If variety is the spice of life and you're feeling the need to spice up your mealtimes, then Penzeys Spices is place to start. With more than 250 different herbs, spices, seasonings and sprinkles to choose from, Penzeys has every standard spice your grandma would've cooked with plus a few to make her purple hair stand on end. For example, their great collection of curry powders, the tart heat from their Turkish Aleppo pepper or the rich, smoky flavor of their smoked Spanish paprika. But even if the spiciest thing you'd ever add to a dish is black pepper, the knowledgeable staff can help you find the right one for the job—after all, they have seven different kinds of peppercorns with an additional six pepper blends. But if tabletop pepper isn't hot enough for you, then try one of their 13 varieties of chili peppers. How about cinnamon? Get it eight different ways. And, seriously, for the best cinnamon toast you've ever had, buy a jar of the Extra Fancy Vietnamese Cinnamon. Selling spices by mail order for more than 20 years, Penzeys opened their first storefront location in '97. And when they finally opened their Dallas location three years ago, we were more than a little giddy.

Avanti is one of the best restaurants in Uptown, and it certainly ranks as the most romantic. The dim lighting, small and intimate dining area and classy look make for the perfect dating experience. The live music also adds to the romantic appeal. It's not a loud, intrusive sound that interrupts the atmosphere, but instead, it adds a soft soundtrack in the background—just right. The menu features seafood items such as yellowfin tuna, pan-seared snapper, Chilean sea bass, pistachio-crusted halibut, crab cakes and lobster. But, for the non-seafood lover, duck, veal, lamb, sirloin and various pasta dishes are available. For dates that go late into the night, Avanti offers a moonlight breakfast from midnight to 3 a.m. on Saturday and Sunday mornings. We recommend the filet mignon sandwich with french fries ($13) because if you've made it this far into the night, you've done something right, so why not reward yourself?

The typical pretzel rarely goes beyond its traditional role as a lager enhancement. Blue Canyon puts a twist in its twist. It's pulverized to powder a trout. The trout is then bathed in whole-grain mustard butter, capped with a crispy fried basil leaf and pocked with a birdshot blast of capers. The pearly sweet trout, delicate and fanned into a slope, blankets a bumpy miscellany of red potatoes and wilted spinach in pesto. Pair it with a Pabst.

Observer file photo

What started out as a backyard barbecue for family on Sundays has emerged into the best place to gnaw on a slab of ribs in Dallas. Clarence Cohens just couldn't keep it all in the family, so eventually he began selling it just south of downtown in a two-room dive known as Baby Back Shak. His Memphis-style herb-rubbed ribs are so moist, tender and flavorful you don't even need any barbecue sauce to enhance. Since its recent discovery, the downtown lunch crowd swamps this place, which stays open until 5:45. No dinner done here. There are more than ribs, of course: sliced beef, pulled pork, smoked turkey and ham are all served lean but liberally, portion-wise. And for a bizarre barbecue twist there is grilled Cornish hen. But it's the killer ribs that make lunch and life worthwhile and will draw you back to the Shak.

Nick Rallo

So you gotta get out of town. The car is packed and ready to go, and now you need fuel and snacks. Don't turn to the usual Fritos and Orange Crush. The Green Spot has even better fuel for the drive. Try some Kashi cookies, Bare Naked granola, a bottled Izze or fountain Blue Sky soda, and don't forget some Seventh Generation paper products just to be on the safe side. Plus, you don't have to feel so bad about the growing bag of trash in the car—the Green Spot's fountain drink containers and straws are all compostable and made from corn. And if you're getting behind the wheel of a diesel, Bruce Bagelman and Alvaro Garza's pumps can supply you with B5 biodiesel, or B100 from a separate straight-to-vehicle pump (they also offer basic gasoline). Add in the vegan options and fresh, gourmet local snacks and you might be in for the healthiest road trip fill-up you've ever had. When it comes to naturals and affordable alt-fuels, Dallas folks can finally stop asking, "Are we there yet?"

We know this guy from Boston. Sort of The Friends of Eddie Coyle meets The Departed. We're not saying he's a wiseguy, 'cause there's a little Fever Pitch thrown in there too, but the dude knows his meatball sandwiches. It's no surprise, really, that he found one at the Greenville Avenue Pizza Company, 'cause whoever runs the place has got a little Goodfellas in him. The restaurant opened last October, and already it has a reputation. More than one person has come up to us and said, "You won't believe this pizza, it's the best pizza you've ever had." And it's nothing compared with the meatball sandwich. Trust our friend from Boston. He knows a meatball when he sees one.

Scones are funny. They're not doughnuts. A good scone has backbone. Scones are morning things. A scone needs to be fresh and hearty. But then, this is America. We don't want scones that taste English—you know, like a mouthful of baking soda. We want some sweets in there somewhere—raspberries, blueberries, cranberries. Give us a break. Something. Once in a while, we might even want a nice, white blanket of sugary icing on top. If the English don't like it, well, they can go eat their own kind of dry, dusty, bitter little scones. Anyway, Whole Foods has got it just right, and at $1.99 apiece, Whole Foods scones are an affordable treat in the morning. An American treat.

Chef Joseph Mahr's diver is a titillating tango of Latin and Southwestern, its veneer seared into a slight, consistent brittleness shrouding buttery succulence that veers into extracted sweetness on the finish. It's bedded down on a knoll of smooth polenta richened in chicken stock, cumin, cream and orange honey, a pool of lobster broth surrounding the island, the spinach floating in the pool like kelp beds. It's a surf and turf that's wonderful in its weirdness and makes the tongue dance.

Fish City is a mid-price to reasonable franchise place, but don't think that it has anything to do with fast food. This is a full-bore seafood restaurant, locally owned and operated, offering a revolving menu of specials including wonderfully succulent salmon dishes, blackened trout and more—everything served by a cheerful, well-trained staff. The decor is informally tasteful. A small patio in front offers a very interesting view of the circus of life in Old East Dallas. This is a neighborhood place you can drop in on without a reservation and enjoy a really well-prepared seafood dinner and great service, all at a relatively modest price. That's a lot to beat.

Funny thing about Mel's Ice Cream: It used to be a Marble Slab Creamery, and the marble slab remains—unlike Mel, who has gone the way of Marble Slab Creamery and is no longer the proprietor. The current owner is Dae Cho, who daily scoops out about 40 flavors of ice cream, many of them overtly delish, especially mixed together with all the holdover slabbish toppings—Oreo cookies, M&Ms, Gummy Bears—you name it. But Cho has added something cool and refreshing—actually cold and refreshing—shaved ice, 40-50 flavors of it, with names like Tiger Blood (strawberry and coconut syrup), Fuzzy Navel (orange, peach and lemonade) and Rock & Roll (blueberry and grape). The fine ice shavings when topped with the sugary syrup of your choice offer a less creamy alternative to the normal, run-of-the-mill Reese's Pieces-infused double-chocolate fudge ice cream fare that can make summer such a dreadful bore.

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