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.

The Continual Disappointment with Airport Food

Airport food

I still to this day cannot understand why airport food continues to be so poor.  Come on.  Is there any reason why you need to subject us to such torture? It shouldn’t be that hard to satisfy air travelers? We are usually tired, frustrated that our flight was delayed again and our expectations are really not set that high. We are a captive audience. You have us at your will as we are running between flights. We actually expect to pay too much for a really bad meal. I don’t believe it has to be that way and despite recent efforts to lift the quality and ambiance, I still give airports a C+ grade.

I have seen some impressive showings over the past few years, specifically in Chicago at Frontera, Rick Bayless taco shop and in Atlanta in the Intetnational terminal.  I’m not quite sure of the location name, but an impressive meal with some real flavor and creativity.   They used fresh ingredients and had an impressive wine list. I ordered a hand tossed, Margharita pizza and dined at the piano bar, so they are at least trying to step up their game in some locations.

We have even seen entire terminals transformed into interactive cafes to accommodate travelers needs for recharging, refueling and instant gratification.  The new Delta terminal in LaGuardia is very impressive with touch screens at every chair, charging stations and small tables instead of uncomfortable chairs spread throughout the entire terminal.  It feels much like a small cafe, but despite putting a pretty bow on the package, the food still was disappointing.  You can put lipstick on a pig, but it is still a pig.  Specifically, my meal at Crust was terrible.  A Fritatta so dry, a saltine would have tasted like an ocean and it only cost me $13.  What a deal.

It’s just frustrating that millions of dollars and endless hours are spent on these types of improvements and the thing that should shine the most, the food, continues to disappoint.  The norm continues to revolve around bad chain accounts and frozen ingredients. Way too many times am I disappointed with poor execution and cooking and the trend of bad food, continues.

Delta Laguardia1 image

Let’s take another example of my recent meal at Tony Roma’s in the Newark airport.  After a full day of meetings and no lunch I found myself very hungry and utterly emaciated, so I ordered the filet medallions and half rack of ribs. A little treat since this had been my only meal today. Keep I mind, my expectations are extremely low at this point as I am very hungry and desperate for anything that resembles a meal. It’s like when you haven’t eaten in three days, even a slice of Bologna is the star of the charcuterie plate.

The steaks were done well, cooked medium as requested, tender with good flavor. My loaded mashed potatoes came with cardboard as an added bonus. The broccoli was at least fresh, not frozen and the ribs were decent. Small, very little meat, but tender and flavorful despite being drowned in sauce.

Here’s my biggest problem, I paid $26.99 for this meal. I couldn’t imagine the meal I could get for that price at a white table cloth establishment or fast casual restaurant. A lot better than here I am sure. Price to value is my issue with not only airport food, but chains in general. I had an $18 meal at Applebee’s a few year back that was so bad I pledged never to go back, and I haven’t.

Since Tony Roma’s is known for their ribs I figured that is what I should order. In additon to this staple menu item they offer five different sauces for the ribs for which they are so well known.

Let’s review these sauces.
1) TR’s Original – not too bad. Tangy, ketchup based and slightly sweet.

2) Carolina Honey’s- so peppery and terrible I have nothing good to say. No vinegar or flavor whatsoever.

3) Blue Ridge Smokey’s – not too bad, slightly smokey, sweet and fairly balanced. Partial bitterness at end, but not too bad overall.

4) Maker’s Mark Bourbon- if I was Makers Mark I would be embarrassed. No bourbon and I would pull my name from this chunky mess immediately if I was them.

5) TR’a Red Hot- heat is the only thing I get, no flavor. No balance, no respect.

At least the mix of 80’s and 90’s alternative music made me happy as a Gen X’er and my meal partially worth it.

So here’ so the deal.  As air travelers, most of the time on corporate accounts, we are a captive audience willing to and expecting to pay a lot for food.  We are simply looking for and desiring a good meal composed of real food.  Why is it so hard to satisfy this simple request?

We will continue to wait, please don’t continue to disappoint.

The Organic Debate Infographic

The-Organic-Debate

This is a well done infographic on the debate to whether organic food is healthier than conventional processing methods. It also provides some education on the labels that you see featured on organic products which can also be confusing and misleading.

