From the '20s to the '50s—a golden age if you ignore depression, war, racism and gray flannel suits—traveling businessmen lived on the blue plate special, a diner's issue of a meat and two sides for one low price. The institution died out, thanks to the proliferation of even cheaper fast-food stands...that is until economic tides turned and guys like David Pedack recognized an opportunity. The owner of Blue Collar Bar built his small kitchen (it's a bar first) around the blue plate special concept. Hey, mashed potatoes, green beans and Salisbury steak? In times like these, that's living.

For 21 years the garden on Fitzhugh has been a key element in the very soul of East Dallas—three-quarters of an acre of raised beds cultivated by people who came here in the 1980s as refugees from war and pogrom in Southeast Asia. Even now on any Saturday morning after 9 a.m. you can wander in through the front gate and feel suddenly suffused with the calm and dignity of a far place and time. You can also get the best deal in town on a great big bunch of basil—a fat brick of it for a buck. Same for lots of other spices and produce. It's worth the trip just for the scenery, but all the way home, your car will be perfumed by the serene scent of fresh-cut greenery. No phone at the garden, but you can call Don Lambert of Gardeners in Community Development at 972-231-3565 or e-mail him at grower@flash.net.

Cadillac Ranch

Chefs sometimes try too hard with these little critters. The trick, however, is to let the flavor of the oysters course through everything else—the crust, the dipping sauce, even through the beer you wash it down with. Hence the genius of the fried oysters at this massive Las Colinas shed. The shell releases a crispy-sweet background and the sauce...oh, the sauce: just a dollop on each, exploding for a moment in bright tomato, yanked to earth by root vegetables, scored by pepper—and then it all subsides, leaving you with the taste of shellfish. Nice.

7-Eleven

OK, let's get this out of the way: Gas station food scares us. It just seems like food preparation is the last thing the guy behind the counter is concerned about, which is why we generally stick to buying packaged snacks. So when 7-Eleven last year introduced a menu of hot foods including pizza, chicken wings and chicken tenders, we were skeptical to say the least. But desperation makes you do funny things sometimes, and one day we pulled the trigger on a slice of pizza. Was it Campisi's good? Hell no, but it was good. We mixed in some chicken taquitos and other items here and there throughout the year, further allaying our fears. Eventually we determined that when you throw in the snack selection and Slurpees, 7-Eleven isn't such a scary place to pick up a quick meal after all.

For anyone who's tasted the gelato in Italy, coming back to the United States and settling for the gelato here feels like cruel and unusual punishment. That is until we found a gelato in the States that we actually liked, and it turns out it's made right here in Big D. Talenti, which can be found at Whole Foods, Sprouts, Tom Thumb and Kroger, uses freshly pasteurized milk, extra fine pure cane sugar, fresh fruits and ingredients from Belgium, Papua New Guinea, the Philippines and Argentina. Additionally, Talenti gelato is crafted by hand in small batches as opposed to manufactured in a large industrial plant. It's this attention to detail that brings us back to Italy, if only until we take the last bite.

Kavala Mediterranean Grill

This Bishop Arts District restaurant put everyone interested in Greek food through a scare earlier this year when they abruptly shut down. Fortunately, chef Kelly Hightower reopened his café a few days later. Times are tough, especially for chef-run joints. But one taste of his spanakopita or souvlaki or juicy strips of gyro meat and you'll wonder why the place encounters such trouble. Hightower learned his trade at places like The Mansion and Tei Tei—and you can tell. Wood-fired pizzas, extraordinary octopus carpaccio...we only hope it's around next year.

Braum's Ice Cream & Dairy Stores

Who wants ice cream in the middle of winter? We want it when it's 100-plus degrees, when our thighs stick to the patio chairs and nothing sounds better than cold refreshment. And yet, it's nigh impossible to get peppermint ice cream anytime other than the Christmas holidays. Except, of course, at the strange chain of restaurant/convenience stores called Braum's. Sure you can get a grainy, chemical-tasting shake at some fast-food drive-through, but why would you when many Braum's are open till 11 p.m.? When they scoop up that real, thick, premium ice cream into that shake-maker, we immediately start to salivate. You may face, uh, a diverse crowd and long lines (especially late at night), but when they hand you that minty, freshly swirled, too-thick-to-use-a-straw concoction, you'll know it was worth the wait.

Goody Goody

Sure, all the Goody Goody stores are good. For selection and especially price, they outrank every other shop in the metro area. What costs $25 at, say, Pogo's runs in the $19 region at Goody Goody. We like the Addison location because it is expansive. And that means large. And that means they stock more than some of the other stores—two long rows of vodka, one dedicated to gin. Whiskeys broken into regions, with dozens of selections for Canadians alone. Yeah, they skimp a little on single malts, but not on bourbon. Need to satisfy that Lillet or Aquavit craving? No problem.

Masaryk

We've sorta given up on teaching Dallas the difference between a cocktail and a mixed drink. Simply put, for a real, manly margarita you have to special order at Javier's or Monica's. The great thing about Masaryk's version is this: While it may not carry the same tart, bittersweet, husky punch, you can just say "I want a margarita" and they bring you something that is good, refreshing and potent. You can taste the tequila, in other words. And that puts Masaryk miles ahead of most every other restaurant in Dallas.

La Palapa Veracruzana

This Oak Cliff restaurant is little known outside the neighborhood and the city's core of gourmands willing to travel for a good meal. It's a family-type place, and all they do is recreate the smells and flavors the chef and owner knew from Mexico's Veracruz region—which means a long list of seafood plates: spicy diabla shrimp, fried red snapper, a local seafood stew and assorted uses of octopus (including the playful octopus cocktail). Most of it is very authentic. Oh, they break from tradition from time to time, but the heart of this casual spot is in Veracruz.

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