We all spend time hunting down the best in life, but as a food critic I'm inordinately slammed with requests for superlative restaurants. If I'm out in the world, at the bar or the grocery store or a really long stoplight, and someone finds out that I eat and write for a living, they invariably want to know: "What's the best place for Mexican food?" or "Where's your favorite sushi spot?" or the ever-popular, incredibly vague and impossible to answer: "What's the best restaurant in Dallas?"
Hunting for the best resonates with what's left of our primal instincts. We're hard-wired to find the best mate, build the biggest nest, and in matters of nutrition, to seek out and consume the best foods to fuel us. But while our desire to find the best restaurants might be partly a matter of survival, that ignores the intangible benefits of sitting down at our favorite restaurants.
It's the creative elements and traditions of the culinary arts that stir our emotions. Meals cooked with artistry stay with us long after we have relinquished our napkins and signed our checks. Dishes prepared with soul replace our hunger with a desire to share our experiences with our friends. Passionate eating is more about creating memories — and that's something that can't be fully realized by simply finding the best.
Which is why, over the last several months, I went looking for something that Dallas' food scene is often said to lack: restaurants that are interesting. Restaurants that throw curveballs when diners are waiting on a fastball, that know life doesn't always begin and end with a cheddar-draped bacon burger. The 50 restaurants that follow, in no particular order, all serve great food, make for great stories and ultimately offer something that will stick to more than your ribs.
50. Joyce and Gigi's
1623 N. Hall St., joyceandgigis.com
There wasn't much in the way of Bolivian cooking in Dallas before Joyce and Gigi's opened on Hall Street last December. Gigliola Aguilera, a Bolivian native and former line cook at Fearing's, partnered with her mother, Joyce Stenvall, to offer a modern twist on South American cuisine. Now they're contributing something truly unique to the Dallas dining scene. Where else can you get a brilliant escabeche of sea bass brightened with apple cider vinegar, with onions, fennel and sweet currants, alongside empanadas filled with duck or beef or a blend of cheeses?
49. East Hampton Sandwich Co.
Multiple locations, ehsandwich.com
Too often, the sandwich is an afterthought — something to be picked up and eaten on the run, or stuffed into a bag and consumed long past its prime. But East Hampton Sandwich Co.'s creations reinvent the game. Owner Hunter Pond and his team of sandwich constructionists have created a menu filled with creative twists from the classic playbook, and Dallas' sandwich scene is all the better for it.
48. 20 Feet Seafood Joint
1146 Peavy Road, 20-feet.com
Most fish shacks serve up clam chowder, and 20 Feet is no different, but not many offer the occasional coconut soup with shiitake mushrooms. Mussels flavored with ginger and lemon grass, and ramen loaded with thickly sliced pork belly point to a casual seafood restaurant with worldly aspirations.
47. Taj Chaat House
Multiple locations, tajchaathouse.com
The best way to attack Taj Chaat House is with as little restraint as possible. Bring friends so excess food does not go to waste, then order with reckless abandon. Check out the pictures on the menu board to determine what looks good (it all is) and approach the counter, where a pile of pencils and paper slips wait to help conjure your meal.
46. Mot Hai Ba
6047 Lewis St., mothaibadallas.com
Grilled pork vermicelli is seldom this good. The kitchen chars pork belly aggressively and pairs it with slightly pungent fish sauce. Crab legs are served on top of noodles dressed in a sauce made from the crab tomalley, and frogs' legs are fried in batter flecked with dill. It's impossible to get bored with the menu here.
45. La Nueva Fresh and Hot
9625 Webb Chapel Road
The tortillas are soft and pliable with a pillowy consistency that's rare in corn tortillas. They're light, almost ethereal and perfect when stuffed with a hearty guisado verde stew. Don't worry about the lack of seating. Your taco will disappear long before your feet get tired while you eat off the trunk of your car.
44. Pera Turkish Kitchen
17479 Preston Road, peraturkishkitchen.com
Don't miss the dolmas, which are rolled by hand and have lots of texture compared to the paste-filled grape leaves you're used to. Don't miss the ezma, either, a small plate of diced soft vegetables swimming in pomegranate and thick, black molasses. There's cacik, a savory yogurt with cucumbers, garlic and mint, and a shepherd salad loaded with tomatoes, pepper, cucumber and onion, too.
