Despite the near-constant stream of restaurant news, 2014 wasn't especially great for local restaurant openings. For a long stretch of summer and well into fall, the flow of actual openings and interesting, new restaurants dried to a trickle; the scene cracked and opened up like Texas clay in a drought.
Not that it was a bad time for eating. Curious diners could use the time to push further into the suburbs and mine from a collection of affordable ethnic restaurants that were often more delicious than their urban counterparts. Restaurants that had been open for a decade, some even longer, were suddenly cast in a new light. Tender little dumplings at Everest Restaurant in Irving, biryanis at Chennai, which recently moved to Richardson, kitfo at Sheba's Ethiopian Kitchen -- all dishes that might have been ignored if we'd gotten lost in dining rooms resplendent with Edison bulbs, subway tiles and reclaimed wood. That's not to say the restaurants that did open this year should be overlooked. In fact, some new restaurants were impactful enough to significantly shape the local dining scene. Blind Butcher has changed how we look at bar food and meat, Stock and Barrel has reinvented meatloaf and Brian Luscher's Post Oak operation has turned the humble hot dog on its head. And that's all before Michael Sindoni at CBD Provisions starts slicing into a pig's head.
Here are 25 dishes that defined the year in eating. There are humble hamburgers and take-out dishes alongside pastrami sandwiches that have been repurposed as eggrolls. There's ceviche, for something lighter and brighter, and ethnic dining that spans India, Mexico, Japan, China, Ethiopia and more. What's even better is that nearly every dish is a bargain. And don't worry -- we haven't forgotten dessert.
The Peace 'Stachio at Hypnotic Donuts Hypnotic Donuts: They really are the best in town, and the Peace 'Stachio doughnut will show you why. Picture a respectably-cooked vanilla cake doughnut, capped with a veneer of brown-butter frosting. Big chunks of chopped pistachio are pressed into one half, giving the doughnut texture and crunch. Add a cup of jet-black coffee and you'll have the stuff of revelation. It's even worth getting out of bed early.
Pastrami Egg Rolls at Blind Butcher If you're talking meaty dishes, Blind Butcher will come up at least once. The pastrami egg roll is one of the best bar food bites served in Dallas and it boasts house-cured pastrami rolled with sauerkraut that's also fermented on-site, and just enough cheese to hold it all together. It's served with a creamy mustard that will get up in your nose and light a fire.
Chicken-Fried Steak at Tom's Burgers and Grill There is Tom's version of chicken-fried steak, and then there are all others. At Tom's Burgers and Grill, the cooks break up Ruffles potato chips until they're just fine enough to cling to a freshly-pounded steak along with some freshly-chopped parsley. The result is a salty, crunchy texture like no other. Be sure to protect that addictive coating by asking for the pepper gravy to be served on the side.
The Burgers at Off-Site Kitchen Off-Site Kitchen offers old-school burgers updated with top-shelf ingredients and superior execution, and it's consistently one of the best places to get a burger in Dallas. Order yours topped minimally for a classic burger experience, or do it "Murph-style" for a sinful behemoth featuring bacon jam.
The Toddfather at Cattleack Barbeque Cattleack Barbeque's owner, Todd David, makes brisket that's destination-worthy all on its own, but fold in some pulled pork along with his brilliant house-made sausages and you've got a holy trinity, a great trifecta of smoked meat that's generously tucked into a fresh, warm bun. If it sounds like a lot of fat and heavy flavors, it is. Do not take the Toddfather lightly. But a small container of sweet and crunchy coleslaw will help cut the richness. You can get this thing done. And if you can't, just tuck the remainder under your enemy's sheets.
Cheesesteak at Truck Yard Nine times out of 10, when you order a cheesesteak you get frozen, pre-sliced meat. Sometimes you even get that processed stuff called Steak-umms, which is awful. But at Truck Yard you'll see a beef rib roast up on the meat slicer, with ribbons of meat cascading from its end. It doesn't get more serious than slicing meat for a cheesesteak right off the rib roast.
Get yours with onions and peppers and always choose the Whiz. This is the height of blue-collar food. A few hits from the cheese pump and the melted goo descends through the folds of steak, all the way down into the bun, saturating everything in its path. Dial two to speak with the pharmacy. 5624 Sears St., texastruckyard.com
The Cuban at ¡C. Señor! Earlier this year, ¡C. Señor! sandwich shop opened in the tiny stand-alone building on Davis Street that used to house El Padrino. Now, the red-and-white walk-up that's not much bigger than a food truck is filled with the makings for some excellent sandwiches -- most notably the Cuban.
The pork for the sandwich is roasted right there, and the ham is sliced thick. Cheese and mustard are applied with the right amount of restraint -- there's enough that some bites bite back, and each one pulls with strings of melted dairy. The sandwich isn't exactly sloppy, but it does require multiple napkins, and if you consume one on your own, you'll be full for the rest of the evening.
Pizza, Cooked Extra Crispy at Zoli's If you're tired of the Neapolitan pizza craze that's taking over the entire country, head to Zoli's for an excellent New York-style pie. Pro tip: Order yours extra crispy for a bit more char and snap.
