale No. 8: Pho at Pho Binh No. 7: Ceviche at La Fisheria No. 6: Ma po tofu at Mala Sichuan No. 5: Machi cure at Uchi No. 4: Tuna and bottarga at Tony's No. 3: Roast summer squash at Oxheart No. 2: Amberjack sashimi and foie gras at Kata Robata