Best Of :: Food & Drink
Ever since our first visit to Miami, we've been hooked on the Cuban sandwich--not the slab-o'-pork crammed between two slices of cardboard they're serving up at Little Havana but the real thing, which melts in your mouth before it even hits your tongue. See, with a good Cuban sandwich, it's not just about the pork and pickles and melted cheese, but the bread, which has to be tender and sweet, like our high-school girlfriend. At this Northwest Dallas joint, they serve up a proper Cuban--and with a rum punch more powerful than Superman, too, as well as some of the best fried plantains and conch fritters and jerked chicken and coconut shrimp this side of Key West. But see, the thing is you gotta come here on Friday and Saturday to guarantee you'll get the full menu. That's when the place is hoppin', literally, as the restaurant gives way in nighttime hours to a dance hall full of cool vibes and cold punch.
People who work downtown and in East Dallas pack The Alligator Caf ("Quick & Cajun") for lunch and post-work munchies. Yes, they do serve alligator--fried, grilled, blackened and in jambalaya, gumbo and po-boys. But the best bets are shrimp-and-oyster gumbo, followed by a basket of fried shrimp or whole catfish. Sides go beyond French fries--dirty rice, fried green tomatoes, new potato chive salad and spicy red beans and rice. You can even drive through for a lunch deal: half a muffaletta and a cup of gumbo for about $6. Make like the regulars and hit happy hour after work, Monday through Friday, for $1.75 draft beer and the $2.50 menu: six fried or raw oysters, six hot wings or six boudin balls. (If you have to ask, don't order them.) Friday nights feature live music.
Shaved, rested and ready, Stephan Pyles is ready to turn up the heat again
His hibernation lasted nearly five years. Sure, his torpid state had a few movements and shifts: consulting projects for Hotel ZaZa's Dragonfly and Ama Lur at the Gaylord Texan Resort and Convention Center, plus the travel. But he was mostly out of sight.
That was then. Now Stephan Pyles is ready to resume his historic role of slapping Dallas' conventional dining wisdom silly--all with a smile. He's in fighting trim. He's shed his beard. He's scrapped weight training and running for Bikram yoga. He's raised $3 million.
This wasn't a sure thing. After Pyles, 53, left his Star Canyon, AquaKnox and Taqueria Cañonita brood to the fickle fates of Carlson Restaurants Worldwide at the turn of the millennium, he said he had grown weary of the grind of the line, preferring instead to create, taste, orchestrate and move on--all on someone else's dime.
But that's changed. "It's in my blood to be in the thick of it," he insists.
The thick of it is the eponymous Stephan Pyles, a 180-seat restaurant poised to open in November in the Arts District in the circa 1963, George Dahl-designed Southwest Plaza on Ross Avenue. The location is an odd one for Pyles, who seemed perpetually enamored with Uptown. He admits to skepticism of the vaunted downtown revival that has been blathered and boostered about for years. But after sniffing around and locking in a competitive lease on the property, Pyles is swooning over downtown. "I used to think of the Crescent as being the center of gravity in Dallas," Pyles admits. "I think the Nasher [Sculpture Center] has pulled the entire center of gravity to the arts district. I'm right down the street from there."
A remarkable space it is shaping up to be, too. His restaurant features a glass square kitchen in its midst, so that diners can ogle the real-time artwork until they're sated. There's a tapas bar and 20-seat community table near the entrance, so revelers can gorge on the steady parade of eye candy. The entrance has a light sculpture that burbles water into a reflecting pool. A walkway over the pool channels diners to the hostess stand. Pyles still winks, too: Tumbleweed chandeliers dangle in the dining room, and he's trying to score one of the chandeliers from Star Canyon to hang in the private dining room.
What tectonic shifts does Pyles believe are tugging Dallas toward his new roost? Solid and funded plans for parks, bridges and grocery stores, the latter already a reality with the opening of Urban Market this summer in the Interurban Building on Jackson Street. "All of these high-rise people are moving in," he says. "Where the hell are they coming from, the suburbs? It's almost guaranteed that there's some energy being transferred right now, to this area."
And this is where Pyles will perform his new compositions, collectively called New Millennium Southwestern. Sure, Pyles will throw a bone to nostalgia, wedging a bone-in cowboy rib eye, that famous orphan from Star Canyon, into his new menu. But rather than an overt presence, the Southwestern/New Texas touches will form a culinary trellis upon which he will hang Latin blooms as interpreted in Europe and South America.
