This weekend we attended an “Off the Wall” Vietnamese Family-Style Dinner at Underbelly, featuring Ryan Pera (Revival Market, Coltivare) and Saigon Pagolac.  Chris Shepherd (James Beard Best Chef Southwest 2014) aims to tell the story of Houston food at Underbelly, “showcasing the city’s cultural diversity that inspires his menu and the trifecta of farming, ranching and fishing that offers a bounty of local ingredients.”  Photographs of those that have inspired Chef Shepherd are mounted on the wall as you enter the restaurant.  The “Off the Wall” dinner series features some of the people in the photographs — they’re invited to collaborate on a dinner at Underbelly.  They prepare dishes representative of their food, and Chris Shepherd prepares dishes that are his interpretation of their food.  Proceeds from the dinner series go towards an Underbelly Scholarship at The Art Institute of Houston, which is where Chris Shepherd earned his culinary arts degree.  At each dinner he recounts what it was like to work in a kitchen while attending school full-time, as well as the burden of paying off student loans, and the scholarship was created to offer financial assistance to culinary students similarly working and attending school.

We sat down for the family-style meal at tables with large plates of lettuce and herbs to use as we desired, as well as red and white wines from Duchman Family Winery.  The meal began with a light Vietnamese Seafood Delight Salad (goi sua do bien) from Saigon Pagolac, a perfect summer salad:


Next was a colorful and unusual salad that we loved from Ryan Pera, consisting of pickled butternut squash, Revival Market beef jerky, crispy shrimp, candied Louisiana pecans, basil, agave, and lime.


Although Chef Pera is not Vietnamese and does not own a Vietnamese restaurant, he told the crowd that he simply loves Vietnamese food.  His dishes were among our favorites.  By the way, Chef Pera was looking incredibly trim!  (I’m always in awe of a chef who can lose weight while being around food all the time.)

The next two dishes were also from Ryan Pera, a crispy Vietnamese crepe filled with smoked pork, rock shrimp, summer tomatoes, and corn, seasoned with garum (a type of fish sauce):


And one of our favorite dishes of the evening, deep-friedTexas quail with clams, wild rice, tamarind, Revival Market chicharron, and lime:


The Beef Wrapped in Betel Leaf (bo la lot) from Saigon Pagolac was another winner at our table:


The next dish, which was the least favorite at our table, was Grilled Shrimp Paste on Sugarcane (chao tom) from Saigon Pagolac, which although interesting had a rubbery texture and was quite bland:


Lemongrass Beef from Underbelly, on the other hand, was loaded with flavor and disappeared quickly:


The final dish from Ryan Pera was a whole roasted gulf fish with Vietnamese herbs, spicy sautéed greens, and soft garlic.  Keeping in mind that beauty is only skin deep, the fish was delicate and flaky and delicious:


The last savory dish, Crispy Green Beans with Caramelized Fish Sauce, was from Underbelly.  In the words of my friend Tracy, I wanted to marry those green beans.  Everyone was looking forward to them, and pounced on them as soon as they hit the table:


Dessert, provided by Cloud 10 Creamery (check out the flavors on their website), was a Pandan and Matcha Push-Up Pop, a dish that is best described not with words, but with soft moans:


The meal ended with an Asian Fruit Cocktail (che thai) from Saigon Pagolac, an intriguing pale pink beverage/dessert/soup made with (I think) various kinds of tropical fruits (jackfruit? longan?), rectangles of flavored gelatin, and coconut milk.  As much as I enjoyed it, I would have liked it even more if I’d known what exactly was in it:


Everyone at our table had a great time and a great meal.  For us, half the fun of going to these kinds of events is the interesting people we meet at them.  We went with another couple, and met two more couples at our table.  The gentleman seated next to me invented the Corkcicle — imagine that!  It was selected as a one of Oprah’s Favorite Things in 2012.  Oprah!  Oprah Winfrey!  How cool (and, I would guess, lucrative) is that?  And the woman seated next to my friend is an antiques dealer who sold Chris Shepherd the cleaver that is permanently imbedded in the wall at Underbelly.  He has since bought several others from her, and came by the table to show one off:


There’s only one dinner left in the current series (hopefully there will be more in the future).  It’s on August 3, and will feature barbecue from Gatlin’s, Blood Brothers, Feges BBQ, and of course, Underbelly.  There’ll be 4 pits set up in the parking lot, and I am sure it will be a barbecue meal to remember.  If you hurry, there’s still time to reserve a seat . . . .



I found this 1940s produce crate label for Dominator Tomatoes, used by the T.O. Tomasello Company of Watsonville, California, on ebay.  It features a U.S. fighter plane.  I got it along with several other labels featuring airplanes, thinking it would be cute to frame them for my then-young son’s airplane-themed room.

I never did get around to framing those labels.  Never finished collecting all of the state quarters with him either, but somehow we’ve managed to carry on.

This time of year, tomatoes do indeed dominate.  The tomato season in Houston is short, and the tomatoes are not pretty, but they taste great.  These heirloom tomatoes from the farmers market a few weeks ago were wonderful with sliced red onions and kirby cucumbers, drizzled with a little olive oil and red wine vinegar.


Although the Houston tomato season is pretty much over, we’re enjoying vine-ripened tomatoes from other parts of the U.S.  My research indicates that Florida is the largest producer of fresh market tomatoes, whereas California produces almost all of the tomatoes processed in the U.S.  The USDA says that we eat between 22-24 pounds of tomatoes per person annually, with more than half of those tomatoes used in ketchup and tomato sauce.  And according to one survey, 93% of U.S. gardening households grow tomatoes.

The scientific name for tomatoes is lycopersicum (technically, either lycopersicon lycopersicum or solanum lycopersicum, depending on who you think is correct — oh, the controversies that arise in the plant-naming world!), which means “wolf peach,” and has its origins in German werewolf myths.  According to legend, the nightshade plant (tomatoes are in the nightshade family) was used in potions by witches and sorcerers to change themselves into werewolves.  When the similar, but larger tomato arrived in Europe, it was called “wolf peach.”

Tomatoes are believed to have originated in the Andes.  The word tomato comes from the Aztec “xitomate,” which means “plump thing with a navel.”  So the next time your loved one refers to you as a hot tomato, don’t be so flattered.

Botanically speaking, a tomato is a fruit.  For culinary purposes, which, let’s face it, are far more important than botanical purposes, a tomato is considered a vegetable.  As I told my son, when he was studying for his theology final and trying to explain the difference between knowledge and wisdom:

Knowledge is knowing a tomato is a fruit; 

Wisdom is not putting it in a fruit salad
Well, they may not be great in fruit salad, but tomatoes — especially ripe summer tomatoes — are wonderful in vegetable salads.  Inspired by the Dominator tomato crate label, this recipe for Pomodoro Basilico Salad makes great use of the season’s fresh tomatoes, and really allows the tomato to be the star of this salad.  For the very best results, use a good quality olive oil and balsamic vinegar.

Recipe type: Salad, Vegetable, Vegetarian
  • 1 pint grape tomatoes, halved
  • 12 calamata olives, sliced
  • 6 large basil leaves, thinly sliced into ribbons
  • ½ of a small red onion, thinly sliced
  • 3 tablespoons olive oil
  • 2 tablespoons red wine vinegar
  • 1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar
  • Salt and pepper, to taste
  • ¼ cup grated Parmesan cheese
  1. Place tomatoes, olives, basil, and onion in a medium bowl. In a small bowl, whisk together oil and vinegars, and pour over tomato mixture. Stir gently to combine. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Just before serving, sprinkle with Parmesan cheese.




You say to-may-to, I say delicious