Tom's Burgers and Grill's Excellent Spin on Chicken-Fried Steak. Plus, Free Beer.
From the outside, Tom's Burgers and Grill looks a lot like most Middle America diners — the ones built during a time when car doors shut with a satisfying thud and the use of seat belts was just a suggestion. The exterior of the building is a mix of glass block walls and shiny chrome. Windows display specials in hand-painted lettering, and a tall neon sign calls to cars barreling by on Interstate 30.
It's just a façade. A mid-'90s push to reinvigorate Denny's brand dropped nearly 40 of the throwback diners across the states. In Arlington, at least, the plan didn't work. The Classic Style Denny's folded, and a fried seafood joint called Top Cat took its turn selling hush puppies and deep-fried catfish. Top Cat went belly up before Tom Jones finally brought some stability to the address. Seven years ago, Jones gave up his career in technical sales to open up a modern riff on the classic diner. He has been turning out delicately battered onion rings, crisp chicken-fried steak and breakfast all day ever since.
Jones has garnered a loyal following. On a recent Saturday morning the parking lot was filled with minivans, trucks and SUVs. You might imagine a dining room overrun by unruly crumb snatchers, high-pitched squeals and impatient waiters spilling coffee, but the diner ran as smoothly as perfect pancake batter. Jones has eschewed the morose table jockeys who often seek employment in greasy spoons for a youthful and genuinely enthusiastic staff. When you're asked, "How y'all doing this morning?" your inquisitor genuinely listens to the answer. Menu recommendations yield desirable results, and when was the last time you were reminded that medium-rare beef presents a warm, red center — in a diner?
Too bad the burgers that are cooked so carefully don't start out with beef with a better pedigree. Pre-made patties can only accomplish so much, no matter how deft the cook, and considering "burgers" makes up one-third of the name on that glowing neon sign, you might expect a little more. To make up for the shortcoming, Tom's offers enough toppings to make a pizzeria blush, including smoked onions, homemade chili, a freshly made salsa, jalapeños and a dairy case's worth of cheese. A smoking tray adds a subtle tinge of pecan wood to the burgers as they cook. If these patties were loosely formed by hand with beef that was ground on site, they could be the greatest in Texas.
Many diners offer onion rings, but they are rarely hand-made and seldom this divine. The light and crisp beer batter has a crunch similar to tempura, and the onions don't pull out of their casing when you bite them. They're perfect little halos for diner angels in heaven.
For his chicken-fried steak, Jones ditches seasoned flour for something much more addictive, grinding Ruffles potato chips into a crunchy irregular coating speckled with fresh green parsley leaves. It's a stellar example of a Texan classic, but be sure to ask the kitchen to put the peppered gravy on the side to spare the crunch. And skip the gluey mashed potatoes served as a side dish. Could we get some more of those spectacular onion rings, please?
Tom's Burger and Grill practices an odd mix of elevating some components while others are neglected. French fries emerge from the depths of the freezer before they're cooked. Yet shrimp are carefully peeled, de-veined, breaded with seasoned cornmeal and impeccably fried. They're served with a cocktail sauce that sports an aggressive amount of horseradish. And are those fresh green beans on the side, carefully sautéed with peppers and red onions? Not canned, not frozen but a fresh green vegetable that would not seem out of place nestled next to a chicken paillard draped with velouté in a casual French restaurant.
Don't stop reading now, it's about to get better.
The beer is free.
Please take a moment to soak that in. And note a limit of two per customer should you already be crafting a plan to drown the guilt associated with eating yet another chicken-fried steak with 17 or so cold ones. Jones obtained a permit to sell alcohol when he first opened the restaurant, but a year in when a $4,500 renewal came due he threw in the towel. He still needed beer for his onion rings and mushrooms (which are also quite good), so he kept a single keg on tap and hands the beer out to diners. Pabst Blue Ribbon has been offered for the past few years, but recently he switched to Bud Select.
Free beer might prick up your ears, but it's the good food and great staff that will get you to return. During breakfast the place is filled with regulars, including the requisite old-timer reading a local paper at the bar. The bacon is crisp, the pancakes are fluffy, and while the eggs are well-done, the kitchen has the sense to kill the heat before they get too rubbery.
Lunch brings a buzzy dining room of diners snacking on sandwiches filled with thickly sliced deli turkey, homemade chicken salad and, of course, more burgers. While the desserts could use a little work (stick to the chocolate cake) most of the food is really good here and brings something new to the Formica tables we've all grown to love. Customers have come to depend on this quirky little diner that shuns commercial expectations. Denny's thought a shiny façade would get customers hooked on inferior cooking. Tom Jones figured out its what's inside the walls that counts.
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