The Burger at Boulevardier This burger has it all: great beef that's ground on-site, an amazing smoky char, a pillowy bun and killer toppings, including house-cured bacon and lightly-dressed lettuce.
Meatloaf at Stock and Barrel Forget mom's meatloaf. Chef Jon Stevens takes ground wagyu beef and gently mixes it with cream, breadcrumbs and enough spice to leave a warm glow in your mouth. The results are molded and then par-baked till rare, before individual slices are finished on the grill.
A hash of onion petals and new potatoes that are so sweet they're sugary forms the base, and the entire plate is draped in a velvety au poivre-style sauce. If you've found yourself working to love ground beef that's been baked in a bread pan since your youth, this plate makes a fine meatloaf ambassador.
Homemade Pizza with Ingredients from Jimmy's Want to know one of the best ways to make use of Jimmy's, the Italian grocery in East Dallas? Use it to turn your home into a pizza restaurant. Pick up some frozen dough balls and a can of tomatoes imported from Italy. Then stop by the deli counter for fresh mozzarella, meatballs and maybe some sausages, too. You may not be able to toss rounds like those guys at the professional pizzerias, but your kitchen will smell just as good.
Canelés at Village Baking Co. The canelés at Village Baking Co. may be small, but there's a ton of flavor and richness in that diminutive package. You'll only need one. (But you'll be back soon for another.) The secret is twofold. First, the batter is loaded with egg yolk, giving the interior a moist texture. It's as if a cake and a custard conceived a love child on a grassy knoll in Bordeaux. Second, they're baked slow in a copper mold that's been treated with beeswax, resulting in an exterior that's dense and chewy. The two textures, married with mild vanilla, create a decadent experience that really packs a punch.
Bread Pudding at Sissy's It's the bread pudding to trump all bread puddings, and it's worth a trip on its own. Just as the brownie must strike a balance between cakey and fudgey textures, bread pudding must balance between bready and custardy textures. Too moist, and it's like eating milk-soaked toast that's been under a heat lamp; too dry, and it's a stale loaf of Wonder bread. Sissy's recipe calls for challah, the festive, decadent Jewish bread that gives a dense but springy crumb, and it soaks up every last bit of the eggs and cream that comprise the custard. When cooked to perfect doneness it creates a firm, jiggly pudding that's plenty moist, but in no way soppy -- and that's just how it's served at Sissy's. If you're lucky like I've been, you'll get an edge-slice that's extra burnt and chewy.
Like most bread puddings, this dessert is rich and heavy, and you'd do well to bring a friend for back-up. Or, of course, you could just make an evening out of bread pudding. Who needs appetizers and entrées when there's a plate like this?
Ramen at Tei-An Chef Teiichi Sakurai's Tonkotsu-style broth has a richness and depth of flavor that's unparalleled by other soups in Dallas. What's more is the ramen offering at Tei-An is constantly evolving. Ramps, mushrooms and other ingredients are often featured in special versions of the soup.
The Biryanis at Chennai Vegetarians rejoice. The vegetable biryani at Chennai tastes nothing like a concession to dietary restrictions. The cooks coax an unnatural-seeming amount of flavor out of mere vegetables and herbs. In fact, this biryani could seduce the most devoted carnivores. But if you still prefer pleasures of the flesh, the goat biryani is also shockingly flavorful. The rice is airy, but it tastes rich and earthy, likely due to the generous addition of young, fatty goat meat. There are a lot of spices involved, too. Chilies lend a mild heat, while cinnamon and cardamom add depth and aroma.
Goat Momo at Everest Restaurant It's a trek to Everest Restaurant from downtown Dallas, but travelers are rewarded for their efforts. This small BYOB that specializes in Nepalese cooking is one of the best possible stops en route to the airport. Make sure the goat momo lands on your table, preferably first, so you experience the dumplings at the height of your hunger. Have them tossed in a mild chili sauce, or fried crisp, with a hearty chicken soup for dipping. Either way, they burst with juicy goat meat like little bombs of gamey flavor.
Suadero Tacos at La Banqueta Remember when La Banqueta on Carroll Avenue closed? It was sad. Thankfully, a new location recently opened just down the street. A lot has changed; The new space is larger, and there are tables now, so you don't have to eat tacos while on your feet. Order four or five suadero tacos, which feature salty, chewy beef. Douse them with lime and green sauce and get to stuffing your face. The salsa lends a fruity, aggressive burn with a lot of tang. Wash it all down with a cold Topo Chico (they're in a fridge behind the counter) and your lunch will be a happy one.
Beef Noodle Soup at Monkey King Something special happens when you pop the top off a paper cup of beef noodle soup from Monkey King Noodle Company. First the smell hits you, rich and intensely meaty. Cilantro wafts upwards too, along with grassy green onions, both added seconds before the soup is served.
Plunge your chopsticks deep into the cup, and dredge up a tangle of noodles, or maybe a hunk of tender, fatty beef. The noodles are springy, and eat with integrity. The beef comes from the foreshank, which is loaded with tough muscle and connective tissue that somehow melts in your mouth, resolving into massive, beefy flavors and glistening, velvety textures. This is one of the most soulful soup experiences to be had in Dallas, and it can be purchased for a song in Deep Ellum.
