"Dinner in Trinity Groves?"
It's a question that so often sends my potential dining companions running for the hill country, a trail of withering dust the only evidence they ever existed. This restaurant empire, rising from the clay of West Dallas, isn't the only destination that has given me trouble, but it does have a reputation for producing some less than passionate eateries.
Last week's restaurant review: ¡C. Señor! Is Making Cuban Magic in Oak Cliff
When I first became a food critic, I thought finding dining companions would be the easiest part of the gig. I knew that writing could cause migraines and that finding restaurants worth writing about could test my appetite and resolve, but inviting people to come out for a free meal? That should be a slice of moist, delicious carrot cake. Except it's often not -- especially when the dining destination is a less than savory one.
I can't blame my friends. Trinity Groves' chain-restaurant business model and quick-fire construction don't exactly inspire visions of culinary artistry. The place is as packed as a suburban shopping mall on the weekends, and it feels like a tourist destination. But those who focus on all the crass commercialism could miss some exceptional dining, including tender, braised octopus served with golden saffron-laced potatoes and pickled onions so magenta they look like they were extruded from a toner cartridge. They'll miss one of the most impressive charcuterie boards around, and they'll also miss what is one of the most elegant and unique dining experiences to be had in Dallas. Casa Rubia is worth a bus trip to Plano, let alone a quick zip to Trinity Groves -- neon or not.
But let's get back to that octopus, a dish that should be expected from any kitchen under the direction of chef Omar Flores. You'd recognize that tender flesh blackened on the grill after being braised into submission, if you'd dined at Driftwood in its heyday. Flores left the popular Oak Cliff seafood restaurant after spending a period overseeing both restaurants, but it's at Casa Rubia where the tender octopus tentacles realize their fullest potential, framed by an herbal romesco verde that smears across the plate.
The charcuterie plate that lands on a piece of lumber large enough to keep your fireplace going for days is worth being blinded by the lights of Trinity Groves, too. You can piecemeal your own selection together, but it's much more fun to go whole hog and order the tasting plate that includes a little of everything, including the celebrated jamón Ibérico from a black-skinned pig that's fattened on acorns. You'll see the ham up on the pass, a crescent cleaved from its side as each serving of razor-thin flesh is shaved away. In Spain, that same ham would be on display with its black foot intact, a visual conformation that this ham is the real thing. Here the foot is cleaved away to appease the USDA, but is no less delicious.
Don't mistake these dishes as culinary rehashes of the same shellfish and shaved meat platters you've had all over town. What's happening in this dining room is wholly unique in Dallas, distinct from even Si Tapas, Café Madrid and other establishments that have defined Spanish dining here. Not just the jamón, but all the charcuterie and cheeses are imported from Spain -- a policy echoed in the all-Spanish wine list, but let's not confuse Spanish sourcing with devout authenticity.
"These are really big," my friend from Madrid told me when a clay bowl of chicken landed on the table. In Spain, tapas are usually small, a bite or two to be consumed between sips of beer. At Casa Rubia, an entire chicken breast lands on the table, requiring diners to saw through crispy skin and juicy flesh to share. These must be Texas-sized tapas, we decided -- not that most diners will be bothered. In fact, my waiter told us many customers complain that they're still not big enough.
But Casa Rubia doesn't feel like the typical tapas restaurant viewed through an American lens. Flores' modern take on classic dishes brings something distinctly new, and it's all served in a dining room that seems to transcend the cookie-cutter feel of the rest of Trinity Groves. The dining room is framed by the same simple box as the other restaurants in the complex, but designer Stefania Morandi seems to conjure more from the blank space. Blond paint laps the walls giving the room a dim glow, and a massive pantry of wine and other Spanish knickknacks frames a generous U-shaped bar of marble. Another wall displays a floor-to-ceiling mural as the focal point for the dining room. What looks like a psychedelic screensaver from the original Pentium days is actually a reworked photo of Gaudi's Sagrada Familia basilica in Barcelona.
There are tables for couples on dates and smaller parties, but the best place to sit may be the high-top that flanks the kitchen. Here, you can gather with a large group of friends and enjoy tapas as they were originally intended -- with far too much booze.
Order a bottle or two of Albariño or maybe several glasses of sherry, and then order dishes to arrive one by one. Start with that charcuterie board, then make your way to Gambas al Ajillo, Gulf shrimp served with a fiery sauce. Don't skip the scallops, which are cooked so gently they tremble but still bear a golden crust, or the boquerones, which should be ordered every time you visit. The white and meaty anchovies smack of vinegar, and sit on a mixture of sliced onion and red and yellow peppers called piparade. That would normally be plenty, but Flores adds two quail eggs with soft yolks whose creaminess brings everything together.
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I wish my monkfish with tough and meaty mushrooms hadn't been overcooked, or that a fideo dish (hair-like pasta) was a little less oily, but nearly all of the plates that emerged from the kitchen were exceptional, or close. Keep ordering until you're too full, or too drunk (or both) to continue and then order just a little more. Put your watch in your pocket and throw your cell phone out the door, and then push on a little further. You should get lost in a meal like this one.
Truth told, the Spaniards have been known to spend hours at a bar or table like this, grazing their way through small plates and glasses of beer and wine until the wheels come off. And now that Uber has taken over the city, you've lost your last excuse. Just because Flores' cooking isn't authentic in the strictest sense, doesn't mean you can't be.
Casa Rubia 3011 Gulden Lane No. 116, 469-513-6349, casarubiadallas.com. 5-10 p.m. Monday-Thursday, 5-11 p.m. Friday-Saturday, 5-9 p.m. Sunday. $$$$
Dishes Charcuterie board $33 Gulf shrimp $16 Scallops $17 Boquerones $9 Octopus $15