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At HG Sply Co., Underwhelming Food for Overwhelming Crowds

The nachos.
The nachos.
Catherine Downes

Lowest Greenville Avenue hasn't been an easy place to run a bar or restaurant. The strip's tainted past, punctuated by a violent July Fourth incident that ended in citations, arrests and more than a dash of pepper spray, has drawn the watchful eye of the Dallas City Council. The resulting permitting process, which mandates how late businesses can stay open there and limits how much of their sales can come from alcohol, has been squeezing area bars like a bartender works a lemon wedge. Many have closed. Zubar was the most recent to fall, after an 18-year run.

The construction threatened to bulldoze what the city didn't crush with its new rules. The strip between Bell and Alta avenues was renovated to add wider sidewalks, nifty street lamps and extra parking spots, but progress was slow. Large banners called out "We're still open" to potential diners, separated from the storefronts by piles of rubble, makeshift fences and backhoes. The businesses bathed in concrete dust.

By the time the dust had been swept away, "For Rent" signs hung in half the windows on the street, even though it had been transformed into one of the most pleasantly walkable strips of real estate in East Dallas. It's only two blocks long, but people are flocking there, conducting some strange, foreign-seeming activity involving their feet that propels them across the pavement without the need for tires. And now the next round of restaurateurs aims to give these brave new souls — some call themselves "Pedestrians," which I thought was a show on NBC — a worthy destination.

HG Sply Co. opened in May, in a completely renovated space that could get any restaurateur dreaming. The massive dinning room is wrapped in brick and accented in warm wood and white subway tile behind the bar. Industrial light fixtures illuminate the space, and a large, open kitchen adds energy to a bustling dining room that had plenty on its own.

Out back, it gets even better. A small patio leads to a stairwell that will take you to what is likely Dallas' best rooftop deck. It runs the length and width of the entire building and offers views of Greenville Avenue to the north and south. Half the patio is covered, and fans spin from above to keep customers cool, while a bar at the back promises to keep them well-lubricated.

But for all the things that are perfect about HG Sply Co., the restaurant misses the most important mark: the food. It offers a quirky collection of dishes loosely based on the Paleo diet that's somehow still popular with gym rats. Some of these creations work decently enough, but on the whole they're poorly conceived. They eat without passion and leave no lasting memories.

Take the alleged BLT. Instead of bacon, a mound of pork belly is shaved thin and griddled in a pile so the bottom crisps up before it's tucked between two slices of whole-grain bread. The sandwich has decent-tasting tomato slices, a handful of arugula and a fried egg heaped on it. It's simple and pornographic cooking — eggs make everything seem decadent — but if you disassemble the sandwich and take a bite of the pork alone and ask yourself "Is this better than bacon?" you will soon realize that it's not. And while a riff on a classic is a welcome way to enliven a menu and surprise a diner, it's a failure if it's not an improvement.

BLTs need bacon. This is sandwich law.

The rest of the sandwiches follow suit, sometimes satisfying but never impressing. A steak sandwich is over-cooked and bland, and a quinoa burger patty is bound with so much egg it eats like a small frittata.

You might want to feel empathy for chef Paul Niekrasz, who inherited the difficult assignment of developing a menu that was 80 percent paleo and 20 percent "cheat-day fare." Owner Elias Pope and his partners wanted to create a restaurant where health nuts could dine and not feel like they'd just undone the 1,200 power lunges they just ... lunged. He also wanted to dangle a little temptation in front of his diners, in case they felt like today was the day to splurge.

Enter the nachos, which are one of the best items on the menu. The chips are a little inundated with oil, but they're topped with just the right amount of cheese, tender pork, salsa and slices of roasted chiles. Now these are worth a squat. You could almost envision more of the menu appealing to your gluttonous bar food desires, but then mini pork shanks land on your table.

They're big (the size of a small drumstick) and wrapped in bacon, yet dry and somehow short on flavor. They're sitting on a decent bed of greens, dressed in a delicious nectarine and red onion relish. If the kitchen would ditch the shanks and replace them with small lardons of pork they'd have a noteworthy salad.

The apple and orange salad with arugula and shaved ribbons of fennel reads well, but on my visit the same cheese that was melted over the nachos replaced the local blue cheese promised by the menu. A New York strip steak was bland and covered in a heavy sauce, and brick chicken was tough with rubbery skin. Omissions, substitutions and errors of execution seem to be hallmarks of the cooking at HG Sply Co.

And yet the place is packed. A Wednesday night walk-up required a 30-minute wait, and on a Friday the place was a party. It's a youngish crowd — there are a few baseball-capped heads but nobody's doing shots — and the space is filled with a roaring conversation that competes with Jay Z and Kanye and other party-starting pop that pours from full-sized speakers.

Maybe it's the cocktails that keep them packing in. The bar has amassed a respectable playbook built from spirits infused with fresh fruits and finished with herbs and other interesting garnishes. The best is undoubtedly the Double Under, which pairs beet-infused tequila with lime juice and rosemary syrup. It sounds like a health drink but it's most definitely not. Emily Perkins, who tends bar at Henderson Avenue's Victor Tangos, designed the drink menu, and they mark one of the better reasons for finding yourself here.

If you do, grab your favorite cocktail and head up to that rooftop deck to see if you can find a seat. And look around. Despite HG Sply Co.'s kitchen issues, the place is doing enviable business. It's obvious that all that construction was successful, and that area residents are starved for some nightlife in their hood. Down on the street, the "For Rent" signs still obscure many windows, and area restaurateurs should take note: The locals are obviously very hungry.

The drinks.
Catherine Downes

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