Homesick Restaurants: How Dallas Became a Dining Nowhereville.
Thousands of television sets had been sold in Dallas by 1951, but most of the time the machines weren't good for much. The city's biggest station aired a test pattern 15 hours a day. In homes across the county, hulking Philcos and Zeniths sat stone-faced in their mahogany veneer cases until 2:30 p.m., when WFAA's musical matinee came on.
The CBS affiliate, KRLD, perked up earlier, arresting the geometric doldrums for housewives and convalescents who craved better company than their radios. Its programming opened with a 15-minute news segment, followed at 10:30 a.m. by Martha McDonald's cooking show.
No footage survives from McDonald's show, which ran for five years before her declining health forced her to retire, but the recipes included in her cookbook suggest she was a militantly plain cook. "She keeps her dishes simple and sensible," her co-worker Louis Gibbons wrote in an introduction to Recipes from Martha McDonald's TV Kitchen. "One of her male viewers, an elderly gentleman, once said to me: 'I don't approve of television, but I do approve of Martha McDonald.'"
McDonald, the second of four daughters born to an Ellis County tenant farmer, was no bumpkin. She baked elaborate wedding cakes that were flanked with elegant rosettes. She could make a frilly prune whip. But Dallasites who tuned into her show, whether out of interest or desperation, found she concerned herself primarily with the food regular folks ate. Homemakers who counted their change before they wrote up their grocery lists had an ally in McDonald, whose distinctly North Texas dishes were hearty and frugal. While they weren't spicy, they had a certain roughness that, by mid-century, had come to define the region's cuisine.
There are the expected recipes for chicken fricassee and chop suey in McDonald's cookbook, along with the usual array of hashes and fruit salads suspended in gelatin. Often, though, the author skews crude, marshaling such ingredients as onions, bacon drippings, pimentos, mustard and chicken gizzards to whack her readers' palates. She beat eggs with massive amounts of olives and cheese, added swatches of bacon to the bowl, poured it in a pastry shell and called it a pie.
McDonald's uncouth kitchen stylings were very much in keeping with Dallas' edible sensibilities. Community cookbooks from the era strain with recipes for chili-sauced tongue, pickled peaches, horseradish-smothered tomatoes and pickle surprise, a hostess' standby of nickel-sized dill pickles, cored and stuffed with deviled ham and mayonnaise.
Local cooks had a knack for rendering innocuous foods rather rude, spicing and seasoning with a frontiersman's disregard for refinement: Mrs. T. L. Jaggers in 1946 published the recipe for her Texas beans in the Dallas College Club's cookbook. The preparation starts with a can of beans and gets gruffer from there. The reader is instructed to add bacon grease, mustard, ketchup and onion and warned, "If there are men present, there had better be plenty." Even hoity-toity Junior Leaguers got cheeky in the kitchen, serving up hot tamale loaves garnished with creamed beets and spiced onion pickles and broiling bacon bundles crammed with mustard sardines.
At that golden hour between Dallas reaching the population density it needed to cultivate a culture of its own and achieving the wealth it required to import the same, the city's culinary character was clear. Dallas food was nervy and brash. In an age when mothers coddled their children with milquetoast, Dallas cooks were adding two tablespoons of chili powder to 1 pound of pinto beans. That's a ratio a chili powder manufacturer could—and possibly did—endorse. Today, celebrity chef Paula Deen, hardly a paragon of reticence, recommends a single teaspoon for the same-sized serving.
For decades, Dallas proudly upheld a gospel of bold flavors. And then, somehow, the city forgot all about it.
The quintessential dish of Dallas' current dining scene doesn't have anything to do with peppers or mustard or pickles. It doesn't speak of the people who settled here, or the land they found. None of which has stopped almost every local restaurant with double-digit check averages from serving mussels, a seaborne mollusk that's impervious to direct seasoning. By latching onto steamed mussels, Dallas isn't just snubbing its culinary heritage—it's sacrificing its claim to being a serious and significant food city.
