Best Of :: Food & Drink
Like the best Plano-Friscovic mansions, Nicola's has a ceiling that vaults high in the entryway above the bar dangling glitzy chandeliers. It's a hall of opulence. On a fat post behind the back bar, a gentleman who bears a striking resemblance to David Niven holds a rod draped with freshly made spaghetti strands. Perhaps this is to subliminally press the point that Nicola's makes its own fresh pasta from organic semolina flour. Nicola's grinds its own sausage too. Veal is juicy and tender, pasta is firm and supple, and carpaccio is rich and crisply dressed in celery shavings, thick Parmigiano-Reggiano filings, blooms of arugula and capers in spicy olive oil. Handbags and shoes aside, Dallas seemingly possesses an aversion to authentic Italian. Those that attempt it usually go the way of fresh-caught bronzini left to flop out its existence on a hot sidewalk. Nicola's is a blissful medium: It doesn't stray too far from the centerline even as it executes nearly perfectly--in a Gucci with spurs sort of way.
Researchers have discovered that chocolate produces some of the same reactions in the brain as marijuana. The researchers also discovered other similarities between the two but cant remember what they are.
Today Show co-host Matt Lauer
Chocolate has been called a psychoactive food, an obsession and an addiction. Its been referred to as the food of the gods and the food of the devil. The Mayans associated chocolate with fertility, while the Aztecs believed it imparted wisdom and virility. The melting point of chocolate is slightly below human body temperature, the root of its smooth-melting sensuousness. In truth, chocolate isnt really that much different from sex, which is precisely the point.
Chocolate is made from beans culled from the pods of the tropical cacao tree, which are fermented, dried, roasted and ground. The resulting residue, cacao powder, is intensely bitter. And its the substance from which Pam Eudaric Amiri draws her sustenance, if not her life force.
For me this is not about chocolate, she says sitting at a table in Chocolate Secrets, her chocolate, wine and gift shop on Oak Lawn Avenue. To me this is about total indulgence. Happiness. To me this is not a chocolate store. To me this is I want to come in the door and LIE down naked and wallow around and be totally happy.
Though there isnt any evidence of rampant nudity in her spacious shop, situated in a former Persian rug store on Oak Lawn, there is lots of chocolate. Glass cases hold truffles and various chocolates containing walnuts, macadamias and cherries; chocolates flavored with peppermint, orange and butter rum; chocolates with toffee and caramel, some of them created by chocolate manufacturers around the world to Amiris own specifications. A display case on one wall holds chocolate tasting kits and bars from French chocolatier Michel Cluizel. The bars are arranged from lightest to most intensethe most potent being a bar that is 99 percent cocoa with just 1 percent cocoa butter. The darkest chocolates, Amiri insists, pair best with wine. Red wine.
Wine is the reason Amiri ended up in this spacious and towering Oak Lawn location, a chocolate temple really. After opening Chocolate Secrets in the West Village in late 2003 as a chocolate and gift shop with a dramatic water wall, she says she discovered that because of the way her lease was structured, she wasnt allowed to serve wine. When you pair chocolate and wine and it pairs right, it lifts you out of your chair, she says. Its a little poof.
And that poof is what she craved. With the help of one-time Mansion on Turtle Creek sommelier Kent Rice, Amiri is attempting to pair a tight selection of wines with each chocolate she serves. Robust wines, such as Zinfandel, Shiraz, Argentinean Malbec or even Cabernet Sauvignon, link best with the darkest chocolates, while lighter wines, such as Merlot or Pinot Noir, dally best with milk chocolate. Chardonnay or Champagne utterly fail in their couplings as does white chocolate (made strictly from cocoa butter), which muddles wine. Though Amiri adds that Chocolate Secrets hand-dips its chocolate strawberries for plopping into a flute of bubbly, romance smoothing over any rough flavor pairings. You do it all together so that it fuses in your mouth, she says mimicking chocolate plop between her lips. Its an unexpected burst of pleasure.
Born in Saint Croix in the U.S. Virgin Islands, Amiri is an unlikely sweets hawker. Shes a highly competitive lawyer who went on to forge a 20-year career as a corporate litigator before she dropped out to raise her three sons. She says she was addicted to the power rush generated by successful legal brawls. She was addicted to the winning. I was really wired in the wrong direction, she admits. I dictated through labor.
With Chocolate Secrets, she simply swapped addictions, although she says chocolate cravings do not necessarily stem from chocolate. Theyre stoked by the sugar.
You know theres a joke that chocolate is like an aphrodisiac, she says. But what it really does, for women in particular, is it affects the parts of your brain that trigger pleasure and relaxation. So its almost like a happy pill tranquilizer.
Amiri merchandises her happy pill tranquilizers with custom jewelry, hand-crafted gift cards, contemporary art, custom-blended coffees, French language lessons on Wednesdays and live jazz on Saturdays. I didnt open this to sell M&Ms, she says.
Still, she says, you dont need chocolate. You dont need it to breathe. You dont need it to keep your heart pumping. If you feel a chocolate urge, its probably because of some hidden stress fissure in your disposition. You dont need that chocolate. You simply need love.
Then she catches herself and reverses course. We need chocolate. We need wine. We need jewelry. We need romance, she says. I would like to go and bathe in chocolate.