Inforgraphic Compliments: http://www.medicalbillingandcoding.org

Diversity Rediscovered

indian corn

 

We have all heard the term diversity a lot this week, but diversity is a word that most of us take for granted.  It’s a word that we have heard a lot about over the past few days, but most of us tend to forget what it truly means.  Sometimes it takes the small things in life to remind us just how important a word like this is.   It takes the small things like an assembly at your children’s school to really embrace and appreciate what the word means.  This is a word that we all learned as children and one that continues to be drilled into our children, but as adults we tend to forget.  We tend to go along with life and not think about how much diversity elevates our standard of life on this planet, but the huge role it plays for our survival as well.

As I gazed around the auditorium at my children’s assembly yesterday I realized just how important this word is.  It is not only the fabric from which we have built these United States of America, but it is also the guiding principle by which all of us live.  Most of us just don’t realize how dependent on diversity we are to survive on this planet.

First off, there is a diversity of the people on this earth.  Without these different kinds of people our world would be pretty damn boring.  Our family trees would be nothing more than a family branch.  We would all raise the same family, a family without an identity or personality.  We would all be stuck worshipping the same god, following the same path and making the same mistakes.  We would all be influenced by the same things and our lives would pretty much move along with little emotion or true sense of belonging.  There would be no jazz, there would be no rock ‘n roll, and there would be no hip-hop, just noise.  We need this diversity in order to evolve, to change and to adapt.  The one thing that is constant on this globe is “change” and unless we are able to embrace it we will all end up like the dinosaurs, buried for millions of years for someone else to come along and discover.

Next, think about the diversity of plants and animals on this planet.  Each plant and animal serves its own purpose.  Each uniquely designed to sustain the life chain it was created for and to ultimately support the higher level above it.  We take this diversity for granted in today’s genetically modified world and create strands of corn and wheat that can withstand drought, have higher yields and ultimately fight off insects.  We do all of this without a regard for what this single source solution will mean for the long run.

Genetically modified grains have been sited by some as the culprit to the large number of increased allergies to these products.  A study published by the National Center for Health Statistics division of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that one out of every 25 children has a food allergy, representing about a 20% increase between 1997 to 2007.  There is no direct evidence that genetically modifed grains are the issue for this increased level of allergies,  but it does make one wonder.   It is funny, by manipulating this natural diversity and focusing on less variety we may have ultimately created more problems. 

Corn is a great example of what diversity truly means, the US Department of Agriculture’s Plant Introduction Station in Ames, Iowa holds 19,780 different samples or “accessions” of corn from around the world, but in the US we plant less than 100 varieties.  One of the most diverse and abundant commodities in the USA and we plant only plant less than 1/2% of these varieties on a large scale basis.    I think the Department of Agriculture needs to take a refresher course in diversity and survival.  Without diversity and change eventually bacteria, insects and other organisms will find a way to infect this also heavily genetically modified plant, plus just think about all the beautiful colors and flavorful varieties of corn that we are not being bale to enjoy.  We need to break the corn bank in Ames, IA and set corn free.

Now think about food.  Can you imagine if we all had to eat the same boring vanilla flavored mock every day?  Thank god there is chocolate, thank god there is strawberry, blueberry, peach caramel.  Thank god there is anise, cilantro, fennel, dill, oregano, basil.  Thank god there is Lager, Ale, Stout, Porter and finally thank god there is Cabernet, Merlot, Chardonnay, and Zinfandel.  I wake up everyday and I am thankful for bacon and all of the other amazing and unique flavors that make this world a beautiful place to live and eat.  We were all born with the sense to detect sweet, sour, salt, bitter and umami for a reason.  There is a reason why some of the most poisonous things on the planet taste bitter and some of the most nutritious are sweet or sour.  We are attracted to these different tastes and this unique culinary world we live allows us to taste a diverse array of dishes that once again makes this a diversely fabulous place to live.

Even in our diet we need to eat a diverse food selection in order to stay healthy and survive.  We need a balance of protein, carbohydrates, salt, vitamins and minerals to survive.  We need to eat a rainbow of diversely colored fruits and vegetables to get this ideal mix of minerals and vitamins to sustain a healthy existence.  Each color provides its own unique place into the human nutrition plan.  Without this color, without this diversity we would all not be able to survive and prosper.

So, as you sit back on this Wednesday morning pondering what you have to do for the rest of the week; take a minute and remember just how important diversity is to our existence.  It not only  makes us who we are, but it makes us be better than we ever could’ve imagined.  It makes us try new things; it makes us think in different ways; it makes us human.    As Americans we need to remember that diversity is the foundation of our country, but humans we need to remember that diversity is the key to life.  We need to embrace it.  We need to appreciate diversity and not try to modify or oppress it.  

