Is This Houston Chef Making the Most Interesting Brunch in America? Probably
Momofuku alum Nick Wong’s adventurous dim sum-style menu at UB Preserv turned me—a brunch hater—into a devout believer.
By the time the soufflé pancakes decided to start causing problems for the kitchen at UB Preserv in Houston, my table had already plowed through what seemed like more than half of the Sunday brunch menu, so you might figure this would have been the part where a normal, rational person might have gently told their server that it was all completely fine, and that we might just skip the soufflé pancakes for today. I did no such thing.
In hindsight, we could have always come back—sometime when we hadn’t already been overserved, sometime when it wasn’t hotter than a critical fever, just beyond the front door, a day better suited to eating tall stacks of pancakes, showered with ripe, brightly-colored berries, and served alongside clouds of rich, sweet cream. We had come this far, however, and, come on, soufflé pancakes. They were brave enough to put them on the menu, did we really want to risk the kitchen coming to their senses and doing away with them, by the next time we walked in? Everything else had been so good. We would wait. We were in this for the long haul.
What a haul it had been, truly—from a Thai-spiced fish dip served with puffy, oversized chicharrones (and an unusually appealing selection of crudite), to a delightfully un-ironic sandwich of thickly-sliced (and fried) baloney, to a summery salad of masala spice-dusted melon, plus a masterful homage to the Nebraskan hot pocket historically known as a bierock but mostly these days called a runza, there had been so much, too much, and there was so much we had to say no to, from the menu that constantly evolves, and is presented dim sum style. You tick the boxes, you take your chances, from tender shu mai stuffed with smoky boudin, to tender smoked lamb legs rubbed with sumac served with yogurt and fresh parathas, to huaraches topped with smoked trout roe.
“We don’t just sling eggs,” Nick Wong, the Californian turned New Yorker turned Houstonian and chef de cuisine at UB Preserv, tells me later. “For us, it’s a time to experiment.” A risky proposition, maybe, when your restaurant sits directly across the street from one of the most popular brunch destinations in town (Hugo’s). But UB Preserv isn’t just any restaurant—Wong’s playground/place of employment is something like the fun, slightly unpredictable uncle within Houston A-lister Chris Shepherd’s ever-evolving Westheimer Road restaurant empire, the next-gen iteration of Shepherd’s acclaimed Underbelly, a restaurant that closed last year, and is now a very fine steakhouse, called Georgia James.
There’s no point at which it will become easier to say this, so I suppose let’s just have it out now—I do not like brunch. I have not liked brunch, ever. And where to begin, really—there’s the waiting in line, there’s the typically unserious food; why should I pay good money for things I can cook at home, sometimes better? I can think of so many other things to do with my weekend—banging up an entire day off, standing around for overcooked eggs and $4 slices of bacon is not on the list. I know I’m not alone, either—maybe ask a chef, sometime, for their feelings about brunch, then brace for the onslaught. Why should I, why should you, go out for a meal that most kitchens do not take seriously?
I do not know if, deep down in his heart of hearts, Nick Wong truly loves brunch, but it’s been a long time since I’ve met someone who seems to enjoy building a brunch menu as much as Wong does. Dinner at UB Preserv is a winner, continuing the fine tradition Underbelly began, honoring modern-day Houston’s dizzying diversity by cooking Houston food. Brunch does this as well, but unlike evenings, the menu is ever-changing and all over the place, in the very best possible way. Brunch is a party, figuratively, and sometimes literally—the day before I get into town, Wong threw the restaurant’s first drag brunch, in honor of Pride. (His outfit, I am able to report, having followed along on Instagram, was pretty spectacular.)
One of the things I like best about UB Preserv, and there are a few, is that nobody was quite sure the whole thing was going to work out. There you had Underbelly, such a good restaurant, and a relatively young one, a restaurant reeling in national acclaim by the boatful. What was Chris Shepherd thinking, blowing everything up, starting all over again, recasting Underbelly as a neighborhood bistro, giving it a new name, and moving it into the corner of a nearby strip mall?
Enter Wong, 34, whose impressive resume included long stints at David Chang’s Momofuku Ko, and Danny Meyer’s Gramercy Tavern in New York, as well as Chris Cosentino’s Incanto, out in San Francisco, near Wong’s hometown. Shepherd and Wong were already friends, and at the time, Wong was looking, he told me, for a city where he could live, make a life, rather than just work. From the sound of it, everything just kind of snowballed from there.
“I came to visit, and I got off the plane and walked into a backyard crawfish boil, literally,” he recalls, a party where nobody, at that point, knew why he was there, or what he was thinking about doing. Nearly everybody ended up telling him to move here, and that he would love it, and that it was going to be great, which, if you know very much about Houston these days, is a fairly normal way for locals to behave around visiting strangers.
Very quickly, he took their advice, and now Wong does what Shepherd did for years, before he created a giant restaurant empire for himself to run—he spends all the time he can, soaking up Houston’s freewheeling energy, crisscrossing the sprawl in his Prius, shopping the markets, stopping at new restaurants, taking the temperature of this fast-evolving metropolis. “Houston is so open to new experiences,” says Wong. “People are genuinely into checking our new things. Texas does multiculturalism best—it’s not forced.”
This is the energy he brings back into his kitchen. After discovering a Nigerian grocery store he liked (“They wanted to know if I had a Nigerian wife,” Wong laughs), a popular buvette steak dish on the menu began showing up to the table with fufu, the starchy and ubiquitous West African side accompaniment, alongside deep-fried eggplant fragrant with suya spice, a regionally-iconic blend of peanut, red pepper and ginger. Recently at brunch, Wong has been taking things even further—there have been crawfish dan dan noodles, tingling with Szechuan peppercorns, and possibly the world’s first smoked lamb scrapple. He even tinkered, for a while, with a rather fiery ma po tripe dish, which people loved a great deal. At least, admits Wong, the relatively few that took the plunge.
Never mind, on to the next experiment. On to those Japanese pancakes, actually, which Wong eventually allowed out of the kitchen. They were, I can report, beautifully delicate, extremely delicious, and only my dignity, or whatever was left of it by then, prevented me from devouring the entire plateful. I would later learn that Wong had decided to keep the pancakes on the menu, and that these days they are being served tres leches style. I might need to go back.