How Texas Meat Became the Anchor of Underbelly Hospitality’s Cuisine
Chris Shepherd of Underbelly Hospitality gained national recognition at his original restaurant, Underbelly, by crafting dishes that reflected Houston’s many personalities. Part international metropolis, part agrarian community, the city is home to restaurants serving cuisines from all over the world — many of which reside on land that once housed ranches and farms. Though the pastoral landscape has moved outside the Beltway, Houston’s reputation as a land of ranches and cowboys persists. Shepherd shows the world another Houston by marrying those two halves. His dishes pay homage to the city’s vast culinary diversity while incorporating meats and produce from ranches and farms within 100 miles of Houston.
When he was growing up in Tulsa, Oklahoma, his family were regulars at Carmichael’s Produce, a 10-minute drive from Shepherd’s hometown. “I grew up hulling peas and shucking corn” he said. The simple ingredients they found at that market would be transformed into adventurous recipes. “My mom had more cookbooks than I have now,” Shepherd said. “I don’t even remember my first international cuisine experience because that was so common for us. We used to go to Jamil’s Steakhouse in Tulsa. It was a while before I realized that not all steakhouses served hummus and tabouli.” His parents’ adventurous food interests encouraged his own, eventually leading him to enroll in the Art Institute of Houston’s culinary program. Initially, he planned to graduate and return to Tulsa.
However, once in Houston, he fell in love with the incredibly diverse cuisine and dishes that couldn’t be found in Tulsa, jellyfish salad being just one example. Shepherd would often dine at Mai’s when he was working his way up in the kitchen at nearby Brennan’s. Mai’s was the gateway to his fascination with Vietnamese food. Then his interests expanded further: Korean, Spanish and Thai, not necessarily in that order.
He made it a point to meet the families of the restaurants he frequented, and would eventually feature several of them in his recent cookbook co-authored with Kaitlyn Goalen, Cook Like a Local, a 2020 finalist for the James Beard award for Best American Cookbook. Concurrently, he’d hit the road with friend and fellow Brennan’s of Houston chef Randy Evans, to visit roadside vegetable stands. (Evans would later become executive chef while Shepherd explored his wine interests as sommelier.) The conversations they had with the stand managers led them to Atkinson Farms and Froberg’s Farm. Shepherd still uses these vendors today. When he met Bob McClaren, the owner of family-owned 44 Farms, they made a pact to grow together and bring more local meat to the people of Houston.
Although Shepherd closed Underbelly in 2018 — the restaurant that earned him a James Beard Award — it morphed into Underbelly Hospitality, a group that boasts four restaurants and a coffee shop. According to 44 Farms, Underbelly Hospitality is its biggest customer. Texas farm-raised meat appears everywhere, from the thick, beefy cuts at high-end steak house Georgia James to the group’s heat-and-eat meals at H-E-B.
The Underbelly team, along with a few other prominent Houston restaurants, spearheaded the interest in locally raised meats. These efforts have helped create a more viable market for local ranchers and farmers and now many more area restaurants serve local meats. However, the pandemic has both disrupted this market as restaurants have dealt with shutdowns and reduced capacity, while also increasing consumer interest in meat raised by local ranchers, because COVID-19 has ravaged the industrial meatpacking business.
Restaurants, including those operated by Underbelly Hospitality, as well as farmers and ranchers, have to had to get creative in order to survive. Not only will you find Underbelly Hospitality products featuring local meat at select H-E-B stores, you will also now find them at Urban Harvest Farmers Market, along with products featuring local meat from Feges BBQ and Cherry Block Craft Butcher & Kitchen (which both also sell at other farmers markets).
Here are some of the dishes featuring Texas-raised meats, along with a few others, that you can expect to find at Shepherd’s restaurants.
Georgia James, 1100 Westheimer, (832) 241-5088: This steakhouse, named after Shepherd’s mom and dad serves 44 Farms beef, Holmes Poultry and Gulf seafood. Steaks are wet- or dry-aged or cured in-house. For example, the Long Bone Ribeye is dry-aged and seared on a cast iron skillet, whereas the Porterhouse is wet-aged. There is also a grilled, 100-day wet-aged Hanger Steak. The UB Charcuterie plate shows off other preservation techniques with three, house-cured meats accompanied by housemade pickles. The French Onion Burger gives a nod to two classic dishes — burgers and French onion soup — and uses 44 Farms ground chuck, caramelized onions, Gruyere, horseradish dijonnaise. It’s served with steak fries. Seafood lovers should consider the wood-roasted Center Cut King Crab Legs with garlic herb butter. Local produce is featured in dishes such as Wilted Atkinson Farm Kale with garlic, chilies and Parmesan.