Living and eating diversely will not only make life feel better, but taste better.

13 Things to Consume Before the Next End of the World

mayan_calendar

Photo: www.uta.edu/planetarium/astronomy-101/articles/doomsday-2012.php

 

Since we all lived through the Mayan apocalypse of 12/21/12 and made it to 2013, here is a list of 13 things you must consume before the next end of the world prediction.  These are a few of my favorite things on earth and begging for someone else to discover if you haven’t done so already.


1) Pork belly (or at least settle for some bacon) – either one of these belly busters (no pun intended) will provide a heavenly experience in how delicious fat can taste.  Yes, fat does have flavor.  Slightly sweet, oily, mouth coating with a hint of vanilla; pork belly can be an interesting addition to any dinner plate or appetizer tray.

Bacon of any type, flavor, shape or form is always a crowd pleaser.  This perfect marriage of fat, smoke and protein is simply delicious and can be put on or in anything to make it taste better.  Smokey notes with hints of applewood, hickory or cherry provide the perfect compliment to bacon’s fatty yumminess.

2) Samuel Smith’s Nut Brown Ale – an English ale with a lot of character.  A fresh nose, nutty and sweet middle and a lasting hoppy finish that doesn’t leave you parched by bitterness, but refreshed.  This delicious beverage is consumed best at room temperature and in a classic English ale style provides a masterpiece of malt and hops.

3) Sushi – preferably not from a gas station like in Bentonville, AR, but an actual Japanese restaurant.  I am not talking about a California roll, but real sushi.  The raw stuff.  Eel, tuna, salmon, squid, roe, anything that is slimy and gushy and makes you queasy in the knees.  Its unique texture is intriguingly disgusting, yet enjoyable.  The artistry that goes into most rolls is worth the price, even if you just plan to stare at it.

4) $7.50 cup of coffee (Sun-Dried Sumatra Rasuna) – I know it sounds ridiculous, but this $7.50 cup of coffee was well worth the wait and price.  It was gently massaged by hand through the one of a kind Clover machine at the Starbucks on Pike Street and turned out to be a truly romantic experience.  This fruity bouquet of cherry and dried fruit made my nose happily dance while a subtly strong hit of spiciness blew me away.

Coffee is one of those vices of mine that cries for me to satisfy every morning.  Some days are for the Keurig when in a hurry, but most days the French press is king.  Move over Maxwell House because I would trade an entire pound packed in your metal can for one sip of this delicious nectar.

5) Chicken & Dumplings (my Grandma Jewels recipe) – this was always a staple at the Sunday feast that my grandmother prepared.  It was a subtle bribe to all of us to visit knowing that we would see a stove of buttered corn, green beans and ham, corn bread, carrots and chicken and dumplings.  This all being cooked in bacon grease of course.  On top of the savory goodies was a fully functional orchestra of fudge, red velvet cake, chocolate cake with caramel icing and cookies galore, but nothing could compare to the dumplings.

Typically it involved butchering a fresh hen from the backyard and a morning worth of work, but it was a treat I will never forget and regret not learning how to make.  The soft and chewy, but fluffy buttermilk squares of heaven sitting in a bath of gravy and slow cooked chicken is a smell and taste that will always be embedded into my reptilian brain as the ultimate comfort food.

6) A Real Bagel (from a good Jewish deli) – The only place that I have been able to enjoy a truly authentic bagel is with my roommate in college from Long Island.  On multiple occasions I had the pleasure of being exposed at a young adult age to a New York bagel.  Not those imitations that are frozen or come from Ohio, but a chewy center, crusty tough outside that blends together in a doughy paradise.  When ordering, make sure to get the everything bagel with the rye seed to push it over the top of all time favorites.  Throw on some cream cheese and lox and now you are really ready to party.

7) Asian food – it doesn’t matter the region or culture, bring it on.  When I was growing up my idea of Chinese was the restaurant in my hometown that served sweet and sour chicken and wonton soup.  Luckily, with the emergence of Vietnamese, Thai, Japanese, Korean and other regional types popping up around the US we are able to enjoy lots of spices, recipes and traditions never imagined twenty years ago. They say that food is the spice of life, but I feel that spice is the food of life.  It supercharges the olfactory system, wakes up the taste buds and excites the palette for a worldwide journey with the lift of a fork.

