Best Of :: Food & Drink
How do we love Mai's? Let us count the burn scars on the roofs of our mouths from all the times we couldn't wait to dig into our chicken clay pot because it smelled too damn yummy. Yeah, we're stupid that way, especially when it comes to Mai's fiery baked blend of vermicelli noodles, black mushrooms and spicy chicken, which comes out of the kitchen at approximately 875 degrees. We just can't wait. Luckily the burns heal in a couple of weeks, and in the meantime we can take a break from the pain by making a meal on two or 20 of the shrimp imperial rolls, fat tubes of soothing crunchy lettuce, rice noodles and chilled shrimp in rice paper wrappers. A little agony, a little comfort, a lot of spicy deliciousness—a meal at Mai's is like love.
Wikipedia defines the local food movement as a "collaborative effort to build more locally based, self-reliant food economies—one in which sustainable food production, processing, distribution and consumption is integrated to enhance the economic, environmental and social health of a particular place." Bankruptcy lawyer Dale Wootton probably had no idea that was what he was participating in when he decided to grow his own vegetables in his own garden in the back of his own restaurant. At his Garden Café in East Dallas, you can get okra, cucumbers, tomatoes, black-eyed peas, sprigs of rosemary, oregano, fennel, sage, mint, parsley—or whatever he happens to be growing and adding to the tasty meat and potatoes menu at his restaurant. Some within the local food movement want you to travel no further than 25 miles to satisfy its agricultural tenets. Wootton has got that beat: He only has to truck into his backyard, harvest his veggies and herbs, transport them a few feet to his restaurant, prepare them in the kitchen and serve them to customers, many of whom consume them on the pleasant patio in the same garden where they were grown. The bankruptcy advice he dispenses is local too. His law office is only a few yards from his restaurant.
If you've ever spent time in Austin then you know it as well as we do—Dallas just can't do queso right. Sure, our fair city is full of decent Mexican food joints, maybe even a couple of great ones. But let's face it—even El Ranchito, Mia's and La Calle Doce serve up a substandard bowl of the yellow goodness compared with our Central Texas neighbors. Thank God for Matt's Rancho Martinez then, an East Dallas institution sprung fully formed from the nurturing bosom of an Austin institution some 20 years ago. Their renowned Bob Armstrong dip takes a perfect, cheesy consistency—not too thick, not too watery—and combines it with ground beef, guacamole, sour cream and pico de gallo to create a dip so kick-ass we've seen fights break out over the last chip.
We must confess: In our childhood, we ate quite a bit of Easy Cheese. And we've been trying to make up for that ever since. We enjoy fresh mozzarella, Tillamook cheddar or creamy chèvre any day. But we have hesitated to enter the realm of real artisanal cheeses. That's why it's kind of intimidating to walk into Molto Formaggio—where do you start? Will our Philistine palate be able to tell the difference between an Idiazabal and a Manchego? Should this cheese be proud that it's "cave-aged," or does that mean bats have been pooping on it? Fortunately, since the Molto Formaggio store policy permits—nay, commands—you to sample their cheeses, you can rest easy that you won't end up with a pound of cheese that, once you get it home, you find tastes like baby vomit. The display case makes it easy to select a cheese by name, origin and maker, and the friendly staff dishes up the samples with a smile. And you can even outfit a whole tasting party: They also stock raw and varietal honeys, crackers (ooh, charcoal crackers?), preserves, bulk olive oil and fondue sets.
This European pub's atmosphere is as cool as its beer selection, which includes a wide range of Belgian ales, rare stouts and ambers, and organic brews. Then there's the food. Here, pedestrian bar fare is nowhere to be found. Instead, there are delicious sandwiches like the grilled cheese; the Cuban, shredded pork with artichoke hearts, roasted peppers, jalapeños and olives; and a wood-grilled flat-iron steak with port wine reduction and shallots. The Hog Wings, with meat falling off the bones and a scrumptious poblano pepper sauce, are not to be missed. You can't really go wrong here. No wonder, since the place was started by the founders of the Meridian Room.
Its pedigree is lengthy. For more than 40 Dallas years this 'cue post was Howard & Peggy's and then Peggy's Beef Bar before it shuttered in the late 1980s, the original menu still adhering to the window glass. The room is well-stocked with cowhand memorabilia (horseshoes, buck heads, boots). It was reanimated a short time later as Peggy Sue BBQ, with all of the smoke and spicy-sweet that slow-cooked meat deserves. Hearty brisket. Moist turkey. Rib racks that shed their bones even as they maintain their sticky sweetness. No paper towel columns rising over the white and red checked table coverings, but the cloth napkins can be replenished along with the icy lemonade.