"You can't understand what this city is about until you get off the freeways and start exploring the side streets," says Chris Shepherd, Underbelly chef, a just-honored James Beard Award-winner and enthusiastic champion of the melting-pot cuisines of his adopted hometown of Houston, Texas.
"It's a port city, the most diverse in the country. We've got 90 spoken languages. So whether it's Vietnamese, Thai, Mexican, Salvadoran, Indian or just true Southern, we're putting all that into our food and using local ingredients and whole animals.
The Oklahoma native cut his teeth cooking classic Southern at Brennan's and spent his nights after service seeking out new flavors in Chinatown.
One night, the lady at the Vietnamese spot where he always ate pho suggested he try banh mi bo kho (see the recipe), a rich beef stew with a deep, fish-sauce-fueled funk. (The "banh mi" in the name suggests a sandwich but refers to the French bread you dip into it.)
"I just fell in love," Shepherd says. "It soothes the soul."
The dish regularly finds its way onto Underbelly menus in some form, and it's still something Shepherd seeks out at various Vietnamese stops around town.
"I probably eat it once a week," he confides. "It's all about the broth--the balance of the sugar and star anise and fish sauce. It's the heat from the jalapeños, the bread for dipping. It's that wintry dish, that summery dish, that anytime dish that's very near and dear to my heart."
Another thing that warms Shepherd's heart: the growing recognition of the once-overlooked "underbelly" cuisines represented in this city.
"These days it's not uncommon for me to be in Chinatown at some little random Vietnamese or Sichuan place and run into my customers there. That's nice."