The fried mushrooms at Snookie's are everything they should be: plump, juicy and not too greasy. These lightly battered balls of goodness are also just the right size--not so small that all you can taste is the crust, and not so large that the 'shroom overpowers. They're served with ranch dressing and horseradish sauce and extra-long toothpicks, which aid in easy dipping. And dip you will. The horseradish sauce is an excellent touch. At $4.25 and served in a plastic basket, Snookie's fried mushrooms aren't the epitome of class, but they go great with a couple of brewskis and some titillating barroom conversation.

Santiago's Taco Loco Express

So this may not be what she thought when you told her "dinner and dancing." But with prices like this, you can afford to buy her flowers, too. Dining al fresco, as is the situation at Taco Loco, is always exciting, especially on a bustling Deep Ellum street. Taco Loco offers 17 kinds of tacos, including a few vegetarian choices, all priced at less than four dollars. Other dishes--tamales, enchiladas, fries, desserts--round out the menu, plus it's open all night on Friday and Saturday. And if you go to Deep Ellum on "Deep Friday," the first Friday of the month, you can enjoy live music at eight (or more) clubs for one cover price. They vary month to month, but past participants include Trees, The Curtain Club, Gypsy Tea Room and Club Clearview. Eat tacos, rock the night away. Repeat.

Mirabelle

Mirabelle isn't exactly new. It was forged from the leftovers of Francois and Catherine Fotre's La Mirabelle. Though the name is a retread as is largely the interior, the food is not. Gone is La Mirabelle's French fare, and in its place is a New American hybrid (and what New American sortie isn't a mongrel?) cobbled together from an odd assortment of influences, from French to South American to Nordic. From his shunning the use of olive oil (he prefers the neutrality of grapeseed oil) to his creation of ambidextrous fish ensembles that flirt equally well with red and white wines (Mediterranean branzini in a red wine emulsion), chef/owner Joseph Maher treads an odd culinary path, one governed by color swipes. Like olive oil, he eschews butter and cream because he says the inherent fats blunt and obscure the intrinsic flavors he seeks to draw out. In their place he employs fruit, a substitution he insists heightens freshness. Yet unlike the color in his art collection that splashes the walls of the restaurant, Maher's food is not drenched in bracingly intense fruit tones. Rather, his sauces are pervious cloaks that embrace rather than drape. Mirabelle is a pretty good squeeze.

Celebration

If only we had a placid lake or high mountain setting to linger over in Dallas, this category might be flooded with possibilities. But most outdoor dining here overlooks a parking lot or busy intersection, and oppressive heat and smog alerts cure even the most incurable romantics among us. One restaurant that is really trying to alter the landscape is Celebration, which has several outdoor seating areas, friendly to lovers and families alike. In the summer, its outdoor patio sprinkles a cooling spray from its several mist machines. In the winter, well-placed electric heaters and an outdoor fireplace conjure up feelings of a ski chalet. The traditional home-cooking fare is consistently competent and abundant, much like it has been through its 31 years in service. And between the fountains, the mist machines, the fireplace, fans and food, you might not even notice the cars racing down Lovers Lane.

Babe's Chicken Dinner House

Like Mom's cooking, Babe's doesn't mess with frills. If it doesn't fix gut plumbing like J-B Weld (Drill it! Grind it! Machine it!), then fry, boil or roast it until it does. In addition to fried chicken that could scare a body-fat scale into weather service, Babe's has sinfully rich pot roast, bitchin' big chicken-fried steak with killer gravy, chewy pork ribs with a swift spice prick and delicious moist smoked chicken. You can load that down with lush velvety mashed potatoes, green beans pimpled with bacon bits, creamed corn and biscuits hefty enough to choke off a Senate floor speech. Dump some honey on those. You'll want to memorialize them on your girth.

Cafe Izmir

Lots of eateries in Dallas capture the cuisine tucked between the near and far of East. But only Café Izmir does it with a dazzling display of poise. The wine list is broad but simple, with a handful of Greek and Lebanese wines included. Dolmas are fresh and supple. Salads are cheek-slap fresh. Tabouli is dazzlingly brisk. Lamb roll is juicy and broad. Kabobs are tender, with a tasty char coat. And while we can't vouch for the Café Izmir claim that it makes the best hummus on the planet (even pulverized and lemon-freshened, passing that many chickpeas can create distressing microclimates), we can say that it's smoother than cold cream. It tastes better, too.

When the folks at Casa Rosa say their guacamole is fresh, they mean it. This tasty avocado appetizer is made at your table, before your very eyes, and the quality is undeniable. Compared with the typical cooler-wilted guacamole you'll find at many other Mexican restaurants, Casa Rosa's version is superb. The fact that you get to choose your own ingredients also makes it the best in town.

Red Square McDonald's aside, we never expected to eat lunch with Lenin. And if we ever did, we expected it to be, of course, during some strange Bill and Ted-esque time-travel adventure. Yet, right in front of Goff's stands a life-size statue of Lenin, sternly glaring as you bite into a juicy Goffburger and ponder political economics. Or simply wonder if you should spring for a fried pie (we say go for it). If you buy him an Orangina, he might answer that pesky question you've had about The State and Revolution. Not that we suspect the hamburger joint of harboring Commies, because they know, as it proudly states on Lenin's pedestal, "AMERICA WON." Goff's burgers are made fresh, but, in true capitalist fashion, they only take cash.

It's a little confusing, this heavy metal bandying about by Mico Rodriguez (The M Crowd, Restaurant Life) and company. The Mercury used to be a casual fine dining experience in a strip mall at Preston and Forest. But that shingle got changed to Mercury Grill. The new "The Mercury" (a tribute to Orson Welles' and John Houseman's Mercury Theatre in New York) was revamped and installed in the Shops of Willow Bend in Plano. And what an installation it is. It's a contemporary brush of soft hues and glimmering hard surfaces, the kind that relax instead of agitate. The Mercury isn't visually busy or fashionably annoying, rather it's so tastefully done in every area that it's hard not to marvel between bites. Tan booth enclosures and the green-blue frosted glass frame the clear glass viewing slits in front of the kitchen. Those slits reveal an avalanche of stainless steel. Good things go on in there, too. Every dish--no, every bite--is a near-flawless oral escapade. Simple afterthoughts--like the ubiquitous house salad--become attention-getting flourishes within its midst. Fried calamari, almost as ubiquitous as pretzel twists and peppermint candy in bars and restaurants, takes on new life. Who would have thought of parking battered little tentacle blossoms and tender body rings on a bed of creamy risotto rattled out of composure by a spicy tomato sauce? This is the kind of stuff that makes the best dining a bastion of perfect moments; when unexpected elements come together with such gentle seamlessness they seem genetically predisposed to couple. Yet with all this culture and pedigree, The Mercury omits Paul Masson from its wine list. Orson Welles would be so jealous.

What is it about a bowl of piping-hot red that enables it to create a culture all its own? Chili cook-offs, chili championships, chili parlors, chili with beans or without. What's the best chili, the hottest, the reddest, the meanest? Texas chauvinism aside, none of these is an easy question, and weighing into the great chili debate about what constitutes the best chili can be just plain foolish. But here goes, anyway. The chili served at Highland Park Pharmacy for at least the past 20 years, and probably longer, is our sentimental favorite. No, it's not hot; no, it's not spicy; and yes, it's full of beans. But it's mighty tasty, goes down smooth and is a welcome complement to just about any sandwich the old-fashioned soda fountain has to offer. Summer or winter, it just seems to work its magic, particularly when doused with a chocolate malt or a vanilla Coke.

Best Of Dallas®

Best Of