So we're having lunch at Taco Diner in the West Village. One in our party--the one who is washing down his lunch with shots of Patron and bottles of Negra Modelo--says, "OK, who wants dessert?" We all shake our heads and moan. Who eats desserts these days? They're full of carbs and sugar and sin. We all want to be skinny when we die. Look good in the casket. This gentleman then likens us to female genitalia--not in a complimentary way--and proceeds to order slices of the pastel des tres leches (cake of the three milks) for the table. Not to go all metrosexual on you, but oh...mah...gawd. Moist, slightly sweet, creamy. With a cup of coffee, to die for. And he almost did, on the way home, but that's another story.
Sliced in smallish rounds, lightly breaded, served on a sour cream sauce sprinkled with diced chives, these fried green tomatoes offer exactly the right combination of garden freshness with batter-fried flavor. Somehow, in spite of all that preparation, these succulent mouthfuls manage to stay firm at the core. They are a perfect expression of the South--juicy but fried--with a sophisticated Bishop Arts flair.
The concept is simple: swap hoofs with fins. Well, maybe it's not that simple. Most people wouldn't go for a bone-in halibut. Still, the Oceanaire is bulging with fat and fresh succulent seafood, just like steak houses throb with triple-bypass beef. The Room offers roughly a dozen different oysters with names like Pemiquid and Hog Island. And it hits you with the vigor of a steak-house fist, which is perhaps the only way seafood can come across in Dallas. Sides are big, too, with all of the regulars: asparagus, potatoes, iceberg lettuce wedges and creamed corn. Desserts tickle. There's baked Alaska, pecan balls, and warm milk and cookies. Milk and cookies? What could be better after downing live sea urchin?
Oceanaire Seafood Room
Give us no doughnuts, bagels or bear claws. It ain't breakfast without at least one chicken ovum. We prefer a large meal of eggs, bacon, hash browns, pancakes and other artery-clogging dishes, but most days, time constraints demand a meal that demands no flatware. To other one-handed breakfast eaters, we recommend the Meeker--an egg, juicy ham, cheese, a slice of ripe tomato, firm cucumber and a sprinkling of scallions on a puffy croissant. It's tasty but not time-consuming, early-morning heaven. Named for a frequent breakfast-sandwich patron, the Meeker Special has become a favorite of downtown denizens.
At some restaurants, the aromas of the cuisine being prepared inside slap you in the face when you walk through the door. But Baker's Ribs is different; the odors of this barbecue joint sneak up on you. Sure, you can smell the various meats being carved and chopped and sliced, but it's not an assault. It's an inviting, appetizing scent that gets the lips a-smackin'. What you don't realize, however, is that as you sit in Baker's Ribs, enjoying your beef and sausage with two sides of your choice, every fiber of your clothing is soaking up the aromas inside, so that by the time you've finished off your complimentary ice cream cone, you smell as if you've been slow-smoked for days and dipped in a vat of barbecue sauce. It's worth it, though, 'cause this is damn fine barbecue.
The spicy Greek pizza at this takeout-only spot near Lakewood is the best excuse to forgo pepperoni in town: crisp crust with a garlic-olive oil base, mozzarella, seasoned chicken, kalamata olives, tomatoes, red onions, pepperoncinis and feta cheese. Owners Omar Dibe and his wife, Sadie Ayers, opened shop last spring and offer traditional Italian pizza as well, but their Lebanese-inspired pies are standouts: Try rosemary chicken, margarita and ardalino with baked eggplant slices. Dibe and Ayers are beefing up their imaginative menu all the time. They've just added oven-baked paninis, subs, pita wraps and gyros. Order and take home, or slip into Lota's Goat next door for some liquid and musical accompaniment.
Sure, the building looks vacant from the street, and it sits in a neighborhood that can get rough after, like, 10 a.m., but please look beyond this, for Jade Garden is one of the best Chinese restaurants in Dallas, a place as filling as it is good as it is cheap. And this last point is the true measure of its worth. At Jade Garden, two people can have a soup of their choice, water and an entrée for $3.50 each. Three dollars and 50 cents. That's $7 for whoever's buying. And go ahead, throw in tax and a tip. If you pay with a 10, you're still stuffing a bill in your pocket when you leave. And you're leaving full and satisfied: The food is served quickly but doesn't taste like a chain restaurant. It tastes, instead, like the steal it is.
We've come to the conclusion that Italian in Dallas is the rope-a-dope cuisine. It takes its punches and wobbles weakly, acting like it's barely in the ring. Then when you least expect it, it springs to life and delivers a knockout blow. We aren't sure yet if Il Mulino New York is that knockout blow (we're still dizzy, and we think we can get up if the waiter would just quit pointing that finger in our face and give us a hand), but there sure are a lot of parts stinging. There's the tummy (portions are huge), the ribs (the food is so rich it clings) and the wallet (your check will equal the gross domestic product of Lilliput). Il Mulino is bold. It's raw. It's tasty, bluntly flaunting its rich cuisine from Italy's Abruzzi region. And in virtually all instances, this food is beautiful. Zucchini slices, sautéed in wine and garlic, drenched in olive oil and flurried with oregano and pepper flakes, are simply the best rendition of this vegetable we've ever tasted. Pastas are perfectly supple with just the right amount of give against the teeth. But the most compelling composition here is the veal Marsala--a masterpiece. Thin patches of veal are crowded in a haze of porcini mushrooms slathered in a rich, smooth Marsala sauce of uncommon richness, leaving hints of toffee on the finish. And it's a hammer blow to the city's moribund Italian strain that forever wavers between mediocre and tragic.
Maggiano's Little Italy
205 NorthPark Center
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.