Eating at One of Dallas' Unsung Restaurants with Under-sung Chef Jon Stevens
Jon Stevens keeps it cool under fire. And over fire.
Dallas debatably has a handful of celebrity chefs: Dean Fearing and Stephan Pyles, the two founding fathers of Southwestern cuisine, along with the notoriously cranky John Tesar of Knife, among others. Yet among these luminaries' elite culinary training and their restaurants' $$$ and $$$$ price ranges, there's a chef in town who deserves comparable rank for his food, his prices, and his personality. Chef Jon Stevens, of Bishop Arts' Stock & Barrel, doesn't wear weird hairspray or glasses on his forehead, and he didn't even go to culinary school. Dude can cook, though.
I recently asked Stevens to take me to his favorite casual restaurant, and he chose Mai's Vietnamese, an old East Dallas standard. Local and national awards spanning from 1990 to 2012 hang on the walls of the entryway, but the food is just as good as ever in 2015, and I'm glad for being reminded about the place.
Since I arrived first, I chose my usual table next to the goldfish tank in the back, which is about all you're going to get as far as ambiance goes. Another nice thing about sitting next to the fish tank is that you're next to the speakers that play soft foreign synthesizer music. The host/server/owner may give you a hard time about sitting there during the lunch rush, though, unless there are 3-4 people coming.
The host/server/owner also wants you to know what you'd like when he comes to take your order. No time for questions or waffling. If you want to know what's in a dish, read the menus. Turns out Stevens and his fiancée Melissa Green, or "MG," order what I always do -- imperial spring rolls, fresh and cheap at only $1.50 a piece along with the curry clay pot that can be prepared with shrimp, chicken, or tofu for around $11. According to the menu, it's rice topped with your choice of protein, glass noodles, black mushrooms, along with a carrot and broccoli medley that does not appear to be frozen, and then covered in what may be the best coconut curry sauce I've had. In addition, there are large full bottles of Sriracha on every table if the kitchen didn't meet your spice request. There's usually enough for leftovers the next day, making you the envy of everyone near the lunchroom microwave.
Stevens suggested letting the clay pot sit for a few minutes at the table before stirring and serving, because this allows for the rice on the bottom to develop a scrumptious, slightly burnt crust. It also prevents you from getting third degree burns on your tongue because the clay pot literally comes out sizzling. Let the steam blow in your face for an aromatic mini-facial before digging in. We debated trying other things on the menu, which we reluctantly did, but the consensus is: Stick with the curry clay pot.
Stevens has transferred his love of the hot pot to his menu at Stock & Barrel. It's one of the consistent items you'll see with seasonally updated ingredients. This spring, you can get a spaetzle (that's German for egg noodle) carbonara hot pot that's filled with fresh spring veggies. He updates the menu often, and when I asked where he gets inspirational fuel for his regular additions, he confessed to travel, Instagram, and Pinterest. His Instagram pictures at @stockbarreltx will have you licking your phone. And MG, a pescetarian and fellow Pinner, also provides inspiration -- he wants to have vegetarian offerings that even carnivores can enjoy, and he succeeds.
The item that he doesn't change because it's just too popular is the meatloaf. It's guaranteed to better than everyone's moms, and you can get it two ways -- in the traditional form every night at dinner or as a sandwich for Sunday brunch. What makes it so good? It's made with Wagyu beef, then rolled in a foil cylinder, baked at a low temperature, cooled, then finished on the wood grill and topped with green peppercorn butter. Eat it.
Rather than branch into new restaurants, at least for now, Stevens said his goal is to keep Stock & Barrel a mainstay in the Bishop Arts neighborhood by offering affordable prices that will keep people coming in for more than birthdays and anniversaries. His first solo venture, he's literally put his own sweat into the construction of the restaurant by building the tables, the enormous wall chalkboard, and the planter boxes in front, all with reclaimed wood from the former establishment, Safety Glass.
What's more, Stevens intentionally avoids fuss and is determined to maintain a healthy work-life balance. Instead, he makes time for camping and fishing with his son and going on regular dates with MG. He credits her advice of avoiding wheat along with imbibing a daily dose of apple cider vinegar for keeping him free from the aches and pains that traditionally accompany the profession of a chef.
With success that came from working on the line in his uncle's kitchen in San Francisco to owning one of Dallas' best restaurants, it's safe to say that Jon Stevens is the Renaissance man of Dallas chefdom royalty.
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