What counts in cookery today is a regionally specific food culture. Serving day-boat scallops 2,000 miles from Nantucket Sound no longer allows a town to call its culinary scene "world class"—a status cities covet because of the bragging rights, economic advantages and intellectual stimulation that come with it. Communities now are building their reputations on boudin and boiled whitefish, plates that plant an eater's feet firmly in the native soil.
The hyper-local approach may have reached its apex this year with the opening of Husk, chef Sean Brock's Charleston, South Carolina, paean to the South: "If it doesn't come from the South, it's not coming through the door," Brock, a James Beard award winner, decreed.
For years, Dallas has pursued a very different course, voraciously importing ingredients, chefs and culinary philosophies in the name of cosmopolitanism. Corporate interests have helped sculpt the city in Las Vegas' image, pasting big names on restaurants and leaching the odd and offbeat from local menus. They've garroted the development of neighborhood restaurants that innovate and thrive in places with enviable culinary reputations. It all adds up to a sensation of nowhereness that doesn't track with the contemporary food climate.
Dallas has done such a good job of disguising its edible traditions that few eaters—here or elsewhere—can confidently describe the city's cuisine. Atlanta has grits, Chicago has pizza, Memphis has barbecue and Dallas has—well, mussels. Dallas' untethered cuisine is so thoroughly out-of-step with how most epicureans are now thinking that the city's begun to exist in a sort of self-imposed isolation, a decidedly unhealthy position for a city with culinary ambitions.
The Dallas dining scene is broken, as anyone who's eaten out lately can attest. It's slipped from being a city that drew international attention for its renegade restaurants to a town where corporations serve as tastemakers, chefs aren't taking chances and customers are so stingy with their food dollars that restaurants can't engage in the type of fine-dining play that distinguishes cities such as Chicago and San Francisco.
For every optimist who insists the situation's improving, there's another setback: In the past year alone, Sharon Hage shuttered York Street, a celebrated shrine to locavorism; Avner Samuel replaced his flamboyantly excessive Aurora with a sensibly priced bistro; and Go Fish Ocean Club closed almost as soon as Top Chef made executive chef Tiffany Derry a nationally known star. Industry insiders say they can imagine what a flourishing dining scene in Dallas might look like, but aren't entirely confident the city has the goods to get there.
Chef Bryan Caswell, the force behind REEF in Houston, has probably been popular since he was small. Or, at least, since he was young: The 6-foot-4-inch, 240-pound Houstonian has a smile and knockabout charm that would have made the producers of The Next Iron Chef pant even if his résumé didn't include a James Beard nomination and Best New Chef title from Food & Wine Magazine. Caswell has friends in kitchens around the world.
"I don't know a single chef in Dallas," Caswell admits. "I know chefs in every other town."
Caswell's leery of denigrating Dallas, an activity he maintains isn't an automatic corollary to his constant Houston boosterism. "There are very few things I'll debate with a customer," he says. "My gumbo and how much I love Houston." He protests he barely knows Dallas.
"Every time I go to Dallas, I get lost, go to jail or get the shit kicked out of me," he says.
Still, it looks to Caswell like Houston, San Antonio and Austin have eclipsed the state's biggest metro area.
"You guys are almost playing fourth fiddle," he says.
Caswell's assessment wouldn't surprise chef Stephan Pyles, who's stuck by Dallas as it's wandered off the national stage.
"I know we're not a great dining city," he says. "It's hard to accept that. I thought we'd be further along, but we're not. We're in the second tier. I think we're right up there, but there's a big gap from tier one to tier two."
Pyles, of course, was a member of the "Texas Mafia," a group of four under-40 chefs who blended the regional fervor spawned by the Bicentennial with a reverence for Diana Kennedy's take on classic Mexican cookery and came up with what San Francisco Chronicle restaurant critic Michael Bauer in 1983 christened the "new Southwestern cuisine." The style didn't have any obvious antecedents, which was exactly the point: Emboldened by the ascent of nouvelle cuisine and the flow of oil money coursing through the city, Pyles, Dean Fearing, Anne Greer and Robert Del Grande mished and mashed French techniques with blue corn, poblanos, jicama and cilantro, an herb few groceries stocked before Dallas chefs showed eaters what they could do with it.
