The Best Meals I Ate in Dallas in 2013

FT-33 is one of a new generation of restaurants expanding Dallas’ meat horizon.
Catherine Downes

We are living in a city dangling on the precipice of a culinary revolution. I'm sure of it.

In the past year I've dined all over Dallas and watched chefs take up knives, hoping to carve out a little more of their customers' discretionary income. On the one side you have the old guard, a collection of chef-owned restaurants and steakhouses that have dominated the local culinary scene since about the time J.R. took two hot hunks of lead to the gut. Exceedingly loyal customers, who provide steady business but possess palates that haven't evolved in decades, drive the menus at these restaurants, resulting in plenty of tender red meat, mild-flavored fish and iceberg lettuce salads, preferably cut in a wedge.

On the other side you have newer, smaller restaurants whose menus are driven to a larger extent by a chef's desire and creativity. This new guard is replacing those familiar dishes with bold flavors and obscure meats, while resurrecting age-old crafts like charcuterie, pickling and foraging. These restaurants are bringing something new to the table, and this year in particular they've made a significant impact.

Matt McCallister is one of the chefs leading the charge with his Design District restaurant, FT-33. I waited nearly a year after he opened before writing a review, hoping to evaluate his restaurant after it had completely settled in. I was rewarded with cooking that was modern and edgy but still ate like a comforting meal. Instead of losing steam, as so often happens with new restaurants after they open, FT-33 seemed to be gaining momentum. McCallister went on to earn a fifth star from The Dallas Morning News, as well as several national accolades, including a nod from the James Beard House in New York and a visit from foodie icon Thomas Keller.

John Tesar was invited to the Beard House, too, where he cooked up cuttlefish crudo with hearts of palm served with Moët & Chandon, and Maya prawns paired with a semi-sweet Blanc De Blanc. The dishes were inspired by his work at Spoon, the Preston Center stunner that proved fish restaurants can survive without serving a towering display of iced seafood. Instead, Tesar invites his customers to reflect on the beauty of a single oyster. The results are captivating.

It's not unlike David Uygur's approach to cooking at his famed Lucia in Oak Cliff, which I visited this summer, eating exclusively at his tiny bar of just four stools. Uygur takes the finest ingredients he can find and does very little to them, letting them shine on their own to the effect of a month's worth of consistently stacked reservations. It's the toughest table in Dallas, which is why I was sitting at the bar.

The coming shift in Dallas' culinary scene isn't limited to meals served with polished silver, though. Smaller, more casual restaurants have been upping their game, challenging their customers' palates to forge ahead into uncharted territories. Joyce and Gigi's brought South American cuisine to East Dallas, with bold steaks, tender yucca and sweet, high-octane drinks fashioned from fresh, exotic fruits. Mot Hai Ba offered the flavors of Vietnam using quality ingredients and innovative recipes you won't find at any other restaurant serving pho and spring rolls. Pakpao, in the Design District, accomplished the same with searing hot curries and stir-fries from Thailand. And while New England may not seem as exotic as Southeast Asia, Marc Cassel's 20 Feet, in East Dallas, is no less compelling. If you're craving fish and chips or a plate of oysters from cooler waters, this seafood shack will take you straight to the coast of Massachusetts.

While it's not especially new, there's been another battle churning between Tex-Mex standbys and the Mexican mom-and-pops that are faithfully recreating the real deal. Dallas' taco scene doesn't get nearly the attention it should, as a number of area taquerías offer some of the most authentic and soulful cooking around.

This year I finally met Alberto Neri, the man behind four La Banqueta locations in Dallas and Fort Worth, and acquired a newfound respect for the addictive suadero tacos I've been eating there for the past two years. His Carroll Street location closed this summer, but a new restaurant should be open across the street next year.

While you're waiting, visit Los Torres Taquería in Oak Cliff. Both the barbacoa roja and the birria tacos warmed my insides last February when I paid the Torres family visit after visit after visit. Or if you're craving carnitas tacos, follow me to Taquería y Carnicería Guanajuato, a small grocery on Walnut Hill Lane in North Dallas. On weekends the parking lot outside the store is filled with the smell of deep-fried pork. And don't forget to look out for El Come Taco, which opened too recently to be evaluated this year. Owner Luis Villalva comes by way of Revolver Taco Lounge, known for its scratch cooking including handmade tortillas. His new taquería on Fitzhugh Avenue holds a lot of promise.

A city without great restaurants in its city center is not a food city at all. For some time, Stephan Pyles, Dean Fearing and DRG Concepts (Wild Salsa, Chop House, Dallas Fish Market) dominated downtown, but new restaurants are starting to shake things up. Klyde Warren Park paved (and turfed and "iced") the way for Lark on the Park, a restaurant that brings a West Coast sensibility that offers fresh, simple cooking. And CBD Provisions, at the Joule hotel, braved new territory on multiple fronts. Not only is it refreshing to see a new, interesting restaurant with solid execution downtown, but chef Michael Sindoni is decimating Dallas' misconception about nose-to-tail dining, one pig face at a time. It was just two years ago that chefs claimed Dallas wasn't ready to indulge a trend that had taken off years ago all over the country — that was a little embarrassing, actually — but now an entire pig is on the menu of one of the buzziest restaurants in the city.

These trends didn't start this year, but if you look at what was accomplished in 2013, it's certain to bolster enthusiasm for the year ahead. There's nothing wrong with steakhouses, celebrity-chef-driven restaurants and, of course, Tex-Mex, each of which is sure to evoke cravings in almost any human, especially one with roots in Dallas. But when they dominate a city to the point that it defines the dining culture, they promote the stigma that Dallas is a boring place to eat when it is obviously, and increasingly, not.

What's at stake isn't the efficacy of any one individual restaurant, but Dallas' potential reputation as a nationally recognizable culinary city. There's still a long way to go, but if the last year is any indicator, it's going to be a delicious trip.

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