Walking into Oddfellows, on the Bishop Arts District restaurant row that also includes Hattie's and Tillman's Roadhouse, the place all but purrs relaxed, Bohemian cool. And its food is every bit as unpretentious as its insouciant aura.
The restaurant's interior immediately establishes the laid-back mood. The wood has clearly lived a long, stylishly distressed life. The tables are surrounded by mismatched chairs, with tin sideboards and planters made from old lard cans lining the walls.
There's nothing faux about the overhead exposed ducts and factory-worthy hanging lamps. The wall art is cute, kitschy, with a clear provenance in some of the finest metroplex garage sales. The knives and forks, wrapped in paper napkins, reside comfortably in recycled soup cans.
Spinach egg salad sandwich $6.40 Korean tacos $8.40 Asian noodle salad $9.40 Onion rings $3.50 Texas poutine $7.75 Fried pickles $6.50 Shroom burger $7.50 Cheeseburger and fries $9.99 Mac attack $9.50
The restaurant's polished, crunchy-granola aesthetic is further buttressed by its wait staff, scurrying through the cozy eatery. The servers dress in free-form "uniforms" of fading jeans and plaid shirts. Some sport beards, others casual ponytails, with the occasional star tattoo peeking out from behind an earlobe. More important than their ink volume is that they never lapse into unctuous solicitousness.
That level of server sensitivity is key, as the staff must cater to a wildly eclectic customer base. At any moment, tables may be filled with hipsters in seersucker shorts fiddling with their iPads (and relishing the 10 percent discount they got for biking to the restaurant), tennis-visor-donning cougars, businessmen in rep ties, leggy fashionistas in sundresses and Audrey Hepburn bobs or young professionals engaged in dueling laptop contests to see who can multi-task the most while gorging on a plate of mac-and-cheese.
Behind the scenes, Oddfellows is undergoing a slight menu facelift, but its executive chefs, Julie Eastland and Brady Williams, will retain most of the place's signature American bistro-diner staples. The watchword of their culinary choices is simplicity.
Three meals at the restaurant reveal that comfort and nostalgia successfully govern many of Oddfellows' offerings. But in the restaurant's single-minded pursuit of unfettered, no-frills, familiar cooking, it occasionally lapses into a type of complacent predictability, with culinary drabness the ultimate pitfall.
Lunch brings comfort-food royalty: a spinach egg salad sandwich. Arriving with its own bacon-fat bodyguard, the sandwich boasts a creamy mayonnaise base shot through with coarse-grain mustard, and is served on a piece of ciabatta bread that takes its sandwich vessel role very seriously.
Another lunch offering, Asian noodle salad, comes with a refined oil and vinegar dressing and nubbins of sprightly mango. The vegetarian dish features chunks of tofu, spongy and bland. Thankfully, the tofu is more than offset by a colorful cross-hatching of herbaceous basil and mint, paired with red peppers and cucumber.
The indisputable diva of the lunch menu is the Korean tacos, which detonate flavor fireworks across the palate. Igniting most of the heat is the burning love duo of Thai chilies and Sriracha, doused by a strategic sprinkling of cilantro, a spritz of lime and a peanut-flavored marinade. The braised brisket, nesting in the delicate taco interior, is tumbling-off-the-bone tender.
Oddfellows isn't lax on its lunch sides. Its onion rings, for instance, are hand-battered in a mix flavored with Brooklyn Brewery lager, before being showered with just the right blend of sea salt and cayenne pepper.
Dinner's fried-chicken platter for two arrives at the table after first going through a 12-hour brining process in which it is bathed in honey, aromatics and copious amounts of salt. Once thoroughly dried, the chicken is pre-cooked before being fried in a double-batter of buttermilk and spices. The brilliance of the bird's coating is that every bite yields that layer of crunchy coating, plus the meat. It's as if NASA helped devise the mathematically perfect ratio of breading to moist interior meat. The chicken's ultimate compliment recently came from a woman tucking into a piece and marveling: "It tastes just like Granny's fried chicken."
The chicken comes flanked by several buttermilk biscuits. The hockey puck-sized biscuits are abundantly flaky and glisten with a honey butter glaze, imparting a sweet aftertaste.
The cheeseburger with fries is respectable, if unremarkable. It's a half-pound patty of all-natural, grass-fed local beef, and comes armed with all the classic accoutrements: lettuce, tomato, onions, pickle. It's so juicy it should come with a bib.
Normally, fried pickles should be banished to the great Midway in the sky. But Oddfellows' little kosher dill coins boast an exterior of gossamer light panko bread crumbs and are fried to greaseless perfection. They arrive, 18 or so to a plate, with a ranch-like sauce redolent of smoky ancho chile pepper. It's just the kind of sauce that, in Emeril parlance, could make a bumper taste good.
The Texas poutine is one hot mess on a plate. It appears as an indiscriminate shotgun marriage of such disparate ingredients as scratch gravy, crisp peppery bacon, Texas cheddar and house-pickled jalapeños, with a thatch of fries lurking under that melted food roof like a wedding crasher hiding under a table. Looks aside, this poutine is one guilty pleasure of gooey goodness — a Southern stepchild to Quebec's original.
The Mac Attack is a sly comfort food mash-up of mac-and-cheese and Buffalo wing-like strips. The chicken strips are brined, breaded and fried, before taking a dip in a red-hot, vinegar-based wing sauce that fills the nostrils with its pungent aroma even before the first bite. Much of the chicken strips' heat is blunted by the mac-and-cheese, whose creamy béchamel sauce incorporates two Texan cheddars and a Texan blue.
One of the few truly listless items on the menu is the 'Shroom Burger. It's a satellite-dish-sized portobello cap that has been panko breaded and fried into a taste stupor. The mushroom goes MIA, outclassed by a nicely toasted brioche bun, sprightly lettuce, tomatoes, onion and pickle. Not even the snazzy "Oddfellows sauce" of smoked paprika, vinegar, garlic and onion mayo can give this 'Shroom any vroom.
Dessert creator Katherine Clapner, the force of sugary nature behind Dude, Sweet Chocolate, unveils some of her best creations at Oddfellows. Her chocolate bourbon pecan fried pie is a wonder. Its triangular puff-pastry shell is cracklingly delicate. The alcohol only suggests itself, without barging in on the chocolate cream's sweet soliloquy. Its chocolate striations are as precise as the stripes on a Marine's shoulders. And the powdered sugar sprinkles across the plate as if it were from a snow globe.
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Oddfellows is justifiably proud of its in-house soft-serve vanilla ice cream, which appears in a summer stock engagement in its version of a chocolate cookie ice cream sandwich, a cool reminder of the joys of summer.
Coffee is usually omitted from a restaurant appraisal, but Oddfellows takes its caffeine output very seriously. So seriously that it possesses one of the rarest (currently 11 in the world) Italian espresso makers. This magic machine produces many a great cup, or shot, of joe, starting with the "cortado," whose acerbic espresso bite is blunted by the welcome addition of warm milk.
The slight variation in Oddfellows' upcoming menu will incorporate more local farm-to-table ingredients, and some protein additions from the offal world of tongue, sub-prime cuts, shoulder, cheeks and bellies.
But the restaurant has no plans to ditch those dishes, and those ideals, that brought them to this culinary dance. Namely, for all the fanciful side trips into gastronomy's more innovative corners, Oddfellows plans on sticking to the comfortable classics that have already won it a loyal, and ever-colorful, following.