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Cochinita pibil, above, and lonestar mushrooms (mushrooms with carrot escabeche puree and homemade chimichurri), below, at Belly of the Beast. These are in a takeout container (dine-in is available); the restaurant suggests ordering online ahead of time, so as to get items before they sell out.
Belly of the Beast is a true mom-and-pop operation. In the center of it all is chef/owner Thomas Bille. His mom works the counter and makes corn tortillas. Dad helps butcher beef and pork. His older brother has worked the front of house. Wife Elizabeth stops in to help while handling communications. Together, they’re cooking up the kind of exciting, ultra-modern Mexican fare that makes a visit here a necessity.
Yup, you’d better get in that car and drive to Old Town Spring.
“Ultimately I wanted to be closer to home,” says Bille about opening Belly of the Beast. “Living in LA I used to live about 20 minutes away from where I worked, and it would take an hour and a half, maybe two hours to get there. I said if I ever was going to open something, I want it to be close to me.”
Bille moved to Spring from Los Angeles in October 2018, looking for a better quality of life and inexpensive housing. Though he worked at the Ritz-Carlton, Ford’s Filling Station, and Otium (under Final Table winner Timothy Hollingsworth) in the City of Angels, he was originally contemplating taking a break from the restaurant industry upon coming to Houston. That changed as he was looking for jobs in Houston, ultimately turning in a resumé at Xochi.
The day he sent in his resumé, a bit of good luck came back to him.
“They happened to be in LA that very day,” says Bille about chef Hugo Ortega. So, they brunched together. “We had a conversation, and I told him I was coming to Houston. He said he had a job for me, but I didn’t know if he was just being courteous. I was like ‘Well, I am coming! For real!'”
Bille worked at Xochi for about four months upon arriving in H-Town. After a short stint at Clark Cooper Concepts, he struck out on his own.
“When I left Otium I really didn’t want to work for anyone anymore,” he says. “It was time to write my own songs.”
Belly of the Beast opened in February; at that point, Bille was hoping to roll out a new-American-style menu, but he started with what he called “a love letter to Mexican-American cuisine.” Then the Covid-19 pandemic reached Houston, and Bille found he wasn’t getting the support necessary to keep the restaurant open. So in something of a last-ditch effort, he pivoted by becoming a dinner-only outfit and serving family meals—dinners of fried chicken and short ribs. Spring residents responded kindly.
“They embraced it and really reached out and helped me,” says Bille. “It’s great to see people support something they truly like and want to see succeed.”
He’s now keeping a Mexican menu featuring tacos with enormous flavor, like the marinated cochinita pibil—served with a black bean puree, pickled onions, and charred habanero salsa—and lightly smoked cachete de res—served with salsa verde, onions, and cilantro. But the inventive starters, like tender octopus, with chicharrón and a combination avocado puree and peanut salsa, and a deeply satisfying refried chickpea hummus, with queso fresco and almond salsa macha, are true standout dishes. The best bet is to bring a few folks, sit on patio with its scattered picnic tables and share a bunch of dishes.
But to hear Bille talk about his dishes is something else entirely. For instance, the refried chickpea hummus, a unique dish called Mexican hummus, is inspired by his daughter who is both of Mexican and Armenian heritage.
“I incorporate a lot of things that are from my upbringing and surroundings into my cooking,” says Bille.
That kind of talk sounds like a chef who needs to open more and bigger restaurants in the future. Ultimately that’s a possibility, but for now Bille is happy to be fascinating diners up in his family-packed digs in Old Town Spring.