Since opening in 2012, Chris Shepherd's Underbelly, in Houston's Montrose neighborhood, has garnered heaps of praise as one of the most intriguing culinary destinations in America's newest and most dynamic food city.
We checked out the place on a summer Friday afternoon, taking a seat at the long community table among a crowd of regulars. Quite quickly, we got a taste of what the fuss is about. Shepherd draws from the port city's rich sea and land resources and large immigrant populations in his quest to redefine Southern cooking. His cuisine combines regional specificity and wide-ranging excitement in a pretty spectacular way. "We call it New American Creole," he says. "There are all these pockets of diversity in Houston: Koreatown, Little Saigon, Little India. We're trying to show everybody else the culture of Houston through our food."
And that food is purposefully local. "Everything comes from within 150 miles of here. We only use whole animals, raised by friends, so we can control the quality and consistency of what we bring in. This goes for our produce, too," Shepherd says. The back-of-house butcher shop is "the heartbeat of the restaurant," where everything is broken down. Diners can also take home jars of pickled vegetables from the produce that comes in daily: "If we don't use it, we pickle it. We find a way to use everything," he says.
Underbelly signatures include the ingenious Korean braised goat and dumplings, seared Gulf white shrimp and pimento cheese grits, and a tart vinegar pie with salt brittle, a relic of the days when lemons weren't available year-round.
But we noticed that almost every other plate coming out of the open kitchen had something described on the menu as Pulled Chicken, Cabbage, Carrot, Nuoc Mam. Curious, we got the chef to give us his recipe. "The only thing non-traditional is the fish sauce, but it's easy enough to find," Shepherd said – more within reach than, for example, the goat from Katy, Texas, in Underbelly's goat and dumplings. When he's not cooking at Underbelly, Shepherd leads Houston's "Where the Chefs Eat" Culinary Tours.
Here, he brings his sources and inspirations home in a Vietnamese-style chicken salad, an addictively flavorful Gulf Coast reboot of the tame picnic classic.
Chris Shepherd's Pulled Chicken, Cabbage, Carrot, Nuoc Mam (Serves 2)
• 10 oz. roasted and pulled chicken
• 1 medium head of cabbage, sliced thinly
• 1 carrot, julienned 1 small red onion, julienned
• Fresh mint, cilantro, and basil, torn
• 4 oz Nuoc Mam Cham (see below)
• 1 oz olive oil
In a large bowl, combine all ingredients together and toss. Let the salad sit for a few minutes to combine the flavors. Serve chilled.
Nuoc Mam Cham (Ingredients)
• 1 cup water
• 4 tbsp rice vinegar
• 4 tbsp sugar
• 5 tbsp Red Boat fish sauce
• 1 tbsp chopped garlic
• 2 tbsp sambal red chili paste
Bring water, vinegar, and sugar to a simmer. Let cool. Add the remaining ingredients and refrigerate.