Big D. The Metroplex. DFW. However you prefer to refer to the sprawling urban-suburban-rural region of Northern Texas where skyscrapers nudge up to huge swaths of empty fields and McMansions, the eating is Texas-sized exciting here in the nation’s 9th most populated metropolitan area. As Frank Loesser immortalized in his classic show tune from “The Most Happy Fella,” in “Big D, Little A, Double L, A S…that spells Dallas, where every home’s a palace…and there’s oil all over your address.”
O.K., the oil really is more a Houston trait since the Gulf of Mexico is nowhere near Dallas. And not every home in Dallas is a Deion Sanders mansion-sized palace. But everything about Big D is, well, quite big. The jungles of freeways and the traffic with such sprawl and reliance on cars can give Los Angeles some stiff competition. Except Los Angeles still doesn’t have the big tolls that some Dallas freeways charge, a real trap for visitors to the Metroplex.
No stadium can compete size- or price-wise with the massive, billion-dollar spaceship built by Cowboys owner Jerry Jones in the middle of nowhere, also known as Arlington. Even the baseball stadium, Rangers Ballpark in Arlington, is at least the 7th largest ballpark in Major League Baseball.
Of course in the summer, Big D gets some Dallas-sized temperature readings, where the main challenge of the day becomes how to constantly remain in a swimming pool or air-conditioned building. In Dallas, the triple digit heat is intense, but it is a dry heat as they like to say, unlike down in humid Houston.
All of this grandiose construction and mentality made Dallas a classic example of unsuccessful civic planning, where the actual Downtown Dallas was a complete afterthought and all of the money and action was in the suburbs. Not all of this is entirely solved, but today the Metroplex has a number of winning neighborhoods, including Downtown Dallas.
For nearly all of these neighborhoods, as is the case with so many urban planning studies these days, the rejuvenating cause has been food and drink.
Today all stereotypes of Dallas as the land of barbeque, burgers, and Tex Mex are being shed. Yes, you can still find some stellar brisket at the Lockhart Smokehouse, and superb burgers at the cult favorite Maple & Motor. In addition, the Tex-Mex legend Joe T. Garcia’s in Fort Worth is still going strong with its chimichanga- and margarita-powered strength.
But Dallas is a real big “D” destination because of the following neighborhoods. That would be “D” for dining. Shiny, slightly glossy Uptown boasts a host of exciting restaurants along the vintage McKinney Avenue trolley line. Just southeast of Downtown is Deep Ellum, one of the great neighborhood names and also home to one of the more intensely debated barbeque purveyors in the country, Sonny Bryan’s. Just west of Downtown and the empty Trinity River is Tim Byres’ now almost legendary, slightly haute barbeque restaurant, Smoke, that is five minutes from the heart of town, but feels like it’s an oasis in a Kansas prairie.
The Oak Cliff neighborhood near Downtown is best known as being the hideout of Lee Harvey Oswald. Now, it is also known for its farm-to-table dining restaurants, markets, and cafes such as Bolsa and Oddfellow’s, and arguably Dallas’ most impressive restaurant presently, boasting the humble yet innovative Italian cooking of David Uygur at Lucia.
How about Downtown? Well, let’s say the actual city center is still looking for its food renaissance. A stretch of Main Street boasts one of the city’s finest hotels (The Joule) and one of the city’s leading craft cocktail bars (The Chesterfield). Quite close to Downtown is the very exciting new Arts District, with the Dallas Art Museum, the superb Nasher Sculpture Garden, and the Crow Asian Art Museum.
The art also is accompanied by the culinary art from celebrity chef Stephan Pyles’ two restaurants and the superb Japanese restaurant Tei-An. Tei-An’s sparkling sushi from uni to salmon roe could compete with the best on either coast, but its cold soba is the real specialty of chef-owner Teiichi Sakurai. For a pure, subtle spice experience, enjoy the soba with daikon only. For an experience with unique sauces that unfortunately cover up the subtle tastes of the superb noodles, try the sampler of walnut, pecan, soy, and black sesame dipping sauces. The pecan sauce was the winner of the quartet.
Then there is the other town in DFW: Fort Worth. The Hospital area of Fort Worth boasts several noteworthy establishments, including Ellerbe Fine Foods and the coffeehouse Avoca, in a residential area. In addition, there is the Stockyards District where rodeos, longhorns, Billy Bob’s Honky Tonk, and the tunes of Garth Brooks mingle with restaurants from Top Chefs. You can get cold Lone Star or craft mixology here. You can valet park your Mercedes or valet hitch your horse here in this outpost of the Wild West.