"Whatever the ingredients, these talented young chefs are cooking the food of the '80s—light, vibrant, sparkling," New York Times food writer Marian Burros reported in 1986.
Southwestern cuisine—as much a product of a particular time as a specific place—hastily made the national rounds, with chefs from San Francisco to New York City adding chiles and tomatillos to their pantries. Pyles opened Tejas in Minnesota in 1987: "Talk about a bland palate—Scandinavian," he says. "But once they tasted it, that's what people expected. Big, bold flavors."
Knowingly or not, the Dallasites spurring the Southwestern uprising were staying true to the local tradition of dazzling diners by gently menacing their taste buds. And they did it with the old guard's backing: When Fearing returned to The Mansion as executive chef in 1985, he told his bosses, "The only way I was going to go back was if we marketed The Mansion as Southwestern cuisine."
"When we first started, I didn't know if it had legs, all of us being young chefs," Fearing recalls. "There was definitely a rebel side. We were all in our mid-20s and wanted to take on the world. We wanted to change Dallas from French restaurants."
Chefs working in the Southwestern idiom were pleased their experiments were attracting national press, but weren't sure they could count on brewpubs in Ann Arbor, Michigan, to keep serving mole sauce, a menu addition Texas Monthly's Patricia Sharpe documented in her 1996 story "Texas food conquers the world!" But they were confident their concoctions would remain mainstays of Dallas menus. As Burros concluded her story, "They are certain it will always have a permanent home in the Southwest."
Yet that's not exactly what happened. Suddenly, Fearing and Pyles were the only guys in town making a serious go at a cooking style that was primed to be as regionally influential and transformative as the farm-to-table philosophy Alice Waters popularized in Northern California or the scrubbed-up Southern cuisine set forth by Frank Stitt in Alabama.
Southwestern-leaning eateries predicated on trendiness instead of talent shut down. The Mansion rekindled its Francophilia, eventually hiring a Loire Valley native to helm its dining room. And even chefs who trained under the patriarchs—Nick Badovinus, Casey Thompson and Marc Cassel are a few of Fearing's kitchen alums who've opened their own area restaurants—gravitated away from the Southwestern genre.
While the scarcity of imitators has surely helped boost traffic at their eponymous restaurants, Fearing and Pyles are mystified why their ideas didn't catch.
"It's an interesting question," Fearing says. "Stephan and I have talked about it. Both of our trees of life are huge. But it's not like other cuisines, where people left Charlie Trotter and kind of did Charlie Trotter in their own style. It's funny that people would love me and wouldn't do Southwestern cuisine."
Perhaps Fearing's ego is an element of the equation: Famed for his outsized personality and multicolored cowboy boots, Fearing is so firmly linked with Southwestern cuisine that it's a struggle to separate the man from the masa. A young chef who lards his menu with quail tacos and ancho shrimp soup is at risk of putting on a culinary drag show, aping Fearing's signature moves.
"Stephan and I took it to unbelievable heights," theorizes Fearing, who wonders whether young chefs are paralyzed by their unspoken answer to the question: "Would I ever get it like Dean and Stephan got it?"
Or maybe their resistance is rooted in apathy, not anxiety. Pyles characterizes the current generation of chefs as "eclectic," which is a kind way of saying the cooks who've come through his kitchen don't thrill to regionalism. They chafe at the Southwestern label, which they find confining.
"What's always been disappointing to me is when people ask who are the heirs apparent, the fact is, the chefs we've trained don't do any unabashed Texas," says Pyles, a fifth-generation Texan. "It's interesting, because I have this struggle. I have to continually remind them to bring things back to this style of place."
Speaking of executive chef Matt McAllister, who's since left Pyles' restaurant, Pyles says, "He's out there wanting to do molecular, and I say 'Remember our deal here. Where are we from? Texas.' So he'll add some chiles."
McAllister confirms he's not under the sway of Southwestern cooking: "I don't really do Southwestern food," he says. "It's not my style. Mine's just kind of simple American. I'll use whatever ingredients are freshest and most in season."
