A trip to the UnderBelly via Chef Chris Shepard


When looking for restaurants to enjoy in the random cities I get to visit, I always check a couple of sources to make sure my palette gets pleasured.  Luckily, being in the industry I get the luxury of referencing my DineAround publications from Datassential, they never steer me wrong.  

I also tend to scour endless websites that break down each city by culinary districts and flavor neighborhoods as I seek out the shadey locations that only the local foodies talk about.  Like many, I also enjoy some good food porn from time to time as well as I try to determine where to dine.  

Ironically or not, these amazing places fall in the typically “transitioning areas”.  These areas are always the up and coming and trendy sections of town that tend to scream good food, dancing, shopping and style.  Gay or straight, black or white, rich or poor these areas always lead the big cities and the rest of the country with their openness, creativity, edgeiness and general flamboyance.  

The call last week was Chef Chris Shepard’s UnderBelly.  This is his journey through the food scene of Houston, where in the underbelly of the city “lies an endless array of ingredients and cultures” that shapes his cultural influence.


He provides a great hipster vibe from when you walk in the door until you leave.  From the display of canned and preserved ingredients used in his dishes to the recycled book menu’s and daily changing dishes built from what he finds that morning in the markets, the overall look and feel is exciting, flavorful and fun.  Being known for his nose to tail approach, cured meats and interesting flavor combinations I dove right into the charcuterie plate.  

The charcuterie plate featured an array of traditional favorites and a salami with an interesting flavor twist.  While they were all delicious, his adventurous efforts didn’t quite live up to my expectations.  The mustard and pickled veggies are always a nice compliment to the fatty goodness, but while the meat was delicious, it was nothing above average.  

Here are the featured meats:

Vietnamese Salami – looking for the Vietnamese part of this one was a struggle.  As it was delicious, just tasted like salami. 

Mortadella – typical, like fancy bologna but has a nice spicy, peppery finish

Cured Pork Belly – melts away in your mouth like butter.

Coppa – melts with slight smokiness and sweetness

Molenzino – coppa type with nice salty finish

For my main course I tried to once again embrace his southern heritage and creative flavor spirit and went with the grilled chuck flap, braised greens and beet salad.  All three of these were nicely done, the beef was well marbled and cooked prefectly with a solid char and bloody center.  The greens were a prefect mix of bitter and sour and the beets, while slightly bland, complemented the dish solidly.  Overall, the main course was delicious and lived up to his underbelly theme.  

For dessert, I went with his staple and crowd favorite, the vinegar pie.  This was probably the most interesting part of the meal.  It was kind of like a key lime pie, but made with sugar cane vinegar.  While it had the awesome vinegar bite you would expect, the overall product was disappointing.  The crust was extremely thick and didn’t quite meld well with the sweet acid filling.  

The peanut brittle on top was a great idea, but the overall texture was extremely hard and sticking to your teeth, so while it was a good thought, I probably would have left it off.  

Overall, the hipster appeal was definitely there as the ambiance was Southernly inviting and elegant.  The food was creative and while I appreciated his story, vision and overall flavor combinations, the bill was a bit excessive for the flavor delivery and culinary impact.  In the end, while I would consider coming back the next time I am in Houston, it may fall back to the end of the list with so many other choices.

To Meat or Not to Meat, That is the Question…


I was once extremely skeptical of the of the terms, “vegeatarian chicken strips”or “vegan tuna”, but I can say that I might have been converted after visiting the vegan butcher in Toronto.  Yes, I put the word vegan + butcher in the same sentence.  That sounds almost as wrong as coconut bacon, doesn’t it?  Well, my recent trip to Yam Chops was an eye opener to how closely a non-meat product can look, taste and feel like the real thing.

It is estimated that global sales of meat substitutes will reach $4B in 2016, a 42% rise since 2010.  That’s a lot of money, right?  Well if you combine this with the 3.5% of the US population or around 7.5M that classify themselves as vegan plus an additional 23M who are vegetarian, you now have a category worth taking about.

In addition, we see a growing base of individuals that are calling themselves Flexitarian.  This loyal group made up mostly of Millennials and GenZ’s has built a meat-free movement that developers are finally starting to realize.  The problem continues to be however, the need for these products to not taste like cardboard or feel like you are knawing on tree bark.   The good news for this industry is from what I tasted, there is hope.

Now I am not saying that the items I sampled had the bloody and delicious texture that we all have grown accustomed to from meat, but for a vegan option it was damn good.  It cut like meat, it looked like meat and believe it or not it tasted like it.