43. Tom's Burgers and Grill
1530 N. Cooper St., Arlington, tomsburgergrill.com
The quaint little restaurant, housed in a retro building that used to be home to a Classic Style Denny's, is likely to ruin your go-to diner pick forever. It's not just that they have a potato-chip-encrusted chicken-fried steak that will stoke your desires, it's also that they serve beer. For free. Every night.
5301 Alpha Road, mughlaidallas.com
In India the meat of choice is goat, but here in the United States lamb is a common stand-in. It's rare to find an Indian restaurant that offers goat curries, which is one of the many things that makes Mughlai special. Take one bite of the kadhai goat and you'll wonder why the meat isn't on more menus.
41. Russian Banya
2515 E. Rosemeade, Suite 401, russianbanyaofdallas.com
Meet Tony G., the owner and operator of the Russian Banya in Carrollton. His bathhouse has a reputation for having what feels like one of the hottest saunas on the planet, but the place would be better served if it were known as the best Russian restaurant in DFW.
40. Off-Site Kitchen
2226 Irving Blvd., offsitekitchen.net
Picture that dusty old burger joint your old man used to take you to way back in the day, where the burgers tasted good because of some mystical 30-year sheen of grease that's permanently bonded with the steel of the flattop grill. Off-Site Kitchen takes that same experience and upgrades the ingredients and the execution. The results are disturbingly addictive.
39. Bachman Lake Taquería
3311 W. Northwest Highway
The problem with trompo — and all vertical-spit cooking, really — is that the device has to actually spin to produce the most delicious meat. If there are no customers in line, the trompo goes idle, and so does the flavor. To find the best trompo tacos you must find the busiest trompo, which is easy since Bachman Lake Taquería is consistently mobbed. Come during lunch and the dining room is full of customers bathing in the smells of roasting pork while they douse their tacos with sturdy salsa.
4208 Oak Lawn Ave., carbonesdallas.com
Julian Barsotti got his start at Nonna serving delicate pastas decked out with lobster meat and truffles. At his second restaurant, Carbone's, the same level of craftsmanship is applied to the same spaghetti and meatballs you grew up with. Your childhood memories are in danger of ruin.
Multiple locations, babeschicken.com
Fried food may never belong in your heart-healthy diet, but it also doesn't have to eat like wet cement. It's carelessness that allows ingredients to take on old canola oil like a sinking ship. This not the case at Babe's in Roanoke, where the menu forces unparalleled specialization. The cooks turn out nothing more than chicken-fried steak and fried chicken, and they've gotten very good at it. This is why your mother always told you that practice makes perfect: because she saw that the CFS at Babe's is indeed perfect.
2604 Oak Lawn Ave., zaguan.com
While tacos are commonly celebrated, the arepa, whose stuffing is placed within the masa instead of on top, deserves a lot more attention than it gets. The corn cakes are thicker and more substantial than typical tortillas, and the pocket that holds the filling makes them more portable, too. You can find great arepas at Zaguan, stuffed with chicken dressed in avocado, ham and other fillings, and there are other hard-to-find Latin foods, too.
35. Royal Sichuan
400 N. Greenville Ave., royal-sichuan.com
Sure, there's orange chicken. But why would you order it when you're dining at a restaurant with so many alternatives? A meal ordered at Royal Sichuan with an adventurous spirit is beyond interesting — it's fascinating — and will ruin you for cheap take-out for good.
8220 Westchester Drive, spoonbarandkitchen.com
After a stint at The Mansion that ended abruptly but included a five-star review, John Tesar bounced around a few of Dallas' more casual kitchens, took consulting gigs and somehow earned the reputation as Dallas' most hated chef. But one dinner at Spoon will leave you with nothing but the desire to give the guy a hug. There are few other places in Dallas where such an array of high-quality ingredients is treated with such care and respect, and Tesar's cooking is good enough to change your whole day.
2014 Greenville Ave., teppo.com
The sushi chefs steal glances of the ballgame over their shoulders while carefully bonding slices of fish to rectangles of rice to form perfect nigiri. Cooks turn their heads when they run ingredients and dishes out from the back kitchen. This isn't a sports bar: The volume is turned down and the atmosphere is reserved, but if you're into the game you won't be watching it alone.
Besides the chefs, the customers who come to Teppo hail from the neighborhood, and it's likely that anyone sitting next to you at the bar has put in significant time there. The chefs recognize the faces of their customers as readily as their favorite players, and that familiarity stokes a desire to return more than once. Come to Teppo once if you're looking for great sushi and you'll find it. But this is the sort of restaurant you should get to know over time.
