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Guilty Pleasures

Burger Queen: Pam Wert and Tilley's Grill dish with a smile.
Tom Jenkins

There's something about good ol' American traditions like co-ed sporting leagues and state fairs that lend themselves naturally to ingesting copious amounts of the grilled, griddled and fried. We here in the land of grand portions enjoy our concessions, our tailgating and our comfort food. Like a good neighbor, Tilley's Grill obliges those hankerings.

At one time, Joe Willy's Market & Grill sat back in a weird little spot off Greenville Avenue near Park Lane, fulfilling the roles of pre- and post-game hangout, hangover relief central and general guilty grub depot. Then it was no more. Since January, the space has enjoyed a new life with Tilley's Grill filling Joe Willy's big shoes. Fortunately, this incarnation is not only cleaner but offers a wider menu variety and has an invigorated spirit thanks to new owners Michael and Alan Aguilar and "sweat equity" general manager Pam Wert.

Matching the raucous nature of the beer-league teams and happy hour patrons who frequent Tilley's, the boisterous Wert presides over the increasing waistlines of the counter-service joint's customers. She doesn't yell but hollers the names of diners in her thick drawl when their order is up. And, ever the hospitable proprietor, she tours the tables to refill sodas, check on satisfaction and clear tables. (She'll probably also remember your name and what you ordered on your last visit.)

There's little on the Tilley's menu that's new or innovative, but that's the honest appeal of the place. It's all old American favorites and diet-destroyers.

Hamburgers (which come in 1/3-pound and 2/3-pound doubles) are obviously hand-formed. Well-seasoned but not too salty, the beef patties were tender, juicy and just greasy enough to seep that house-burger attitude into the large bun. To top, the condiment bar offers sliced and diced options in its produce, dill and bread-and-butter pickles, and a variety of relishes and sauces. For the nontraditional, there's homemade burgundy mushroom sauce, home-style gravy and hickory sauce.

Seeing as how the hamburger is the obvious star of the Tilley's show, I sampled popular variations on the classic. The patty melt proved a tasty hit; the traditional rye bread was exceptionally fresh and the onions perfectly grilled to a hearty caramel. The turkey burger was less successful. As is often the risk with bird burgers, the meat was a skosh on the dry side and lacked the flavor of its beefy sibling.

While we stood deliberating our order on one visit, my dining buddy, rather taken aback, asked, "A bologna sandwich?" Indeed. On Texas toast sat four seared slices of quality bologna—Oscar Mayer was thankfully absent. Plain and simple, just like Mom used to make, but bulked up on steroids. It's a bit heavy on the meat, but for some, that could be a plus. Its inclusion on the menu is unusual, but for those that experience a random, once-a-year craving for the sausage synonymous with childhood, they now have a destination.

Fried bologna is nowhere near where the fried ends at Tilley's. Fried pickles win the contest between the various fried sides and starters my cohorts and I sampled on numerous visits. The light batter was crunchy and golden, providing the perfect enclosure for the sliced dills inside. Even after several minutes, the juice from the pickles did little to sog the crusty shell.

The Texas Toothpicks, slices of jalapeños battered and deep-fried, were less enjoyable. While incredibly fresh, the peppers were also unbelievably fiery, so much so that my co-diner and I were unable to eat more than a few—far from the large basket with which we were presented. Those we did consume were submerged in the accompanying ranch dressing in an attempt to squelch the heat. Normally, I'm a fan of moderately spicy foods, but these little devils sent my tongue straight to hell.

The onion rings, however, landed Tilley's back in my good graces. Thin and extraordinarily light, they were a delicate, addictive chew. With a flaky batter, as opposed to the more mealy and complete coating some restaurants favor, the rings proved to be as victorious an appetizer as they are a side and needed no meddling condiments.

Chicken-fried steak was hand-tenderized, battered and fried. It was perfectly tender in the center and crispy on the outside, as though a seasoned blue-hair had deftly wielded her 50-year-old iron skillet. I chose skin-on mashed potatoes to accompany my ample steak. The potatoes were the chunky, traditional variety and were complemented by the condiment bar's smooth home-style gravy, which rivaled the black peppery goodness which once came from my Granny's pan after a good fry. This isn't some dull whipped spud and cream gravy next to a store-bought patty; Tilley's says home-style and they mean it.

Now, just as they can serve up the diner/fair food, Tilley's can unleash some good sports pub fare, as evidenced by Tilley's Catch "The Whale." The plate-sized portion of haddock (a sturdier, more flavorful counter to the usual cod) is once again—say it with me—battered and fried, but this time in the tempura style popular with most fish 'n' chip recipes. Crunch battled it out with the flaky white flesh, and peace in the kingdom was found...despite the disturbing X-Game crashes taking place on the flat screens behind me.

The seasoned french fries were good, but the real highlights on the plank, er, plate were the jalapeño hush puppies. Biting through the crunchy outer layer, I found a tender cornmeal center as expected but then found myself reveling in the spicy punch that came when I chomped down on a small hunk of green. This is where we like the jalapeños at Tilley's.

Our stint as a gastric glutton for high-calorie punishment wouldn't be complete without sampling the sweet treats. After all, Tilley's is a family refectory welcoming little leagues as heartily as beer leagues, so along with the kids' meals and the arcade games (Galaga and Big Buck Hunter II, anyone?), Tilley's has some down-home desserts and one that comes straight from the midway.

The Blue Bell milkshakes were hand-dipped by Wert herself in between anecdotes about how the restaurant got its name (it's an homage to her family's favorite eatery in Colorado) and other family nuggets. The strawberry shake had actual berries in it and, as it should, clung to my straw (and thighs) like an old-fashioned soda fountain concoction.

The peach cobbler was an exercise in sin. After eating the large portions Tilley's seems to pride itself on, it was practically suicide to look at the oozy ramekin of peaches, saturated dough crumbles and sweet goo. Even surviving only two bites before shutting down was bliss. The ratio of crust to peach was balanced, and the entire effort was not sickeningly sweet. It was cobbler victorious.

Tilley's also offers handmade ice cream cookie sandwiches with choices for the ice cream and cookies left to the customer (a sure win with the tykes). They were out of cookies, however, so I'll have to revisit that another time. And the aforementioned midway snack proved to be a bit too much to handle after all the fried foods I'd encountered: The chocolate chimichanga is a Snickers bar (one more time) battered and fried, and friend, we need Big Tex looming overhead and a fair pass to venture there.

But, you know, if anyone needs a burger after the game, misses their gran's cooking or just has a craving for fried goods in paper trays before the gates in Fair Park open...

7033 Greenville Ave., 214-692-5400. Open 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Sunday-Thursday, 11 a.m.-11 p.m. Friday-Saturday. $-$$


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