It doesn't matter much to McAllister whether his dishes reflect Dallas. That's a more pressing concern for Pyles: Although Pyles' newest restaurant is a compilation of global cookery, he's smitten with his home state's foodways.
"I would like to do an in-your-face Texas concept," he says. "Maybe it's a little Disneyland-like. Ambiance is pure Texas. It would really pull from four influences: Southern, Hispanic and the cowboy steaks and the chicken-fried steak. We do a chicken-fried steak at lunch [at Stephan Pyles] that sells like crazy."
Chicken-fried steak is the kind of regionally bound dish that's served as an organizing principle for communities with vibrant food scenes. Chefs in other cities take tremendous pride in reworking the humble dishes their grandmothers made, embroidering them with modern techniques and swapping out canned goods for farm-fresh ingredients. Up in Minneapolis, where all that's needed for a funeral is a cadaver and hot dish, chef Landon Schoenefeld this year opened Haute Dish, serving "new Midwestern cuisine." That means he makes his "hot dish" with short ribs, baby green beans and porcini béchamel.
What the Dallas dining scene really needs, the most vocal lamenters say, are more meats, grains, fruits and vegetables grown by local farmers. Won't happen, the skeptics respond: North Texas is hot and the soil's lousy.
"That's ridiculous," says Erin Flynn, who farms near Austin. "That's absolutely ridiculous. People have been eating in Dallas for millennia."
Cranky weather conditions haven't impeded the local food scenes in Portland, Maine, where the average winter temperature is about 20 degrees, or Portland, Oregon, where farmers have to contend with almost 40 inches of annual rainfall. Coaxing pigs and plants to grow isn't the problem, Flynn says: It's getting product to market.
"Just because you can grow it doesn't mean you can get to it," says Flynn, who recently moved back from Georgia to launch Green Gate Farms.
Compared with Georgia, Texas' local food scene is badly stunted, Flynn says. That's partly a result of the state consistently favoring large-scale commercial farms, and partly a result of grassroots activists failing to organize on small farms' behalf.
"In other states, the nonprofit communities and academic communities have come together to create infrastructure," Flynn says. "Texas has a different tradition."
Flynn starts to make a point about the primitive state of farm-to-table networks statewide by referencing an "Eat Local Week" meeting she attended that morning, pausing to ask the dates of Dallas' "Eat Local Week." Told no such thing exists here, she shifts her conversational course.
"Man, things are bad there," she says.
In Dallas, the local food distribution system consists primarily of Tom Spicer processing orders for arugula and squash blossoms at his ramshackle market in East Dallas.
Spicer spends a fair amount of time explaining market economics to growers and buyers. He coaches farmers on which greens to grow and teaches chefs how to use new ingredients. But a one-man show can't double as a revolution: While most leading Dallas restaurants are sufficiently savvy to tack the words "local" and "seasonal" on their menus, Spicer claims very few exercise the integrity real locavorism demands: They make exceptions for asparagus in January and substitute commercially produced ingredients for the locally grown stuff when it runs out.
"It's symbol over substance," Spicer rails. "That's Dallas."
But even chefs who aren't trying to wriggle out of their ethical obligations often find it's hard to uphold the most basic tenets of the local-food movement in Dallas, where the supply chain's twisted and tangled. Ed Lowe, whom chef Sharon Hage calls the "Godfather of the Dallas farm-to-table movement," made buying from local farmers a cornerstone of Celebration Restaurant—and then he gave up.
"In the early years, I went to Farmers Market a lot, and then it faded as a common practice for us," he says. "It's certainly easier to pick up a phone than take a van at 4 in the morning. You can pick up the phone and say, 'I want two cases of squash' or you can get into a vehicle that will support a substantial load of produce."
If you're after cantaloupe from Pecos or tomatoes from Canton, he adds, "You have to get to the Farmers Market at 10 p.m. the previous night. If you're not there, you're not going to get anything."
Lowe has recommitted his restaurant to buying local, but acknowledges the logistical hurdles remain very real. Without a coalition of growers and eaters to forge a healthy distribution network, most restaurants are stuck doing what makes financial sense.
