Loving the Turntable at Tried and True
My first visit to Tried and True left me in a pleasant, hazy glow. I sat at the bar of the roadhouse-themed restaurant and munched on peanuts in the shell, drank cold local beer and basked in the radiance of a red-neon sign that screamed BINGO over the dining room. Behind me, a digital jukebox sat idle, and in front of me a turntable slowly spun an old Willie Nelson record, punctuated by quiet ticks and pops.
A faux-hawked young gent poured my drinks and brought me a plate of corned beef tacos, and when the needle slipped into the lock groove at the end of each record, he grabbed a new one from a short stack of well-worn cardboard sleeves behind the bar and kept the wax spinning.
The tacos I ordered were too heavy for me. Topped with cheese, sauerkraut and what felt like a quarter cup of dressing, they were a mess to eat, and the tortilla shells did nothing to improve the Reuben sandwich they were trying to mimic. But as I listened to Willie and other classic country artists croon from the analog sound system and looked at the growing dusty pile of peanut shells beneath my boots on the floor, I didn't care so much about the sloppy tacos. I'd switched to rye whiskey, neat. And I was sitting in a damn fine bar.
Six weeks later, those tacos are gone. The menu is updated often, according to owner Nick Badovinus, and while the corned beef tacos may be offered occasionally, they won't be a permanent item. Brisket, fish and pork versions are available, all stuffed into flour tortillas and topped aggressively — more gringo taco than authentic street-style.
Badovinus closed his previous restaurant, NHS Tavern, for months before Tried and True eventually opened its doors in the same space. The casual restaurant feel is gone, replaced with a pool table, shuffleboard and that jukebox I mentioned before and will mention again. Old-time signs with the backlit moving-water features resurrect Schlitz, Mount Olympia and other trash beers from a lost age.
Badovinus is responsible for the Neighborhood Services restaurant group, and in no other Dallas-based restaurant set is the principle's personality more apparent. You likely know plenty about his restaurants on Lovers Lane and Preston Road: Neighborhood Services, The Original, and the NHS Bar and Grill. It's the lesser-known Off-Site Kitchen, on the outskirts of the Design District, that's been quietly taking the role as the core of the businesses.
While Off-Site Kitchen is known for its modestly sized and delicious burgers and sandwiches laden with buttery bread, the building acts as a commissary of sorts. The restaurant serves as a proving ground where techniques and recipes are tested and batch ingredients are processed and shuttled out to the other restaurants in the group.
See the corned beef sandwich on Off-Site Kitchen's butcher-paper menu? That same purplish meat was heaped into tortillas for those tacos I ate on my first visit. And the 48-hour cracked-pepper brisket sandwich? You'll find that same brisket stuffed into tacos and heaped on nachos at Tried and True and again at the Bar and Grill.
In addition to his love of meat and butter, Badovinus has a motorcycle addiction evidenced by the two-wheeled machines that decorate more than one location, a love of classic rock noted by the blaring soundtrack at Off-Site Kitchen and a fetish for all things retro. The bikes at his restaurant sport carburetors instead of fuel injection, pages from vintage Playboys cover the walls in the bathrooms at Tried and True, and dusty knicknacks decorate all the spaces.
Vintage has its romance, but if you've ever had to hold a choke open while you fiddle with a motorcycle's ignition on a cold, windy day, or planted your ass on a couch with your friends just as the first side of a record ends (whose turn is it to flip?), you know there's a price to pay in convenience for that classic aesthetic appeal.
Over the rest of my visits to Tried and True (four total), I could never regain that pleasant, hazy glow that warmed my first experience. Sure, I drank plenty of rye, but two young guitarists belting out bad cover tunes had a hard time competing with ol' Willie. Thom Yorke's falsetto should really be left to the man himself. A country band fit better, but they looked awfully cramped, tucked into a small corner of the bar.
When live music isn't playing, anyone can slide a dollar bill (or a credit card) into the jukebox and unleash his personal tastes onto the dining room. 311 was interesting for a few weeks in the late '90s, but I'm not sure they're the perfect complement to American whiskey and peanut shells. Neil Young sounds better, but not when he's followed by death metal. And the bass drops in popular hip-hop were loud and jarring as I tried to settle in with a burger, especially on the heels of Tom Petty.
Maybe flipping records every 20 minutes isn't practical for a busy bartender, but a well-curated music list is the cornerstone of a restaurant's atmosphere. I'm not suggesting Badovinus install a box that spins vinyl 45s (or maybe I am) but a jukebox full of CDs that match the Appalachian theme might bring things together a little more tightly. And a better atmosphere would help us all turn our attention on the food that draws most patrons to a Neighborhood Services restaurant.
While other chefs in trendy restaurants spend weeks preparing charcuterie that often lacks refinement, Badovinus relies on the old country pros. Where else can you get Allan Benton's smoky, salty ham, shaved thin like a finely cured prosciutto?
Whiskey chicken livers, on the other hand, are expertly made in-house. The velvet-smooth puree hides beneath a clarified butter fat cap that keeps the pâté from oxidizing. Spread it on bread that's perfectly toasted and inundated with even more butter.
Oysters from Barnstable, Massachusetts, are a real gem. Most I ate were neatly shucked and full of oyster liquor, but my waitress might work on her sales pitch. "Fishy" is a term best used to describe 3-day-old mackerel or tuna from a can. A sinister plot smells fishy. These oysters were clean, bright and full of brine, with a dense and meaty texture. Six will set you back $16 dollars: A fair price, but I firmly refuse to admit how many orders were required to effectively evaluate the bivalves.
There's more seafood on the menu, including fish and chips that featured hake when I visited, but cod and other fish are used as well. Peel-and-eat shrimp are boring, but the fried version boasts a crunchy, flaky batter. Eat it quickly before the shrimp lose their crispness.
A decent burger that loosely copies the casual burgers you can get at Off-Site Kitchen, and a handful of sandwiches and salads round out the rest of the menu. All of these dishes are well-executed, and most are heavy and fatty.
Desserts are less inventive than what was offered in the old NHS Tavern, but they're still toothache-sweet. I prefer the chocolate-heavy pecan pie to the fudgy mudslide brownie, but they'll both scratch the itch. Or maybe you'd prefer another glass from Tried and True's impressive whiskey menu and a card game for dessert instead.
Every table sports a deck of playing cards, either sitting out in the open or hidden behind a cardboard carrier of condiments like mustard, malt vinegar and hot sauce. A welcome mat of sorts, they urge you linger here a while. The stiffness of the plastic-coated cardboard says not many have accepted the invitation yet. They haven't been shuffled much.
It's most likely that the decks are all brand new, but as another dollar bill slides into the jukebox I wonder if something else urges people to move along. Tried and True seems trapped between modern convenience and the romance of the past. While I really like this bar, I'd prefer my whiskey with vinyl.
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