Lamburger Helper From Chris Shepherd’s New Cookbook

In ‘Cook Like a Local,’ the award-winning Houston chef shares the secret to this dish from the late, great Underbelly.

Lamburger Helper
Lamburger Helper Julie Soefer

With his new cookbook, Cook Like a Local, Houston chef Chris Shepherd (along with coauthor Kaitlyn Goalen) aims to expand the definition of “local” food. “Local food should reflect the people of a place,” he writes, “just as much as the ingredients of a place.” So what doors open when you bring the culinary traditions of your neighbors into your cooking?

For Shepherd, “local” means Houston, a city increasingly celebrated as home to one of the country’s most diverse populations. It’s incredibly fertile culinary territory, and Shepherd writes passionately about eating his way through the Vietnamese restaurants along Bellaire Boulevard, perusing the aisles at Korean supermarket H Mart, watching whole goats roast on spits at the Mexican restaurant El Hidalguense. He then explains how he incorporates “Houston’s overlapping, porous, and sometimes messy influences” into his own cooking, the results of which Shepherd’s many fans will recognize from two of his restaurants: Underbelly (now shuttered) and UB Preserv.

Cook Like a Local is organized with each chapter focusing on a different ingredient—fish sauce, chiles, soy, rice, spices, and corn. These are staples of the many cuisines that form the backbone of Houston food. The recipes are both sourced from Shepherd’s restaurants and inspired by Houston restaurants he adores: chạo tôm (sugarcane shrimp skewers) from Saigon Pagolac, spicy cucumbers from Mala Sichuan Bistro, shawarma meatballs from Mediterranean restaurant Aladdin.

It’s a conceit that might not work if Shepherd weren’t fully committed to giving credit where it’s due. He seems well aware that “white guy discovers fish sauce” isn’t the best look in 2019, and he takes pains to contextualize every ingredient and technique, deferring to the expertise of his fellow Houston chefs and restaurateurs. As he puts it, his goal “is to begin to unpack, if only a little, some of that multidimensionality through lessons that my friends and neighbors have been gracious enough to share, and the recipes that have come from them.” Accordingly, the book is full of photos and stories of restaurants and chefs across the Houston area, from mom-and-pop strip mall restaurants to high-end sushi counters, with Shepherd as your tour guide. The tone is enthusiastic. Instead of “white guy discovers fish sauce,” Shepherd comes across as a guy who can’t believe we’re lucky enough to live on an earth where fish sauce exists. 

Chef Chris Shepherd
Chef Chris Shepherd. Julie Soefer
06 Lamburg Helper
Left: Chef Chris Shepherd. Julie Soefer

Shepherd’s restaurant UB Preserv thrives on juxtaposition. Dishes influenced by Tex-Mex and Vietnamese and Indian and Shepherd’s own Midwest upbringing and, above all, Houston collide on the same table. Best of all is when influences combine in a single dish. Recipes that employ techniques and ingredients from all over the city abound in Cook Like a Local: Vietnamese/Cajun-braised turkey necks, Korean-inspired sloppy joes, and a BLT infused with the Sichuan bean paste doubanjiang. 

A personal favorite in this genre is the recipe for Lamburger Helper, from Underbelly, which Shepherd writes was “meant to be a bridge to carry our diners to some of the more unfamiliar (to them) dishes on the menu.” But this dish does more than that. It incorporates sambal oelek, Crystal hot sauce, ancho chile powder, cumin, and dried oregano with lamb and cheddar cheese—ingredients that pop up again and again through the book, and throughout Houston—into a spicy, cheesy, tomato-y riff on an iconic convenience food. I’m pretty sure it’s what chili mac tastes like in heaven. Or what it tastes like in Houston anyway.

This article has been updated to clarify that the recipe is from Underbelly.

Lamburger Helper

Lamburger Helper

In ‘Cook Like a Local,’ the award-winning Houston chef shares the secret to this dish from the late, great Underbelly.


For the sauce

  • 2 tablespoons unsalted butter
  • 1 tablespoon minced garlic (about 3 cloves)
  • ¼ cup small-diced white onion
  • 3 tablespoons all-purpose flour
  • 2 cups heavy cream
  • 3 tablespoons sambal oelek
  • 1 tablespoon Crystal hot sauce
  • cups shredded cheddar cheese
  • Kosher salt
  • Freshly ground black pepper

For the pasta

  • 1 pound fusilli pasta
  • Kosher salt
  • Freshly ground black pepper
  • 1 tablespoon vegetable oil
  • 1 pound ground lamb
  • ½ cup diced white onion
  • 1 tablespoon minced garlic (about 3 cloves)
  • 1 tablespoon ancho chile powder
  • 2 teaspoons ground cumin
  • 1 teaspoon crushed red pepper
  • 1 teaspoon dried oregano
  • ¼ cup diced tomato
  • 1 cup dry white wine
  • cups shredded cheddar cheese
  • 1 cup cherry tomatoes (halved)


  • Preheat the oven to 375°F.

Cheese Sauce

  • In a large saucepan, melt the butter over medium-high heat.
  • Add the garlic and onion and sprinkle the flour over.
  • Cook, stirring occasionally, for 3 minutes, or until the onion and garlic smell fragrant and the flour evenly coats the vegetables.
  • Slowly whisk in the heavy cream and bring to a simmer. Add the sambal and hot sauce and gently simmer for 5 minutes.
  • Slowly whisk in the cheese, then season to taste with salt and pepper. Set aside.

Pasta + Lamb Mixture

  • Bring a large pot of water to a rolling boil over high heat and add 3 tablespoons of salt.
  • Add the pasta, and cook until just under al dente, about 9 minutes, or a few minutes under what the package directions tell you.
  • Drain the pasta, and run it under cold water to stop the cooking process.
  • Meanwhile, in a large sauté pan, heat the oil over medium-high heat until shimmering-hot.
  • Add the lamb, spread it out to cover the pan, and cook, stirring occasionally, until browned, about 6 minutes.
  • Drain almost all of the grease from the pan and discard. Stir in the onion and garlic, and continue cooking for 2 minutes, until slightly softened.
  • Add the chile powder, cumin, crushed red pepper, and oregano, and cook for 3 minutes, until very aromatic.
  • Add the tomato and wine and let simmer, stirring frequently so nothing sticks, until the liquid has almost evaporated, about 10 minutes. Remove the pan from the heat.
  • Toss the pasta and lamb mixture together in a large bowl.
  • Fold in the cheese sauce and 1 cup of the cheddar.
  • Pour the mixture into a 13-by-9-inch casserole dish or a 12-inch cast-iron skillet, and top with the remaining ½-cup cheddar and the cherry tomatoes.
  • Bake for 35 to 40 minutes, until bubbly and golden brown.
  • Let cool for 5 to 10 minutes before serving big spoonfuls to all your friends.

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