1930 N. Coit Road, bambuasiancuisine.com
An adventurous Thai eater will be just as at home here as a takeout veteran who wants nothing more than a bowl of tom ka gai and a green curry with chicken. These dishes are delicious for sure, but life is short and there are many tastes and textures to be experienced. Bambu is a great place to expand your palate, which is by far the most exciting way to expand your waistline.
31. Pecan Lodge
1010 S. Pearl Expressway, pecanlodge.com
Come late and the favorites will long be decimated, and you'll be left with an order of fried chicken. This is the price you pay when your favorite local barbecue joint earns national recognition: Pecan Lodge is a barbecue landmark now, revered alongside legends like Snow's and Mueller's.
30. Keller's Drive-In
Make sure you hit the one on Northwest Highway, just east of Abrams Road. On the weekends classic cars and hot rods fill one side of the lot, and on the other side bikers congregate. Find a spot under the metal awnings that surround the cookhouse in the center and get ready — this is how Dallas does burgers.
29. La Pasadita
205 N. Carroll Ave.
When you get that glorious, papusa-stuffed Styrofoam container, you should eat it as quickly as you can while the edges are still crisp, and since there are no tables here, you'll need to look to your car for seating. Don't forget to grab a few extra napkins on the way out the door. You're going to need them.
28. Ten Bells Tavern
232 W. 7th St., tenbellstavern.com
Think past fish and chips. Even though there's a great version here, the menu delves much deeper. There are wings doused in a sweet and smoky sauce and served with blue cheese dressing you actually want to eat, and the Ten Bells Butty, which is nothing more than a french fry sandwich with mustard and cheese.
27. El Ranchito
610 W. Jefferson Blvd., elranchito-dallas.com
El Ranchito is one of those rare restaurants that straddles multiple cuisines and ends up doing it well. If your friends come to town demanding Tex-Mex, you can take them to El Ranchito and point to the proper section of the menu and say, "Look, there it is!" before finding more interesting dishes for yourself.
26. Cafe Urbano
1410 N. Fitzhugh Ave., urbanodallas.com
Urbano's Italian roots are just the start. The menu takes you on a wild ride of world flavors with a distinct slant toward Asian ingredients. The results are an "Italian" meal that's completely original, and judging by the dining room, the locals are into it. Almost too into it. You did make that reservation, right?
1417 W. Davis St., novadallas.com
Nestle into one of the booths that run the length of the restaurant if you're on a date. The lighting is low here, and it's easy to talk. Or pony up to the bar if you've come in alone or are feeling more social. Nova is one of those neighborhood hangouts where the beer-swillers are always ready to engage.
24. Jeng Chi
400 N. Greenville Ave., No. 11, jengchirestaurant.com
It's the soup, or "juicy," dumplings that will keep you coming back to Richardson. They explode in your mouth with warm broth and a tiny meatball. There are vegetable dumplings filled with mung bean noodles, cabbage and tofu, pork dumplings, fish dumplings and chicken dumplings, too. There are lobster dumplings, which will set you back $12, but most run just $6, making Jeng Chi a decent way to dine on a budget. Actually, it's a great place to dine, period.
2625 Old Denton Road, Suite 326, omikoreangrill.com
Try the salted, grilled mackerel. It's not salty at all and it's grilled to a crisp, with tender flesh that's fun to pick apart with your chopsticks. Give the whole thing a shower of lime juice and dig in — now that pork belly is looking bland. There's also so won gal-bi, or beef short ribs, that have significantly more flavor than the brisket that comes with the all-you-can-eat-meat option. Spend some time with the menu before you commit.
1722 Routh St., No. 110, tei-an.com
Tei-An's dining room is like a zen retreat you can enjoy whether you want to blow your wad on a multi-course omakase or cheap out and just drink a beer at the bar. This is a restaurant that lets you unplug and find some peace in your busy life. We're lucky to have it.
21. Jonathon's Oak Cliff
1111 N. Beckley Ave., jonathonsoakcliff.com
Jonathon's is built on pancakes, chicken and waffles, and eggs with two sides, but a whimsical affinity for hunger busters of the highest order makes this place a little more fun. Ask for the nooner, and if the timing is right you'll get a burger with so many heart-stopping toppings you'll re-think your choice before you even pick it up. If you can pick it up.
