"You can either be very selfish or very generous. I don't really care."
Chris Shepherd, the chef at Houston's Underbelly, is talking through the plating of his current obsession—a Northern Vietnamese cha ca-style snapper served for a solo diner or a crowd (see the recipe)—but when it comes to sharing the cuisine of his beloved city, it's clear which option he prefers.
"We just want to be the pusher of Houston. Pusher of all the cultures in the city."
The Nebraska-born, Tulsa-raised chef moved to Houston 20 years ago to pursue a career in food, and he still vividly recalls the dish that became his guidepost. Long Point is a six-mile stretch of highway, lined with restaurants and trucks serving food from around the globe. "There's a Mexican restaurant at one end where they roast goats in the back. Next to that is Vieng Thai; across from that is Kim Chau, which is Central Vietnamese. Then there are your taco trucks. And Nicaraguan and Honduran and Central American restaurants, and all of a sudden it's Koreatown," Shepherd explains.
One day, he ventured into Vieng Thai with a few friends and a goodly number of wine bottles (the restaurant is BYO) thinking he'd get some pad Thai and perhaps a few noodle dishes. Then he spied yum nhean on the menu and ordered it as well. The waiter told him no, that's a fermented raw sausage with ginger and garlic, and it's for Thais. Shepherd insisted, and the waiter still balked, saying he wouldn't know if he'd gotten sick from the dish or all the wine on the table. Eventually, he gave in, and after Shepherd sampled the yum nhean, he told the waiter he would like to order everything else he wasn't supposed to have. "I want to learn."
Now when he walks into Vieng Thai or Saigon Pagolac or countless other restaurants, Shepherd is whisked back into the kitchen to be shown a few techniques—and he returns the favor when the owners and cooks come into Underbelly. "It's cool, because you don't usually see this mom-and-pop dim sum lady come into this part of the city to have this style of food," he says.
Plus, Shepherd knows that if he gets the details wrong, they'll let him know in no uncertain terms. "When they're sitting in that chair, I want them to think, F**k, he did that right! I don't want to ever bastardize something. That's not the goal. It's to highlight it, not take a step from the culture, but to give it back to the culture."
In that same spirit, Shepherd is invested in the impression that these foods make on diners who aren't as intimately familiar with how they're supposed to taste. "When guests have this dish, I want it to be perfect—not in style. I don't want it to be the same dish that you can get at Thien Thanh or Saigon Pagolac. I want you to have the texture and flavor and then be able to go there, have the traditional version and see and understand the differences."
He adds, "And while you're there, you might as well have a salted plum soda, and you should try this and ask for this person and tell them you want what I get. It's very important that people understand where the dish comes from."
The cha ca-style snapper Shepherd is making in Tasting Table's Test Kitchen is from a street in Hanoi that's named for the dish, and even more specifically, from a century-old restaurant, Cha Ca La Vong, where's it's the only dish on the menu. After sampling the turmeric, dill, nước mắm and chile-kissed fish on a bed of rice noodles, he realized it would translate fluently to Houston, which boasts the third-largest Vietnamese population in the United States due to a large migration starting in 1975.
"I think it really comes back to both being coastal regions," he says. "The temperature and humidity are about the same, allowing for the culture and lifestyle behind it." And ingredients, too. All of the elements of the dish can be readily sourced from local farmers, fishermen and vendors ("We have a guy down in Little India who fresh-grinds turmeric for us."), which gives the food a Houstonian flair, while staying true to its roots.
Shepherd explains that a single diner can just "get at it, mix it up," and enjoy him- or herself, but he takes particular delight in demonstrating how it can be served for a large party. "Tear Bibb lettuce or keep it in cups. Add some rice noodle, which is kind of spongy and sticky; douse a little nước mắm onto it, the roasted snapper, shaved cabbage for texture, roasted peanuts on top, pickled onions, some rice cracker for more texture, big chunks of green onions for bite, torn dill all over it."
He adds, "If you do it right, you can get the flavor of the whole thing in a single bite."