Best Of :: People & Places
Cooking is grueling. Just ask any professional chef. It's tedious work getting recipes right, nudging flavors into balance and grooming entres into optimum presentability--especially when this work has to be done for a couple of hundred diners. But if this is tedious, what do you say about Dallas County Sheriff's Department Captain Ray Daberko's daily grind, which entails overseeing the feeding of some 8,000 jail inmates three times a day, for a total of 24,000 meals?
"It's a great big deal," deadpans Daberko, who says he heads up the nation's only centralized penal cook-chill operation with tray service. This means that raw foodstuffs brought into a county warehouse facility in West Dallas are opened, prepped, cooked, fed into plastic bags and rapidly chilled before they are shipped out to Dallas' separate jail facilities. Once they arrive at the Lew Sterrett Justice Center kitchen, the food is portioned into special trays and then delivered to the appropriate Sterrett tower or shipped to another jail facility. Once at its destination, the food is quickly heated in contraptions similar to convection ovens, united with a tray containing chilled items, and served to inmates in the jail "tanks," which hold anywhere from eight to 24 inmates. "Nobody in corrections does what Dallas does," explains Daberko. "What everybody else does is they have a kitchen in each facility."
The logistical requirements for such an operation are daunting. The 18-foot-high walk-in cooler--more like a drive-in--occupies some 1,800 square feet. The kitchen holds four 200-gallon computer-operated cooking kettles. "We buy more corn than any grocery store in the country," boasts Daberko.
Menus are planned six to eight weeks in advance to avoid shortages of food items, which are often purchased by the pallet or the truckload. Meals are prepared three to five days in advance. To whip up the grub, Daberko orchestrates a team of nine salaried cooks and 55 inmates. The inmates are minimum-security birds jailed for nonviolent offenses such as check kiting. "We'll start seeing lots of open-container guys in here pretty quick," Daberko says, almost with relish, referring to the law that went into effect earlier this month prohibiting open alcohol containers in vehicles. "Tuesdays and Thursdays are terrible, because that's when the courts get geared up. We have days out here when it gets pretty tight. We spend all of our time training."
But keeping trained inmates inside the kitchen is not Daberko's only worry. He also has to keep inmates outside the kitchen reasonably content. To do this requires studious attention to some unusual meal characteristics. For example, the foods in hot meals have to be of similar densities. Otherwise, some will burn while others get barely warm. Color is also a serious consideration.
"The reason we deal with colors and things like that and try to get them to contrast is so that [inmates] can see distinctly that there are different things on the trays," Daberko says. They had a problem with appearances some years ago during the transition from older trays to the newer ones required for Dallas' centralized meal system. The new trays were shallower than the old trays, causing the food to flatten and spread in the compartment. To some, it looked like those with the older trays were getting more food than those with the new trays, even though the food was plopped onto the tray with the same 4-ounce utensil. Inmates protested vigorously, and several filed lawsuits.
Flavors are also a consideration. Recipes focus on complementary and interesting flavors--though not too interesting. "None of the Oriental things went over very well," Daberko says.
More important than all of these is the matter of texture and consistency. Every dish must be prepared so it can be consumed easily with just a plastic spoon. "We don't use anything metal that they can cut us with," Daberko says. And while he occasionally serves chicken thighs or drumsticks, he doesn't serve inmates the usual hearty Texas fare. "A pork chop bone makes a real nice something to stick you with," says Daberko, who has been stabbed on the job several times with handmade devices. "Anything like a beef bone or a pork bone, you can sharpen up. And you don't want to get stabbed too many times around here. Eventually one of them might hit something useful."
No ferns, no frills, no food (unless you count chips and peanuts) and no TV sports at this 50-year-old establishment, which is what a real, honest-to-goodness beer joint is supposed to be. Open from 10 a.m. to 2 a.m. Monday through Saturday and noon to 2 a.m. Sunday, Ship's offers $2 domestic beer and can serve from a couple of dozen brands. The stools along the bar are filled with patrons ranging in age from 21 to 71. There's a pool table and one of the best jukeboxes in Dallas, offering everything from Don Williams to Ray Charles. If they ever decide to open a Beer Joint Hall of Fame, this one's got to be in it.
You'd think, judging by the fact that pretty much every car south of Mockingbird Lane sports at least one sticker on its bumper/windshield advertising the driver's Tejano radio station of choice, this city runs on the upbeat of a conjunto soundtrack. You're probably right. The Arbitron ratings might not reflect that yet--maybe they would if Arbitron actually reported in all the areas that matter, not just North Dallas--but it's true nonetheless. Perhaps the best place to see and hear for yourself is Tejano West, the McDLT among local Tejano venues, where the cerveza is cold and the dance floor is hot. Feel free to explore others, but we guarantee your boots will scoot back to Tejano West.
Lizard Lounge is the closest thing Dallas has to Studio 54, and depending on how uptight you are, that's either a good or bad thing. OK, so it's not that close to Studio 54, but it does have everything you want in a dance club: good music (provided by, among others, Edgeclub host DJ Merritt), good-looking men and women (clad in materials usually reserved for the interiors of cars) and the good chance that you'll see at least one person with a lot less clothing than he or she walked in with. The last part isn't exactly crucial for a dance club to be entertaining, but it sure doesn't hurt. Madonna tried to buy it at one point; how much more of an endorsement do you need?
