Alligator Cafe
There are people who will come to fisticuffs when debating who makes the best root beer: A&W, Barq's, IBC or Mug. Pedestrian, we say. If you've tasted homemade root beer, nothing manufactured can compare. Thank goodness for Ivan Pugh, the chef at East Dallas' Alligator Café, which makes its own root beer and cream soda at the restaurant. Served from the soda fountain in Styrofoam cups too big for the average car cup holder, Alligator Café's root beer is just right--sweet, but not too sweet, a little bit of a bite. It's so good, in fact, that when the restaurant couldn't obtain a key ingredient recently, people were calling and dropping by the converted KFC just for a root beer update. We get it, man: Accept no substitute.
Sin, when done right, tastes like one of these soft, yeasty, luscious cinnamon buns sticky with creamy caramel, a steal at only $2.50. Chef Bonnie Ruth Ianace makes them only on Saturdays, so that also imbues the buns with an even more illicit cachet. You know you really should be doing something constructive, like cleaning out the garage, but all you want to do is snuggle up with a café au lait and one of these 300-plus calorie babies and stuff your face. Don't wait until Sunday. Not only are there no leftovers, Bonnie Ruth's is closed.
The come-on: For $22.95 per person, you get a three-course dinner plus a ticket to a movie at the Magnolia Theater next door. The catch: You have to arrive for dinner between 4:30 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. Oh, the suffering. This Tuscan-Italian hotspot in the West Village provides the perfect way to impress a first date. Choose one from a list of starters, entrées and desserts. Good choices are the pear-and-goat-cheese salad, grilled salmon with fingerling potatoes, green beans with basil citrus sauce and tiramisu. Then stroll a few doors down and turn in your vouchers for movie tickets. Discussing the menu will get you through the first couple of hours and then a cool documentary will provide new fuel for conversation over cappuccino at an outdoor table. A date doesn't get much more foolproof than this, so don't blow it.
It's casual and crowded, with red gingham tablecloths and lots of noise, but Daddy Jack's is an institution. The chowder is hearty and the grilled fish always fresh, though sometimes pricey. But there's one thing tightwad gourmands can always count on. For years, every Monday through Wednesday, Daddy Jack's has served up Lobster Madness for dinner: $12.95 gets you lobster (tail and one claw), baked potato, a veggie and fresh sourdough bread. Don't even think about going without reservations, and you better arrive before 7:30 p.m. or the cheap crustaceans may all be gone. Then you'll just have to splurge on the jumbo lobster tail. Strap on your bib, grab a fork and guard your dish of melted butter from poachers.
It's a bit disturbing when you slide into a chair at this highly regarded restaurant and spot some kid in kitchen garb shaking hands with patrons. Then you discover he's the chef. Geez, that punk kid with the flipped 'do is the chef. No effin' way. Todd Erickson looks quite a bit younger than 26 but cooks much older. Already he has a reputation for great creativity, preparing familiar dishes with unexpected twists. Try lemon-fig glazed venison or rack of lamb roasted with lavender and coriander. His flavor combinations never obscure the meat or fish, yet always pronounce themselves in support. Even when menu items cause a double take, such as diver scallops on a bed of succotash or fried green tomatoes served with crawfish remoulade, they deserve a try. Think he's a bit over the top? Well, such creative offerings sit on the menu alongside meatloaf, fried chicken livers and a big ol' hamburger. Something for everyone, in other words. The truly odd part: Erickson never ran a restaurant kitchen before stepping through the door at Hector's. Owner Hector Garcia scoured the catering ranks to find Erickson. Now if he could scout around for a good left-handed pitcher.
We've never understood this state's passion for hunks of inferior beef pounded flat with a mallet, dipped in batter, tossed into a frying pan, then drenched in white gravy that resembles that gooey grade-school paste. Yes, we've tried it. No wonder it took Laura Bush so long to find a replacement White House chef; no classically trained culinary artist can bring themselves down to the prez's level. But AllGood Café breaks tradition by starting with decent tenderloin and deep-frying the cut in a vat of peanut oil. This creates a light, crisp, almost tempura-like crust. So light, in fact, that the beef actually stands out. Even better, they use a deft hand when seasoning the thing, so each bite reveals a balance of flavors. A drizzle of gravy completes the dish. It doesn't leave that "I've just guzzled a few pints of melted lard" feeling common to most chicken-fried steaks, so perhaps true Texans shun the dish. For the enlightened few with roots outside the state, the version prepared by AllGood is worth a drive into the heart of Deep Ellum.

