Vagabond Melds the Blues and Bar Food
Not pictured: the must-have steak fries.
Music venues aren't usually known for the food they serve. Patrons talk about the sound system, lighting and layout, but rarely do you hear people shouting over a guitar riff about cold nachos for sale in the lobby. There's good reason. The Granada Theater sells pizza slices from a warming carousel that looks like it was lifted from a corner store, and the Kessler Theater has a small menu of chicken wings and bar snacks you never heard of until just now. The House of Blues has a full-blown restaurant but hasn't established itself as an eating destination for anyone beyond that evening's ticketholders. The big concert arenas are worse.
And so, the easiest way to explain all the good food coming out of the kitchen of Vagabond, which opened up earlier this year in the tired J Pepe's space on Greenville Avenue, is to note its lack of a stage. Vagabond's menu of burgers and keep-you-in-your-seat-for-a-day-hearty sandwiches is the work of manager and chef Stewart Jameson, who is often in the kitchen pickling green tomato slices and curing beef tongues for pastrami. His simple charcuterie boards feature a sweet chicken liver pâté that would seem more at home at a bistro. In fact, Vagabond doesn't resemble a music venue in the slightest — it didn't to me, anyway, until one random Wednesday night, when all the tables were covered with makeshift placards and customers who hadn't paid money to reserve their own were relegated to the back patio.
This time, gels clipped to stage lights hanging from beams above glowed in Crayola colors, and a velvet curtain drawn along the back wall framed a performance space that it turns out was there all along. Parker Millsap, who served as an opening act recently but might as well have headlined, was about to play the blues. The fact might have seemed laughable given his white-boy looks and slight frame, but when Millsap opened his throat and let out his raspy falsetto, the previously boisterous room became very, very quiet. What Millsap looked like didn't match the sound that was coming out of him, so everyone was forced to stare, and that's when he pulled them in. That's when, for at least an hour or so, the Vagabond went from being just another music venue to one of Dallas' most interesting. And it just so happens that a lot of the food is excellent, too.
I wish I could tell you more about Millsap, but I was one of the customers pushed out to the back patio — which, it turns out, is not a terrible place to be. An old tree provides a little shade, and communal tables let larger groups slug beers and shots together. The old swimming pool that served as a mosquito brothel back in the J Pepe's days is filled with crushed clay, and well-worn bocce balls thwock against each other like giant Jawbreakers. Misters hiss along with fans on the fence and along strands of lights strung across the patio, blanketing everything in a thick humidity. All off this bathes in an aerosol of smoke and burger grease from the kitchen's exhaust fan. It's burger soup.
The climate is a small price to pay for burgers that turn out to be great more often than not. The only fault is consistency. I've had burgers here that were overcooked and almost forgettable, and I've had burgers that were juicy, dripping, rosy-centered experience that left my hands and tray in a mess of grease. I've seen customers wrestle with burgers topped with slices of avocado, which protruded like green fingers from the bun with every bite.
Everyone is master of his own burger destiny here. Choose from a challah, wheat or gluten-free bun, toppings that include grilled, sautéed and pickled vegetables, and a number of cheeses and meats. A particularly self-destructive burger enthusiast could dream up a beef patty topped with Gruyere, bacon, an egg and a thick slathering of bone marrow mayonnaise. I went with simpler combinations, like cheddar and bacon, or brie cheese and onions cooked down until they were soft and sweet. Either way, the steak fries cooked in duck fat make for the best side. Each irregular wedge of potato has a crispy exterior, and insides like a fluffy baked potato. The garlic mayo makes for flavorful dipping.
A veggie burger tastes like the veggie burgers at most bars — dry and bland and mostly forgettable — but the chicken option tastes better than you'd expect, with a thick, and improbably moist hunk of breast meat. There's also a fried chicken sandwich option that's topped with a sticky, sweet jalapeño jam. That one's even better.
Jameson's Beggar's Pile is the type of salad you'd expect from a chef who focuses much of his time on burgers. Tender greens meet avocado, fried onions and an egg, all of it dressed in a roasted onion balsamic dressing that heartily clings to everything. It's not a healthy salad, but it is enjoyable to eat. There's a Caesar salad with soft, blond bread crumbs and a dressing with plenty of anchovies, and a bread salad with plenty of bacon, too. But none of them beat the fries I couldn't not finish during my first, or any of my return visits to Vagabond.
Back to that Wednesday, after I settled my check and was slipping through the dining room on my way out. Millsap had a harmonica draped around his neck, and he was pulling on it hard while the crowd sat slack-jawed. I watched a waitress walk by with a ham sandwich on a quarter-sheet pan serving tray. It was a riff on a Croque madame, swimming in Mornay sauce, and an egg with a sunny yellow yolk was slowly sliding off the side. The sight was just as magnetic as the band, and I was lost in it all, until the doorman tapped me on the shoulder and asked me to move on.
Back out front, the other unfortunates listened through the windows of this little house turned music hall. Their tables were littered with crumpled napkins and half-spent beers, and their faces were smeared with contentment. Inside, the crowd applauded the end of the next song, and the rest of us felt left out. I made a note to check the schedule every couple of weeks, and to peruse it for artists who interested me, even if all I really wanted was an excuse to get to know that ham sandwich.
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