Thai is probably my favorite Asian food with an amazing marriage of sweet heat, rich creamy coconut milk and subtle fishiness in many dishes is the perfect combination of exotic and amazing.  The umami bomb that is created by the Tom Kha Gai soup makes you yearn to understand what the hell kokumi is all about.  The multiple layers of never ending flavors created from the coconut milk, ginger, kefir limes and lemongrass finished with fresh hits of cilantro and basil make even the dead taste buds come alive.  As it appears that Thai has become the new Chinese food in it shouldn’t be that difficult to find.

8) German bratwurst and pretzels (preferably from Munich) – pretzels as big as your head, a crusty outside, soft chewy inside and yeasty finish make this the ultimate snack.  In addition to the enormously large twisted treasure the bratwurst needs to be too large to handle with one hand as well.  Mellowly seasoned and stuffed into a natural casing with the distinct bite and sound as you pierce into it with your teeth. Throw some seedy brown mustard on the side and some kraut on the top and now you are in business.

9) Garbage Plate (Rochester, NY’s famous Nick Tahou Hots) – I don’t even know what the hell is on this thing, but the standard fare involves something like this – a bed of french fries or home fries, baked beans and Cole slaw, topped with hamburgers, cheese burgers, fish filet, white hots, red hots, Italian sausage, fried ham, grilled cheese, eggs and beautifully covered in some type of weird spicy beef gravy sauce, onions and mustard  This is traditionally served after 1:00 am and consumed when intoxicated.  At least that is how I enjoyed it the first time.  Amazingly enough, this masterpiece even tastes good after a long day of work and is high on the list of must have’s  before you die.

10) Cadbury Creme Egg- I am not sure how they can keep that creamy white filling with just a hint of yellow for the yolk as a liquid for like three years without it getting hard.  It’s a food scientist’s masterpiece.  This is my favorite candy on the planet.  This is because of the fact that it is probably the sweetest candy in the world.  I am scared to think about the calories or grams of sugar packed into this beauty, but it puts me in a joyous diabetic shock every Easter.

11) Scotch Egg- yet another egg, much different, but equally racking up the calories.  The scotch egg is also known as an egg devil and for those not aware it consists of a hard-boiled egg wrapped in sausage, coated in breadcrumbs and then deep-fried.  Only the Brits could have provided such a culinary delight that would be placed into the deep fired hall of fame.  This is a strong competitor to the fried Twinkie which glorified proudly at every county fair from Hamilton to Des Moines.  The sausage and breadcrumb combo is an excellent accent to hard boiled egg and the mild spiciness finished with a good brown mustard makes it all come alive.

12) KimChi – This stuff will tease your taste buds and confuse your stomach.  A traditional Korean staple made up of fermented vegetables and random ingredients such as napa cabbage, radish, scallion, ginger, red peppers, and cucumber to name a few.  There are hundreds of different recipes for this stuff and even has seasonal varieties, but it is a disgustingly amazing culinary treat.  Sourness, sweetness, heat, and crunchiness in a side dish that has literally been buried and fermented.  All I can say is, wow.

The dish is amazingly difficult and time intensive to make, but luckily for us it is starting to find its way into the mainstream American culture.  I even saw it being carried at Wal-Mart so you should be able to enjoy this with very little effort to find it.  I recommend a good Korean restaurant to fully emerge yourself in the side dish dining experience, but I guess you can settle for the jar at Wal-Mart.  It can be eaten as a compliment to any Asian dish or even added to a thick chicken or veggie sandwich for a little exotic flare to a classically boring lunch or dinner.

Lucky #13) Cincinnati Chili – for those of you out there that have never had the pleasure of a three way, please read on.  We have our own way of eating chili in southwest Ohio and it involves noodles, sweet meaty chili and lots of Wisconsin cheddar.  This Greek inspired sweet meat combination of beef, cinnamon, allspice and even chocolate creates a savory sauce to sit proudly upon a hot dog or bed of pasta and huge mound of cheese.  For the typical chili consumer this unique delicacy will scare you slightly, but don’t worry it works in complete culinary harmony.

Cincinnati once was a battleground of rival chili houses all having their own unique ingredient and style.  Recipe wars were raged from Price Hill to Blue Ash, but only one is king in my book and worthy of the one time experience – Skyline.  Appropriately named after the beautiful view you get from the cut in the hill as you cross the Ohio river from Kentucky will provide the Cincinnati chili virgin with a three, four or five way they will never forget.

If you have a bucket list, hurry up, it is 2013.   The fact that unlucky #13 is in the date is not a good sign for the future, so eat up!

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