Bubba's Cooks Country

The Observer has given this place plenty of attention in the past, but still, after all these years the Texaco service station turned Art Deco restaurant remains the best place to get some authentic fried chicken. Like all comfort food, including its sister restaurant Babe's Chicken Dinner House, Bubba's fried chicken recalls Sunday dinner at home. The batter is gold, thick and crunchy, the chicken tender and juicy. The side vegetables could stand a little more attention, but there's not a whole lot to complain about at Bubba's, which is why we still love it.

There is something so Cape Cod-ish about fried clams—the smell, the tartar sauce, the rubbery taste that rebounds the mouth with each chew—it makes you want to cozy up to a boiled lobster and suck out those green guts without questioning what the hell you're eating. Oh, of course, we have never been to Cape Cod or Martha's Vineyard or anyone's vineyard for that matter. So maybe our memory is more primal, something from our youth—yes, that's it—it's from the fried claims at the Howard Johnson's on North Central Expressway that closed in, what, the early '70s? That's the memory that's triggered when you order fried clams at New Top's, which is the same as the old Top's, only newer, and relocated next to the downtown library after the lease on the old Top's Main Street location was not renewed. Hang the cholesterol count, the clam strips at New Top's are fried but not greasy, likely frozen but fresh-tasting, inexpensive but not cheap-tasting. The owner, who doubles as the order-taker and triples as the cook, will fry just about anything: shrimp, chicken, beef, fish, hush puppies, and her burgers are downright delish. But it's the clams that keep us coming back for reasons only our inner HoJo can comprehend.

Dallas Farmers Market

So, yeah, on the very same day we stumbled across Savoy Sorbet, we landed knee-deep in La Cuesta Farm's goat cheeses, for sale right across the shed from the sorbet people. And we're picky about our goat cheese: It's gotta be this salty and this spready, which isn't a word until you get your hands on the flame-roasted green chile and garlic goat cheese that's just soft enough to turn a cracker into a canvas and just spicy enough to demand your respect. There are other varieties available as well, including the crumbly goat cheese. But that chili-and-garlic cheese is spectacular, so much so that we found ourselves in a face-off over the remaining two tubs recently; blessedly, The Man from La Cuesta found an extra in the cooler, keeping the peace amongst two men who stuck out their 10s at the exact same moment and hoped, prayed, they'd hit the buzzer first.

Dallas Farmers Market

Texas Meats Supernatural is a consortium representing several North Texas farms that raise cattle and other animals and crops by organic, humane methods. The consortium sells beef, lamb, pastured poultry, pork and farmstead cheeses at the Farmers Market. But you have to go look for them on Fridays or Saturdays, because those are the only days they'll be there. Grass-fed, organic beef is free of most of the hormones, antibiotics, pesticides and herbicides that work their way into supermarket beef. The meat also doesn't come from the downer cows on fork-lifts that you see on the evening news. But mainly, as most people who eat it will tell you, it just tastes better. And all red meat these days pretty much costs its weight in rubies, so if you're going to eat it, might as well eat the very best.

J's Breakfast & Burgers

The closest thing to actually stepping into a time machine for a visit back to the early '80s has to be a trip to J's. It doesn't look like much has changed in the more than 20 years since the restaurant first opened. The seats are covered with sparkly green vinyl, the smoking section is right up front, duct tape is holding a vent together, old water stains are on the ceiling, one of the saloon doors headed to the bathrooms is stuck open, and green and white wallpaper covers the walls. The waitresses know the regulars by name, and most have been working there for longer than they can remember. J's is open 24 hours, and it features a breakfast menu that rivals any other in the area. And no greasy spoon could be the best without outstanding chicken-fried steak, and the one here tastes like home-cookin' at its finest.