Best Thing To Happen In Addison Since...Ever (Tie)

Monica's Aca y Alla, Go Fish

Remember when the Boss lamented the sorry state of cable television? You know, "57 channels and nothing's on?" As a dining and nightlife destination, Addison has a similar unfavorable reputation. Despite hosting the area's only authentic British pub (The Londoner), a good Chinese spot (May Dragon) and the best-known comedy club, people refer to Addison as a land lacking originality. Ah, but it's all changing. If you don't believe us, consider Go Fish, an actual chef-driven concept. Sure, it's located in one of those ubiquitous strip shopping centers, but it promises a VIP lounge and other "Dallas" touches. Go Fish is the work of outstanding seafood chef Chris Svalesen. After earning critical acclaim at the late 36 Degrees and very late Lombardi Mare, he may hold the best reputation of any seafood chef in the entire metro area. Yeah, we know Monica's isn't a one-off establishment. Other derivatives (Sambuca, for example) no longer carry the same clout as way back when. With Deep Ellum in the midst of a swoon, however, the suburban version of Monica's may supersede the original location. It's a more intimate space with fresher décor and free parking. Best of all, it sits next door to Svalesen's place.
No matter how earnestly gourmands discuss truffle oil or jicama or whatever, the success of a restaurant hinges on the human element. In other words, ambience and service matter more than food. That's why the best restaurants find someone to set the tone, make an outstanding first impression. Comely babes with firm implants work in a pinch, sure. Remembering names and treating each guest with the utmost respect, well, Al Biernat built his namesake restaurant into an institution just by holding real conversations, however brief, and showing great concern for each guest. Hector Garcia employs similar tactics. He bears the same casual dignity as Biernat, putting people at ease without betraying the restaurant's high standards. As he maneuvers through the room he checks on everyone, yet never intrudes. His sincerity is evident when concerns pop up. Complain, and he'll fix it. Or at least listen carefully and provide an explanation. Yes, Hector's serves tremendous food. But Garcia, he distinguishes the place from all 5,000 or 6,000 other restaurants in and around Dallas.
The posts upon which the ceiling beams rest are photo galleries. Digital pictures, shot by Zoom owner Tess Nguyen, have been blown up and pasted onto the curving surfaces: craggy cliffs in a deep blue bay and villagers harvesting salt from a lagoon in Vietnam; frolicking ducks that look suspiciously like future candidates for ped kee mow (drunken duck with basil). Loud colors--coral, aqua--crackle off the walls. The spindly spread of ductwork, tucked in the ceiling like a wasp, eschews black camouflage in favor of Tour de France jersey yellow. Zoom is a Thai-Vietnamese linkage, and the results can be extraordinary. Instead of rubbery and chewy, thord man plah (deep-fried fish cakes) is supple and moist. Tom yum kai (chicken soup with lemongrass) is bright and complexly layered with flavor. Sizzling beef is juicy, rich and bedded down with separate, firm strands of vermicelli and crisp vegetables. Firmly tender flesh seeds the squid with lemongrass and chili. Decent wines, too, like an Oregon Riesling and a New Zealand Mutua Valley Sauvignon Blanc, which works well with most of this food as long as it doesn't zoom in with a blast of chili.


Readers' Pick
Mai's 4812 Bryan St. 214-826-9887
Thai+Chili+is+tiny+and+cleanly+simple%3B+it%27s+also+one+of+the+best+Thai+restaurants+in+the+city.
Jon+Lagow
Thai+Chili+is+tiny+and+cleanly+simple%3B+it%27s+also+one+of+the+best+Thai+restaurants+in+the+city.
True Thai pierces the mouth like a laser, with cleanly articulated flavors delivered with succinct accents. Chile must strike but not ravage. Citrus must stoke but not reap strangling winces. Fish sauce and lemongrass aromas must arouse but not descend into a choking stink fog. Thai Chili chisels out these flavors and aromas with sharp definition and grace. Pad Thai is delicately woven and firm with a pronounced but not overbearing peanut flavor. Seafood--whether it's shrimp, mussel or scallop--is vigorously plump, firm and delicately sweet. Curry sauces are luxuriously clean, coating the mouth with a wisp of satin. Go ahead, Thai yourself in knots.


Readers' Pick
Royal Thai 5500 Greenville Ave., #608 214-691-3555

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