take the h-town express (aka my honda): houston foodfest part 1

I was super excited to go to Houston this weekend.  I shamefully realized I hadn't been there in probably over three years--?? (Except to crash for several hours on our way back from the Angola Prison Rodeo outside of Baton Rouge a little over a year ago...but that doesn't really count.)

Unfortunately, I'm one of many who have been overlooking the awesomeness of Houston.  In fact, I'm writing an article on that right now for Today Food (I'll post when it's up.)  The thing is, Austin:  YOU SHOULD BE HERE RIGHT NOW.
Akaushi tenderloin carpaccio with chives, pickled daikon, TX olive oil, & Galveston sea salt 

I guess part of the reason it took me so long to return is because, in the past several years, I never had any friends wanting to make the pilgrimage.  (Road trips are always better with friends, duh.)  Never hopped in the car last-minute because a group of others were going.  Hell, even my friends who live there didn't exactly insist on me coming (ahem, you know who you are)-- they just visit Austin all the time!  So when I got in last night and saw how much the Montrose/Westheimer area had developed-- an EXPLOSION of restaurants, I'd say-- I was baffled.  Why haven't we all been spending more time in Houston???

Not only that, but just being in a major city is so refreshing.  The perfect clashing of cultures in Houston is what I love about going back to visit New York... and, hate to say it, but even more alive and well.  And about a bajillion (technical term) cultures are represented in Houston: Vietnamese, Mexican, Indian, Thai, Korean Greek, Chinese, Middle Eastern... Some gentrification?  Sure.  Entire revamping of neighborhoods into hipster havens?  Won't find that here.  In general, there's a perfect balance of young and old, gay and straight, all different races-- yep, a real honest-to-goodness city.  Just 2.5 hours from Austin, people.

Aahhmazing Korean buffalo-style oysters w/ Nuoc Mam salad

I didn't think to make reservations at Underbelly until I was already in the car.  Thank goodness I was able to snag a 9:45pm spot via Open Table. Phew!  Opened just three weeks ago, Underbelly had already been getting some press and I was really excited to see for myself what the hullaballo was about. Their motto: "If you don't like Houston, you won't like Underbelly."  So obviously I had to check it out.

The interior was rustic and woody, reminiscent of a meadhouse-- right down to the long, bench seating and vast space between table and ceiling.  I jokingly announced that Grendel had entered the building (since I was there with Buster)  :)  We were seated within view of the glass-encased meat locker and a good view of the wide open line.  Also, word to the wise-- there was a bar area at the entrance where we could've sat and ordered off the menu as well, had we neglected to make reservations.  

I immediately noticed Austin representin' with Argus Cidery and Jester King offerings on the drink menu.  Though Underbelly only offers beer and wine right now, I found it interesting that theyoffer wine from a keg...a concept that decreases production costs and saves the earth and stuff.  (but was still $14 for a glass of Malbec.. ouch! Though would've cost much more out of the bottle, apparently).

amazing roasted beet custard w/ pecan brittle... not-so-great photo..eehhh
Buster and I split the carpaccio and the oysters you see above, which both melted in the mouth in their own way.  We also had the Korean braised lamb and dumpling, which I forgot to document (they weren't that pretty anyway but they sure were tasty!)  At first, the dumplings seemed a little on the chewy side to me, but then I started to really get into that texture and realized how well it complemented the lamb.  For dessert, we ordered the beet creme caramel with pecan brittle--mmmmmm!!  Other desserts to choose from included a green curry pancake with candied peanuts and honey and a green tomato crisp.

But then! The real treat came when we were chatting with our waitress.  She mentioned how inspired the chef/owner Chris Shepherd has been by the little mom-and-pop, hole-in-the-wall places all over Houston.  When we started asking her where in particular, she said she'd go get him because he'd do a much better job explaining.

Chris Shepherd gives us the dish on his favorite Houston dives
So over he came right, side right down and began chatting with us  I'd heard of culinary tours selling out within minutes in Houston-- and this is the guy who's been leading them!  He actually had a tri-fold brochure he's created highlighting his favorite places, and he sat there and circled and starred and gave us the DL on each one... even created another short list on the side for us!  I was beyond grateful he just came over and took the time out to do that for us.  Not only that-- he then ordered a bottle of single barrel bourbon over to our table to sip on with us!  
Yeah, I'm going to need to be visiting a lot more often...
What's really interesting is-- he's worked in some of these divey spots but others he's just visited so often that they've sort of let him into their world.  He mentioned having a "Chinese grandma" and a "Mexican grandma".. and they'll just let him come back into the kitchen and show him how to make certain dishes!  So it makes the fusion-aspect of his menu that much more authentic and intriguing.  You can also watch his eyes light up talking about some of these places...he even offered to meet us tomorrow at Asia Market for some of the best Thai we'd ever had!

I left Underbelly saying "We should come back tomorrow!  Even just to get one more dish!"  Which is silly, of course, because there are mounds of other places I needed to visit in this trip.  But I will definitely be back there soon.

It was already almost midnight by the time we made it over to Catbirds to meet up with Ned and Voltaire, two Sarah Lawrence homies living in Houston.  I was particularly excited to introduce Buster to Ned and Voltaire because a) they all went to (or, in Buster's case, are about to graduate) law school, b) all enjoy a nice, cold beer or 12, and c) are all Texan born and bred.  So I knew they were going to get along just fine.
 As you can see, I was right

Oh! And then I met the Mayor of Montrose! Think a subdued, successful Leslie-type character.  He approached me and handed me a hand-scrawled note that said something along the lines of "Please help me!  I need to get rid of something and you're my only hope!"  I tried to confiscate this note but he wouldn't have it.  I did, however, get a photo with him, which is all I really needed anyway.