Best Of :: Food & Drink
Let's be honest here: There are no great Indian restaurants in Dallas. So with that premise established, let's examine the most interesting entrant in this mediocre ilk. Mantra is a stab at modernity; an incremental tweak of traditional Indian cuisine. Mantra attempts to preserve the rich, heady complexity of Indian cuisine while casting it as wily and deft, in a contemporary sense. Many culinary trend peepers have been predicting Indian fare would be "the next big thing": mainstream dining tickled by mint chutney and tandoori chicken. If that's true, Mantra is poised to pounce. Mantra is Indian lithe. Gone are the soupy dishes like chicken masala and lamb curry. Indestructible sauces able to survive hours of agony on buffet tables are also no-shows, as are the buffet-table torture chambers. Exhibit one: tomato broccoli soup. It's thick. It's smooth. It vibrates. Conclusion: Mantra's dishes are not only seasoned with more subtlety; they're actually a different set of centerpieces gently framed in Indian influences. Exhibit two: crepes stuffed with things, from vegetables, scrambled eggs, onions and potato to chicken, shrimp and lamb, all adorned with lush Indian spices. Conclusion: Keep your eyes peeled for the sweetbread mulligatawny. It's the next big thing.
12817 Preston Road
Lemonade. That's what Iris is. Here are the lemons: a space that has been home to dreadful or dreadfully performing restaurants over the last decade; a restaurant owner (Susie Priore) who fled to California to get a master's degree so that she could join the Peace Corps and teach English in Morocco; a Peace Corps mission that was soured by the prospect of a blond American woman in a Muslim country post-September 11; a Dallas restaurant mission spawned to pay off the loans used to acquire the master's degree to service the Peace Corps mission. What kind of person opens a restaurant to get out of debt? Someone who knows that the best restaurants are comfortable, engaging neighborhood haunts with food that intrigues but doesn't frighten. Chef Russell Hodges is a down-to-earth chap who comes up with dishes like a shrimp cocktail composed of two shrimp as thick as sumo wrestler thumbs surrounded by bread points, salmon carpaccio and a cleaved hard-boiled egg. Delicious foie gras, too. And rack of lamb. Don't forget the pan-seared sea bass with cannellini beans.
7709 Inwood Road
The browning of a chicken is an essential skill; just ask Julia Child. (Well, you could have asked her until a few months ago, anyway.) Mom told us the keys to a well-browned bird: Use quality olive oil, enhanced with butter; let the pieces warm to room temperature so they brown evenly; and dry the skin first with paper towels. Got that? Now we don't know exactly what Ali Baba Cafe does to concoct its "Golden Chicken"; we just know it's the most excellent chicken, a minor poultry miracle. The menu describes it as rotisserie chicken, but it's nothing like the squishy-textured stuff you get at fast-food joints. It's a half-chicken, and the skin, finished under the broiler, is perfectly crisp and spiked with garlic, lemon and spices; beneath it, the tender flesh is bursting with the flavor of...chicken. Yeah. Some chicken does have flavor. Try it with a side of fluffy rice pilaf or hummus; just get it when it's hot, because it isn't quite the same when it's steamed for a while in the takeout box.
We can't quite figure out the ownership status of ZuZu. It used to be a chain; now it isn't. Each of the restaurants bearing the name ZuZu in Dallas has a different owner--or so we were told--and some have different menus. Well, we can vouch for three places named ZuZu, one in Addison and two in Dallas, and all carry the original ZuZu menu of "handmade" Mexican food. And all are superb, much better than you'd expect for a counter-service joint. Try the grilled, marinated chicken or the "Poncho Dinner," which consists of a chicken enchilada, a beef taco and a chicken flauta. Everything appears to be made fresh, and you have a variety of salsas to accent your meal, including a bracing tomatillo version. Wash it all down with fresh-squeezed lemon-limeade.
As if we have the dough for dinner at Pappas Bros. Steakhouse ($75 per person, minimum) or other such expense-account establishments. Nope, that wouldn't be us. Still, we do appreciate something a cut above your local Outback, with the waitstaff's forced familiarity, those stupid commercials and the decent but not great steaks. That's why we keep going back to Culpepper Steakhouse, just 25 minutes from downtown on the other side of Lake Ray Hubbard. We admit we have a soft spot for hunting-lodge décor; must be our Northern roots. We like the stone walls, the dark wood trim, the taxidermy menagerie and the Holstein hides. And we love the steaks--mesquite-grilled to perfection, like it was 1990 again--and available in a delicious array of "tops" and "bottoms," sauces such as the caramelized shallot, herb and Dijon compound butter. Add to that the best mashed potatoes in the area; delicious, skinny, fresh-cut fries; and professional, non-snooty service, and this is a steak house where you get excellent quality and value.
