All-American is a series that looks at beloved, longstanding North Texas eateries and examines their histories while exploring how the food has changed — for the good or bad — over the years.
You lose all sense of time inside Cosmo’s. Without any sense of urgency, three good-old boys sit at the bar, under cherry red orbs hanging from the ceiling, taking swigs of bottled beer. In any other bar in Dallas, this group might be ranting about the Cowboys draft picks or the Rangers lineup. At Cosmo’s, the good-old boys at the bar are talking FX’s latest season of Fargo and AMC’s starting lineup.
“Have you seen The Americans?” owner Gerald Stogsdill asks them. “It’s a show about Russian agents living in America.”
Coincidentally, the TV on the wall behind me plays Red Dawn, a film about Russians invading America in broad daylight. Even though there’s a Tito’s clock on the wall, I have no earthly idea what time it is. At Cosmo's, you don’t need to know; It is a soul-soothing, dimly lit escape from the average sports dives in the city.
Jackson Tran hangs behind the bar in a Texas Rangers cap and a Rolling Stones T-shirt. He pours tequila in a shot glass, wedges a lime slice on the edge, cracks a beer and delivers both to a customer. The conversation moves to Roger Moore, who recently died, and Bond films. Tran turns up the Stones’ “Dead Flowers” when it plays. He knows Cosmo's like the back of his hand; he’s worked there for 16 years. It opened in 2000, and he's helped shape it into one of the most interesting dives in Dallas.
About eight years ago, Tran began working his Vietnamese comfort food background into the bar menu, calling it a pop-up. His parents are both chefs from Can Tho in Vietnam’s Mekong Delta. Tran was born in a Red Cross refugee camp in Indonesia. He worked and cooked with his parents at Vietnam Restaurant (not the Bryan street spot) and shucked oysters in the '90s at Landry’s. At Cosmo’s, he’s built a menu that reminds him of home: Vietnamese comfort food, a mini restaurant within a restaurant that serves pizza and sandwiches, offering fresh banh mis with pickled vegetables and herbs and pho that satisfy down to your bones.
Wednesday is Vietnamese fried chicken day at Cosmo’s. It’s one of Dallas’ most underrated fried chicken meals. Tran brines the chicken in buttermilk, dredges it in equal parts all-purpose and rice flour – giving it a brittle-crisp skin – and fries it in soybean oil. Ask for it spicy, for the love of everything holy, and your glass-shattering breading gets a sauce of fried chili paste, garlic chiles, soy and sugar. It’s fantastic. It comes with slaw – shredded cabbage with cilantro, fish sauce and chopped peanuts – and a big pile of sensationally crispy tater tots. This is the bar food of the gods.
Cracking into the chicken skin, I’m moaning like Bill Murray eating dinner in What About Bob? Tran talks me through his pho. Cosmo's serves it Thursdays through Saturdays, and he makes it small batches.
“It’ll never be as good as your mom's, but I’m getting there,” he says, smiling.
The broth magic starts with cane sugar, fire-roasted onions, ginger, toasted star anise, salt and pepper, and a pile of bones. Three broths simmer, and Tran layers them into one big bath.
I take a big bite of cole slaw, and Tran offers more fish sauce. Can you believe this place? What other dive bar in Dallas surrounds you with movie posters and VHS tapes – there are dozens lining the walls – mid-century modern decor and extra fish sauce? Cosmo’s is truly a retreat. Your eyes adjust to the dim light, and the pho comes steaming hot. There’s a patio out back where you can hunker down privately and never know you’re right off the trafficky Skillman Street.
“I wanted to do a bar where it wasn’t a sports bar,” Stogsdill says.
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“It’s like an evolution of the bar," he says.
I’m dipping tater tots in the fried chili paste sauce, and my mind is dunked in good feelings.
Crack into the skin of Vietnamese fried chicken on Wednesdays, the banh mi on Mondays or the pho on Thursdays, and the sentiment will ring as true as anything.
Cosmo's, 1212 Skillman St.