There’s a whole lot more to Texas than brisket and Friday Night Lights. Don’t get us wrong — both of those things are fantastically delicious in their own right, but in case you weren’t aware, the food and wine world in the Lone Star State is a-booming. In Houston in particular, the innovative spot Underbelly has been fueling that scene by putting a Vietnamese, Korean and Asian riff on Texas standbys, which opens up a whole new world of wine pairing options for sommelier Matthew Pridgen.
“It was a very fun challenge for me,” Pridgen says about assembling wine pairings and a list that has to sync up with things like fish sauce, kimchee and lemongrass. “I’ve never worked in a restaurant that had Asian food at all. I love Asian food and have always eaten it, but it’s never been centered around wine for me. There was a lot of trial and error — seeing what worked, what didn’t,” Pridgen continues.
Another variable that makes his job tricky? “We change the menu every day, so chef Chris may have a new dish one day and I’ll have the perfect wine for it, and then the next day the dish is gone. That in itself makes it fun as well.”
Hanoi in Houston
The “Chef Chris” he mentions is Chris Shepherd, with whom Pridgen worked at the Spanish-inspired Catalan for five years before the two opened up Underbelly to rave reviews. In 2014, Shepherd won the James Beard Award for Best Chef: Southwest award for Underbelly’s cuisine (he was also nomianted in 2013), and the restaurant has been a must-eat for locals and travelers alike.
When developing the menu for Underbelly, Shepherd wanted to focus on local ingredients, be it vegetables or beef or seafood, putting a Texas spin on farm-to-table. Pridgen followed that mentality with the wine list, but since wine grapes aren’t exactly a bumper crop in Texas, he goes by this mantra: The only wines that make it onto his list are those that come from family owned-and-operated vineyards.
“Over the years I’ve found that the relationships with people who produce their own wines, in the end it’s a better product,” Pridgen explains. “Someone who cares, tends their own vines and has a love for what they do. I wanted to do something different, and obviously the chef’s preference is everything local, so my decision was to try to make the wine list mimic what he’s doing with the two.”
One of those bottles that fits the bill and made his list is from famed the Ribera del Duero winery Viña Sastre, which Pridgen only recently had access to, but is thrilled with the addition to his list.
“I had heard about it … so I jumped on the chance to get it on the list. I love it,” Pridgen says of the high-rated tempranillo. “I think it’s a great combination of new world and old world. It’s fairly restrained for the style of wine that it is — it’s a great bottle to introduce people. I like to introduce people to new wines and things they wouldn’t have heard of. It was quite a treat for me.”
So what would it go with on Underbelly’s Houston-meets-Hanoi menu?
We have family style options on the menu — the beef roast that we do there is one of my top pairings for that wine. And then our butcher’s cut which changes nightly as well — it can be a ribeye one night, strip the next. The smoked beef collar is another fantastic pairing.”
Pridgen views Ribera del Duero’s “bold flavors” as a perfect foil for meats given the Texas treatment. “We do a lot of beef, a lot of pork and goat and things like that. Oftentimes those meats are smoked, which is a perfect from Ribera del Duero. Anything that has a full flavor, a little smokiness to it — it’s a perfect pairing.”
Smoked beef and red wine seems logical, but for many who haven’t drank a whole lot of wine with Asian food, ordering a bottle can be a bit daunting, which is what makes Pridgen’s job so fun. It also gives him a bit more leeway to get his diners to try something new since they don’t have any preconceived notions.
“People come in and ask for recommendations with something spicy, or something with a lot of fish sauce. They don’t have any idea what to order,” Pridgen laughs. “When they eat Asian food, they’re generally going out for a quick bite or ordering in. That opens up the possibilities in new wines here, new pairings, and it’s fun from that standpoint. And it’s an ongoing learning experience for myself.”
Houston, We Don’t Have a Wine Problem
The Houston food and wine scene has had a shift over the past 5-10 years in favor of the diner, according to Pridgen, thanks in part to a focus on pricing when it comes to wine.
“It was a trend that started a little over 10 years ago by a few restaurants offering really good wine at good prices, and the trend has followed that. It’s nice to see you can walk into a restaurant and not have it marked up 4x over the cost of the bottle.”
Speaking of… it turns out that thanks to Texas’ liquor laws, because Underbelly doesn’t serve booze, they’re also allowed to sell their wines in a retail format as well. So, their wine list follows suit with good pricing, and then if you like the bottle you were drinking at dinner, you can buy another — or a case of it — at a 40% discount on your way out.
“Someone eats here and says ‘I loved this bottle, where can I get it?’ and I say ‘Here!’” Then they’ll either grab that wine, or put their trust in Pridgen’s sommelier skills to serve as their wine clerk as well. “We have a lot of regular customers who come in once a month and they say ‘Mix a case for me — six red, six white.’ Sometimes they’ll come back and say six more of this one, or just do it all again with new wines.’”
A top-rated restaurant with inventive, delicious food, a focused and meticulously-compiled wine list … plus a wine shop? Texas, forever.