Like all things culinary, burgers, sandwiches and chicken wings — the core building blocks of human nutrition — are subject to a high degree of variability. A paper-wrapped sandwich from your corner deli is nothing like the creation cradled in locally baked bread at East Hampton Sandwich Company, which has little in common with the "sandwich" that might be dreamed up by a chef who's read too much Modernist Cuisine.
That's not to say one is inherently better than the other. A simple sandwich made with good bread and meat can make your day, while a talented chef's deconstructed peanut butter and jelly can stick to the roof of your brain for years.
A drive-in burger might taste better than it really is, if it evokes a station wagon filled with childhood friends and mustard stains. And if you haven't experienced a chefy burger that ushers tears with every juicy drip, then you clearly aren't fat enough.
Boxwood Tap and Grill
Boxwood Tap and Grill
2901 Thomas Ave., 214-220-2901, boxwoodtg.com. 4 p.m.-2 a.m. daily. $$
Wings $7, $12
Beet salad $10
Grilled salmon $18
The Corner Bar
4830 McKinney Ave., 214-219-8002. 11 a.m.-2 a.m. Monday-Saturday, noon-2 a.m. Sunday. $$
Mini corn dogs $5
Spicer's Greens $9
Bars — those that offer karaoke and live music, sell shots of Fireball and hasten sex among strangers — generally cling to the more pedestrian realm of these culinary endeavors. Beef patties are ordered pre-formed and flavor-free. Wings are pulled out of a freezer bag before they end up on a plate alongside wilted celery. Ranch dressing is ladled from a months-old gallon jug, and customers who order a salad roll the dice with their intestinal well-being.
Bar owners might reason that people who slam whiskey infused with synthetic cinnamon can't have a refined palate and wouldn't know the difference. Or maybe it's just more profitable to use weeks-old oil to cook stockpiled ingredients covered with frost in the freezer. It's even likely that the only reason the bar you're sitting at now is serving anything other than canned beer is because the government regulating their alcohol permit mandates it. Whatever the case, bar food is seldom better than hospital food.
The trend may be shifting though, even if it's moving as slowly as that salad dressing in the walk-in. A few bar owners in Dallas have been taking a closer look at their menus, even going as far as hiring chefs to draw in customers. Last year, Ten Bells Tavern opened in Oak Cliff, announcing that a chef would roll out an arsenal of house-pickled eggs and sandwiches stuffed with french fries. They've since earned a reputation for exemplary pub grub that may have eclipsed their quaint patio and bloke-worthy beer selection. Other bars have since taken a hard look at the steam tray of drying orange cheese sauce in their kitchens, though not always with the same results.
Earlier this year The Corner Bar came under new ownership, and Jason Czaja, who previously cooked at Shinsei, the Japanese fusion restaurant on Inwood Road, was tasked with developing the menu. More recently, Boxwood Tap and Grill opened up in the former TABC space on Thomas Avenue in Uptown. Jason Wade runs the kitchen there; he once served as sous chef at Plano's spot for elevated bar food, Whiskey Cake. When these chefs deliver what their menus describe, you'll be left to balance a round and happy belly on wobbly legs. When they don't, you'll wish you'd just gone to a restaurant and closed the evening with your favorite dive.
Boxwood doesn't feel like a restaurant. A sea of baseball caps fills the main room, each aligned with the appropriate flat-screen, and at the end of the bar an aggressive customer's hand cups a blonde's mostly covered backside. The business set in button-down shirts is here as well, and there are so many orders for Tito's and soda you might become suspicious that these customers are all watching their weight. (Pro tip: Soda water has fewer calories than tonic.)
This is not the type of place you'd expect to see a plate of roasted beets with shooter marbles of goat cheese dusted with minced fresh herbs. A massive nest of well-dressed arugula makes for a solid salad, even if the herbs clutter what are otherwise clean and simple flavors.
There's a prosciutto and melon salad but it's so much more, with cantaloupe, honeydew and watermelon joining berries, feta and thinly sliced cucumber. It's a combination that shouldn't work so well yet does, although it's a shame the ham was sliced so thin it was completely missing during one of my visits.
Boxwood doesn't shill healthfulness exclusively, even though they serve a solid turkey burger. There are tender wings served with fresh-tasting ranch that will quickly fill in the grooves on your six-pack. And there is pulled pork and slaw heaped onto springy buns that test the boundary of where sandwiches begin and sliders end.
There's also a burger served on a dense bun that feels like a sham on both fronts. The menu promises 8 ounces of chuck, but you'll get two thin patties that look like they're stretching for four each. They're likely so thin because they've gotten to know the grill a bit too well, and the dry, white bread standing in for what the menu calls a challah bun only adds to the nagging suspicion that you've ordered a dud. Boxwood might be the only bar in the history of bars that serves a turkey burger that's more delicious than their beef burger. If the action was intentional the world might be a better place.
The pork chop, flat-iron steak, pan-roasted chicken and other entrees may look good, but it's hard to order with confidence when a fillet of salmon arrives overcooked. Besides, those wings come in three sauces, and that salad you just ordered has already tempered your guilt.
While Boxwood caters to the manicured Uptown set, The Corner Bar lubricates a more casual crowd. It smells like a bar, with a fusty odor that reminds you of all the mornings you awoke down one credit card and up one mysterious bruise. The crowd gets younger, louder and drunker as the night wears on, and on the weekend sports fans berate, loudly, the job performance of men they've never met. Yet the menu board is scrawled with pedigreed local ingredients, including Tom Spicer's greens, which are dressed in a balanced vinaigrette, with julienned apples, slivers of celery and chopped pecans.
Croquettes masquerading as the flavors from the baked potato bar at a discount steakhouse are whimsical enough to elicit a smile. They're stuffed with bacon, cheese and chives, and come with requisite sour cream. The cold smoked wings are a little tough, but they're a pleasure to wrestle with.
The corn dogs are just one flaw away from being the best on the planet — a superlative that shouldn't be taken lightly. The words "this is the best corn dog I've ever had" were whispered, and even if they were later retracted, they illustrate the impact of that first bite. Luscher's Post Oak Red Hots, the same links peddled around town by Grape owner Brian Luscher, are cut to the length of your finger and replace what is normally a commodity dog, and they come with a white barbecue sauce that's creamy and tangy and hot. The batter they're dipped in is too thick, though, and they emerge from the fryer shaped like chubby Matryoshka dolls. But there are worse problems to have than too much bread on your corn dog.
If all the dishes that came out of The Corner Bar's kitchen worked this well, they'd have one of the best bar food menus in Dallas. Others dishes get mired in bad execution. Like the company whose bed you shared and then you wished you hadn't, they're only attractive if you've had enough to drink.
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The Italian beef sandwich has potential, but the meat is sliced unevenly and it's aggressively salty, while a rack of ribs arrives tender, but bone dry. A burger evokes that same drive-in number that makes you long for the past, but without the history it's nothing more than a thin-pattied burger with a passable char. Don't skip the bacon for best results, but it's not enough to make you run back next Friday.
And that's the measure of great bar food. It compels us to return no matter what our loved ones or our doctors tell us is best. It creates a longing that yields to euphoria when we indulge our cravings again and again. Hidden within each of these bars there is potential, but neither has pulled it together yet. Until they do they are fine enough places to only cautiously graze — and drink with abandon.
Web head: Haute Bar Food Is Getting Hot
Web deck: But only when the chefs in charge deliver what their menus promise.