Let the chocolate commerce commence. Mark Stuertz
When it comes to catfish, we're a picky bunch. Sure, anyone can batter up some fish and throw it in a fryer, but not everyone can make it taste good. Thankfully, the boys at Hook, Line & Sinker know exactly what they're doing. Served in the customary basket-and-paper set-up, their catfish is a dish to behold--never too greasy, always perfectly battered and cheap, cheap, cheap. You can get it to go, but it tastes so much better when enjoyed on one of their outdoor tables, where you can admire the kitschy collection of boat engines out front and make hungry drivers on Lemmon Avenue salivate with envy.
Nearly every Dallas Mexican restaurant worth a dip boasts some type of fish taco on its menu, but almost none are as good as Taco Diner's. These upscale taquerias are certainly no hole-in-the-wall treasures, but what they lack in soul they more than make up for in flavor. The fish tacos feature grilled tilapia (soaked in a delicious, tangy citrus marinade) and sliced peppers on thin corn tortillas, with the requisite trimmings on the side. We get our kicks by adding a little white cheese and a spoonful of the spicy green salsa, but hey, it's your fiesta.
Every true Southerner knows the pleasure a quality order of fried pickles can provide. Unfortunately, they're not an easy appetizer to master, and a floppy pickle just ain't no good--no matter how well you batter it. The cut is also important--some prefer spears, others side with slices. We're in the latter camp, as we'd rather take our big pickles in small doses. Thankfully, the fried pickles at Love and War in Texas are done just right--thin slices of tangy perfection, delicious flaky batter with the right amount of spice and a big bowl of "smoky ranch" for dipping. The fact that we actually get to ask the waitress for an order of "Texas Wagonwheels" is just gravy.
The ice cream sandwich is a work of art, perhaps the most perfectly devised dessert ever created. Pokey O's has upped the ante, though, replacing the thin cookie wafer of the traditional sandwich with sizable, freshly baked cookies (available in 14 varieties) and thick scoops of Blue Bell ice cream (they stock 15 flavors). We soil our faces with oatmeal cinnamon raisin walnut cookies and plain ol' vanilla, but honestly, it's hard to go wrong with any combination. They also do catering, or you can take the ingredients to go and build your own creations with a "Pokey Pack." We could make an easy sex joke here, but we're far too busy thinking about ice cream and cookies.
We generally don't make it to Chubby's until 2 p.m. or so on the weekends, at which time we're enjoying a late breakfast. Most of the clientele, however, seems to be enjoying an early dinner before they watch JAG and turn in. Whether they come for the excellent omelets, the chicken-fried steak or the freshly baked pies we're not sure, but there's no doubt about it--this place is a mecca for the old-timers of Northeast Dallas. We've never been up early enough to see it open, but it's easy to imagine: a hungry mob of seniors crawling out of their Buicks and Lincolns, their walkers and canes banging against the doors, the sun rising in the distance...OK, maybe it doesn't go down quite like that, but if we were old, we'd sure as hell bang a walker for some of that French toast.
Ham's, the little roadside stand that could, is already fairly famous for its pick-your-own or just-buy-it fruit, especially the peaches. But people need to know more about the "homemade" ice cream they sell. Both flavors, peach and strawberry, are delicious, but our particular favorite is the peach. Maybe because they use peaches to make it instead of Soviet-era surplus chemicals, Ham's peach ice cream is incredibly peachy without being too strong-tasting. Because Ham's is a fur piece from Dallas, there are some tricks: You need to take your own cooler with ice in it, and even at that, on a typical Texas summer day you have to hightail it home to get that stuff in the freezer. But it is so worth it! They're open 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. seven days a week, from mid-May to mid-August.
Second-generation owners of Jimmy's Food Store, one of the true treasures of Old East Dallas, weren't defeated by a fire in 2004: They reopened a year later, and now they're doing better than ever. People come from all over North Texas to buy sausage handmade behind the counter, imported Italian groceries and wonderful cheeses. And now the store has a little table where you can eat. They're selling, among other things, the best muffuletta sandwich this side of Central Grocery in New Orleans. Another interesting thing since the fire: The area all around them, which used to be dauntingly seedy, is sprucing up a little. Little Italy reborn? If not, it's still one hell of a muffuletta.
Here at the Observer, we're precise in our word use. So when we say stand, we mean a walk-up, no-indoor-seating, honest-to-goodness free-standing stand. And if there's anything we'll stand for, it's the torta al pastor at Tacos y Mas, which may be the best spicy pork sandwich any side of any border. As for the first part of the name, the tacos are mouth-watering and easy on the wallet besides. And while we may be sticklers for precision, we don't mind taking advantage of the covered outdoor seating in front.
What is it that makes a good diner? Grease? Lucky's has that. Kitschy memorabilia? The walls are groaning with it. Quirky neighborhood characters? Ever been to the Oak Lawn Halloween Parade? 'Nuff said. In other words, you'd never guess that this friendly retro joint is run by Consolidated Restaurant Operations Inc. (could you find a more impersonal name, please?), the company that runs Cool River Caf and Cantina Laredo, among others. Still, the pecan French toast is enough to make you forget your money is going to the suits.
You can get Jarritos, the Mexican fruit-based sodas, in most major grocery stores now, but the best selection is at Fiesta. Something about these sodas makes them much more flavorful than American sodas, maybe because they try to taste like real stuff, as opposed to, say, Coke? What does Coke taste like? Can you imagine whatever Coke comes from growing on a tree? Yeah, maybe one of those scary trees in Wizard of Oz that could talk. They could wave their arms, but they couldn't chase you, right? Where were we? Oh, Jarritos! Go to aisle three where the Mexican drinks are, not aisle 10 where all the gringo soda is. They've got Jarritos in guayaba, fresa, mandarina, mango, tamarindo, pia and best of all, tutifruti.