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It's the kind of mouthwatering soup that would make Seinfeld's Soup Nazi (admit it, you watch the reruns) jealous with rage. Only it's prepared by a soft-spoken, gentle mom (Christine Vouras), using family recipes that she once served at one of Dallas' swankiest restaurants, Chateaubriand (1958-1982). Her only problem is selecting two soups a day from among her 21 recipes to meet the desires of the regulars at the Metropolitan Café, an urban outpost along downtown's edge, next to the old municipal courthouse. Whether it's a hot winter broth, such as lentil or chicken gumbo, or a cool summer soup, such as cucumber or gazpacho, the ingredients are fresh, tasty, natural and healthful, a frothy alternative for those who wish to drink their lunch and stay sober.
Opened in 1990 by two brothers from Syria, Ali Baba has been gathering continuous good reviews for its rice, tabbouleh, hummus, falafel, dolmas and gyros. Meat lovers with $10 to spare can't go wrong with the Mashwi shish, a plate of marinated beef or lamb grilled with onions, mushrooms and tomatoes, all seasoned with saffron and thyme. It comes with a hefty portion of Ali Baba's inimitable rice. It's worth the visit just because of the hummus, which, unlike the grayish mystery goop sold at some stores, actually melds the chickpeas into something that doesn't just taste, well, like mashed chickpeas. Dips are creamy and have a kick. Portions are generous. In all, the tour through the region is far more rewarding than any wonk's policy speech on the area's rising tensions or whatnot. Just relax, fight through the big crowds and eat till you gain a deeper understanding of the world's hot spot.
Tofu is a scary thing. It's spongy; it takes on the flavors of the food it's cooked with. It kind of looks like chicken. It requires special storage. Nothing about it seems like "fast" or "food." But, in about the time one would spend in a drive-through at lunch, Lover's Eggroll can serve up tofu delight, a plate of chunked tofu stir-fried in soy sauce with mushrooms, broccoli, carrots and cabbage and offered with a side of steamed or fried rice. It's tasty, filling and much less mysterious than the ingredients in the average fast-food chain's so-called chicken nuggets.
The burritos at Chipotle look normal enough. Well, they do if you're used to a burrito the size of your thigh and a little bit heavier. But that's not what's so great about them, though, obviously, getting a complete Mexican dinner wrapped inside a delicious flour tortilla is pretty fantastic. What's great is that every single ingredient--the fluffy rice flecked with cilantro, the spicy black beans, the spicier salsa, the juicy beef and/or chicken--is pretty much as perfect as they could be, fine enough to eat by themselves. And when they're blended together? Let's just say you might wanna wear sweatpants.
We'll admit it: We're partial to this place because it's one of the few places--OK, the only place--in town where we feel, well, a little special. Not that we are or anything (even our own mama tells us we're not daily), but Kai-Chi Kao, known to regulars as "George," has a way of making us feel like Dean Martin at Musso & Frank's; he's there to welcome friend and stranger alike with a hearty how-do, and the waitstaff never forgets a name, face or favorite drink (ours is sake, more please). Kai-Chi, whose poppa Buck founded the joint in 1974, is hip to everything that makes an eatery divine: amazing food (do not miss the general shrimp, as crispy as it is sweet, or the dry-stirred beef, which we swear is a dessert), warm atmosphere (kitschy, but whimsically so) and rock-crit-cool music (Kai-Chi has the best CD collection this side of, well, us). And this is how we know Royal China deserves a Best Of: Every time we take people there, they always return without us--which we don't take personally, at all.
We've been frequenting this place for a decade, and save for the turnover in waitstaff nothing changes; it's still owned by Dieter Paul, an elegant man running a swellegant Italian bistro, where the wine's as fine as the pastas you can mix and match with the sauces of your choosing (we prefer pesto, and pronto). The pizzas are divine--as thin as Swiss biscuits, and just as melty in your mouthy--and the specials truly are; nothing makes us swim upstream faster than the cioppino, the seafood medley where the hits just keep on coming. Only problem is, it's barely on the menu, which is no sweat for the regulars: Dieter will actually call you when it's on the menu, which only makes us love him that much more--impossible, we know, but still. And, as a bonus, it's one of the best date-night restaurants we know: fancy enough to warrant slacks (makes your lady think you have class), but cheap enough to keep you from breaking the bank, even if it's a piggy bank.
We couldn't contain our excitement when Big Shucks, the big brother of Aw Shucks on Lower Greenville Avenue, opened last year. As its name implies, the new location is bigger, offering more outdoor seating for cool nights and indoor seating during the dog days. The one thing that hasn't changed is the crab legs, which are as scrumptious and fresh as ever. You can tell that when you snap a leg in two and the sweet white meat pulls cleanly out of its shell. Naturally, the process creates quite a mess. Unlike most restaurants, which serve up crab legs with prepackaged towelettes, Shucks takes the Louisiana approach: lemons. Just squeeze some lemon juice on your raw paws and wipe 'em down with paper towels.
Steel's Vietnamese/Japanese cuisine is not necessarily the easiest chow to mate with wine. But the 40-plus by-the-glass list (embracing sparkling, white, red and dessert wines) includes an easy reference guide with tasting notes and pairing suggestions to coach you through the dining experience. Tethered to this is a list of more than 65 sakes, also with tasting notes and pairing suggestions. Imagine that. But Steel's grape mettle erupts with its hefty bottle list--more than 1,300 entries strong, each noting the varietal composition of the wine and the winemakers that created it. Largely a work constructed in alphabetical order by varietal, Steel's list includes the great wines from virtually every corner of the globe. But Steel also has the shrewdness to devote ample list real estate to Gewürztraminer and Riesling, wines void of any snob appeal (the latter perhaps the most overlooked noble grape on the planet). This is a deliciously imposing list, one that, with a surplus of time and shekels, should be perused with an irrationally exuberant thirst.
Buddha's Special is possibly the most authentic dish at this Indian-inspired vegetarian restaurant on Oak Lawn Avenue. And it offers a sample of the more traditional dishes with a serving of basmati rice, a dish of curried vegetables (whatever is the day's special, but usually involving spinach or potatoes), pappadam (a lentil wafer), dahl (a lentil soup), a piece of nan (flat bread) and a samosa (see above item). If they could throw in a cup of hummus, the expedition would be complete.