At Tillman's Roadhouse, Big Crowds and Bigger Portions
Chandeliers run down the dining room hall, casting a warm light on walls lined with barn boards floor to ceiling, wooden deer trophies and end-grain tables. The space would seem mundane if not for the occasional well-chosen splashes of color. Lush red velvet pads the seat backs of a bench that lines the far wall, punctuated by the occasional pillow. Ornate curtains break up the space — and the noise. The room ends in a cascading art display on a gold papered wall, accented with a green number 14.
That's not some trendy artist's abstraction of the restaurant's numerology. It's a tribute to the late Ricky Tillman, who opened the restaurant with his wife Sara in 1992 but died 14 years ago, leaving behind a spacious dining room that's been serving Oak Cliff since a time when West Seventh Street was considered off the beaten path, a trek for Dallasites who wanted an elevated meal that still resonated with the city's more casual leanings.
Sara pressed on, and eventually teamed up with Rob Dailey, an accomplished designer who remodeled the space, and Chef Dan Landsberg, who continued to refine the menu. The move paid off, as loyal customers continued to show their support and D Magazine even included Tillman's in an article listing Dallas' 10 best restaurants.
Tillman opened a second location in Fort Worth's So7 development in 2009 to similar accolades. But in 2010, after four years of turning out popular chicken-fried steak and burgers, Lansberg grew restless and split. Sean Cahill, who'd worked at Pappas Bros., Perry's and other steakhouses, quietly stepped in, and the tide of constant diners continued to wash through the doors.
On a quieter night, a weekday, two men sit at the bar, chatting and sipping. They sit here often, knees against logs cut on-end and attached to the wall to resemble a massive wood pile. They're comfortable here. They're used to it. But while designer Dailey is obviously a master of color, tone and other matters of form, the team might have spent a little more time on function. Tillman's Roadhouse may have the least ergonomic bar in Dallas. The foot rail extends almost a foot off the ground. The bar stools are tall and so is the bar itself, but the proportions are all off. A professional contortionist couldn't get comfortable drinking here.
But the bartender is great, the beer selection (Rahr and other Texas brews) is solid and the rest of the bar area is comfortable, tricked out with couches and tall tables. A flat-screen TV roosts on a dividing wall across from a projection screen. During the week they flicker with an Elvis Western, and college football when it's available.
The weekends draw big crowds at Tillman's, and this is where they wait, drinking soft and sweet margaritas and a muscular Old 87, which pairs gin with tart sours, apricot puree and bitters with a sprig of lavender. Wine service can be clunky — but hey, this is a roadhouse and the beer is cold. Shut up and drink.
Take a seat at your table in the main dining room — or, if your party is large enough, in the private back dining room, where birch trees line the blue painted walls and the overhead lighting is even more ornate. The room is reserved for private dining most evenings, but on busy nights, overflow diners may find themselves there.
Popcorn arrives first, laden with a faux-truffle pungency. Truffles are heavenly, yes, but if you've ever had them fresh, sliced over a warm bowl of risotto, the pungent oil can seem lifeless in comparison, a truffle's lesser ghost. Excessive use on popcorn and other dishes doesn't make up for the deficiency. It just makes it worse.
Focus on apps instead, specifically that massive box of french fries, separated into three sections by parchment paper: sweet potatoes flanked on either side by two types of Idaho spuds, served with a plate touting cups of house-made dippers. Fried pickles are a good choice too, brined in-house and not too salty.
The salmon ceviche is interesting. Pineapple, orange and lime make for more of a fruit salad than a seafood dish. Creamy cotija and avocado tamp down the acidity but also add confusion. There's one too many cowboys at this flavor rodeo, and they're all choking out the salmon.
As you breathe deep and prepare for mains, your eyes will surely wander to that chicken-fried steak. Tillman's used to chicken-fry a hanger steak, but now it's tenderloin. The previous cut, known for its intense flavor and chewy texture, turned to rubber when cooked well-done as some customers requested. Now big, more expensive pucks of meat receive a light breading and are fried to your liking. The filet stays tender for those who prefer their CFS cooked through, but really, this is a dish you're meant to chew on a little, and filet lacks that big, beefy flavor. The kitchen should consider a cheaper, more humble cut, and then handle it with the competence they demonstrate with the mashed potatoes and haricots verts that share the plate.
The burger is fine, if a little dry, which is odd since it arrives precisely as ordered: a perfect deep and rosy hue, surrounded by a char that could have come from a branding iron. That same blackened crust adorns a rib-eye steak, as good as any inside the loop.
Both the burger and steak have much lauded house-made tater tots riding shotgun, but don't picture Ore-ida when waiting for these snacks. The crust has no snap and innards are a soft potato puree, scented with now tiresome truffle oil. The oil dominates instead of complementing goat cheese in a snack that eats like a country coquette.
From there the menu picks up steam. Scallops are sweet and perfectly seared on both sides, while a translucent center remains. And a Frito pie is kitschy but addictive. Venison chili loaded with vegetables arrives moments after being poured over half a small bag of Fritos. The mass is topped with a Texas-sized dollop of sour cream and a little cheese. Don't try to resist dumping the remaining corn chips from the half-spent bag that accompanies the plate.
The crescendo continues into dessert, where three behemoths wait to pummel the remaining hunger — which likely dissipated before your mains even reached the table — into permanent submission. The cookie tower requires a degree in civil engineering to disassemble without incident, and a massive cake slice has no shame, either. But it's the s'mores that got attention on a popular Food Network show, and the air time was deserved. Tender, delicate crackers loaded with cinnamon arrive on a large branded board with house-made marshmallows of different flavors — maple, orange and coffee — plus chocolate and, yes, a burning flame. Whether you're a slow and patient roaster or a Stay Puft pyromaniac, do yourself a favor and exercise caution. A half order is plenty, even for a table of three or four.
It's not just the menu here that boasts comfort and country. Donning Western-style shirts and comfortable jeans, each server is bequeathed an official Tillman's belt buckle, complete with a bottle opening notch for liberating beers on the fly. Cowboy shtick aside, they're a smart bunch, charming diners in a weekend dining room that often seems pushed to the brink.
The customers themselves are also at full capacity. Those who order the standard 1-2-3 play of appetizer, mains, sweet will find themselves beyond full, perhaps nearing discomfort. Tillman's boasts plates that force customers to share or pay the price, and the dining room is full of patted stomachs, loosened belts and smiling but sleepy eyes. You might find yourself tempted to rip a swatch of fabric from the curtains that run floor to ceiling, a pillow from the velvet benches, and curl up in the corner for a much-deserved nap.
In other words, you won't need lunch tomorrow, but unless you're a long-time regular, you may find yourself looking back at a dinner that's a little confusing — occasionally rudderless but salvageable. If the kitchen were to upsize its execution to match the size of that cookie tower, Tillman's might find itself rightly restored to former glory.
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