Julie Soefer
Chris Shepherd leans across a wall of woodcuts at his restaurant Underbelly.
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Friends and Families

Nikki Metzgar / January 2013

As big as Texas, as big as the world. That’s Houston. Especially now, since its character—and foodscape—is being shaped more and more by a growing influx of Asian immigrants. And that’s why Chris Shepherd of Underbelly has insinuated himself into the lives and work of a handful of Asian restaurateurs and chefs. To learn. To grow. Just like Houston.

Seated in the stockroom of the London Sizzler, Mama is shelling runner beans piled in her apron. A mug of milk tea cools by her side as she laments to her attending family that if only someone in the kitchen could read her mind, then maybe she could retire. Chris Shepherd, chef/owner of Underbelly, one of Houston’s critically acclaimed marquee restaurants, offers to find her a guy who will sell the beans preshelled. While Mama is actually related to several of those who work alongside her, Shepherd simply calls the matriarch, Surekha Patel, “mama” out of affection.

Mama, her husband, Naresh, and her son Ajay (the great mind behind the sizzling brownie platter, but more on that later) make up Shepherd’s adoptive Indian family. A warm and demonstrative Oklahoma transplant, Shepherd grew close to several restaurant families while immersing himself in the immigrant food cultures that define Houston, which he now pays tribute to through his own food.

Of the Patels, Shepherd says they’re the people who would take him in if he were ever in trouble, “and that’s family.” In the meantime, they talk about food.

The London Sizzler is modeled after a British curry house, with all its attendant cultural influences and culinary evolutions. Seated at the bar on Diwali weekend, the Hindu festival of lights, with soccer playing on televisions overhead, Ajay explains how the restaurant’s special mogo is made. Mogo, or cassava, a dietary staple in much of Africa, is stir-fried with garlic, cumin, and green chiles before being doused with Manchurian sauce, crushed chiles, and cilantro. Starchy like potatoes, they’re about as addictive as French fries but with way better sauce. Mogo is their signature dish, although Shepherd would make an argument for the sizzling platter of skinless Jeera chicken wings, marinated in garlic and cooked in a tandoor. They’re the best wings in the city, of that Shepherd is sure. The Patels still cook with an old-fashioned charcoal tandoor in an age in which many restaurants have switched to gas.

To make the naan, a cook scoops a handful of yeasted dough onto his work surface and slaps it onto the inner wall of the tandoor with a cloth pillow, where it sticks as it bubbles and chars. The popular garlic bullet naan is dabbed with melted ghee and sprinkled with green chiles and garlic, but it’s the peshwari naan, dusted with ground pistachios and sugar, that reigns supreme, its sweetness intended to cut the heat of curries rather than be offered for dessert.

“We go through a lot of charcoal,” Ajay archly notes.

Elsewhere in the kitchen, a cook hand-pours the batter for jalebis, the bright yellow Indian equivalent of funnel cake, and another presses the crunchy snack sticks known as tikha gathiya into sizzling oil. Shepherd is prodding dough with his fingers, trying to divine its composition and asking questions about unfamiliar foods. Most chefs stage at high-end restaurants; he’s learning in the immigrant family-run spots in Houston’s far-flung strip malls.

Back at the table, more and more food arrives, including fish, potato, and lamb samosas, goat biryani studded with bone marrow, and masala bhindi, stir-fried okra coated in spices. It would be impossible for anyone to eat it all, but breaking bread with family is ideally characterized by generosity, and so the plates keep coming until the dazzling final moment: the presentation of a sizzling cast-iron comal laid with three Little Debbie brand fudge brownies crowned with three scoops of vanilla ice cream and bubbling Hershey’s chocolate syrup. Puffs of caramel scented smoke envelop the plate. “Stupid, huh?” proclaims Shepherd, digging in. “It’s so stupid, it’s genius.”

Ajay has been to Underbelly a handful of times. His mother hasn’t visited at all, because it’s a bit of a drive and out of her comfort zone. There are about 11 miles between the London Sizzler in Houston’s Little India neighborhood and the Lower Westheimer strip, where Underbelly and several of the city’s nationally recognized dining establishments dwell. Because the city is so geographically fragmented, it’s easy for residents of either neighborhood—chefs included—to go a lifetime without exposure to the other, and that’s the exact thing that Shepherd wants to eliminate from his platform as a chef.