20. Yutaka and Sharaku
2633 McKinney Ave., No. 140, yutakasushibistro.com
The best way to experience this pair is to start at Sharaku, after you've told the hostess at Yutaka you'd like a seat at the sushi bar. Order a good bottle of sake and a few of the grilled meats that will warm up your appetite. The wait for a good seat at Yutaka can be long, but with access to plums wrapped in pork and charred perfectly over charcoal, and an endless selection of sake, the burden's worthwhile.
When you do make it to Yutaka, you'll be buzzed on rice wine. Switch to crisp beer and work your way through whatever the chef tells you is freshest that evening.
2936 Elm St., localdallas.com
We could use a few more restaurants like Local, where chef Tracy Miller cooks with a delicacy and restraint that lets the ingredients she's working with stand out on their own. It's in stark contrast to other chefs, many of whom ham-handedly construct their plates like Fritos pies.
1617 Hi Line Drive, ft33dallas.com
FT33 is an important restaurant because it's the first to open in some time that truly brings something new to the table. Chef-owner Matt McCallister's cooking has a unique way of combining new techniques with time-tested approaches to produce dishes that challenge a diner without getting too abstract. When a plate of mushrooms and potatoes lands on your table, your immediate reaction is, "Oh, this is food." And then you come to realize how beautiful and satisfying it is.
12255 Greenville Ave.
Unlike some vegetarian meals, forgoing meat while eating Ethiopian will hardly leave you longing. Many of the dishes ladled onto your massive, round injera bread are inherently vegetarian, and significantly more satiating that your favorite tofu-turned-animal-part protein substitute. And in the case of Ibex, if you find yourself without party plans on a Saturday night, your dance party needs are taken care of, too. Call ahead to make sure, but on many weekend evenings a DJ sets up as the dinner business wanes. Ibex becomes a full-on party spot, and if you want to throw down with the local Ethiopian-American crowd, this is the place.
1628 Oak Lawn Ave., pakpaothai.com
If customers are never exposed to anything new, their palates will never grow. That's why dishes like Pakpao's jeo pla pao are so important. The restaurant may not sell as much of this fish paste as they do the pad Thai, but the dish is there for those who are curious.
And apparently customers have been curious enough. The dish amounts to little more than roasted mackerel and seasoning in a blender. It has the appearance of loose, wet and gritty clay and smells intensely of fish. Despite what might seem like a challenge to consume, the dish is delicious, and it continues to sell sufficiently to remain on the menu.
15. Chennai Café
5024 Tennyson Parkway, Suite 200, Plano, chennaicafeusa.com
Sure, there are the usual suspects, but chances are you've never heard of many of the dishes you'll find on this Indian menu that slants toward the south. The kitchen staff puts in the extra time to honor the authentic preparation of many of these dishes, and the resultant flavors reflect their labor.
901 Fort Worth Ave., smokerestaurant.com
What makes Smoke special is not what is cooked but how it's cooked. Chef-owner Tim Byres' obsession with antiquated techniques has revived kitchen practices that might otherwise go the way of pie birds and butter churns. The kitchen is anchored by a massive wood-burning stove that isn't just a showpiece — it's the heart of the restaurant.
4115 Lomo Alto Drive, nonnadallas.com
Nonna opened in 2007, well before chef-owner Julian Barsotti's 30th birthday. Though youth is not often associated with measured cooking, he steadily built a reputation as a chef who embraces hand-craftsmanship and thoughtful execution. His pastas are delicate and beautiful, his salads are balanced and bright, and his desserts are creative, honest and satiating.
6601 Snider Plaza, kubys.com
There are a handful of German restaurants in Dallas, but none of them offer so many locally processed ingredients to take home. That bratwurst sitting in the case waiting to join sauerkraut and mustard on a plate? They made it. They made the chubby knackwurst and the polish sausages, too. The hot dogs sitting in the case tempting you to take them home and fire up the grill? They were made in Dallas. You're beaming with pride for local meat.
11. Sushi Sake
2150 N. Collins Blvd., Richardson, sushi-sake.com
If you offer giant clam (or uni, or sea snail, or sweet shrimp) to a novice right out of the gate, you'll likely be met with a scowling face, but anyone can learn to appreciate the textures and flavors of raw seafood. After a few basic rolls, the curious will start looking at the chalkboard menu for more interesting items and what is initially frightening turns out delicious more often or not.