It's the latest course in a long, strange banquet that began when Pyles was 8 years old working at his family's Phillips 66 Truck Stop in Big Spring decades ago. For the past 25 years, Pyles has been the most prominent of Dallas culinary leaders, driving dining culture's ebbs and flows while he pulled national and international spotlights to the city. Still, it didn't turn out like he thought it would.
"In the early '80s when we were just young punks cooking, we just thought we could change the city and the world and it was going to become this great culinary city," Pyles says. "And there was that potential. I don't know what happened.
"In the '80s we thought that we had created this incredible kind of culture. Instead of importing things, we created this movement and Southwestern cuisine was the hot thing, but it never really completely ignited. Something fell flat." He isn't sure exactly what fell flat.
Maybe it was the stagnating economy in the late '80s, drained by the savings and loan meltdown and the collapse in oil prices. Maybe he and his cohorts were ahead of the Dallas dining brood, exhausting them with the sweep of their movement. It was revived in the 1990s, but whatever the reason, Pyles says Dallas no longer has the energy driving its own specific cuisine that it once had. Look around. We have spots like Nobu, but you can get that in 12 other cities. Pyles says he is often asked by food journalists what young, up-and-coming chefs will shuffle onto the stage where he and ground-breaking chefs such as Dean Fearing and Avner Samuel perform. His answer? There really is no one.
"There aren't any because the young chefs of today are embracing global cuisines," he says. "Back 20 years ago there was 20, 25 of us in the country that got all of the press. And now it's like once every year--every month almost--there's a whole new group of celebrity chefs getting all of this press. And you think, "Where are all of these people coming from?' And there's very few Texans among them."
Pyles believes that after 20 years, Dallas is finally on the edge of greatness. The city's residents--through travel, Internet and cable and satellite television--are much more sophisticated and demanding than they were 25 years ago. The city's core--the magneto for any successful metropolis--is stumbling ever closer to relevance. High-profile projects such as The W, The Ritz and the Hotel Palomar are sure to bring in new energy, style and resources, but it's hard to see how the culinary spectrum can shift to make Dallas markedly different from a dozen or so other cities.
But Pyles is convinced it will happen within three years. "Some people compare us to the new Vegas--I wouldn't go that far," he says. "But I fully expect that Dallas is going to become a great culinary city. I thought that 20 years ago, and it didn't happen. So I stopped hoping for it...But now I think we're really going to become--finally--the world-class city that we've been striving to become for 20 years." --Mark Stuertz
The Goldrush is metro, retro and cool because it's one of those very rare commodities in Dallas, a place that doesn't try to be cool. Businesses come and go in the strip shopping centers at Live Oak and Skillman, but the Goldrush is forever. Good burgers, better migas, a respectable cuppa joe, but don't ask for any coffee that has an Italian name. Regulars run the gamut from East Dallas street characters to Lakewood families with toddlers. If you're lucky, poet/playwright/street preacher Buck Naked will be in the house, and he may even show you his latest postings on the bulletin board. If you're even luckier, he won't be there. You never know what's gonna happen at the Goldrush.
Metropolitan Café 2032 Main St. 214-741-2233
People who work downtown and in East Dallas pack The Alligator Café ("Quick & Cajun") for lunch and post-work munchies. Yes, they do serve alligator--fried, grilled, blackened and in jambalaya, gumbo and po-boys. But the best bets are shrimp-and-oyster gumbo, followed by a basket of fried shrimp or whole catfish. Sides go beyond French fries--dirty rice, fried green tomatoes, new potato chive salad and spicy red beans and rice. You can even drive through for a lunch deal: half a muffaletta and a cup of gumbo for about $6. Make like the regulars and hit happy hour after work, Monday through Friday, for $1.75 draft beer and the $2.50 menu: six fried or raw oysters, six hot wings or six boudin balls. (If you have to ask, don't order them.) Friday nights feature live music.
Razzoo's Cajun Café Multiple locations
Prime beef doesn't need much help, really. Just a little salt and pepper plus a grill that flames to, oh, about 2,000 degrees. A few line cooks willing to roast their arms retrieving the steaks help, too. Seems every steak house serves Australian lobster but no big deal. Toss it into boiling water and melt some butter, it's perfect. Ah, but David Holben of Del Frisco's wields culinary talents far beyond the steak-house grill. Great chefs in the Dallas market must create a signature lobster dish, and Holben is known for chicken-fried lobster, a succulent upgrade of the Texas classic. He spent several years cooking intricate and highly rated cuisine at Riviera before turning Culpepper's into a Rockwall destination. Last year he won the coveted Caesar salad competition. Now at Del Frisco's, he's introduced such items as asparagus tempura, tenderloin satays and seared sesame-crusted tuna, along with his famous lobster dish. And that's just the bar menu. Wait until he adds his touch to the dinner menu.
