Best Vietnamese Restaurant 2008 | Mai's Vietnamese Restaurant | Best of Dallas® 2020 | Best Restaurants, Bars, Clubs, Music and Stores in Dallas | Dallas Observer
Taryn Walker

How do we love Mai's? Let us count the burn scars on the roofs of our mouths from all the times we couldn't wait to dig into our chicken clay pot because it smelled too damn yummy. Yeah, we're stupid that way, especially when it comes to Mai's fiery baked blend of vermicelli noodles, black mushrooms and spicy chicken, which comes out of the kitchen at approximately 875 degrees. We just can't wait. Luckily the burns heal in a couple of weeks, and in the meantime we can take a break from the pain by making a meal on two or 20 of the shrimp imperial rolls, fat tubes of soothing crunchy lettuce, rice noodles and chilled shrimp in rice paper wrappers. A little agony, a little comfort, a lot of spicy deliciousness—a meal at Mai's is like love.

So, we've been on this diet since—oh, what's it been now?—1973, seems like. That means nothing but veggies, and hold the bread. It also means we're very, very cranky at mealtime. The kindly staff at Lucky's understands. They gently wave us to our table and fetch a giant Diet Coke before we've even unrolled our napkin. "Still dieting?" they ask sympathetically with a smile as they take our usual order of nothing but veggies, bringing us the one cheating biscuit we request and promising not to bring another one even if we beg. Truth be told, we think they would give us another if we begged, but lucky for us, the service at Lucky's is so kind, welcoming and friendly that one is enough to take the edge off our 'tude. Someday soon, the diet from hell will end, and we'll surprise them by ordering that gooey cheeseburger and fries we crave. When we do, they won't judge. Shoot, they may applaud.

Alex Scott

Prepare for battle. Kathleen's Sky Diner (formerly Kathleen's Art Café) is known for fantastic cakes. Chances are, your dining companion knows this—or can tell from the dessert display—and will challenge your suggestion of the hot chocolate chip cookie. Do not back down. Order the cookie and wait. Be patient though: Each cookie is baked to order. When it arrives, the hot steamy dish of oatmeal, pecans, chocolate chips and a scoop of vanilla ice cream will convert any naysayer. Go ahead and share—for the sake of your hips and ass—but be certain there will be one final duel. You may have played fair for the most part, but that cobbler-like concoction will have taken on melty ice cream and seduced you with rich, absolutely decadent mouthfuls. And when it comes to that last bite, both parties will fight, forks brandished, to claim the final delectable morsel.

It's a new age, when cell phones navigate and home theater experiences can be had on media players barely larger than credit cards. Enter the touch-screen tablet wine list. Charlie Palmer's wine list is an ingenious harnessing of technology to help newbie drinkers overcome their fear of coming off as a vino-imbecile. The Charlie Palmer wine selection experience is self-directed via an electronic touch-screen e-book that permits perusal by bottle, glass, region, varietal and style. Check the boxes next to your curiosities and wrestle over the pros and cons of each with a sommelier, suited-up for upscale battle. Added bonus: Charlie Palmer sells its 700-plus bottle list at markups of just $25-$35 over retail, so you won't get corkscrewed. Added double-plus bonus: The restaurant is fronted by the Next Vintage Wine Shop stocking a third of the wine list, ready to tag and bag for home.

FOOD: Everything Old Is New Again

Driving across his ranch in Greenville,Robert Hutchins watches as a hawk swoops down into one of his chicken hoops (no, not coops). Killing the engine of his flat-bed truck, Hutchins waits for the hawk to come back into sight. "I just saw you," he says under his breath. "Look at that dadgum hawk, bet it just killed a chicken."

But Hutchins isn't upset and gnashing his teeth, because at Rehoboth Ranch losing a few chickens to predators like bobcats and hawks is an unavoidable part of the way they do business.

Bucking the trends of conventional agriculture—instead of using confinement houses, cramped cages or feedlots—all the animals on Hutchins' ranch are "pasture-raised" in their natural environment and fed only a natural diet. And the Hutchins family manages the 300 acres of their ranch organically, never using any chemicals, pesticides or synthetic fertilizers. While Hutchins' methods are firmly rooted in the past and may seem counterintuitive in today's work-smarter-not-harder world, farmers and ranchers like him are looking to the past while paving the way for the future of food.

This year the Food and Drug Administration made several controversial rulings, including declaring milk and meat from cloned cattle, goats and swine as safe as conventional meat and issuing new regulations approving the irradiation of fresh spinach and iceberg lettuce. But as more and more genetically modified foods are introduced to the public, and meat and produce recalls continue to be a staple on the evening newscasts, many shoppers alarmed by the practices of modern agriculture are turning to naturally raised, organic products.

So, the future of food is at a crossroads that leads in two utterly different directions. Down one path, our grocery stores' shelves will be filled with genetically modified foods, cloned meats, and irradiated grains and produce. On the other path, wary shoppers will increasingly seek out natural foods produced by farmers and ranchers like Hutchins and his family, who use the traditional methods of the past.

"The only way the consumers can be 100 percent sure what they're eating is to know where it comes from, know the people who raise it and know how they raise it," Hutchins says. "And we don't sell any product where we aren't there handing it over to the customer."

