Best Of :: Food & Drink
The first time you pull up to the dump that is Mai's, you think, "No way in hell I'm going in there. I'm too young to die." Oh, but once you actually risk it...Yes, there are plenty of authentic hole-in-the-wall spots in Garland serving great pho or bun mang vit. But Mai's is across-the-board wonderful, from rich noodle dishes, steaming clay pot creations, the delicate rolls, the fiery spices to, well, everything on the menu. There's a reason the place has become a Dallas dining mainstay. And a reason we keep coming back, again and again.
Long before tapas, small plates and shared plates became trendy, the Spanish grabbed simple bites at the bar to tide them over until 10 or 11 p.m., when dinner is served. Cava's piquillo peppers appetizer is like an homage to that simple tradition. They merely sauté the peppers in olive oil (a lot of olive oil) with some garlic. That's it—nothing fancy, but the flavors roil from earthy, bitter and herbaceous to piquant, even sweet. In a city where chefs put a lot of time and effort into starters, Cava's basic dish stands out.
For decades Dwight Harvey held down a real, corporate-type job, cooking barbecue on the weekends. He and his son eventually turned this into a casual catering venture and, finally, a full-fledged barbecue joint. The Harveys are particular about their wood, using pecan to slow-cook brisket, ribs and the other usual suspects. Their rub lends a strong, sweet-spicy character to the meats. If there's a downside, it's the cramped space. A set of tables out front provide seating, but you must force your way to the counter to place orders, especially during the lunch rush. There's a large contingent of downtown cubicle dwellers who frequent the place. For those who want to run the south-side-after-dark risk, Off the Bone stays open late—as in 2 a.m. late—on weekends.
Generally, when you see two restroom doors in a restaurant, they lead into two different restrooms—you know, boys and girls, cowpokes and cowgirls, damas y caballeros, etc. Not so at Cowboy Chow, however, where both doors lead into the same communal restroom. Sure, everyone gets their own individual walled-off stall with a full door, but it's still awkward when you run into your date at the communal sink. And considering all the delicious Navajo fry bread, red pepper brisket, homemade chocolate chip ice cream and (especially) sweet watermelon tea you'll be consuming, there's no way you'll be able to avoid it.
First the chefs at AVA, one of whom worked at the Green Room, brought back that long-lost restaurant's mussels recipe. Then the man himself announced his return. Years ago Marc Cassel guided the little Deep Ellum bar/restaurant to greatness. His style? Collision cuisine—the happy smashing of contrasting flavors and techniques into something that worked, and magically so. In July, Dallas' prodigal chef returned, opening Park on Henderson Avenue to almost instant success. The Dallas Morning News reported guests raising toasts to Cassel's chicken-fried steak. That's big news.
Phil and Janet Cobb you know from the Black-Eyed Pea chain (Phil's doing) and Mi Piaci (Janet), as well as some other once-famous stops. The name Chris Andrews is associated with Holy Smokes, a once well-regarded barbecue place. And then there's Dotty Griffith, former restaurant critic for The Dallas Morning News. All of these familiar names have come back to life and converged, like culinary zombies, on a small bit of real estate in Carrollton. The meat's pretty good. The names behind it are impressive as hell.
Sure, you could argue it's a bit pricey for these trying times, but there is value in them there eggs—especially the way Bread Winners serves 'em. You got your three-egg "scrambles" like the Southwest migas and the healthful veggie. There is a to-die-for egg sandwich, three kinds of eggs Benedict and several egg dishes with Tex-Mex accents (burritos, enchiladas and breakfast tacos). And don't get us started on the pancakes and French toast, and the baked goods—breads and muffins and cookies, oh my—baked right on the premises, with bits of them brought to your table free before you even order your morning coffee. We love the McKinney Avenue location (not to disparage the Inwood Village and Plano locations) with its French Quarter feel and friendly service.
Ever since our college days in Austin, we've found Dallas severely lacking in the breakfast taco department. Sure, you can find them, but they rarely live up to the expectations one is burdened with after living in the Breakfast Taco And Live Music Capital of the World. The Taco Joint does the breakfast taco right, however, serving up eggs and cheese with bacon, sausage, potatoes, chorizo or beans on flour tortillas along with delicious homemade salsas that tickle the palate but don't annihilate your taste buds with heat. Most important, they serve them till 10:45 a.m. on weekdays and 2 p.m. on Saturdays, which makes them the perfect breakfast for late-rising, hung-over-and-on-the-go Observer writers.
No one does a plain old Caesar salad anymore. Well, Bella does, but few others. Instead, restaurants toss on a lot of fancy stuff—lobster nuggets and such. Kent Rathbun's new place dresses up the salad right: kernels of parched corn, toasted pepitas, crumbles of Mexican cheese. Yeah, sounds like just another gussied-up Caesar, except that all the ingredients work so beautifully together, the mound of lettuce becomes like a carnival, with flavors and textures swirling and twirling, yet starting you from one place and bringing you back to the same spot. Hell, if you're gonna order greens, why not have fun with them?
What can we say? There's a lot of half-assed gumbo sold in this town, but Alligator Café ladles out a rich, reeking stew that oozes bayou. Their red beans and rice remind you that this was never meant to be an elegant dish, but something to fill working-class bellies. And, of course, there are mudbugs in season and gator meat if you wish to venture in that direction. Their fried green tomatoes feel like they were made in some old skillet by some old grandma. It's a straightforward, down and dirty, messy festival of Louisiana-ness. We don't know how to put it better.
These days it can be painful to spend more than $12 on lunch, but driving through Wendys and scarfing down a double cheeseburger in your car is often equally unappealing. Such times call for a place like Jasons Deli, where you can find healthy lunch fare and at the same time be economical with your time and dime. There are sandwiches and a great salad bar complete with myriad varieties of lettuce, veggies, and other add-ins like tuna, pasta salad and cottage cheese. If you must, you can even have ambrosia without having to deal with the nursing home atmosphere of Furrs Cafeteria. Also available for your dining pleasure is soft-serve ice cream and that tasty, old-timey banana pudding with vanilla wafers.
The black walls and dark carpeting of this two-room restaurant explain the reputation as a hole in the wall. But don't be fooled by the drab decor. The fish is so fresh! And it's a fraction of the price compared with the raw fish served at more upscale Japanese joints, like the Blue Fish up the street. The staff bangs a gong when you come in and again when you leave. The place is BYOB, but we were served sake one Saturday night when no other customers were around. Our favorite specialty roll is the New Zealand, which combines tuna, salmon, cucumber, avocado and cream cheese for $11.99. And the 10-piece tuna roll is just $6.99.