Between the ingredients used and the influences drawn upon, no dish served at Underbelly could have been conceived in any other city. The audaciously sized cuts of meat Shepherd has become known for throughout the years capture the cowboy swagger that’s general to Texas, but the Wagyu beef itself is specifically raised outside of Houston in Wallis and fed spent beer grain from the local Saint Arnold Brewing Company during their final three months before slaughter. On a recent night in the restaurant, Gulf Coast bycatch—formerly undesirable vermilion snapper, triggerfish, and parrotfish, among others—was dusted with flour before a turn in the fryer and plated on a bed of masala-spiced vegetables. The kitchen also uses bycatch to make fish sauce in-house, which is then employed on caramelized pole beans and the slaw that comes with the fried oysters and kimchi butter.

Shepherd takes the sesame seeds provided to him by the Utility Research Garden in Austin to another of his Houston “families” at the Korean store Kong Ju to toast and press into oil. A farmer introduced Shepherd to a special kind of settler’s pepper, and heirloom breed whole pigs are delivered to Underbelly from Revival Meats before parts of them are left to hang in the restaurant’s temperature-controlled curing room or served in a take on bibimbap. In Shepherd’s hands, Southern mediums such as chicken and dumplings are married with Korean red chile paste, with goat replacing the fowl.

It’s this interplay of ethnic cuisines that motivates Shepherd, although, looking at his menu, you might wonder where the Mexican, El Salvadoran, or Lebanese (just a few more food cultures clearly identifiable in the Houston scene) presences are. “We had pupusas for a while, but we want to hit people,” says Shepherd. “I gravitate toward Korean because people haven’t screwed it up yet like California did Japanese. There’s no need to ever eat a wasabi potato cake.”

Mention Houston to outsiders, and all the long-held assumptions about Texas come to mind: horse riding, guns, barbecue, Tex-Mex, and Big Oil. And while it’s true that rifles and ribs do maintain their hold on the public’s imagination, that image hasn’t kept up with the city’s changing demographics—a condition Shepherd is trying to expose both to the outside world and Houston itself.

The Asian population in Houston (including suburbs to the north and south) increased eightfold between the 1980 and 2010 censuses, more than any other group. (Meanwhile, Hispanics make up 35.3 percent of the population, non-Hispanic whites 39.7 percent, and non-Hispanic blacks 17.3 percent.) The five largest populations within the Asian subset are Asian-Indian, Chinese, Filipino, Pakistani, and Vietnamese, with the latter comprising the largest Asian group in Houston at 110,000 strong, according to the 2010 census. If one element of Asian food culture has successfully entered the mainstream, it’s arguably Vietnamese bánh mì, sold out of food trucks and storefronts for around $3 in disparate neighborhoods across town.

Imprints of the Asian community are everywhere, from the Korean enclave in Spring Branch to the now-empty storefronts 13 miles away in what was once a Vietnamese neighborhood east of downtown that still bears decaying signage. Now, it’s a strip of Milam Street in Midtown that’s scattered with pho shops and supplemented with Vietnamese street signs. Yet the most notable concentrations of Asians now center in neighborhoods in southwest Houston and, more recently, the suburbs some 25 minutes away from the city center, in Sugar Land and Missouri City.

Dr. Edward Chen, a local civic leader and author of The History of the Chinese in Houston, says that until the late 1930s, there were fewer than 50 Chinese in the city. The On Leong Chinese Merchants’ Association established Chinatown in its current location in the early 1950s, and it’s there that the community has flourished. Estimated by the Houston Convention & Visitors Bureau to be about six square miles, it would be more accurately described as “Asiatown,” due to the mix of Thai, Malaysian, Vietnamese, Korean, Chinese, and Japanese restaurants, bars, and shops that fan out from the main drag along Bellaire Boulevard. Here, you can purchase a 30-minute foot rub at Awesome Massage, make a deposit with a multilingual teller at one of the Asian-oriented banks, and then snack on anything from Hong Kong–style French toast to Vietnamese pâté before picking up miniature single-task kitchen utensils from the Japanese novelty store. There is a McDonald’s and the usual gas stations, but, other than that, it would be difficult to name an American-style business within the vicinity.