We watched for months as that place slowly went up off Highway 67. When they put up the sign, when cars started appearing in the parking lot, we started the calling. Are you open yet? OK, but when will you open? At last, a Pappadeaux opened in Southern Dallas--specifically, in Duncanville. It instantly became the No. 1 dining destination for us South-siders. In fact, if you go there on a Sunday, when the church crowds arrive in a steady stream, four generations at an extended table, you'll glimpse a perfect cross section of Dallas County's upwardly mobile black middle class. The Baptists come in the first wave, then the holy rollers at 1 p.m. or 2 p.m., all decked out in fancy hats and colorful suits. It couldn't be a happier place: Though there's usually a wait, everyone leaves satisfied after filling up on Pappadeaux's exquisitely fresh, generously portioned seafood plates. We like living in Southern Dallas. Now, we finally have a reason to dine there, too.
"No lard, no MSG, no freezer"--that's what Baja Fresh advertises above the order counter. They go further than that, with a good selection of low-carb and low-fat menu items that taste like they're full of the stuff. Don't hold it against them that they're owned by Wendy's; Consumer Reports recently cited Baja Fresh for turning out some of the tastiest, relatively healthful fast food. On the low-fat, lower-calorie side, we like the enchiladas verano, two charbroiled chicken enchiladas with grilled peppers and onions in a tangy verde sauce. They come with pinto or black beans, pico de gallo and rice. Another good choice is the "Bare Burrito"--a bowl of flavorful chicken, grilled peppers, onions, rice, pinto beans, pico de gallo and salsa verde. Don't miss the terrific freshly made salsas, especially the mild, totally addictive Salsa Baja. Baja Fresh has a few Dallas-area locations, but the one on Knox Street is the only one centrally located.
Never mind that there seemed to be a preponderance of overweight middle-aged men on our recent visit. Texas de Brazil, with restaurants in Dallas, Addison and Fort Worth, is a carb-counter's paradise. You probably know the churrascaria concept: Guys in baggy pants (and a few ladies) tote around skewers of roasted meat and carve you a hot slice of whatever you want--various cuts of beef, lamb, pork and chicken. There's also a lavish salad bar, with roasted peppers, blanched asparagus, smoked salmon, bacon chunks, imported cheeses, lobster bisque and lots and lots of other stuff. OK, so there's a little rice tucked away somewhere in the salad bar, and the "cheese bread" served with each meal is fairly irresistible--that's about it. You're barely exposed to temptation. Just meat and veggies, meat and veggies all the time. And that meat: melt-in-your-mouth leg of lamb, tender filet mignon, savory picanha--the house specialty, sirloin chunks roasted in a coating of rock salt--and at least a half-dozen other offerings that we saw making the rounds. You might avoid carbs altogether, but you'll still end up ingesting about 2,000 calories.
Everything at Cuba Libre goes down easy, from the (pretty 'spensive) pitcher of mojitos to the elegant desserts to the eye candy that fills this Knox-Henderson joint late at night. But, to paraphrase an old Nate Newton commercial, when we are hawngry, which is most of the time, we like to pig out on this dish. A huge salad with dollops of blue cheese and covered with the most succulent chicken tenders you've ever sucked down your gullet, Cuba Libre's TC-CCS is one of our guilty-pleasure (read: post-hangover) meals. Warning: A 20-minute nap is required after eating.
Soup is a tough call. There are winter stews, summer gazpachos, even autumnal bisques. Chicken noodle is good year-round, but that's too easy. We want a soup that's tasty but not too rich. One that's smooth and substantial. Greenz, the Uptown eatery that specializes in salads, impressed us with something else green. Their creamy asparagus soup is velvety and luscious. Each spoonful slides down the throat, leaving a fresh taste on the palate and an instant craving for the next. Gouda sprinkled on top adds texture without getting too clumpy or distracting from the asparagus' bite. Greenz offers two sizes--the cup is a perfect amount to accompany any of the salads; the bowl is a filling option all on its own. This concoction combines two favorites: soup and asparagus. And all without the notorious asparagus effect.
Give us fried potato in any form and generally, we're happy. We praise the inventors of the tater tot, french fry and hash brown. And we felt really bad for our arteries when we discovered a new addiction: Jerk Frittes from Cuba Libre. The thin little gems are crispy, golden and seasoned perfectly with an herb blend that is undoubtedly the product of training in the culinary arts, i.e., making people drool. The damn things are even good soggy and straight from the doggie bag. The real key to these taters, though, is their partner in crime, the bacon-avocado ranch sauce that offers a cooling touch to their herby crunch. The restaurant's sandwiches come with the frittes, but if a sandwich isn't calling your name, check out a side of the perfect potatoes with a taco platter or even as an appetizer. They'll definitely change the way you look at the common drive-thru fry.
In the Tex-Mex state, salsa has a lot to prove. Heat (as in spice) must make itself known but not so strongly that a full glass of water is needed after each bite. For us, the tip-off to a perfect salsa is a reaction after the initial taste of wanting to pour it on everything we order. But we weren't even thinking about salsa when we dipped that first chip at Margarita Ranch. That changed instantly as we tasted the warm, smoky near-puree. We wanted to drink the entire bowl. We would've rolled in it, it was so good. Forget whatever entrée we ordered, because it ended up drenched in the mix of peppers, fine bits of tomato and garlic. It's sweet and sultry lava that eases down the throat.