Dallasites would do well to remember local food is about money, Flynn says.
"It's an entrepreneurial opportunity," she says. "And Dallas is known for business. If ever there was a place where local food should take off, Dallas is the place. To overlook food opportunities, that's more for us in Austin to take advantage of."
Flynn's interrupted by the oinking of her guinea hogs, a now-rare breed that Thomas Jefferson kept. She's breeding the pigs because "nobody has this breed. But we know it has potential." Flynn's developing a market, and suspects her counterparts in Dallas could do the same. Maybe they won't pin their hopes on pigs: Perhaps they'll grow different strains of rye or make ricotta cheese. Perhaps someone will buy a fleet of trucks that could handle deliveries from small farms.
"Local food can create a renaissance," Flynn insists. "It can revive a local culture. You take that first step in food, there's a tremendous ripple effect."
It's tempting to believe Dallas could build a vital food community solely with local spinach. But locally grown ingredients are a means, not an end. "That should be a given," Pyles says. What might matter more is the provenance of the city's chefs. If Dallas is to reclaim its former edible glory, it needs more chefs like Pyles, who have a deep connection to the region and the flavors that once exemplified it.
The mischievously audacious seasoning that once distinguished Dallas cookery is slightly at odds with the delicate nature of farm-to-table cuisine. Many chefs who chant the organic, local, seasonal mantra advocate a hands-off approach to cooking. "Chefs need to let ingredients speak for themselves," Dallas Morning News critic Leslie Brenner wrote in her prescription for the city's restaurants, published last summer.
The spell of minimalism is strong. The latest season of The Next Iron Chef featured a challenge in which the competing chefs were supposed to create a dish that "respected the potato," leading to much discussion of whether multiple layers of flavor are consistent with vegetable respect. Bryan Caswell made a tater tot, which his fellow judges decided didn't respect the potato.
Indian cooks respect the potato by mashing it with peas, chili powder and coriander leaves. Peruvian cooks respect the potato by smothering it with tuna mayonnaise and avocados. Respect is not synonymous with subtlety.
"That's not my style," Pyles says of the current vogue for unadorned plates. "I'm happier to taste something intense and have it keep going in my palate."
Pyles' characteristically Texan attitude shows up at Samar, where he's corralled the intense cuisines of India, Spain and the eastern Mediterranean. The influence of a local chef, who understands and loves North Texas, is apparent—no chicken-fried steak required. The flavors are strident and dense, just like Martha McDonald liked them.
So where are the local chefs? More than 10,000 students have passed through the culinary program at El Centro College since it debuted in 1966, but it's a long way from the classroom to restaurant ownership, especially in a dining climate Jessie Taylor-Yearwood, a professor at El Centro's Food & Hospitality Services Institute, describes as "brutal."
There's a cost to assembling the type of résumé needed to open a restaurant these days, and most El Centro students can't afford it. That's why many of them end up designing menus for nursing homes and working as prep cooks at massive hotels.
"I think to make a name for oneself is much harder than it might appear," Taylor-Yearwood says.
Prospective chefs are expected to be circuit riders, logging hours in kitchens across the country.
"A lot of people in our program can't do that," Taylor-Yearwood says. "They're not willing to move out of Dallas. These resources are not available to us. These experiences are not available to everyone."
Pyles and Fearing agree the economy's partly to blame for inhibiting a resurgence of the youthful, creative spirit that invigorated the Southwestern movement. Fearing was tremendously impressed by a recent visit to Animal, the meaty endeavor Jon Shook and Vinny Dotolo debuted before either of them had turned 30. L.A. Weekly's Jonathan Gold has called the eatery "the most influential restaurant in Los Angeles." Fearing doesn't anticipate seeing anything like it in Dallas.
"I don't know if it's as easy to open up a restaurant as it used to be," Fearing says, sighing. "Back when I was doing it, people didn't know you couldn't make any money with restaurants. I worked for a group of guys who wanted a five-star restaurant in North Dallas, and they lost their shirt. We had three unbelievable years, but we never made a dime."
