Once again, Kaitlin Steinberg is eating her way through Houston and counting down her 100 favorite dishes as we work our way toward our annual Menu of Menus® issue and culinary extravaganza. She'll compile a collection of the dishes she thinks are the most delicious, most creative and, of course, most indicative of our ever-changing food scene. It's a list of personal favorites, things she thinks any visitor or Houstonian ought to try at least once and dishes that are uniquely Houstonian.
As a food writer, I hear a lot of talk about what people feel are overrated restaurants in Houston. I hear all the griping about places being passé or not as amazing as local and national media make them out to be, opinions that I sometimes feel are based on the hipster if-everyone-thinks-it's-cool-it's-no-longer-cool mentality. The primary Houston restaurant that I feel falls victim to that unfortunate stance is Underbelly.
Possibly due in part to all the national attention it's received, people love to bash on Underbelly, saying it's derivative of small, ethnic restaurants in town (which is kind of the point) and that it's hit or miss. While not every single dish I've ever had at Underbelly has resulted in a life-changing moment of culinary bliss, I must say this: The quintessential Houston restaurant has still got it.
Chef Chris Shepherd, this year's James Beard Award winner for the southwest region, often draws upon local cultural influences to create dishes reflective of Houston's ethnic diversity and melting pot of cuisines. A dish he's long done at Hay Merchant, the beer bar next door to Underbelly, is poutine, a Canadian standard traditionally featuring french fries topped with cheese curds and brown gravy. Shepherd has reinvented the dish on Underbelly's current menu, and it's quite possibly the best iteration of poutine ever. Sorry, Canada.
It's actually named for a poutine dish on the menu at Hog & Hominy, a restaurant in Memphis (there is no hominy in this poutine), where Shepherd's friends Andy Ticer and Michael Hudman are the chefs.
It starts with thick, skin-on, hand-cut fries, crisped until they have a nice crust on the outside and remain soft on the inside. They're lightly salted and would be ideal fries eaten on their own with a little ketchup. But this dish has so much more going on.
The fries are topped with smoky pulled pork with crisped ends interspersed with the juicy meat. Beneath that, a few chewy cheese curds (they don't squeak when you chew them--I checked) and add a creaminess to the poutine. The whole thing is smothered in a thin but flavorful pork bone gravy with not a small amount of chili oil mixed in.
The result is a meaty, spicy concoction that pays homage to Canadian poutine but reconfigures it for a Texan audience. The chili oil gives it a bite, and even half an hour after I ate it, I found my lips tingling just a tad. There's also a sprinkle of sliced green onions on top, adding another dimension to a hearty dish.
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I ordered the plate of fries and pork for lunch recently, and found that even with my healthy appetite I could only finish half of it, as it's so rich and heavy with meat and potatoes. Order a plate to share.
Though, on second thought, once you have a bite, you might not want to.
See the full list of favorites on the next page.
The list so far: No. 74, The Couch Potato Cookie at Fluff Bake Bar No. 75, Fried Chicken Ballotine for Two at Provisions No. 76, Parrillada Platter at Tinto's Grill No. 77, Spaghetti Carbonara at Coppa Osteria No. 78, The Outdoorsman at Pi Pizza Truck No. 79, Campechana de Mariscos at Goode Co. Seafood No. 80, Whole Fried Fish at Churrascos No. 81, Daughter-in-Law Burger at Natachee's Supper 'n Punch No. 82, Chiles en Nogada Tradicionales at Pico's Mex-Mex No. 83, Porkobuco at Brooklyn Athletic Club No. 84, Chai Pie at Pondicheri No. 85, Tacos at Taqueria Maya Quiché No. 86, S'mores at 13 Celsius No. 87, Calamari at Lillo & Ella No. 88, Pulled Pork Nachos at Way Good Food Truck No. 89, Garden Sammie at Local Foods No. 90, Barbecued Salmon Salad at Brooks Family BBQ No. 91, Smoked Salmon Waffle at The Waffle Bus No. 92, Chirashi Lunch at Sushi Miyagi No. 93, Finocchiona Sandwich at Siphon Coffee No. 94, Combo Catracho at Mi Bella Honduras Restaurant No. 95, Tamal de Puerco at Andes Cafe No. 96, Cheeseburger at Sparkle's Hamburger Spot No. 97, Mi Quang at Simply Pho No. 98, Helado de Lúcuma at Pollo Bravo No. 99, Fat Fries at Fat Bao No. 100, Fish Bánh Mì at La Baguette