Specifically, the black pepper beef was amazing.  Not only did  it have the look, feel and texture of beef, but it actually had an amazing sautéed beef profile with sweet seared notes and a bit of char.  Keep in mind this products was made from a base of soy, pea protein and wheat, so from those standards it was incredibly close to a real meat experience.  Stringy texture with a bite that if you closed your eyes would be very similar to real beef strips.  Impressive.

I moved onto the Miso Sesame Chick’n and Korean BBQ Chick’n and once again my taste buds were tricked, no mesmerized, by just how close this product was to a real chicken strip- farm raised, butchered and delivered right to my door.  A nice firm texture and an abundance of sauce and flavor helped to take these two dishes over the top.


Feeling like I was a carnivour, I moved onto my third option, Chick’n Shawarma.  Now this was quite a challenge being gluten free and vegan and as it did have a slight resemblance to meat, it overall was what you would expect, disgusting.  In fact, it was like eating a piece of rubber.  Spongy, tasteless and just flat out weird.  This one actually lived out to what you would think vegan meat products taste like.

Finally, there was the vegan, coconut bacon.  Not this just feels flat out immoral in my book personally, but being an open minded guy, I figured I would give it a shot.  I must say as a religious bacon connosiur, I was offended by the mere fact they even used the term bacon in the same sentence.  It was smokey coconut and nothing more.  Listen up Yam Chops, there is only one bacon on this planet and we all know what it is.  That salty, fatty piece of love that should not be downgraded by any vegan.  Sorry to all my vegan and vegetarian friends, but if you don’t indulge, don’t act like you know what this experience is about as bacon lovers may find it offensive.

The final chapter was the vegan tuna.  Once again, chickpeas are not tuna and don’t pretend they are.  This makes the Pescatarians a little unsettled.  They also don’t like anyone messing with their fishy world.  Chickpeas with a touch of Nori doesn’t make something taste like its from the sea.  While I greatly enjoyed the dish I was a bit taken back by the name tuna.

Overall, I was very impressed and would go back and eat there again. I actually try to live a bit more flextarian these days and avoid meat during some meals, especially red meat.  A little less death, a bit healthier, and a lot better for the earth isn’t a bad reason to think twice next time you are ordering.  If it is flavored and prepared right, you will never know the difference anyway.

According to #meatlessmonday for every burger skipped, you can save enough water to drink for the next three years.  Give #meatlesmonday a try, you may enjoy the challenge of preparing recipes and experiencing new spices and culinary adventures.

There are a number of excellent cookbooks out there to help on this journey, but a personal favorite is Thug Kitchen: Eat Like You Give a f*ck by Matt Holloway, Michelle David and Thug Kitchen, LLC.  They take vegetarian cooking to a whole new fuc%ing level with amazingly flavorful combinations that take you on a delicious journey between cuisine types and flavor exploration.

Here is one of my favorite recipes to get you started via Thug Kitchen:

thug-kitchen_recipe1

Cold Mango Soba Noodle Salad

Makes enough for 4-6

15 ounces soba or other thin, long noodle

Dressing:

½ cup chopped mango

¼ cup rice vinegar

¼ cup toasted sesame oil

3 tablespoons lime juice

1 tablespoon tamari or soy sauce

1 tablespoon grape seed or other flavorless oil

1 tablespoon chili garlic paste

1 tablespoon fresh minced ginger

2 cups mango sliced into matchsticks

1 ½ cups radishes sliced into matchsticks*

1 ½ cups cucumbers sliced into matchsticks

½ cup torn mint leaves

½ cup torn basil leaves

½ cup torn cilantro

1. Cook the noodles according to the package directions then run them under cold water to cool them down when they’re done cooking. While the noodles are boiling, make the dressing. Throw the ½ cup mango, vinegar, sesame oil, lime juice, tamari, grape seed oil, chili garlic paste, and ginger into a food processor or blender and run that shit until it’s smooth and looks like a motherfucking dressing.

2. In a large bowl toss together the cooked, cooled noodles, sliced mango, radishes, and cucumbers. Pour over the dressing and then fold in the herbs. Keep tossing until all that shit is good and mixed and the dressing has coated everything. Serve right away or let is chill in the fridge for a couple hours.

*We used watermelon radishes because those bitches are beautiful but regular radishes are fine too. Fucking hate radishes? Use a bell pepper or more cucumbers instead

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