Even though Gilbert's Deli broke the hearts of many of its most loyal patrons by leaving North Dallas and moving to Addison, there are too many things about the restaurant that make the drive worthwhile. The meat loaf sandwich, the bagels, the pastrami, the vegetable soup, the knishes--all of which cost money. What doesn't cost are the pickles, which are placed on every table alongside a mountain of crunchy bagel chips. Those deli pickles are of two varieties--kosher dills and half sours--and besides their abundance, they make the lips pucker, the mouth water and prepare the taste buds for the deli food that follows. If you ask Alan Gilbert where you can purchase a jar of these pickles, he has been known to reply, "If I tell you, I'll have to kill you." Rather than press the issue, the occasional drive north will have to suffice.

There are a lot of good things that can be said about Local, the tiny boutique restaurant that opened in the heart of Deep Ellum in the historic Boyd Hotel, one-time stopover for Bonnie and Clyde, Huddie "Leadbelly" Ledbetter and Blind Lemon Jefferson. One of them is the Sluree, a blend of Rotari, an Italian sparkling wine, and scoops of house-made grapefruit-rosemary sorbet that quickly melt into the fizz. The Sluree is a good source of vitamin C as long as you don't fortify yourself into blurred vision. Another is the small collection of imaginative salads equipped with things like fried pears, oven-baked Roma tomatoes and strips of skillet-fried prosciutto. The cheeseburger is hearty and bursting with flavor, the fried chicken flits like a cloud and the fish is provocatively simple, letting the natural fish flavors blaze a path across the tongue (the footprint of chef Tracy Miller is ever so slight, yet undeniably shrewd). But perhaps the best thing that can be said of this restaurant is that it has no ambition to be anything other than what it is: a distinctly Dallas restaurant that bubbled up organically from the inner city's pavement. This is no New York or L.A. or Chicago wannabe posing. It just is what it is. To this spirit is stapled a tiny, eclectic and thought-provoking wine list and deliciously clean and crisp design lines (even wool shag carpet) by hotel designer and co-owner Alice Cottrell. Plans for an outdoor courtyard and wine lounge only assure that the luster deepens, carving another notch in the short bedpost of culinary experiences tasted through a distinctly Dallas prism.

Best Meal in Less Than an Hour

El Fenix

The term "fast food" does not have to describe the greasy cesspool of unidentifiable mystery meat served up at drive-through windows. Well, at least not in El Fenix's case. Quick, simple and delicious, we'd take a sit-down meal in this cozy Dallas landmark over a puck-sized burger in our car any day. The service is the fastest in town, but don't think that means they're sloppy. Orders come out perfect every time, even if you request an enchilada combo with double the rice, nix the beans, extra sour cream and no jalapeños. As partial to iced tea as we are, while dining at El Fenix, we can never pass up their sodas, which are noticeably crisper, lighter and more refreshing when consumed in conjunction with their famous tortilla chips. In less than 60 minutes you can get in, get full and get out.

Though it was conceptually groundbreaking when it fused tastes from Thailand, Korea, China, Laos, Malaysia, Vietnam and India under one roof, Liberty was mostly a bore when it opened. Aside from the birdcages posing as chandeliers with incarcerated amber bulbs and a swell, spacious patio with a huge aluminum washtub posing as a koi pond, there was little of interest in the cramped Lower Greenville quarters. The new Liberty is almost thoroughly denuded of such whimsy. Slipped into the two-decked Pavilion strip mall on Lovers Lane near Inwood Road, the new Liberty Noodles is at least a washtub above the old. And the strip-mall funk lifts once you slip through the door. The flickering birdcages are still there. But Liberty no longer flaunts self-conscious "ain't we hip?" flamboyance. Its style comes across more as a self-deprecating smirk, an acknowledgment of twisted excesses of youth. In short, Liberty has grown up, and nowhere is this more evident than in the food, which is brighter, brisker, tighter and tastier than ever. Promise realized is always the best move.

"Think of us as a power steak house with a seafood center." This is how the top brass at Oceanaire want you to think of their restaurant. They're referring to the beefy, two-fisted portions that in some cases--in true oxymoronic fashion--contain shrimp. Chilled shellfish is delivered in two portable ice mountain versions ($35 and $65) embedded with all manner of water crawlers, including lobster, crab and shrimp as well as shelled critters that do nothing but suck and make expensive jewelry--the freshest, richest stuff we've tasted in a city. Jumbo lumpmeat crab cakes are bumpy, ugly barnacle-like nodes of sweet brackish crabmeat chunks laced with just a puff of bread crumbs glued in place with a mayonnaise dressing and packed into balls before they're baked with a little bay butter. This allows the delicious crab flavor to easily pierce the thin starch draperies--a welcome maneuver in a town where chefs seem determined to smother crab flavor in a blizzard of sticky bread crumbs. Whole fried fish is delicate, moist and greaseless, while Chilean sea bass, resting on a mattress of bacon-studded wilted spinach basking in a beet purée, is brilliantly buttery--a flawless twist on a fish that has become a cod-like staple for high-end fishmongers. Great Key lime pie, too.
Soul food is the quintessential home-style cuisine: black-eyed peas, corn bread, macaroni and cheese, meat loaf, okra. At South Dallas Café, greens such as cabbage and okra skirt mushy textures and rise to supple sensations. Meat loaf is thick and hearty, smothered pork chops are tender and rich, and the fried chicken is crunch-crisp, spicy and moist. To really reach into your soul, South Dallas Café runs a two-meat special with your choice of two meats, three vegetables and corn bread for $9.95, a fine spot to drop a 10-spot.
River Spice has a fairly typical Thai menu with clever atypical touches. Pad Thai is often an effective barometer of Thai kitchen brilliance--or haplessness. It's far too often cloyingly sweet or a sticky knot of noodles or a soupy mess or some frightening combination of all three. Here, it is superb. At the far end of the plate is a curved cup of sheer rice paper that reaches a few inches above the plate and embraces--like a concert shell--a river of gently twisting noodles and crisp bean sprouts, egg, crushed peanuts and scallions in a culinary freeze-frame on the plate. Panang pork delivers a similar thrust with strips of tender juicy pork, bell pepper, gently bending green beans and tears of basil leaf deposited into a rich, fragrant curry sauce. Whole fried fish is compelling, as are most of the fried foods--spring rolls and curry dumplings, for example. A transparent glass water wall tinkles in the entrance to animate the river part of the moniker. (A River Spice extension recently opened in the structure off Lower Greenville that was once home to Liberty Noodles.)
There are more high-dollar Cajun restaurants in town, but high-priced food ain't what Cajun is all about. What we're looking for is the best taste of NOLA, the combination of better-than-good bar food, ice-cold beer and gluttonous/libidinous spirit that exemplifies all things bayou. You find that at HG: great bar food (fries and oysters are faves), all-you-can-eat crawfish on Wednesdays when in season and cold brews, brought to you by a helpful (read: borderline flirtatious) waitstaff. Good lunch menu, great street-side patio and a decent jukebox round out this underappreciated Greenville Avenue spot.
A friend asked us to make a Sunday lunchtime trek to this far north outpost. We weren't excited, as the word "Plano" and the phrase "sushi buffet" make us queasy. Of course, we were blown away by the quality of the food and the family atmosphere. The buffet at Osaka Sushi is huge, composed of not only cool, comforting sushi but a wide array of meats, fish, sauces, soups and vegetables. They'll even grill you up a bowl of goodies Mongolian style. When you leave, stuffed and wobbling, don't be surprised if you feel a little drunk on food--perhaps even yelling "shabu shabu!" at random customers as you giggle between belches. Sounds yummy, no?

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