The South Asian population has staked out a similarly insulated district along Hillcroft Street, only three miles away from Chinatown, that’s dense with Desi businesses. In January 2010, official signs designating the area as the Mahatma Gandhi District were installed along the roads there, according to the Houston Chronicle, after petitioning from the India Culture Center. Community members say it bolstered civic pride and brought attention to the area that drew in customers not only from outside the neighborhood, but also the state, who were looking for a place they could finally find chickpea flour and shalwars. In addition to the sari shops, grocery stores, and bakeries selling coconut gulab jamun and chicken tikka–stuffed croissants, the community sustains Voice of Asia, a South Asian English language weekly; the India Herald; and Masala Radio. Farther south in the suburb of Stafford, the BAPS Shri Swaminarayan Mandir was the first traditional Hindu temple of stone and marble in the United States when it was inaugurated in 2007. It takes up 25,620 square feet.

“The only reason anybody comes to the United States is for economic opportunity,” Dr. Dudley Poston, a sociologist at Texas A&M University, told the Houston Chronicle. In that regard, the economic enticements for anyone to move to the city are numerous: Texas has a significantly lower unemployment rate than much of the country, housing costs in Houston are 21 percent lower than the national average, and the lack of zoning laws means you can start a business practically anywhere. Once here, the already established ethnic communities provide immigrants with reminders of home and an immediate network of people with similar backgrounds.

Although Houston’s Asian population has built distinct and self-sustaining communities, it isn’t true that the city is actually more segregated than the national average. The distinction is that in New York City, for example, even though various ethnic groups generally live among themselves, the shorter distances between groups and different modes of transportation (such as walking or taking the bus or subway over the constant freeway driving in Houston) make exposure between ethnic and racial groups more likely.

Usually busy working in his restaurant along Hillcroft, Ajay Patel himself had never heard of pho until a few months ago, and he credits Shepherd for exposing him to new types of food. “He’s the one who actually got me to start eating steaks medium-rare. And foie gras, which I didn’t even know,” Ajay says. “And pork belly, which I probably never would have eaten. Now I like it a lot.”

You can’t really get away with eating with Shepherd without learning a few things while you’re at it. The menu at Underbelly begins with a few paragraphs of introduction titled “Houston is the new American Creole city of the South.” There, Shepherd explains his intentions. “Creole cuisine is simply the merging of diverse cultures with local ingredients…. It’s not just about remarkable food—it’s a story taking shape right before us that will continue to define this restaurant and those that call this city home.”

If the chef can come across as a little didactic, well, he might not really care. “You should learn everything about your own city,” says Shepherd. “You can’t represent your own city if you don’t understand it.”

But in this case, representing the community also means uniting one.

Not all the people Shepherd now calls “family” were so accepting of him initially. At Asia Market, a grocery store with a sliver of space cut out for a Thai restaurant, the handful of women running the four burners and single fryer in the back regarded the chef’s request to learn from them with suspicion. So, he started at the bottom, peeling papayas and bagging fruits and vegetables for days and bringing in breakfast for the cooks until they came to accept him. Now, when Shepherd enters the store, servers practically leap up to hug him, greeting him with, “Hey, boss!” When he picks up a bag of gray ant eggs out of curiosity, owner Narumol Allen says, “When you’re ready, we can cook it for you.”

None of the items on the actual menu are as inaccessible as that, although the preserved duck egg dish Shepherd favors is an acquired taste—even for himself. Part of the reason he feels so strongly about Houston’s food scene is that he didn’t always have access to this vast array of cooking and culture. Like many people who grew up unfamiliar with Asian food, he started with the basics. His first stop was at a late-night Vietnamese restaurant known for taking high volumes of drunken customers after last call. “Is Mai’s Restaurant fantastic? No. But you find your starting point,” Shepherd acknowledges.

