The Underbelly chef opened UB Preserv in Houston on Tuesday night. We chatted with him about the menu, the sourcing, and the city that inspires him.
The Houston restaurant scene is no joke, and Chris Shepherd isn't, either. The celebrated Houston chef, one of 2013 F&W's Best New Chefs, is best known for Underbelly, a "whole-animal" restaurant that sourced everything from 250 miles and closed in March. Shepherd has come to represent the exciting culinary talent emerging from the city, which is why his restaurant that opened Tuesday night, UB Preserv, is a very big deal.
"This is the most exciting menu we’ve put out to date," Shepherd tells Food & Wine. "We did the soft opening the other night. One of our guests looked at me and said, 'Man, everything I’ve eaten tonight I feel like I’m driving around Houston eating.'"
To Shepherd, this was the ultimate compliment. UB Preserv is a continuation of the project he began at Underbelly, which is telling the story of Houston's people and communities through spectacularly inventive cooking; for UB Preserv, he tapped Momofuku Ssam Bar alum Nick Wong as chef de cuisine. The playful menu, a vehicle for Shepherd to communicate the city's diversity, includes everything from turkey neck yakamein, to Vietnamese short rib fajitas, to an item hilariously titled "Yes, an Avocado Toast" made with grilled bolillo. There's a simple pork dumpling ("I made the best dumpling that I possibly can"), and then there's duck egg curry. There's a queso fundido with blood sausage, and then there's a warm seafood tower with nuoc mam marinated shrimp and Valentina butter roasted oysters.
The dish the chef can't stop talking about, though, is the "Crawfish and Noodles," which is inspired by a restaurant in Houston called Crawfish and Noodles, one of his favorites.
"We found a couple of ladies in this little tiny shop down on Bellaire where they’re making bánh hỏi every day," he says. "They don’t speak English and I don’t speak Vietnmese, but they’re bringing bánh hỏi for us three times a week. To do the crispy little noodles."
While the restaurant isn't following Underbelly's strict everything-must-be-sourced-within-250-miles policy, which Shepherd admits to finding incredibly restricting, he's keeping the food as local as he can. "We still have the farmers show up every day," he says.
To Shepherd, "keeping it local" means faithfully representing the city he's in. Houston invigorates and inspires him.
"Forever its been the first generation of immigrants cooking in the city, and now you’re seeing their kids grow up and open their own spots," he says. So he still has a lot more research to do.
"We’re going to hit more Salvadorean. Mexican. There's a Nigerian population that’s growing and growing," he says. "Once we get open, we want to try all those places."
At the soft open, a long-time Underbelly fan told him, "You nailed it at Underbelly, but you’re nailing the city now."
UB Preserv, 1609 Westheimer Road, Houston, TX