Best Of :: Food & Drink
Gone are the days when fast-food fare was simply the likes of Burger King and Sonic. Right alongside them are restaurants that fall into the "quick casual" genre and whip out dishes with the same attention to speed offered by their more downscale culinary cousins. Enter Tin Star and Baja Fresh and Masala Wok, and you will find food that hurries as well as tastes good. Pei Wei Asian Diner, the P.F. Chang spin-off, gets our vote in this category. They do up rice bowls and noodle dishes right, offering them at modest prices and with enough haste to make dinner and a movie a reality instead of an ideal. Orange slices accompanying green iced tea, napkins thick enough to withstand the strain of a meal, an open kitchen and a sleek décor are the kinds of touches that make the capacity crowds here willing to slow down and actually chew their food.
A trip to the ballpark is not complete without the food: peanuts, hot dogs, pretzels, Philly cheese steaks. Yo? Philly cheese steaks? One of the best, most improbable features of the charming Dr Pepper/7UP Ballpark in Frisco is the fact that they serve the best cheese steak in this time zone--from a cart way down the left field line. A little investigation revealed that the cart at the ballpark is actually an outpost of Philly Connection, a chain of restaurants based, of all places, in Atlanta. With 12 area stores, mostly in the Northern suburbs, Philly Connection has ambitions for our market that approach Starbucks proportions. They expect to have 50 locations all across Dallas-Fort Worth within a year and double that number in five years. The reason you can expect consistently satisfying sandwiches as they grow has to do with the passion of company founder John Pollack. "I grew up in Philly," says Pollack, "and like most Philadelphians, I consider myself a connoisseur of the cheese steak. My two favorite places to get them are pretty famous: Gitanos and Big John's in Cherry Hill." Moving to Atlanta in the early '80s left Pollack with an inner need as well as a perceived opportunity, and Philly Connection was born in 1984. "Our goals have always been consistency and authenticity," he says. "Even though Southerners had no basis of comparison at the time, I did because I'd learned from the best." To ensure meeting those goals, Philly Connection has bought its meat from the same Philadelphia supplier since 1984, a 92 percent lean cut that provides the optimum balance of taste and texture. And the way the meat and grilled onions and peppers nestle into the steamy, soft, authentic roll just feels and smells right.
There are gyro sandwiches, and then there are gyro sandwiches. First, there's the thinly sliced mystery meat piled into a cold piece of flat bread and topped with a tomato and a little bland white sauce. That's not the gyro sandwich we're talking about. Z Café owner Nicholas Zotos sells gyro sandwiches that are consistently far above average. The bread is oven fresh, and the plentiful meat (not a composite) is tender and tasty. The sauce is tangy and complemented by fresh onions. Zotos knows gyros.
This inconspicuous little shop on Preston Road in far North Dallas could pass easily for just another nursery or patio furniture store, but it's what's inside that makes this hidden jewel shine. Beyond the aisle upon aisle of clay chimeneas and farther past the piles of imports ranging in origin from China to the Ivory Coast is a family restaurant serving up some of the best desserts, coffees and chicken salad in town. The Obzeet Restaurant and Tropical Bar is hidden behind rows of fine imported statues and artifacts but defines itself by being one of the most unique dining experiences in Dallas. With a menu that consists of soups, sandwiches and cigars, how can you go wrong? But none of that endears it more than its pies, cakes and other confections. Obzeet is great for a late lunch after a day spent buried among the ordinary.
Somewhere between Mi Piaci and Chef Boyardee lies the concept of the family Italian restaurant, which is best exemplified by Café Amore in Richardson. Mama makes the tomato sauce, which is sweet, satisfying but never heavy; Papa flings the pizza dough, which makes "Ray's Original" New York pizza seem, to put it mildly, unoriginal. Their friendly bambinos wait on the hungry crowds, chilling kids with fresh hot bread and little cups of shredded mozzarella (upon request) as they wait for authentic homemade pastas, pizzas and subs, all at prices so reasonable you feel as though you should be eating in your car. So what if the family is actually Albanian? The dishes are always hot, fresh, generous and cooked to order. Try the linguini with red clam sauce--which has never failed us. Never.