From this “starter Vietnamese,” he then moved on to try more challenging cuisines, places where the drives took longer, the communication issues more explicit. On an early trip to Vieng Thai, he tried to order a raw sausage dish when a waiter told him not to. Most recently, Shepherd ate Korean-style raw octopus that was still writhing on the plate.

That journey, the one from chicken pho to uncooked seafood, is one he recommends for everyone, although it doesn’t necessarily have to end with getting a tentacle suctioned to the roof of your mouth. When you receive your check at Underbelly, with it comes a list of all its local influences: Atkinson Farms, where Shepherd gets his eggs; Frixos Zhrifinish, the supplier of most of his fish; and a number of the restaurants he wants everyone in Houston to visit, even if you’re worried about feeling as if you don’t belong. “It’s all about saying, ‘Hi,’” says Shepherd. Or, you could employ the Shepherd strategy for gaining allies, which is to order enough food for 50 people and prove the strength of your appetite. It worked for him at Asia Market.

“He’s so bubbly, we’d joke and laugh, and that’s where we are today,” says Narumol’s husband, Lawrence, usually found behind the cash register. He, like Ajay, has gotten the opportunity to try Shepherd’s food at Underbelly. “I was floored at what had been accomplished. He takes a little bit of this and a little bit of that—it’s dynamic. That’s the benefit that he offers the public at his restaurant.”

The spoils that come with striking out across town and trying new restaurants are obvious—the food. It’s the crispy fried pork with sticky rice, or the sakoo sai moo, chewy tapioca balls filled with seasoned pork, at Asia Market. It’s discovering that there are more than just savory types of naan and indulging in London Sizzler’s chile chicken stir-fry because it tastes like an Indo-General Tso’s chicken, even if Ajay is shaking his head at you when you order it. It’s experiencing the cozy vanilla smell coming off a freshly broken custard bun at HK Dim Sum, the restaurant owned by Shepherd’s Cantonese “family,” headed up by yet another matriarch, Lisa Yang. The conversation about where to eat the best dim sum in Houston is on ever-shifting ground, as one location falls out of favor and another, newer place, one you haven’t heard of, opens its doors. Unlike the massive dining room of Ocean Palace, where servers push the traditional carts loaded with steamed and fried tea accompaniments, at HK, customers check their choices off a menu, and piping hot plates are rushed out of the kitchen as soon as they’re ready. What the set-up loses in entertainment value, it makes up for in food temperature.

Each checklist comes with a thick picture book of the food items, which is useful for when the prodigious use of the words “pork” and “bun” makes it difficult to discern between all the options. For lunch, Shepherd orders all his favorites: shumai, the daikon cake known as lo bak gou, the crispy taro puff, and spare ribs. The language barrier between Shepherd and Yang is more pronounced than with other friends he’s made around town, and so the relationship is slightly more reserved. In the kitchen, the talking is minimal, as the chef observes all the work going down. Because this is Houston, Texas, U.S.A., the cooks are using a tortilla press to flatten the translucent wrappers used for har gow before hand-stuffing each one with shrimp. Incorporating the centuries-old techniques of other cultures isn’t just in Shepherd’s wheelhouse.

The truth about the authentic Houstonian experience is that it often means spending the majority of a lifetime in one neighborhood, be it Chinatown, downtown, or one of the many suburbs, without ever eating the truffled pizza, lo mein, or goat curry of another. And yet, Shepherd doesn’t see that division as part of his beloved city’s true identity. It contains a vast and varied demographic landscape and all the amazing food that comes with that, which simply must be taken advantage of. That’s Houston, and that’s his food. There’s no magic or mystery to dining someplace unfamiliar. Although Shepherd’s close relationship with these restaurateurs and his use of the designation “family” might seem unusual at first, it all really boils down to him being friendly. Between “The story of Houston” and “Houston is the new American Creole city,” the man already has enough catchphrases. But, if one were to sum up his best strategy for enjoying all the food the city—or any city—has to offer, it would go something like this:
• Be friendly.
• Look everywhere.