Arlington, Texas, home of Six Flags Over Texas and the football and baseball stadiums? Unless you’re interested in the two-pound Boomstick that is as tall as me, bring take-out. Having been to twenty-seven of the thirty current ballparks in the country, it’s very safe to say that the Rangers Ballpark is neck and neck with Detroit for the most unexciting ballpark cuisine.
Dallas has some big name chefs in two of the fathers of Southwestern cuisine, Dean Fearing and Stephan Pyles, along with one of the country’s leading television chefs, Tim Love. Dallas is home to some of the country’s biggest names in steakhouses, Al Biernat’s and Del Frisco’s. Dallas is now the place for some of the country’s most exciting, new restaurants, such as the seafood specialist Driftwood, Oak, and Lucia. Dallas has one of the country’s leading art museums and most iconic skylines. The performing arts are catching up in Dallas, but it remains one of the country’s most passionate sports cities. How bout’ them Cowboys? Dallas of course has some enormous history too, being the site of one of the country’s most tragic events, the JFK assassination at Dealey Plaza.
Dallas might not be starting any food or drink trends. Texas wine country isn’t exactly California or even the Finger Lakes either. Yet the seasonal, quality ingredient- and chef-driven trends certainly are in full force, making the Dallas-Fort Worth area one of the country’s most dynamic regions.
Five Most Memorable Dishes of Dallas
Bolsa: The Reuben with Housemade Pastrami, Swiss, Sauerkraut, 1,000 Island Dressing on Marble Rye
A sparkling version of the classic Reuben, where every element is top-tier quality. Best is the pastrami meat, where you can taste the barbeque glaze vividly. It could compete with the best barbeque in Lockhart. Everything shines at Bolsa, which not only is a restaurant, but a high-caliber ingredients and produce market and one of Dallas’ premier cocktail bars. The concept here of bruschetta with a diverse array of toppings is thoroughly brilliant. Don’t look past the decidedly anti-pastrami reuben sandwich with the messy, olive oil focaccia sandwich encompassing cucumber, avocado, the thickest of summer tomatoes, goat cheese, and arugula, all smeared with a vivid walnut pesto to compete with Genoa’s best.
Fearing’s: BBQ Shrimp Taco with Mango-Pickled Red Onion Salad and Smoky Citrus Vinaigrette
The dish of Dallas. A crisp shell holds buttery shrimp that transported me to the finest langoustines served in Paris, given a magical jolt by the fruit elements. This is a signature “signature dish.”
Fearing’s: Maple-Black Peppercorn Soaked Buffalo Tenderloin on Brazos Valley Jalapeno Grits with a Tangle of Greens, and a Butternut Squash Taquito
Here, an argument could be made for buffalo’s supremacy to beef. There’s no need for the taquito. Meat doesn’t get any more robust or tender than here. A beautiful, toro tuna ruby colored rare to medium rare. Or as the French love to say, saignant. The grits are borderline out of this world.
Oak: Gianduja Chocolate Panna Cotta with Hazelnut Blondie, Candied Orange, and Patron Citronage Ice Cream
A masterpiece dessert from Sarah Green. The key is the hazelnut blondie, making an argument to never have chocolate brownies again, complementing the silky smooth panna cotta. The two beautifully contrast with a strip of crushed chocolate wafers. There are all sorts of neat texture differences here. Then the dish becomes quite the zinger from the candied orange and the ice cream that made me think I should open an ice cream parlor next. Oak happens to have one of the most handsome, sleekest rooms in the city. A sterling design in the Design District. Don’t even think of skipping the sensational brussel sprouts with the perfect ratio of panko bread crumbs to minced garlic. They’re vegetable candy.
Stephan Pyles: Trio of Ceviches: Ahi Tuna with Watermelon and Pepitas, Salmon Veracruzano with Capers, Green Olives, and Jalapenos, Snapper with Smoked Corn and Chile Pop Rocks
Ceviche doesn’t get better than this. The fish tastes as fresh as any I tried an hour after auction at Tsukiji in Tokyo. Pyles is a master with the textures and spices to enhance the raw fish. The jalapeno and salty capers with salmon, the sweet and crunch with the pale snapper, the refreshing watermelon with beefy tuna—it’s all nothing short of stellar. This is virtuosic work.
The Concept of Dallas: Out with the Old
Long ago Tex-Mex evolved into Modern Southwest cuisine to lead the way in Dallas. Now chefs are spanning the globe, whether it’s Italy at Lucia or Japan at Tei-An. Even seafood gets Le Bernardin-like sophistication at Driftwood, and we’re not exactly near a major body of water.