That guacamole might be allowable on a strict diet plan seems at best ludicrous, but we have been consuming guac all over town and still losing weight. Might have something to do with the two hours of aerobic activity we do every morning and the fact that we're forced to slather the Mexican munchie on celery sticks, but hey, it's tasty, good for you and most important: no prohibido. So we feel qualified to make the Best Of call on this appetizer, which has gone considerably upscale (read: expensive) throughout the onset of our fat years. Trece's guacamole is every bit as expensive ($12) as it is exemplary, which is evident from the restaurant dedicating several cart-wheeling guacamole chefs to perform its Guacamole Live programming. Avocados are sliced, diced and mushed together with cilantro, serrano and habanero peppers, lime and garlic. Also mixed into the brew are onions and tomatoes, roasted, not raw, which may make the difference in flavor (smoky) from your run-of-the-mill expensive guacamole—also the long, narrow homemade chips—yes, we tasted a few despite violating the sacred covenant of our diet. But it was for the best, right, and 15 extra minutes on the treadmill took care of those crispy dippers—though their memory will never, ever be erased.

Celebration

How do we know that Celebration has the best home-style cooking in Dallas? Listen, we live with our 86-year-old mother-in-law, a woman who wouldn't leave the house if it caught fire. But let her know we're heading out to Celebration on a Sunday afternoon—with about 70 percent of all the church-going families in North Dallas, apparently—and the old broad fetches her purse and slaps on some lipstick. Celebration's ever-rotating selection of fresh, seasonal veggies—many of them locally grown—crunchy fried chicken, sautéed fish, pot roast and pork chops are served family-style, which means eat all you can. Granted, in her case that's not very much, and eating it takes forever, but she's buying, so we'll let that slide. Celebration—it's like Luby's, only hot, tasty and fresh.

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House salads ain't rocket science, yet they're so often afterthoughts—a loose bit of greens and garden things to fill a menu slot with no sense of the house in them. Chef Brian Olenjack takes the house part of the name seriously, making sure a good dose of personality goes into every bowl. It's a simple salad in a curvaceous metal bowl, a nest of greens batted down in tomato vinaigrette, slices of grape tomato and fragments of candied pecans. Elements strike a balanced pose and pique with such uncommon precision, it behaves like an aperitif, the starter equivalent of Manzanilla sherry. And that goes down good.

Natsumi

There's a scene from 1971's Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory in which Charlie and company taste Wonka's new lickable wallpaper while he boasts, "Lick an orange, it tastes like an orange. Lick a pineapple, it tastes like a pineapple. Go ahead, try it!" Ol' Willy Wonka was onto something—not the lickable wallpaper necessarily, but the idea that treats should actually taste like the flavors used to describe them. Enter the mod blue and white frozen treatery of Natalie Nguyen, Henderson's newly beloved Natsumi. Pick a flavor of gelato—we suggest the greens: green tea, avocado or pistachio (flavors vary daily). What you'll taste is the sublime almost-chocolate green tea flavor, a smooth hint of the green fatty fruit or that distinct, unmistakable nutty essence. These dead-on flavors are assuredly a result of Nguyen's use of organic dairy and sugar...and her use of authentic fruits, nuts and spices. The real deal, people. Using actual food instead of artificial flavors might not scream innovation, but it makes for gelato so good it's not only brain-freezing, it's mind-blowing. We all scream for Natsumi.

Royal China
Nick Rallo

No doubt about it, the Preston Royal mainstay since 1974 needed a sprucing up; no matter the quality of the food, always high and occasionally top-notch, the place felt and smelled its age. Not even a sneak peek at the plans for the redo could have prepared us for what we found upon the eatery's reopening in late August, following a two-month shutdown. The place feels absolutely modern—marble and steel and glass, all polished to perfection. But even better is the updated menu, which brims with dumpling specialties and tea choices that have turned Dallas' most beloved Chinese restaurant into a dim-sumptuous alternative to our former fave Maxim, way up in Richardson's Chinatown and now off the menu when we need a quick fix of Far East cuisine closer to home. And the regulars have spoken: The place is more packed now than ever before. Thank God there's now a full bar right inside the door, so we can sake before we sup.

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