Minimalism at its best: Hector's saves its energy for the plate.
Minimalism at its best: Hector's saves its energy for the plate.
Tom Jenkins

Plain Good

Out there in the cyber yards there's a place called (political satire at its best!), a repository of assorted detritus and tripe. Here's something useful: "The Code of Dalton." "The Code of Dalton" lists a number of felonies and misdemeanors, outrages not covered by criminal codes. For example, under "A-Hole Crimes," blaming one's flatulence on a household pet is a misdemeanor, while saying, "But you have such a pretty face," to a fat woman is a felony. Under crimes of pretension, it is illegal for a wine snob to blurt, "It has a good nose," unless the bottle does, in fact, have a nice chiseled schnoz.

Culinary crimes are tucked in Section IV under the heading "Criminal Cuisine." Felonies include labeling any food "fun size"; selling, transporting or possessing any packaged foodstuff with the word "helper" in its name; and claiming to be a vegetarian while clinging to the belief that chicken and fish are not meat.

Then there is this crime: "offering liver and onions to a child." There, recoil in horror, and be mindful of this when dining at Hector's on Henderson. You could easily be seduced into offering a child the chicken-fried chicken livers in caramelized cipolline onions, but you'd be a usurper, a corruptor, a thief making off with youthful innocence well before its expiration date. You'd be flogged in public by a French chef with a batter whip, a head of garlic strapped to your mouth to mute your cries of agony.


Hector's on Henderson

Chicken livers $8.50
Celery soup $7.25
Quail $9.50
Cobb salad $8.50
Ostrich burger $10.50
Pork chop $23.25
Diver scallops $20.50
Plum cake $8

Sometimes crime pays, though. The livers arrive on a long white plate, three points of gnarled organ punctuation, evenly spaced, resting in dark dribble. They're topped with sprouts fastened to wavy stems that crown the liver knots like highly teased hair.

Liver isn't so much a revulsion generator because of its taste. It creeps the spine because of its appearance and texture. Beef liver is packaged in plastic tubs. It resembles bruised slime with a Coppertone tan. After a thorough cooking with onions the slime part dissipates.

Chicken livers are little different. Pull one out of a chicken body cavity and give it the once-over in your palm and you'll be convinced that after a couple of years of Wheaties it, too, would grow handsomely into a plastic tub.

These are better. There's a beauty to this trio. The onions swim in and out of the thick molasses vinaigrette that hems and haws with sweetness and a sharp paper-cut bite right at the base of the liver crust. Get a few sprouts in with the bite and it even has a pungent aromatic element to it. One problem: The livers themselves are a bit bland. "That's what liver and onions are, rube," you say. But dress them up in the culinary equivalent of fishnets and a hair lily and you expect the fry crust to be a bit more risqué.

For that, perhaps it's best to order the pork chop lollipop. Pork licking aside, this menu heading unleashes horrific mental images. Imagine sucking on a Tootsie Pop and when you fragment the cherry hard candy to sink your molars into the chewy Tootsie Roll center you strike...pork. Offering this to children should be a "Code of Dalton" capital crime. But here's the thing: The name comes from the fact that the pork chop rests on the plate on a blunted meat end with the chop bone sticking straight up out of the plate--like a lollipop handle. Smooth, delicious whipped sweet potatoes in chestnut butter swirl nearby. A curving bubbled strip of "ruby port paint," smelling suspiciously like raspberry, is baked into one end. Though a bit too pink, the meat is moist, juicy and well-seasoned.

But it's best to shill for the ostrich burger. First, how is it possible that a bird has meat as red and punch-bruise purple as a mammal with hoofs and a five-bedroom stomach? Bird meat should be beige. Duck tawny maybe. But this? The bread, with grill bar stripes, is saturated with juices, the kind of drip that comes from a bovine cardiac cluster bomb. The burger is thick, more globe-like than pressed and tapered. It's hearty, with a richness that is understated instead of ponderous, with subtle layers of gaminess that rise to the surface before receding and lingering through the finish. A side of thin sweet-potato fries dabbed with habañero mayo defies convention: They're thicker than the common orange shoestrings fried into brittle twigs. This tiny touch makes them more luxurious to nip and chew, almost like eating cake.

The product of Hector Garcia, longtime Riviera manager and very short-time partner with Susie Priore in Iris (a severance executed in a lawyerly fashion, the rumor goes), Hector's is bold in a way few Dallas restaurants ever dare. It's glitz-less. Drenched in gray and black with bare walls (save for some dramatic paintings on one end) and spare lighting fixtures, Hector's isn't pretty. It's minimalist, but not the high-concept minimalism that inspires self-important menu essays. This is the minimalism of resourcefulness and dedication to plate dynamics, a tactic that is so refreshing it makes you hungry. It's almost as if the place were sprayed with pretty-people repellent before the doors were thrown open. There's no vibe other than mundane conversations and well-executed sustenance. You just know any "hip" references that might come up at Hector's center exclusively on the mechanics of the pelvis.

This is why Hector's will last, slowly building a loyal cadre of neighbors who tire or roll eyes at the constant scene-making burbling nearby at Tei Tei, Cuba Libre, Sense/Candle Room and the upcoming Hibiscus. Sometimes good food is all the fantasy a diner needs.

And there's lots of fodder here, dreamed up by chef Todd Erickson. What's more humble than a Cobb salad? The Cobb creature here is called East Dallas stacked Cobb. Ribs of romaine are stacked across the plate. Pickled pink onions slumber like sodden pasta on one end, spiking with a slightly sweet sharpness. Crumbles of applewood-smoked bacon add intensity at the other end, while the middle of the ribs hold blue cheese and dribbles of creamy herbed vinaigrette frothing with garlic. This is a Cobb of distinct parts that seamlessly merge instead of muddle. The only thing missing is the hard-boiled egg--a savvy deletion when you think about it. To kids, painted hard-boiled eggs might spell touching spring memories of plastic grass, jelly beans and chocolate hares. To adults, hard-boiled eggs mostly spark images of the dieting gulag. Pass the cream soups.

Cream of celery root soup is smooth and delicious. It's rich without being cumbersome and clingy or coating the inside of your mouth with mucous film.

Citrus-roasted quail stuffed with apricot-cranberry corn bread stuffing and stained in a Maker's Mark vinaigrette as tawny as grasshopper spit is chewy, rich and moist with none of those chicken-livery flavors that belong with onions but not corn bread.

Seared diver scallops were simultaneously one of the best menu entrants and the most disappointing. Scallops are arranged in a bowl over a corn-edamame succotash; the kernels and soybeans soaked in opaque green sauce of pureed basil and peas. Shards of applewood-smoked bacon make an appearance. The flavors are round, broad and well-meshed. But the scallops, cloaked in a crisped, slightly gritty skin from a potent sear, were bland: no conspicuous natural sweetness, seasoning or detectable searing medium, just the soft give of the scallop flesh with a ghost of sweetness.

Spicy plum cake hit like an after-dinner nip: modestly sweet, satisfying, relaxing. It's tall and cylindrical; fluffy with restrained density. It's crowned with sticky Dr Pepper sludge and raisin studs. With a crown like this, you just ain't gonna pull in the glitterati. Let 'em eat succotash.

2929 N. Henderson Ave., 214-821-0432. Open for lunch 11 a.m.-2 p.m. Tuesday-Friday; open for dinner 6-11 p.m. Tuesday & Wednesday, 6 p.m.-1 a.m. Thursday-Saturday. $$-$$$


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