Long ago Dallas was also about “Texas-sized” portions. Yes, you can still get outrageous deep-fried twinkies and such at the State Fair. But the concept really hit home when sampling spins on Modern Southwest cuisine at Stephan Pyles and Smoke.
While Pyles’ phenomenal ceviches are controlled in portion and the gold standard for creative ceviches in this country, too many of Pyles’ dishes seem out-of-date or outrageously sized, or both. His signature tamale tart with Jonah crab barely has any of the promised seafood and lacks any dimension outside of a few vague spices. I adored the pork jowls in a peach barbeque sauce, but the attempt towards modernization with mustard-compressed peaches tasted no different than regular peaches. Nova Scotia halibut was dry, but its deeply nuanced lobster adobo broth that tasted of where the sea meets the rugged west with grilled baby octopus and chorizo showed flashes of Pyles’ potential. The exciting sounding Southwestern Caesar salad is really a Caesar salad surrounded by a parmigiano reggiano crisp that is called a “chicharron” because…well, there’s no pork involved and it doesn’t look or taste like crisp, salty pork skin, so just because we all love bacon?
All the while at the newer restaurant Smoke, Tim Byres turns barbeque upside down, with none of the compressed melon or coconut foam nonsense of attempting to be modern. All of his dishes could be heavy, yet each has a chefly touch. You can’t go wrong with the straight andouille pork sausage or coffee-cured brisket, but lunch is really the time visit for brisket in a cornbread hash with a poached egg, pearl onions, and green chile rajas sauce, or eggs benedict transformed by Smoke’s North Carolina (!) style, pulled, all-natural barbeque pork meat. Nothing is a preparation lost in time here or sized more for a family of four than a proper human serving. The same at Bolsa. The same at Oak and Tei-An. The same even at Fearing’s for the most part.
Yet Pyles’ 12-ounce, bone-in Cowboy Rib Eye comes hidden under 12 more ounces of soggy onion rings and an acre of pinto bean-wild mushroom ragout. Some parts of the steak are Peter Luger tender, but too many bites were of gristle. The signature “Heaven & Hell Cake” veered more towards the latter, making those Cheesecake Factory cheesecakes seem exciting and as dainty as teacakes. A bland stack of layers of angel’s food cake and devil’s food cake could not be saved here by the layers of peanut butter mousse and a wan chocolate ganache. A meal at Stephan Pyles starts with such promise. Then what was a serious dining experience becomes downright comical. It’s too bad.
It seems like the new guard is taking over. Hopefully the fathers of the Dallas food scene can dispatch the gargantuan-sized clunkers and find that second wind.
The Drink of Dallas: Double Barrel Bloody Mary at Smoke
Wow, what a way to wake up. This exhilarating thrill ride of Tito’s vodka (from Texas) and Tim Byres’ own roasted tomato & chile mix with a dash of olive juice is one of the spiciest, wickedest, most barbeque-tasting ways to wake up imaginable. That pickle-pepper relish is a beast too.
For the premier cocktail bar in the city, Cedars Social is the choice without a doubt. Everything from Michael Martenson and his crew is top notch. I seldom re-visit restaurants or bars when in cities for a handful of nights. Yet this spot deserved my time multiple evenings, because it is easily one of the foremost craft cocktail bars in the country, with none of the attitude of many of its peers. The bartenders fell in love with my affection for mescal, testing several triumphs on me, including a Pisco Sour à la Mezcal, a Negroni with mezcal, and a nameless cocktail of blueberry, cilantro, lime, mezcal, tequila, and agave.
I even had the opportunity to name the Mezcal Negroni. The bartender thought of “The Executioner,” but that’s more appropriate for Smoke’s Bloody Mary. I was inspired by the concept of Italy meets Mexico with a Negroni mingling with mezcal. In Copenhagen, I enjoyed a cocktail called the “Senor Hansi,” with mezcal and a beer float that is only described on the menu as “When a Mexican falls in love with a German.” Perhaps the “Cancun Holiday,” “Pancho Villa Berlusconi,” or “Venetian Fiesta?” Do note that Cedars Social happens to make a very noteworthy, exceedingly juicy burger to go with all the cocktails.
Downtown at The Chesterfield, Eddie “Lucky” Campbell crafts an impressive “Texas Mule” with Tito’s vodka, jalapeno, lime, mint, and ginger beer. Unfortunately one of his overworked, fellow mixologists forgot a couple of ingredients in one cocktail I tried. You know when the habenero is missing.