UB Preserv, 1609 Westheimer, (346) 406-5923: The menu, developed by chef de cuisine Nick Wong, reads like one of Shepherd’s Houston culinary tours. The Pork Dumplings emulate those from eastern China and are bathed in black vinegar, crispy shallots, soy and ginger. Conversely, the Seared Gulf Fish evokes the American South with Carolina Gold Rice, collard greens and jalapeño purée, while the Vietnamese Short Rib Fajitas blends beef from 44 Farms with Mexican and Vietnamese culinary influences. For brunch, the Smoked Boudin Siu Mai dumpling comes with creole mustard, while Wok Fried Migas is prepared with chorizo. For dessert, the Cà Phê Sữa Dá Carrot Cake is a nod to condensed milk-sweetened Vietnamese coffee and comes with pecans and pineapple.
One Fifth Houston, 1658 Westheimer, (713) 955-1024: As part of a restaurant experiment, One Fifth changed themes every year and only has a few months left before it is at the end of its lease. For these last few months, it’s returned to the One Fifth Mediterranean concept, which celebrates the vibrant flavors of that region. The menu features serves an Al Ha’esh section. The term is Hebrew for “on the fire,” and the section includes lamb merguez, 44 Farms flat-iron steak enhanced with a silan (syrup made of dates) glaze and duck breast with a spicy cherry purée. Octopus is served with shishito peppers, potatoes and green chermoula. While Tah Dig, a classic Middle Eastern rice dish that includes labneh, pistachio and pomegranate can be bulked up the addition of cherry-braised lamb.
The Hay Merchant, 1100 Westheimer, (713) 528-9805: The dressed-down side of Underbelly Hospitality is this Montrose pub with a vast selection of craft beers, as well as a curated selection of wine and cocktails. Watch the game with classic bar fare such as the Muffuletta, complete with salami, capicola, mortadella, Swiss, provolone and olive salad on a sesame seed bun and served with housemade potato chips. Or, try one of its six different varieties of wings: PB&J, Stout BBQ Sauce (made with Southern Star Buried Hatchet), Classic Hot, Caramelized Fish Sauce, Gochujang and Lemon Pepper Garlic Parm. The acclaimed Cease & Desist Burger is also found here and made with two 44 Farms beef patties, two slices of cheese, lettuce, housemade pickles and local tomato. It’s served with equally worthy fries. The fish part of the Vietnamese Fish and “Chips” is battered in banh xeo (Vietnamese rice crepe) mix and includes rice noodles, sesame crackers, nuoc mam, turmeric dill aioli, pickles, lettuce, peanuts, serrano pepper and herbs.
Blacksmith, 1018 Westheimer, (832) 360-7470: This menu of this coffee shop, located across the street from The Hay Merchant, reflects the local food values of Underbelly Hospitality with dishes such as Vietnamese Steak & Eggs served with house pâté, French bread and side salad or the Blacksmith Bowl which comes with 44 farms sirloin, rice and chilis.
Heat-and-Eat Meals at H-E-B: When the COVID pandemic forced restaurant dining room shutdowns, grocery store H-E-B supported the industry by opening its refrigerator cases for meals prepared by local restaurants, including Underbelly Hospitality’s. The restaurant group contributed its beloved signature dish, Korean Braised Beef and Dumplings and Wagyu Helper (an upscale riff on Hamburger Helper), and King Ranch Chicken Casserole, chicken tenders with mac and cheese, and Tater Tot and Bacon Sausage Casserole. Currently, these are available at H-E-B’s Montrose, Buffalo Speedway, San Felipe, Sugar Land, Buffalo Heights, Heights, Bellaire, Meyerland, Pearland and Bunker Hill stores.
The Houston restaurant scene, as well as the local agriculture economy, has over the years benefited from the efforts of Shepherd and his team at Underbelly Hospitality. Whether it’s by encouraging you to visit lesser-known eateries, buying local ingredients, supporting local farmers and ranchers or helping those in need — which they do through the Southern Smoke Foundation — Underbelly Hospitality holds firm to its values.
As Shepherd likes to say: “We take care of our own”.