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.

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.

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.

Best Reason to Think You're in Brooklyn

Sal's Pizza

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.
Often, big muffs are overrated. What you want is a muff that is just the right size. You ever try to eat a muff that was too big to fit in your mouth? Not fun. Quality, not quantity, is the way to go when searching out a tasty muff. Which is why our favorite muffuletta, when we're not wanting to stuff ourselves, is the authentic one found at Gulf Coast. Served with Cajun fries and (if you're smart) topped off with a $2 Stoli Bloody Mary, this bite of heaven takes us back to New Orleans' Central Grocery, the originator of the muff. And if you can't pay homage to the muff's home, then don't put one in your mouth.

Crescent City Cafe
Isn't Louisiana considered one of the fattest states? Judging by the Louisiana cooking replicated in the Crescent City Cafe's muffuletta, it's no wonder. For the uninitiated, the muffuletta is a delectable sandwich with unusual flavor from a combination of ham and cheese and olives on a toasted loaf of sesame-seed-topped bread. The cafe sells the quarter muffuletta. Or you can get a half muffuletta, which is filling enough that you can skip meals for the next several days. Throw us some beads.

Harry's has had it going on since 1996. Truth be told, his mom had it before that, since it's her stellar recipe that makes possible the creamiest frozen custard ever to pass our lips. The shop makes custard daily, changing up flavors while keeping favorites like chocolate, strawberry, etc. It's probably safe to claim that if they've made it, we've tried it, and rarely have we been disappointed. Don't worry if a particular flavor doesn't appear on the day's list. Almost all flavors Harry's makes are available in pints and quarts. While in the shop, don't let a good dog down. Harry's is also famous for hot dogs (the best in the city), and there's nothing boring about them (the dog comes in various clothing from Texas chili to sauerkraut).

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