10. La Banqueta
Multiple locations, tacoslabanqueta.com
At La Banqueta, it's all in the crispness. A tripas taco with soggy meat served in a soft, warm corn tortilla can be a little hard to get down. Take those same braised intestines and griddle them until they're as crisp as a tortilla chip, though, and you'll be challenged to order fewer than two.
5430 Gurley Ave., kalachandjis.com
Much of the menu comes from the standard Indian playbook, with dals and curried vegetable dishes forming the backbone of a buffet that changes daily. There are crispy papadams like Frisbee-sized crackers and deep-fried fritters called pakoras, filled with even more veg. But dishes like layered rice, tomatoes and cheese you will think is a lasagna, and other casseroles and enchiladas, don't lean as heavily on the flavors of the subcontinent. There's something here for everyone, and everyone will be all the better for indulging it.
8. Barbacoa Estilo Hidalgo
6131 Lake June Place
You don't just come here for a quick and cheap meal. A trip to Raymundo Sanchez's for tacos is an event. And it's completely worth the effort. After brining them overnight, Sanchez sears huge hunks of lamb over smoldering wood. Then meat is roasted for nine hours, over a bed of chickpeas that collects the dripping juices. When he's done, the lamb is fall-apart tender, and the chickpeas have evolved into a hearty stew. Together they make for one of the most soulful meals you'll find in Dallas. And one of the cheapest.
118 W. Jefferson Blvd., mesadallas.com
Mesa has been catering to Oak Cliff locals for more than two years, and if you miss this restaurant known for its Veracruz-inspired cuisine, you'll be missing out on some of the most interesting Mexican cooking in the city.
6. Stampede 66
1717 McKinney Ave., stampede66.com
Sure, you know chicken-fried steak, but you've never had it served with a gravy injection. Cut it open to liberate a sea of Texas' favorite embellishment. The tacos are fancied up with gourmet fillings, and beans arrive in little cast-iron dishes held over smoldering coals. They're like props from a tiny country and Western movie set.
5. Crossroads Diner
8121 Walnut Hill Lane, crossroads-diner.com
Tom Fleming's Crossroads has raised the bar for diner food in Dallas, and his busy dining room proves that many diners in the area want food with some thought and care put into it — even if it's just two eggs with toast or a simple corned beef sandwich.
614 W. Davis St., bolsadallas.com
Bolsa shows how important good management is in creating a lasting restaurant. Through three chef changes since opening in 2008, it has seamlessly continued to build a reputation as a solid neighborhood restaurant built on local, high-quality ingredients. It's also a great place to grab a drink, or recover with a boozy brunch.
9191 Forest Lane, lalibeladallas.net
Not many meals come to pass at Lalibela without a visit from chef-owner Genet Mulugeta. If business is slow and you're an inquisitive diner, she may even linger at your table, answering questions about that phantom spice lingering in your lentils that you can't quite discern.
Business isn't always slow, though, and when things pick up Mulugeta spends most of her time in the kitchen — which is a good thing, because you'll enjoy her cooking twice as much as her personal attention. And you'll love her attention plenty.
Multiple locations, cuquitasrestaurants.com
While losing the original Henderson Avenue location of this restaurant can really take the fire out of your salsa, the satellite locations of Cuquita's remain open. Your disappointment need only last as long as it takes to drive to the outer edges of Dallas, or Garland, or Farmers Branch. As soon as you open the door and take one breath of masa-tinged air you'll feel just fine, and the food will be more than enough to keep your spirits lifted until you are safe at home again.
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408 W. 8th St., No. 101, luciadallas.com
It's impossible to walk into Lucia and suppress the excitement that's been welling up inside you. If you're not sitting at the bar on any given evening, you've likely made your reservation a month in advance. That's a lot of time to sit around marking Xs in your calendar while you fantasize about tender, delicate pastas and ribbons of lardo draped over hot toast.
By truly embracing the ideals of Italian cuisine, David Uygur draws upon some of the most soulful and emotional culinary traditions. Italian cooking is about celebration. It's about simplicity and letting beautiful ingredients shine brightly by interfering with their integrity as little as possible. Italian food is the twirl of a fork and the difficulty you'll have remaining silent while you eat. The odd noises that come from your face may not be found in the dictionary but everyone around you will understand. This is food that truly moves you.