The Hutchins family does all the work on the ranch, from milking the goats and gathering eggs to processing the chickens. Visitors to Rehoboth can purchase the meats, dairy products and eggs in the ranch's store, but the majority of business is done at farmers markets in Dallas, McKinneyand Coppell. The family initially thought that their business could be supported by consumers driving out to their farm, but they soon realized that they needed to get closer to them. And the strategy worked. Hutchins says, "I can plot the weekly sales from all the farmers markets, since the beginning, and the growth is very consistent.

"People are starting to rightfully deduce that there is a definite connection between the foods we eat and our overall health," he says. By eating grass-fed meats, he says, consumers can avoid the antibiotics, growth hormones and other questionable additives found in conventionally raised animals. "Someday I think we'll look back on this period of history and say that we were very ignorant and barbaric about the things we offered to the general public to eat."

Hutchins says whether one believes that animals evolved or were intelligently designed, modern agricultural trends are a problem because either way we're using technology to tamper with the natural order of things.

"We're not opposed to technology," he says. At Rehoboth they use computers extensively, modern electric fencing, and e-mail newsletters to keep in touch with their customers. "We're just for the appropriate application of technology."

One of the biggest problems that farmers like Hutchins faces is that a lot of historical knowledge has been lost over the years. They have to rediscover successful farming methods from the past. "Things that we're trying to do without chemicals people used to know how to do," he says. But over the years agriculture grew dependent on modern innovations. "We have to pick up things along the way. One person told us, 'I remember hearing that you can worm pigs with wood ashes.' And by golly, sure enough you can!"

They use electric fences to enforce rotational grazing. All the grazing area on the 300 acres is divided up into small paddocks. The animals are allowed to graze in one paddock only for a few days before they are moved to the next area, which allows the freshly grazed and recently fertilized grass to rest before it is grazed again.

Hutchins wasn't born into farming. "You'd have to go back to my great-grandfather to find someone in my family who made their living in agriculture," he says. After spending more than 20 years in the defense industry, he decided to leave the corporate world behind. But the first few years on the ranch weren't easy.

"Becoming financially viable was a lot slower process than I would have thought," he says. "And it took a lot more of my savings than I'd imagined. But it is worth it to be working with my family and not have to live the stressful corporate existence."

Each year Hutchins sees more people who are interested in Rehoboth's products. "I think this trend will continue to grow until it significantly damages the established mainstream food infrastructure," he says. "This year, for the first time, we have competitors at the farmers markets. But the whole market grows like a rising tide. The demand and the supply grow at a reasonably balanced rate."

And when asked about the long-term prospects for his business and those like him, he says, "So long as the mainstream food supply remains corrupt, our outlook looks bright. And the government hasn't disappointed me yet." Daniel Rodrigue

Which is worse? Gas station hot dogs that are overcooked, all dried out and leathery like big, fat Slim Jims? Or a gas station that never keeps its hot-dog cooker stocked, so the hot dogs are always back on the part where it says you can't eat them yet? On the Run is one of the city's busiest gas station/lifestyle centers, and they do a great job with the dogs. You have your choice between condiments in packets or from stainless containers, with both yellow and spicy brown mustard—a nice touch! Buns are kept fresh and plump in a steam drawer. OK, the hotdogs aren't exactly made from organic, grass-fed beef. But be honest with yourself. That's not what you were going for anyway, is it? Open 24/7.

Sometimes you don't want snazzy décor or a big dining room filled with fashionable souls. You just want some good ethnic food in a little, low-key joint. If this is you, Star of Siam is your place. The family eatery is small (and so is the parking lot), and it's best to bring cash. The pad kee mao, a signature Thai stir-fried noodle dish, is incredibly flavorful here. The broad, flat rice noodles are mixed with bean sprouts and meat or tofu and soaked in a delicious sauce of lime juice, ground red chili and fresh basil. There's nothing like it, especially combined with the yummy tom kha soup and distinctive Thai/Lao dish called larb, minced chicken with a smattering of delectable spices.

The flatiron steak here is sure to curl your toes. It's a quantum leap richer than most steaks, woven as it is with a harness of fat that melts and leaches into the meat fibers. It relegates the bulk of prime beef to the sub market sector in one clean cut. It's called akaushi beef—allegedly a few cuts above prime, and this meat is so lustrous and rich, so rippled with complex layers of flavor tethered to smooth textures, it's like eating foie gras. It sweats an extracted nuttiness not unlike a dry-aged rib eye—an arresting plate of rich meat that is so creamy you'll want to shuck the steak knife and opt for a straw.

Over at La Cubanita, Alberto Lombardi's new Cuban "concept" restaurant, they're a bit goo-goo over guava. It seems like any time you ask your server, "Hey what's in this that makes it taste so good?" the answer is "guava." You name it: appetizers, side dishes—even La Cubanita's ribs have guava sauce. But it works, so who's complaining? The guava's sweet, juicy innards work best, in fact, in the pasteles de guayaba y queso, a dessert that should never work but does. The recipe starts with a typical Latin pastry, a sort of semi-sweet turnover, which is filled with cream cheese and guava compote. It's heated, so the cheese hits that nice, almost liquid consistency, and the heat brings out the guava's unique flavor. The turnover is then topped with ice cream, making the whole luscious thing a sort of Cuban version of apple pie, but with a guava-y twist. Try one with a café Cubano—a sweetened espresso they make expertly at La Cubanita—and you'll be happy. Fat, but happy.

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