We like sushi. And we like bodies, too. But for some reason, Body Sushi scares us--yet intrigues at the same time. This company, which caters events in the Dallas-Fort Worth area, offers an interesting twist on sushi: serving raw fish on raw flesh. Hungry yet? Body Sushi provides the food, the models (naughty bits covered, of course) and a hostess (we're assuming her naughty bits will be covered as well), and you provide the party. It's a pretty simple concept and quite a tantalizing one, too--that is, if you have no aversion to eating tuna rolls off a half-naked stranger's body. But you'd better work on your chopstick skills first. You wouldn't wanna accidentally pierce something...or someone.
You long ago snubbed supermarket produce, and lately you've even become bored with the selection at the Farmers Market. Short of waiting under a peach tree for the fruit to drop into your mouth, Ham's Orchard is the freshest you can get. Various fruits--peaches, plums, apricots, plumcots--are picked daily and sold in Ham's air-conditioned roadside store, which also peddles preserves, pickles and creamy soft-serve ice cream made from the orchard's peaches and strawberries. During May and June, you can even pick your own raspberries and blackberries. Sadly, you will have missed this year's crop (the orchard was open to the public May 15-August 15 this year), but that's no reason you can't start salivating for next year's bounty.
Every time you sit in the red vinyl booths and glance at the laminated sign, you cannot believe your eyes. "Hobo Special--2 eggs, bacon, sausage, ham, hash browns and toast, biscuit or pancakes. $6.60." It's like seeing heaven on a piece of 8 1/2-by-11-inch paper. So when the lovely server approaches, you confidently order the Hobo thinking, "I'm so gonna eat every last bite of that craaaazy Hobo!" Every time you think you're gonna make that Hobo special your breakfast bitch. And every time you're wrong. You finish the crisp bacon easily. You dive into the savory (and always perfectly cooked) eggs, sopping them up with the toast you thought would take up less stomach space than the other bready options. The golden, crispy hash browns have been alternated in between each bite. You chomp on the sausage, almost making it to the end. But there between the last sad lump of browns and the tail end of sausage sits the final element, and you're only good for one more bite. And dammit, it's sooo delicious; it's the albatross of this morning meal. That damned ham.
Lucky's 3531 Oak Lawn Ave. 214-522-3500
Don't speak. Don't speak. Not after siphoning a dab of Café Izmir's hummus. You'll flatten everyone within a 40-yard radius. This is why Café Izmir should be the first stop for cops after the doughnut shop. Dallas police could use Café Izmir hummus instead of pepper spray and Taser guns to subdue common criminals and jaywalkers--such is the garlic shock; such is the smooth allure. But that's not all Café Izmir has to water your eyes. They have brisk tabouli, delish babaganoush, great dolmas and killer kabobs. Plus they shovel $2 cold tapas and $14 wine bottles on Tuesdays and $14 wine bottles and $15 sangria pitchers on Thursdays.
See? It is possible to reach greatness without stuffing pasta pillows with pulverized shellfish and drowning them in fortified grape ferment. Kathleen's artichoke-stuffed ravioli is little more than a pile of tooth-firm green pasta bulges reeking of the pulverized thistle flower and buried loosely under a pile of bell peppers, mushrooms, grilled chicken and limpid strips of spinach. But this isn't the best part of the mess. What breathes life into this heap is the three-olive pesto, a svelte touch that catapults beyond typical pesto, where the cheese and olive oil become an unction junction pinned together with garlic pricks. The surge of brine transcends the tumble, elevating the chaos along with it. This ravioli is so invigorating, Kathleen's serves it at brunch, which means it pairs well with wines, old wines that have aged into hangovers.
Mizuna, a feathery Japanese mustard green, does not make many house salad appearances in Dallas. But it does show up at the Landmark next to a sea bass, along with its Sicilian eggplant relish cousin caponata. Pommes frites are threaded through there, too, making this the first continental fusion fish that even Ronald McDonald could warm up to. The fish rests in a brisk blood-orange buerre blanc, relegating the buttery richness of the fish to the shadows. You may think nothing more could be done to the ubiquitous and drowsy sea bass, but you'd be wrong. Kick up a few contrasts, and this fish--in its natural habitat as ugly as a Robert Bork-Whoopi Goldberg love child--blooms with beauty.