Best Free Lunch 2004 | Whole Foods Market | Best of Dallas® 2020 | Best Restaurants, Bars, Clubs, Music and Stores in Dallas | Dallas Observer

Man and woman shall not live by nuts, berries, wheatgrass shots and tofu alone, but when we want these things, organically grown, of course, we schlep our Birkenstocks to Whole Foods Market. Forget the stereotypes and focus on the strategies. This food chain's in-store sampling not only gets you cooking and buying suggested ingredients, it has become a 21st-century meet-and-greet-and-eat. Store staff fires up the electric skillets and whips up a mess o' spicy Cajun catfish or apple butter brisket for Rosh Hoshana, plus noodles, plus potatoes, plus vegetable medleys. This is the best free lunch, or dinner, and singles bar/sports bar alternative going.

We debated whether or not to tell you peasants about the awesomeness (yeah, we checked, it's a word) that are Mia's brisket tacos. See, for the longest time, Mia's served the delightful treats only as a once-a-week special, but they were so popular that Mama and company decided to make them an everyday thing. But they never got around to putting them on the menu, so only the regulars over at Mia's really know about them, which makes them tasty and cool. Now you can head over there and impress your friends or a date with your insider knowledge of what are, unquestionably, the best tacos in Dallas. You're welcome.

Burgers, the "mundane hot dog" for tykes too finicky for ketchup squirts, grilled American cheese sandwiches, a variety of fried foods that make swell props for carb-counting lessons, ice cream desserts and purple vanilla milk shakes. The Purple Cow has everything a kid could ever want outside of Gummy Bear cell phones. There's an electric train up above that chugs along the perimeter. There's a jukebox that can play the same song over and over and over to test the limits of parental sanity, lots of cow gimcracks for the whelps to whine after and a kiddy menu to maul with crayons. It's good, clean hair-pulling fun. For mayhem temperance, the Purple Cow even serves milk shakes spiked with hooch. Plus there's plenty of black coffee for the adults.

Readers' Pick

The Purple Cow

Eighteen-O-One is the small, lunch-only restaurant inside the West End's Dallas World Aquarium, but it could easily stand on its own merits. They please parents as well as kids with interesting seafood dishes and quality renditions of old standbys such as hamburgers and sandwiches. But someone put a lot of thought into the kids menu. Best of all is the fish-shaped pizza, one of the best pizzas we've had in Dallas (we know because we kept stealing pieces from our kid's plate). Amply supplied with mozzarella and thin-sliced pepperoni, the pizza is made perfect with a doughy crust and chunky marinara sauce. Makes us wish we were a kid again, because the pizza isn't available on the adult side of the menu. Same with the fish and chips--perfectly golden brown fillets served with fries--and the mini-hamburgers. The familiar kids-menu default item, chicken tenders, is also available.

Goodhues is not, in itself, a reason to move to McKinney, but it's sure worth the occasional drive. This former RC Cola bottling plant just off the town square provides a wonderful antidote for the franchises that have infested this booming community. The charming interior, with its exposed brick and long antique bar, is welcoming, casual and heartily American, and one can say the same for the food. Start with the roasted garlic with fresh goat cheese or the perfectly seasoned roasted poblano chicken corn chowder. Or try the surprising Erin's Salad, baby greens, blue cheese, oranges, strawberries and spiced pecans in a honey shallot vinaigrette that pulls it all together. The roast duckling, chicken Goodhues and sautéed tilapia in a champagne-cilantro sauce are all standout entrées, and the steaks, chops and baby back ribs are generous portions of excellent meat. Be sure to check out their small but select wine list. The first surprise at the end of the meal is the mixed berry crumble with ice cream, a perfect balance of flavors and textures. The second is the check. Goodhues costs 25 percent to 30 percent less than a comparable Dallas restaurant.

Reikyu says it features "contemporary fusion," but what that means to us is damn fine sushi. It's a great place for people-watching--if the moon and stars align, you can see the yuppies in the Mock-Station lofts wandering about their chic pads in their underthingies--but not so great for watching your checkbook. Getting full at Reikyu is fun but not cheap. That is, unless you try the bento box. For about a sawbuck, you get shrimp tempura, a California roll, sautéed beef or chicken, salad, soup and a bowl of rice. Add some good cold sake and you have yourself a meal you and your wallet can stomach.

The lunch crowds here tell you all you need to know about the food. Expect a 10- to 20-minute wait during peak lunch hours, but go ahead and put your name in. It's worth it. Just tell the boss you had a flat on the way back from lunch (or come back for dinner). We like our curry dishes and pad Thai fiery, and Royal Thai can turn up the heat--but only if we ask for it--while preserving the many layers of flavors that make Thai distinctive. Tulip dumplings stuffed with shrimp and pork and served with a spicy soy dipping sauce will kick-start your meal. If you're hungry, follow them up with one of the varieties of whole fried fish, which come with sauces both fiery and spicy sweet, or try one of the mixed seafood entrées with basil. Fried cubes of catfish and a mildly sweet sauce put a delicious spin on a bland fish, and Royal Thai has perfected the art of cooking squid without turning it into vulcanized rubber.

Readers' Pick

Royal Thai

They say they use only fresh ingredients to make their gelato, or Italian-style ice cream. They say it's lower in calories, fat and sugar, smoother and more velvety than American ice cream. We say they're sneaking heroin into the mixer. Yeah, that must explain why we can't pass a Paciugo shop without stopping in for a piccolo cinnamon or, when the season's right, a dish of tart and sweet mango or delicious black cherry packed with fresh fruit. C'mon, Paciugo, 'fess up. We're inveterate dieters and had given up ice cream until you came along. How did you get us hooked again?

Readers' Pick

Marble Slab Creamery

Various locations

Soft, smooth, ivory-colored snowballs of fresh mozzarella move out the back door of Paula Lambert's The Mozzarella Co. headed for local groceries including Simon David, Whole Foods Market, Tom Thumb, Albertson's and Fort Worth's tiny, exclusive Roy Pope Grocery. Some of these cheeses are headed for the salad plates at The Mansion, too, where they might be sliced and alternated with juicy, red slices of ripe tomatoes, drizzled with extra virgin olive oil and topped with racked black pepper and a chiffonade of fresh basil leaves. "I love Paula's cheeses," executive chef Dean Fearing of The Mansion says, "and we were the first restaurant to carry them." Mozzarella was the first and only cheese Lambert made for a while, but now she's added a unique "Deep Ellum Blue" to her bill of fare. It's stacked in a cooler behind the small retail counter at the front of the shop, along with mozzarella rolls stuffed with prosciutto, green olives or sun-dried tomatoes; goat's milk ricotta; and goat cheese rolled in black peppercorns or chopped herbs. Lambert's first cookbook, The Cheese Lover's Cookbook and Guide, contains 150 of her favorite recipes plus textbook-quality, comprehensive sections on cheese history, nutrition, types of cheese, storing, serving and cutting cheese, and even a chapter on making cheese at home.

Decisions, decisions. Can't make up your mind between the cheesecake and the chocolate raspberry truffle cake? Central Market knows that these are hard choices and makes it harder still by putting out hefty samples of both, so cruise by the bakery counter and conduct your own taste test before buying. (We vote for the chocolate every time.) Then try to get out of this carb-counter's nightmare without checking out the chunks of fresh zucchini muffin and slithers of toothy sourdough offered as samples on your way to frozen foods. If you can come out of this department without buying something sweet or yeasty, you have more willpower than we do.

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