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Purists may scoff and pick, oh, Big Easy New Orleans Style Sandwiches up north or something farther east...say, in New Orleans. But this venerable Deep Ellum eatery has never let us down, whether we needed our café au lait-and-beignet fix at 8 a.m. or our muffaleta-and-fries jones satisfied at lunch. The gumbo and étouffée are extraordinary--the roux's particularly rich, like Mark Cuban--and the sandwiches wonderful, and if we feel the need to dock this place points, it's ditching the booze, which is fine most afternoons save those occasional lunches after the boss tells us if our Best of Dallas items are late again, there'll be no raise. Need a Dixie after that. Make it a case. Instead, we'll just have the oyster po' boy.
Pappadeaux Seafood Kitchen
What's at stake with steak? In Dallas that's a foolish question. Our existence depends on it. Without steak, Dallas is just Six Flags and Big Tex. The former isn't even in Dallas, and the latter doesn't go very well with a first-growth Bordeaux. So you know how important steak is. And there's a lot of bad steak out there. Trust us. We've had the leftovers. (No matter how unfortunate a steak might be, you still can't afford the misfortune of not bringing it home after you've spent a fortune on the dang thing.) Fortunately, you're virtually guaranteed a flood of drool at Pappas Bros. Steakhouse. Pappas has its own dry-aging locker on the premises, which is ostensibly loaded with the one thing missing from most prime steak houses: rich, dry-aged prime. It has all of the succulence, the robust flavor that you'd expect from the type of steak Dallas swoons over. This is special. Juices gush. Whatever cut you have carved, the flavor spectrum is broad, right through to the lingering finish. No leftovers tomorrow, just a messy T-shirt.
Bob's Steak and Chop House
4300 Lemmon Ave.
What makes Pappadeaux's Greek salad the best? Absolutely fresh lettuce, not a brown leaf in the bunch; a tangy, well-balanced lemon vinaigrette dressing; a generous sprinkling of high-quality feta cheese; and all the other ingredients--capers, scallions, tomatoes, celery, pepperoncini--mixed tableside so nothing ends up soggy. The huge creation, available in portions for one or two, is garnished with a single boiled shrimp and finished with a squeeze of lemon. Other places in town turn out a praiseworthy Greek salad, such as The Metropolitan Cafe at 2032 Main St. and Ziziki's, but none of them equals Pappadeaux's.
Oishii mixes Japanese and Vietnamese with a little Chinese. The latter two are closely linked, while the former is more distant. Does this sound confusing? It shouldn't. OK, sushi is a little hard to square with kung pao chicken. There's lemongrass tofu, too, which is hard to square with anything. Yet the sushi is good. And the pork ribs in spicy salt and shaken beef are stellar, as are the Vietnamese spring rolls. But pho, that ceremonial, aromatic soup that's ladled for every meal among the Vietnamese, is how you test the spine of Vietnamese fare. And it's here where Oishii goes over the top. When pho is good, it's all minimalist guts and glory, the Dalai Lama of soups. Slurping pho is like having your soul breast-fed. Pho is loaded with feathery hints of lushly sweet aromas and carnivore brawn. Tangled there among slick and supple rice noodles are square scraps of beef as thin as pounded sheet metal plus beef tendon as tender as noodles (you can get it in chicken duds, too). From a separate plate heaped high with green and white flora, you add cilantro clippings, dark green basil leaves, bean sprouts, jalapeos and squirts from lime wedges. Pho is sense-surround soup: You breathe in billowing gusts of perfumed steam while spray stings your wrists from the splashes of noodles, sprouts and beef slipping off the spoon as you try to cram its addictive warmth into your mouth. Can your kung pao do that?
Green Papaya Cafe
3211 Oak Lawn Ave.
Pretty much any event that combines two of our favorite pastimes--food and setting things aflame--will win our rapt devotion. Dislike bananas, like bananas Foster. Loathe the French, adore crêpes suzette. So, any dessert that brings a butane torch into the kitchen, namely crème brûlée, is tops on our list, especially when it's the coffee-tinged crème brûlée served at Cuba Libre. The rich, firm mocha custard mingled with the crunchy caramelized sugar topping is a smooth, luscious counterpoint to Cuba Libre's spicy entrées.
This is one of those no-win categories: Everyone has his favorite barbecue joint, be it some tiny roadhouse in Taylor or Sonny Bryan's on Inwood Road or even Sammy's, which is great but could be better if someone tweaked the sauce just a little bit. But we're sticking with this Highland Park hang, because the meat's as lean as a supermodel, the sausage is as smoky as our grandfather, and the ribs are as tender as a Gershwin ballad. The sauce, too, is as good as it gets, particularly the spicy variety, which doesn't cover up the meat so much as complement it; it's best when sopped up with a piece of Texas toast, of which we can never have enough. The sides are stars in their own right, particularly the cole slaw, but the real highlight is the fried pie for which you must save plenty of room. Or the bread pudding. Or both. At the same time.
"We eat here every Friday because Norma's is Oak Cliff," said businessman and community activist Ralph Isenberg. Norma's is that and much more. It's an archetypal Southern breakfast and lunch spot, a place that feels familiar from the first visit, and, best of all, it's a living time capsule of a long-gone Dallas. Opened in 1956, Norma's has defied modernization. As a result, the effect is that of having ventured into one of the black-and-white photographs that crowd the walls. As you wander around the two spacious rooms you see neither the crumbling Texas Theater of today nor the already seedy hideout for Lee Harvey Oswald, but a glamorous and spiffy movie basilica with Gable and Harlow on the marquee. The staff provides a similar window on the easy, unstudied friendliness of an earlier Dallas.
It's French, which helps, but what sets La Madeleine apart from other food-court stops is the tastefulness of the place. For one, the food at La Madeleine is flat-out better than anywhere else in the mall: The tomato basil soup is the best; the pesto pasta salad is light yet alive with flavor; and just try to stop at one cup of strawberries Romanoff. Secondly and, to be more accurate, amazingly, the procession to place an order and receive food has the ease of a fast-food line without the feel, once in line, that we're all orphans in a Charles Dickens novel, food trays extended, waiting for our gruel.
Cosmic Café is the one vegetarian restaurant where we can go knowing our carnivore friends aren't going to leave us alone at a table for four while they go down the street to a burger place. The converted house is funky but not too scary (unless you find murals of monkeys, sitar music and a fish tank scary). The same goes for the food. Indian-inspired veggie-based dishes with funny names (Buddha's Delight, Herban Renewal, Sufi Special) are zesty and fresh but not tofu/textured vegetable protein/Quorn terrifying. The less adventurous have options, too. There's also cake, smoothies, beans and rice, ice cream, and peanut butter-and-banana sandwiches (served on nan, not on white bread, of course). The ultimate test: We took our small-town, steak 'n' taters, falafel-what? mom, and not only did she find something to eat, she liked it and asked to go back. Vegetarians don't have to eat alone!