By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
Dallas has done such a good job of disguising its edible traditions that few eaters—here or elsewhere—can confidently describe the city's cuisine. Atlanta has grits, Chicago has pizza, Memphis has barbecue and Dallas has—well, mussels. Dallas' untethered cuisine is so thoroughly out-of-step with how most epicureans are now thinking that the city's begun to exist in a sort of self-imposed isolation, a decidedly unhealthy position for a city with culinary ambitions.
The Dallas dining scene is broken, as anyone who's eaten out lately can attest. It's slipped from being a city that drew international attention for its renegade restaurants to a town where corporations serve as tastemakers, chefs aren't taking chances and customers are so stingy with their food dollars that restaurants can't engage in the type of fine-dining play that distinguishes cities such as Chicago and San Francisco.
For every optimist who insists the situation's improving, there's another setback: In the past year alone, Sharon Hage shuttered York Street, a celebrated shrine to locavorism; Avner Samuel replaced his flamboyantly excessive Aurora with a sensibly priced bistro; and Go Fish Ocean Club closed almost as soon as Top Chef made executive chef Tiffany Derry a nationally known star. Industry insiders say they can imagine what a flourishing dining scene in Dallas might look like, but aren't entirely confident the city has the goods to get there.
Chef Bryan Caswell, the force behind REEF in Houston, has probably been popular since he was small. Or, at least, since he was young: The 6-foot-4-inch, 240-pound Houstonian has a smile and knockabout charm that would have made the producers of The Next Iron Chef pant even if his résumé didn't include a James Beard nomination and Best New Chef title from Food & Wine Magazine. Caswell has friends in kitchens around the world.
"I don't know a single chef in Dallas," Caswell admits. "I know chefs in every other town."
Caswell's leery of denigrating Dallas, an activity he maintains isn't an automatic corollary to his constant Houston boosterism. "There are very few things I'll debate with a customer," he says. "My gumbo and how much I love Houston." He protests he barely knows Dallas.
"Every time I go to Dallas, I get lost, go to jail or get the shit kicked out of me," he says.
Still, it looks to Caswell like Houston, San Antonio and Austin have eclipsed the state's biggest metro area.
"You guys are almost playing fourth fiddle," he says.
Caswell's assessment wouldn't surprise chef Stephan Pyles, who's stuck by Dallas as it's wandered off the national stage.
"I know we're not a great dining city," he says. "It's hard to accept that. I thought we'd be further along, but we're not. We're in the second tier. I think we're right up there, but there's a big gap from tier one to tier two."
Pyles, of course, was a member of the "Texas Mafia," a group of four under-40 chefs who blended the regional fervor spawned by the Bicentennial with a reverence for Diana Kennedy's take on classic Mexican cookery and came up with what San Francisco Chronicle restaurant critic Michael Bauer in 1983 christened the "new Southwestern cuisine." The style didn't have any obvious antecedents, which was exactly the point: Emboldened by the ascent of nouvelle cuisine and the flow of oil money coursing through the city, Pyles, Dean Fearing, Anne Greer and Robert Del Grande mished and mashed French techniques with blue corn, poblanos, jicama and cilantro, an herb few groceries stocked before Dallas chefs showed eaters what they could do with it.
"Whatever the ingredients, these talented young chefs are cooking the food of the '80s—light, vibrant, sparkling," New York Times food writer Marian Burros reported in 1986.
Southwestern cuisine—as much a product of a particular time as a specific place—hastily made the national rounds, with chefs from San Francisco to New York City adding chiles and tomatillos to their pantries. Pyles opened Tejas in Minnesota in 1987: "Talk about a bland palate—Scandinavian," he says. "But once they tasted it, that's what people expected. Big, bold flavors."
Knowingly or not, the Dallasites spurring the Southwestern uprising were staying true to the local tradition of dazzling diners by gently menacing their taste buds. And they did it with the old guard's backing: When Fearing returned to The Mansion as executive chef in 1985, he told his bosses, "The only way I was going to go back was if we marketed The Mansion as Southwestern cuisine."
"When we first started, I didn't know if it had legs, all of us being young chefs," Fearing recalls. "There was definitely a rebel side. We were all in our mid-20s and wanted to take on the world. We wanted to change Dallas from French restaurants."
Chefs working in the Southwestern idiom were pleased their experiments were attracting national press, but weren't sure they could count on brewpubs in Ann Arbor, Michigan, to keep serving mole sauce, a menu addition Texas Monthly's Patricia Sharpe documented in her 1996 story "Texas food conquers the world!" But they were confident their concoctions would remain mainstays of Dallas menus. As Burros concluded her story, "They are certain it will always have a permanent home in the Southwest."