Gabe Sanchez is doing some incredible work, I’m told, at the Black Swan Saloon in Deep Ellum. I enjoyed a Manhattan, balancing that sweet spot of sweet vermouth to Bourbon, at the Mansion on Turtle Creek’s bar, the grande dame hotel of Dallas.
Unfortunately the Moscow Mule was nothing but ginger beer and melted ice. Really, go to the venerable Mansion for the exciting cuisine of chef Bruno Davaillon and then to see more affluent, sixty-plus year olds dancing from three or more cocktails in the bar than you’ve ever seen before.
Beer or Wine?
This is beer country, though sometimes the options seem limited to Lone Star. Three craft breweries currently operate in the region: Deep Ellum, Rahr & Sons, and Franconia. I enjoyed visiting Deep Ellum during its open house on Saturdays that seems to be the de facto, local weekend activity of choice. The IPA is quite hoppy and enjoyable, while the Dallas Blonde does light beers no favors. The Double Brown Stout boasts a fine body with no complexity, and the Farmhouse Wit is a hefeweizen crossed with a raspberry lambic.
Rahr & Sons’ crafts a terrific Texas Red, a decent blonde, and the best, a Gravel Road German Altbier. Dallas’ leading craft brew bars are the Meddlesome Moth and the Libertine. If you’re in Fort Worth, check out the revamped White Elephant Saloon at the Stockyards, where Tim Love has elevated the cocktails, but the beer of choice still is Lone Star or if you’re gourmet, Shiner Bock. Then try one of Love’s nearby restaurants (Lonesome Dove Western Bistro, Love Shack Burgers, Woodshed Barbeque).
Shall We Grab Coffee?
Yes, even though Dallas is still far behind in the “Third Wave” coffee movement that has swept the country from Portland to San Francisco to New York to North Carolina, some good coffee can be found. By far and away, the finest coffee roaster, drip coffee, and espresso can be found at Cultivar near White Rock Lake. Best of all, Cultivar shares a space with the innovative creations at Good 2 Go Tacos. Gone are the days of margaritas with Mexican food. Yes, tacos and lattes, that’s where it’s at.
But Cultivar is no coffee house. For that, head to Avoca in Fort Worth, who also roasts its own beans, but the espresso seemed a tad acidic, despite a lovely body and crema. Decent espresso can be found at the sterile Mercantile in Downtown who serves Intelligentsia beans. Skip Pearl Cup in Downtown, who only serves watery espresso in cups, the worst of both worlds. Possibly the best coffeehouse is Oddfellow’s in Oak Cliff, the kind of place with great coffee, great buffalo fried chicken mac & cheese, and some of the city’s favorite burgers and pancakes.
Restaurant of Dallas: Fearing’s
Dean Fearing really is a rock star. He really does play the guitar for a band consisting only of chefs called “the Barbwires.” With Pyles and Robert Del Grande of Houston, Fearing is also the father of the 1980’s Modern Southwest cuisine movement that swept Texas dining off its feet into the modern dining world. When Fearing was the top toque at the Mansion on Turtle Creek from 1984 to 2007, maybe only Troy Aikman could top him for celebrity status in Dallas. Now, Fearing runs the show that is Fearing’s, the glamorous restaurant and swanky cocktail bar (The Rattlesnake Bar) at Uptown’s ultra-luxurious Ritz Carlton.
The service could be smoother and the tables are strangely high, meant more for basketball players than normal diners. But for the most part, Fearing’s cuisine soars, from the signature barbeque shrimp taco to the signature maple-soaked buffalo tenderloin. A few new creations have too many competing elements, and our server was off the mark recommending the banana pudding with beignets that pales in excitement compared to the two-bite lobster tacos or a tuna duo with sashimi paired with crushed mango and a spicy tempura tuna roll.
The two rooms make everyone look beautiful. The front room seems straight out of a Jane Austin countryside manor in lush drapery. The main room is rocking, boasting a slick modern edge and the open kitchen that manages to not be too loud. It’s incredibly strange that the service staff wears jeans and dress shirts with an awkwardly popped collar, while the dressed up crowd is sporting their best cocktail dresses and sport coats. At least the diners dress to impress. Just focus on the scene and the Fearing’s cuisine.
The scene at Fearing’s feels like what Spago must have been in 1980’s Beverly Hills: exclusive, rocking, and don’t even think of showing up without giving your Mercedes to the valet.
Fearing’s style of cooking may not be new, but it will always be exciting. It will always represent Dallas.
Symbol of Dallas:
And finally from Dallas…