Big Plans From the Tiny Kitchen at Jonathon's Oak Cliff

Sara Kerens

For the new-around-here, asking a local for dining ideas undoubtedly yields one of only a few recommendations. You must try the tacos at Fuel City. It's, like, in a gas station or something. Or how about Wingfield's? The patties are massive, the best burger I've ever had. Angry Dog is awesome, man. And so on.

Each testimonial comes framed with a cute history, fable or gimmick. And often, each recommendation disappoints once the cheerleading fades. It's not that they aren't interesting spots — the stories and the romance alone make them worth a visit — but if you judge these icons solely on the merits of their food, they rarely live up to the hype. They're good, sure, but the greatest?

This is how I came to eat a plate of fried chicken at Bread Winners Cafe on McKinney Avenue. An out-of-town chef who spent some time in Dallas had given me a list of places to try. It included some real gems. It also had a few bombs. The chicken at Bread Winners was an attractive plate, but it seemed all dressed up with no place to go. A pan sauce — one of those classic french riffs on veal stock — stood in for gravy, and an apple compote turned out to be applesauce's understudy. History, especially with food, has its own inertia, and institutions are difficult to dethrone.

Jonathon Erdeljac grew up in that last Dallas favorite, working the line, managing kitchens and helping to open new links in the Bread Winners chain. He'd arrived via Houston in 1998, only to get canned from his first job before landing at Maklin's Catering Company, learning the zen of pan gravy from an old master named Eugene. Eventually he found his way to Bread Winners, where he worked more than six years, frying chicken cutlets and harboring his own dream.

"My goal was to open my own place before I turned 35," Erdeljac says.

He just made it. His certificate of occupancy on his new restaurant, Jonathon's Oak Cliff, was awarded by the city a day before his 35th birthday. His liquor license, however, would come months later, caught in City Hall's red tape.

In the weeks and months preceding their opening, Erdeljac and his wife, Christine, built out the restaurant themselves. They hung country-style kitchen cabinets over a stainless steel back-splash behind the bar. They painted, too, accenting the space with a deep green and a brown so dark it's almost black. They named the bathrooms Earnest and Reba. They hung pictures that call back to Dallas' older days.

They built a decent menu too. The beer list is a small but reasonably curated one, fashioned from brown card stock, a laser-jet printer and the world's smallest clothespin. The selection leans hard on Oskar Blues Brewery, which brought the sexy back to canned beer. Dale's Pale Ale, Mama's Little Yella Pils and Old Chub are all here. I sipped on a Left Hand Milk Stout and a Stone IPA draft during my visits. Wine is all but forgotten, mentioned at the bottom with only varietals as descriptions. Would you like the chardonnay?

Every new space has its growing pains, and a menu with prices altered with stickers indicates a team that's still working out some kinks. Erdeljac concedes there's a learning curve. He thought he knew more about opening a restaurant than he did. But even if they've increased a little since opening this May, the prices are more than fair. Jonathon's charges basement numbers for elevated diner fare.

Take that pork chop. Rosie's special will set you back 13 bucks, but it will reward you with a well-done but juicy hunk of pig, still on the bone and lacquered with a coffee-honey glaze. A bright slaw of thinly sliced fennel bulbs, lightly dressed and accented with fronds, stands in for boring mashed potatoes. This was the most expensive item on the menu during my visits.

Chicken and waffles? Ten-fifty. And topped with a fried-chicken cutlet that beats the plate at Erdeljac's old digs hands down. The pepper gravy is a tricky one. It tastes laden with swine but it's not. Fennel seed, garlic, smoked paprika and other seasonings to mimic the flavors of a country sausage.

The beef burger was forgettable, even for only a Hamilton. I swapped the standard lettuce, tomato and onions with the toppings meant for the ground chicken and turkey burger. But the pickled onions, arugula and provolone, even paired with a fresh whole-grain bun, couldn't save a patty that was bland and dry. I watched a chicken pot pie I wished I'd ordered whisked to another table nearby.

The left side of Jonathon's evening menu plays on a trend I hope Dallas sees more of: breakfast for dinner. Eggs all day long. Sure, the breakfast menu offering waffles, pancakes, grits and other morning favorites says the service ends at 10, but other items endure, all the way through dinner.

Migas taste light on an otherwise heavy menu. The Tex-Mex preparation features egg whites and turkey sausage, and it makes light use of cheddar cheese and a pairing of soft, seasoned potatoes — healthier than traditional migas, but not in a way that makes you feel like you're eating healthy. It's a good cheat.

Eggs Benedict aren't as wholesome, showcasing a fried instead of poached egg, shaved ham, and plenty of lemony hollandaise. That meat-sicle shouldn't fool your inner nutritionist either. Dubbed the breakfast kebob, the starter laces a bacon strip between chunks of smoked sausage, slathered with the same glaze that adorns Rosie's pork chop. The bacon exposed directly to heat is sweet and crisp, but sections sandwiched between sausage are rubbery and underdone. Erdlejac says he intentionally cooks them this way, for a play on textures, but it doesn't quite work unless you're a fan of flaccid bacon. Not like the Danger Dogs do. These small turkey sausages, dipped in pancake batter and deep-fried, get a light dusting of powdered sugar and chile powder. It sounds odd, but the sweet chile heat works.

During Sunday's brunch, the dining room hums and the chef cranks out dishes from the postage stamp of a kitchen, at what seems like full capacity. Sit at the bar and you'll see him, barely. The red-haired chef, topped in a black cap, stands, just tall enough to peek over the pass and into a dinning room that's bustling with a mix of customers.

There are the young and hungover (hi, chef), hoping a heavy meal and a Bloody Mary, fashioned from a mix-your-own bar, will right the previous evening's excess. There's a family in the corner enjoying a Sunday meal with their kids. Older couples, too, one trying to concentrate on a newspaper at their table. It's urban diner meets country cooking in a gentrified hood, all of us served from a kitchen that's not even 200 square feet.

The kitchen's capacity will be tested soon. While the patio lies fallow in triple-digit heat, the 50 table settings will undoubtedly fill as soon as the mercury falls. The space effectively doubles potential demand for a kitchen that has no room to grow.

Most chefs are ambitious if anything, and Erdlejac claims he can handle the increased load. He's training extra cooks and honing his steel. He's keeping one eye on his menu and the other on those empty tables. He may be new to running his own show, but he's a veteran when it comes to pushing out plates in the weeds. He picked up those skills while working at Bread Winners and he brought them here, along with a lot of his old staff.

Jonathon's, of course, is far less than an institution. It's still too new. But with fair prices, a warm, memorable atmosphere and competent cooking, the young start-up stands a shot.

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Jonathon's Oak Cliff

1111 N. Beckley Ave.
Dallas, TX 75203


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