La Duni Latin Kitchen and Baking Studio
The McKinney Avenue La Duni's better known and more crowded, so please, God, whatever you do, don't tell anyone we prefer this location; enough, already, with the crowds. But we're resigned to the fact that the secret's out about this spot, which is a little darker and more cramped inside but somehow a little superior to the other joint. It may have something to do with better service, too; we've had Sunday brunch on McKinney turn into Monday lunch on more than one occasion. The food's wonderful at both, of course, especially owner Dunia Borga's pastries, which she often makes at the public kitchen at the Oak Lawn locale; you haven't lived till you've had her cuatro leches cake (not to mention the homemade gelato and the La Duni Café con Leche Sundae). But we come for the breakfasts: popovers full of egg and ham and Gruyre, the salsa-baked eggs and the cinnamon brioche French toast. There's nothing like La Duni in town; it's one of the reasons we live here in the first place.


Readers' Pick
Blue Mesa Grill 7700 W. Northwest Highway 214-378-8686
Ever since our first visit to Miami, we've been hooked on the Cuban sandwich--not the slab-o'-pork crammed between two slices of cardboard they're serving up at Little Havana but the real thing, which melts in your mouth before it even hits your tongue. See, with a good Cuban sandwich, it's not just about the pork and pickles and melted cheese, but the bread, which has to be tender and sweet, like our high-school girlfriend. At this Northwest Dallas joint, they serve up a proper Cuban--and with a rum punch more powerful than Superman, too, as well as some of the best fried plantains and conch fritters and jerked chicken and coconut shrimp this side of Key West. But see, the thing is you gotta come here on Friday and Saturday to guarantee you'll get the full menu. That's when the place is hoppin', literally, as the restaurant gives way in nighttime hours to a dance hall full of cool vibes and cold punch.
Pollo Campero
Catherine Downes
They say Guatemalans fill duffel bags with hunks of Pollo Campero chicken for import to the United States, filling the airplane cabin with the smell of freshly fried fowl. We know, it sounds like an urban myth, but we read about it in no less a source than The New York Times. It just goes to show you that Pollo Campero plies some serious chicken. You don't need to tell that to the Central American families who fill Pollo Campero's only Dallas restaurant, which opened last year near Bachman Lake. Made with "adobo spices," which means something different in just about every Spanish-speaking culture, Pollo Campero's fried chicken tastes fresh, pleasantly spicy, a little greasy (what did you expect?), and somehow, soft, thin white corn tortillas, chipotle salsa and a rich stew of bacon-spiked pinto beans seem like the most natural accompaniments.


Readers' Pick
Bubba's Cooks Country 6617 Hillcrest Ave. 214-373-6527
Culver's
We've tried all the hamburger joints everyone touts and were disappointed to find places frying up frozen cow chips and trying to hide the paucity of flavor with gobs of toppings, or failing to grill the beef at the appropriate temperature, in effect producing steamburgers. Yuck. It really isn't that complicated. Fresh (never frozen) lean meat, seared at a high temperature and seasoned with plain old salt and pepper--that's all it takes. Like they do it every time at Culver's, a Wisconsin chain with local outposts in Rockwall and McKinney. Trust us, their "Butterburgers" taste different from what you've come to expect. They taste like...beef. Imagine that.


Readers' Pick
Snuffer's Multiple locations

Best Bar, Bakery, Boutique, Restaurant and Coffee House

Cretia's on McKinney

Cretia's really oughtn't work. It's one of those Jack-of-all-trades ideas that could be a mile wide and an inch deep. The thing is, from morning until way after dinner, you can eat, shop, drink and hang out in this bakery gone wild, and it's all good. Start with a cappuccino and croissant in the coffee bar on the way to work. This former army-navy store on McKinney Avenue, offspring of a Duncanville bakery, knows how to treat breakfast bread with European care. Their baking skills shine all day and all night, providing a wealth of breads, cakes, pies and cookies to enjoy on the premises or take home. Lunch includes a variety of moderately priced entrées, and at dinner the big guns come out with an array of fish, steaks and unique entrées. And all the while you can shop in their trendy boutique or drink or watch a ball game or hear a live band in their Ruby's Lounge Bar.
Two words: country store. Kids love Cracker Barrel's country store, which features all kinds of nostalgic toys and confections such as Walnettos (caramel blended with bits of walnuts) and maple sugar candy. There's no escaping the country store without making some kind of purchase for the kids, but most of the items are inexpensive and blessedly low-tech. The restaurant? The all-day breakfasts are popular with the little ones, especially the pancakes featuring pure maple syrup and various fruit toppings. Cracker Barrel also stocks old-fashioned bottled sodas such as Stewart's orange. Afterward, step outside and play a game of checkers from your rocking chair. It's a hokey place, but your kids will have fun, and chances are you'll find something acceptable on the menu, too.


Readers' Pick
Purple Cow 110 Preston Royal Shopping Center 214-373-0037
Nicola's Ristorante
When you settle into a groovy space you just feel a bit more suave. At least we think so. There must be some connection between décor and attitude. After all, the University of Iowa football program painted the visiting locker rooms pink--floors, walls, lockers, everything--just to pacify the opposition. They've won 20-some odd home games in a row. Nicola's prefers a neatly designed array of curtains, pillars, wrought-iron rails and chandeliers to pastel colors. Framed by floor to ceiling windows, the room suggests urban cool. The most prominent feature is a collection of eight distinctly different chandeliers hanging above the bar area. In the dining area, a series of booths pinwheel from a center pillar. Along the edge, curtained alcoves suggest privacy. There are curves and straight lines, rich fabrics and wood. Above, a cool mezzanine drapes elegantly over the main dining area. Simply put, it's a beautiful space.
It was always a nice diversion to visit the Yasemin Tea shop in Uptown. Owner Yasemin Mosby took pleasure in educating customers on the health benefits and customs of tea drinking, and she encouraged plenty of sampling before choices were made about what to take home. It's a little sad that she only operates her business through a Web site now, but her focus has remained as much on spreading knowledge as selling tea. The site offers an abundance of information for beginners, and the shop's selection includes five different categories of teas, as well as tools and tips on brewing. Check it out, especially if you are tired of getting the shakes from too much coffee.
If Denton friends are trying to persuade you to brave Interstate 35 for a visit, tell them they can seal the deal with lunch at Southern Fried Pie Company. That place will wrap anything into a pocket pastry, and we mean anything. Just perusing the café's menu of hand-held goodies will add five pounds to your figure. The main course selections include the usual suspects: meat and cheese, chicken pot, shepherd's. Each savory pie is partnered with a green salad (who needs it?). But the stars of the show are the desserts. The banana cream and coconut cream are probably to die for, but we can't get past the chocolate and peanut butter. It's the kind of comfort food that requires a nap afterward, so here's hoping your Denton friends have a nice couch.
Here's one for DART rail riders: Get off at the West End stop and walk into the building that houses Chipotle. Instead of taking a right into the chain restaurant (we've seen you, and you don't need another burrito), take a left into La Fiesta Fruits Café. Order the chicken soup. This ain't no Campbell's canned crap; this is authentic, bones and all. About four or five bites in, you'll want to hug someone. It's only natural, with such a perfect mix of vegetables, rice, meat and an unnamed hot ingredient that sneaks up on you in a good way. The guy who owns the place is no soup Nazi. He's quite friendly. Definitely huggable.

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