Call us naïve, but we were shocked to learn the predominantly female audience at Melissa Etheridge's recent Fort Worth concert booed when she pulled a fan onstage to share a tequila shot...because she chose a man. Being of the male persuasion ourselves, we've always felt welcome at most of the area's lesbian clubs. We've heard tales that gay places like the gargantuan Village Station and Moby Dick aren't nearly as hospitable to women. Hell, there have been nights when the Station wasn't nearly as welcoming to us as, say, its next-door neighbor, Sue Ellen's. Over the years, Sue's has admirably maintained its balancing act of charming opposites--friendly but sorta elegant, universal but very specific in its identity, streamlined but able to hold a spill-over crowd. You can walk in dressed up or dressed down and feel right at home. And the small dance floor prevails as a place for socializing, not exhibiting your gym bod or your rhythmic skills. Maybe it's just the Cowtown gals who get pissy when a guy occasionally steps into the spotlight.
Some nights end badly. Some nights end with a public humiliation by the jackboot of the state in front of the teeming crowd of your peers, the assorted boozers and ecstasy-addled clubbers of Lower Greenville. After midnight you can witness the local cheese rousting belligerents on this corner, usually stuffing them into the white paddy wagon. The best part's the public frisk--always look for signs of amusement or disgust on the cop's face.
The best alternative club this year is not the same one as last year, even though both are named Trees. Since that time, Trees has undergone a significant makeover, classing up the joint (oooh, a velvet curtain!) while making it more fan-friendly in the process. Meaning: You no longer have to crane your neck around the air conditioner if you want to watch a show from the balcony, and the same goes for downstairs, where the revamped bar doesn't obstruct anyone's view of the stage anymore. But the extensive remodeling, the new furniture and a fancy light system don't have much to do with the fact that Trees is still the best alternative club in town. The reason: music. Duh. Trees is the place where you can see and hear Mudhoney, the White Stripes, Murder City Devils, At the Drive-In, Luna, Mos Def, Mogwai, Mouse on Mars, Tortoise, Idlewild and so many more. And now you can do it all in a more comfortable environment. Don't fight it.
Not surprising that The Cavern is the best rock hangout in town, given that it's named after one of rock and roll's landmarks, the Liverpool bar where John, Paul, George and Ringo played before anyone cared who they were. But the name is almost irrelevant (at least its origin is), and so is the Fab Four décor; this isn't a theme park. The bar really is a cavern, though--dark and comfortable, exactly the kind of place where you can lose yourself for a few hours inside a tumbler full of bourbon. The jukebox is full of small treasures, and on Mondays, The Cavern spins old rock and punk classics. And nothing is more rock and roll than drinking on a Monday night.
Ricki Derek doesn't look much like Sinatra, but he sounds kinda like him and, goodness, does he bring out a quirky crowd. Under his surreal crooning the bar becomes a haven for those who would rather be disemboweled by butter knives than go to the Beagle next door. There is no stereotype for the kind of person who enjoys Sinatra impersonators; they come from all walks of life, every social strata. In the dark confines of The Cavern you'll find drug-addled hipsters, aging swingers with tacky shirts and neighborhood types having a post-barbecue pint.
At most of the jazz clubs in town, with the exception of maybe the Balcony Club, the music there is nothing more than wallpaper, something to ignore, something that you won't remember five feet outside the door. At Sambuca, however, they never let you forget that the music is the reason you're there, and if you ignore it, it's not because they didn't do their best to open your eyes and ears. There aren't enough venues in town that care about jazz one way or the other, so Sambuca makes up for quantity with quality, doing it right every step of the way, from sound to talent to ambience to anything and everything else you might think of. Sambuca, at its best, provides a little bit of old Deep Ellum, a time when jazz and blues ran Commerce, Main and Elm, not developers. It's worth a visit for that reason alone.
Built in 1911, Sons continues to be the one legit honky-tonk island in a sea of bland imitators. It's one of the few venues that still books Texas and roots-country acts, and even though the Gypsy Tea Room offers many of the same performers (the Derailers, Tish Hinojosa, etc.), there is no match for Sons' atmosphere. From the long bar and jukebox downstairs to the dance floor, folding chairs and small stage upstairs, Sons is a respite of C&W joy for those of us who still love to swing, two-step and do the longneck bob.
Blues music might not have been born in Dallas, but we definitely helped raise it. It's kind of hard to remember that time now, an era when Blind Lemon was a man (Blind Lemon Jefferson, the prince of country blues) and not a crappy bar. Leadbelly and Aaron "T-Bone" Walker lived here, played here, and if you don't know those names, get yourself to a bookstore and pick up a copy of Alan Govenar and Jay Brakefield's 1998 book, Deep Ellum and Central Track. Even if you don't know those names, well, we're sure Stevie Ray Vaughan will ring a bell. Yep, he's from here, too. You can still find the spirit, if not the talent, of those men at Hole in the Wall, which is just what the name implies. It's one-stop shopping for Dallas blues.