Toying with people's palates is far more appealing when the rent's already paid. Fearing attributes the timidity and conservatism that's made the Dallas dining scene so dreary to financial fears.
"I don't know if they can be as brave as we were, because we really didn't care," Fearing says. "I wasn't married. I had a car and an apartment."
Houston chefs are deadly serious about their craft, but their city's ruled by a mindset that's reminiscent of Dallas in the 1980s. "The cost of doing business here is a fraction of what it is anywhere else," Caswell crows. Significant municipal support and a famously nonexistent zoning code have helped make it relatively easy to open a restaurant in Houston—and, so long as the owner's on the premises, to stay open.
"Houston has an intense affection for the owner-operated machine," Caswell says.
Fearing says he knew Southwestern cuisine had attained legitimacy when Jean-Georges Vongerichten served foie gras with black beans and jalapeños. By contrast, when Caswell returned to Houston after a nine-year absence to open Bank by Jean-Georges, "the majority of people who came to the restaurant didn't know who Jean-Georges was. They came to see a hometown boy made good. In Houston, people don't give a shit who you are. They just want to know you're here."
Caswell likens Houston to New Orleans at its bustling, intermingling, port city best. He compares Dallas to the same city before Hurricane Katrina: "It's not growing. It's not moving forward. There are no guys coming up to replace the old." In New Orleans, it took a devastating storm to empty out storefronts, drive down rents and create opportunities for young, inventive chefs who couldn't win—or didn't want—corporate support.
"Dallas has become so commercialized," says Ngoc Trinh, an El Centro student who dropped out of a predental program at Baylor because, "I said, 'You know what, I love to cook.'"
Trinh, now a research chef consultant for Frito-Lay, has hopscotched through the city's top kitchens, collecting the credentials she needs to make it as an independent chef-owner.
"I've spent the last six years developing my career," she says. "I have a great concept of what I want to do. I'm building a foundation for myself. My young rebellious attitude will last until I'm 35."
There are glimmers of hope for the Dallas dining scene. There are a few passionate young chefs like Trinh, who's too astute to reveal her grand plan. There's the burgeoning cocktail community, which so far hasn't shied away from the swagger that once made Dallas restaurants important destinations. And there's the State Fair of Texas' Big Tex competition, which annually commands as much attention as Southwestern cuisine ever did.
Fried beer—and all the other questionable edibles that fair vendors dunk in hot oil and impale on sticks—is carrying on the regional traditions that Dallas chefs have largely ignored. Deeply reflective of place, fried beer is simple and strange and willfully offensive to delicate palates. McDonald, who showed her television audience how to make corny dogs, would have loved it.
Reclaiming the distinctive flavors of Dallas would surely energize the local dining scene. But a food culture that enriches a city hinges on community, not any particular seasoning. When asked to share their visions for dining in Dallas, young chefs don't cite dishes or cuisines. They stress the relationship between restaurants and customers. They describe a place where restaurants don't cynically foist fads upon their guests. "Dallas food is like the mink coat that comes out in November when it's 65 degrees," Taylor-Yearwood grumbles. They speak of diners who are eager to try new foods and enthusiastically patronize independent eateries.
"I don't think people want to drop $150 in this city," Matt McAllister says. "A lot of other cities seem to support more freestanding fine-dining restaurants."
Reminded that he successfully charged $125 for the prix-fixe meal at Fuego, the molecular experience he helped create at Stephan Pyles, McAllister says, "Yeah, but it's four seats. As an enterprise, that makes no sense."
Tim Byres, a former executive chef for Stephan Pyles who's now exploring smoking and pickling at Smoke, currently the city's most interesting restaurant, shares McAllister's belief that Dallas has plenty of talent and a number of young chefs itching to innovate. What they need, he says, is customer support.
"We're a very 'it's hot or it's not' kind of city," he says. "One of the hardest things on Dallas restaurants is it's a very critical environment, and it's critical early. You can't plant a seed and expect it to be a tree. It's a gradual growth."
And, in the meantime, there's always fried beer.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss Observer's biggest stories.