Camarón en Agua Chile ?at Palapas Seafood Bar The camarón en agua chile at Palapas is a party in a bowl -- no dish in Dallas is quite as festive. Clean, fresh tasting shrimp swim in a house-made pequin pepper sauce the color of rust. It's slightly earthy and so acidic with lime juice that the glands in the back of your mouth will kink up when you take your first bite.
Not to mention, Palapas also offers a second, green chile version that's even better (if you can stand the heat). It's alive and fresh and bright, and packed with cucumbers, onions and cilantro. Serrano chiles add a serious burn. It's a wonder the halved shrimp keep up. Both the red and green versions are served with cellophane-wrapped saltines, but the tortilla chips on the table make better friends. When you think you're done, you're not. You could drink all that "juice," as the staff calls it, with a straw. It's that good. And rumor has it there is no better hangover cure. 1418 Greenville Ave., palapasseafoodbar.com
Brian Luscher's ?Post Oak Red Hot Every machine-pressed, synthetically-cased, mass-produced hot dog you've ever eaten will be thoroughly destroyed the second you're handed a Luscher's Post Oak Red Hot. You don't even have to take a bite, you'll know you're in for an epic hot dog experience the second you lay eyes on that slender, wrinkled link. The bun is pillow-soft and glossy, and lightly dusted with the black poppy seeds that are the hallmark of Chicago's greatest street food. It's lapped in hand-made mustard and sprinkled with diced onions and tomatoes, and because that's not enough, a couple of pickled cucumbers are tucked alongside and a single pickled chili is laid on top.
Pig's Head at CBD Provisions A handful of plates leaving the kitchen at CBD Provisions will turn diners' heads, but none as quickly as this crispy head on a plank of wood. It's hard not to notice, with that gnarled ear jutting outward, that crunchy nose curling upward and, oh my God, is that a tooth? Being a carnivore requires certain sacrifices -- and there's nothing like taking a fork and knife to the face of an animal to drive that home -- but just beneath the crispy skin are glistening lumps of absolutely delicious meat. Yes, this is really food, and CBD's pork carnitas rival the best carnicerias in Dallas.
If you still need convincing, grab a tortilla and heap it with as much fatty pork as you can handle, making sure not to neglect the impossibly crispy skin. Add some pickled onions and radishes and then paint your creation with one (or both) of the salsas. The resulting taco will change your outlook on the day. But maybe not the pig's.
Emporium Pies' Pies Emporium Pies are made with seasonal ingredients, and like the seasons, the pies here always shift. But no matter what is sitting in the case when you pay this Oak Cliff shop a visit, you can be assured of classic flavors with a modern twist.
Cabrito a la Parilla at El Ranchito You'll know El Ranchito is special before you even get through the door, thanks to the line that's often running alongside it on Jefferson Boulevard. These aren't gringos, twiddling their thumbs while they wait for sour cream enchiladas, but locals from the largely Hispanic neighborhood, and every time one of them opens the door, loud mariachi music pours into the street.
You can order fajitas if you want to, but authentic Mexican dishes prepared with care are the real reason to come here. Tripas, mollejas (sweet breads) and an authentic beef stew are just a few of the offerings that hail from Northern Mexico, and they handily defeat the standard enchilada. Then, in a league all its own, is the cabrito a la parilla.
Nearly everything tastes better when grilled, but there's something special about the smoky perfume of roasted goat. Because these goats are quite young, the meat is extra tender and demands very little chewing to be enjoyed.
Grab a tortilla, hold it in your palm and use a fork to scrape up as much cabrito as you can reasonably tuck inside. Make sure to grab a few onions and peppers while you're at it, too, and if you're looking for heat, add a sliver of jalapeno. Now, paint the whole thing with the salsa that's on your table. The tacos you build yourself always seem to taste more delicious -- and ones built with tender, smoky goat meat might be the best of all.
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SHOW ME HOW
Kitfo at Sheba's Ethiopian Kitchen Sure, it's possible for a solo diner to order and finish kitfo alone, but that diner would miss out on side dishes so good they could replace the main course altogether. Whatever you order at Sheba's on Forest Lane, be sure to add the veggie sampler. There's a good chance your waitress will ask you if you'd like your kitfo "medium," and you should handle that question with care. You're not being asked about your preferred spice level (and this one packs some heat), but about how you'd like your kitfo cooked. Tell her you'd like your kitfo raw, as the dish is originally intended to be. Kitfo served any other way isn't kitfo at all.
The mixture of finely-minced beef, butter and spices is good on its own, but it's even better when assembled like this: grab a pinch of injera and use it to isolate a small portion of kitfo. Next, press the bundle into the soft, crumbled cheese that shares the plate. It will take some dexterity, but also try to grab a morsel of the simple salad that's nearby to finish. The salad is dressed in an acidic vinaigrette that lends balance to every bite. You could spend an hour eating like this, because the variety of vegetables keeps things interesting. And don't hesitate to wash it down with a cold pitcher of beer while you're at it. One thing's for sure: You won't leave Sheba hungry.