How bagels lost their Jewish ethnicity and became the breakfast bread of Americans from Mississippi to Maine has less to do with assimilation than it does with marketing. But we suggest that it's time for another Jewish bread to become the next crossover cuisine, even though it is more ceremonial in nature (part of the blessing before Jewish feasts) than its distant cousin, the bagel. Clearly, you don't have to be Jewish to enjoy challah: The multi-ethnic appeal of challah is obvious during any Jewish celebration (weddings, bar mitzvahs) where gentiles are in attendance. And why not? The egg bread is sweet, fluffy, great plain or with butter. And no one makes it better than Empire Baking Company, which understands that good challah needs just the right consistency--not so airy that it's all crust and no dough, and not so doughy that it can double as a doorstop. Empire's crust and dough are in perfect harmony.
This category makes us hearken to our own salad days when Mom made the best damn chicken salad this side of the Ukraine. That is why we set the bar so high for this category and why we sampled way too much chicken salad. But in our quest for the best, we have come to one unalterable conclusion: It ain't just chicken and mayo no more. There's a whole bunch of stuff going on. The chicken is chunky as well as smooth, and it is mixed with apples, apricots, grapes, nuts, mushrooms, honey, eggs, tarragon, curry--more spices than you can pull off a rack. And although Two Sisters Catering Company gave Whole Foods a serious run for its money (yes, we also sampled Central Market), the simplicity and overall good taste of Whole Foods' "classic chicken salad" just hit too close to home for us to pass up.
There's just something about ordering a small pizza the size of a large child that gets us hot and bothered; better still if we're eating it alone (and we usually are, wah). This venerable establishment, which has been facing Bachman Lake since it was a puddle, feels like a slice of Manhattan in the middle of Northwest Dallas. The pies are enormous and juicy (dare not say greasy), served so hot and sloppy you need 10 napkins for just a slice--and a fork, too, unless you've brought a change of clothes, which we highly recommend. The pizza's available by the slice, but like the commercial says, you can't have just one. Close runners-up: Marco's in Preston Royal, various Campisi's locations and Sal's on Wycliff Avenue. Close, that is, but no calzone.
It's the kind of neighborhood family spot you find all over the outer boroughs of New York: bright, bustling and filled with good smells and foreign, friendly waiters. In fact, Sal Jakova brought his family and recipes to this location (inevitably, a second Sal's is opening in Plano) from Queens 21 years ago. Some of the best pizza around, Neapolitan and Sicilian, bubbles in Sal's ovens to be sold by the slice as well as in pies of four sizes. The heroes are heroic, the calzones flaky and tongue-searing, the pastas more than passable, and the stromboli has, in previous years, been recognized in these pages as the city's best. The menu is rounded out by an ample selection of veal, chicken and seafood dishes. Sal's is also probably one of the safest places in town, because you'll almost always find cops eating here, testimony to the large portions and working-guy prices. Go on a Sunday night, when Sal's is presided over by colorful son Kenny, and you'll find a cross section of the community chowing down like straphangers.
Even people who aren't fans of pizza will surreptitiously try to sneak a slice of Scalini's. It's thin, not too delicate and the options for topping allow creative license for personal pizza heaven. For dining in, delivery or carryout, the family folks at Scalini's serve up the best thin-crust pie we've ever masticated. Although incredible when direct from the oven, the cheesy goodness is never compromised by a quick car ride. A favorite with us is one with sausage, fresh basil and fresh tomatoes (for veggie-lovers, eighty-six the sausage and add pine nuts). The flavor is robust, and the aroma is divine. Order up; just don't forget a side Greek salad.
You may think you need to live near this White Rock eatery to order its pizza, but we would argue that the trip is worth it unless you live in Wylie or Red Oak--and even then, it may be a good idea to give it a go. Alfonso's is a small Italian restaurant that serves pretty good pasta, but it's the pizza that distinguishes this place. Generous portions, fresh vegetables, enough (but not too much) tomato sauce, sausage to die for...oh, sweet Mama, we're gettin' hungry. Our fave? Difficult to say, but it's hard to go wrong with a large sausage, onion and mushroom.
The title Best Hamburger is not limited to the burger alone. It encompasses the atmosphere and the options as well as flavor. When we want a burger, chances are we want a drink, too. (Hey, we're going for the full-blown unhealthy beef and brew combo.) Enter the Landing, as we neighborhood dwellers are prone to call it, and they've got the atmosphere and the options for our dietary delinquency. It's dark, cool and no one's easily identifiable should our running partner happen to saunter by. Plus, there's a selection of cheeses (go with provolone) to heighten the caloric content of our edible sin. The taste is slightly charred, not too salty and fresh with all the veggies piled on. And the bun...the bun is sheer toasty goodness. Fries abound, and there's even a veggie burger for the meat-free. Order a beer and burger, hit one of the best jukeboxes in town and choose a well-worn seat for a real red-meat treat.