Norma's Cafe

When you consider "home-style" food, it can be blue-plate or family-style, but something about it has to place you back in Mom's/Granny's kitchen (not the other rooms where there were creepy paintings and random chores to be done), strategizing how best to eat another roll, another spoonful of starchy side and still have room for pie. Norma's has been around since 1956, and the recipes taste as though they haven't much changed. The open-faced roast beef sandwich is slow-cooked like it would be at home on an old Hotpoint and the meatloaf is made with an original tomato sauce that, as a child, you probably wished they'd bottle and sell instead of ketchup. Value a good turnip green or pinto bean just as much as a mashed potato? So does Norma's. Now, as far as desserts, there is really nothing that Norma's makes that isn't incredibly familiar—in a good way. "Mile High" cream pies, fruit pies, cobblers and cakes all exceed expectations in size and that throwback flavor. You wouldn't necessarily want to go home again, but you definitely want to go to Norma's

AllGood Cafe
Nick Rallo

Sure, people usually go to this Deep Ellum spot to chow down on the chicken-fried steak and jam out to some local music, but what about the grilled cheese? The magical concoction of cheddar and pepperjack cheeses, green chiles, roma tomatoes and chipotle mayonnaise served on sourdough bread should really receive some recognition. This ain't your momma's grilled cheese served with a can of tomato soup either, folks. AllGood serves the lunch-only dish with a side of Auntie Grace's coleslaw, tortilla chips and house salsa all for $6.99. Considering AllGood recently celebrated its 10th anniversary, we think they know what they're doing when it comes to pleasing patrons and their bellies.

Taqueria La Paisanita

It's really hard to single out one Dallas taqueria as the best, 'cause they all have their strengths (and weaknesses). For example, Fuel City's picadillo tacos are still some of the best in town, but their other varieties, not so much. When it comes to La Paisanita's tacos, we can't speak for anything except the al pastor, because that's all we got on our first visit, and all we've been able to bring ourselves to order on subsequent visits. Not because their other tacos don't look good, mind you, but because the al pastor tacos are just that addictive, dripping with spicy red juices and stuffed into small, oiled tortillas that crisp up ever so slightly on the tiny shack's griddle. La Paisanita tacos come with lemon instead of the customary lime, which seems strange at first, but just go with it. Washed down with a tall Mexican Coke, there's not a better taco in the city.

Tried and True
Catherine Downes

Neighborhood Services Tavern has a good thing going with New York import and general manager Jason Kosmas. He knows cocktails—from muddling to infusions, from classics to innovative recipes. In a restaurant where the food is notoriously top-notch, drinks should be just as good. Seems like common sense, but it's not often accomplished as deftly as by Kosmas' hand. The Domino Fizz is a perfect example. Essentially, the cocktail is just a Tom Collins with sprigs of lavender, but the difference is in the details. The recently re-released Old Tom gin, specifically, is used for its smooth, sweet flavor. Fresh lavender isn't muddled or torn, it's simply shaken with the other ingredients and topped with soda in order to preserve its integrity and keep the flavor subtle, aromatic but not perfume-y. The care and thought are evident and the result is easily one of the most refreshing, crave-able summer drinks we've had. And we've been drinking in Dallas a long while.

Mai's Vietnamese Restaurant
Taryn Walker

Let's be absolutely clear on this point: Do not touch the sizzling clay pot of curry at Mai's. Yes, it is as hot as it looks. Here's a clue: Your food is still bubbling 10 minutes after it landed on your table. Rice stuck to the bottom of the pot melds into a blackened cake with a satisfying crunch. It's just one of the standout dishes at this unassuming house on Bryan Street. Some swear by the northern suburbs' pho shops, where the mood lighting is fluorescent, and "branching out" looks like ordering the same old soup, but with beef tripe. For its dark, cozy atmosphere and a menu that rewards repeat visits, Mai's wins.

La Victoria

Named for Vicky Zamora, who runs the two-woman operation with the help of her cousin Lupana, La Victoria just celebrated its fifth anniversary. A popular spot for Baylor folks on break, the little restaurant is only open from 7 a.m. to 2 p.m. Monday through Saturday. Expect a crowd on a Saturday morning, but the wait is worth it for the amazing breakfast burritos. The burritos are $2.25 for a 10-inch tortilla stuffed with eggs and your choice of bacon, ham, potato, beans, sausage or chorizo. It's only 25 cents apiece to add extras like cheese, sour cream, pico de gallo, fresh avocados or roasted poblanos (highly recommended). Vicky says up to seven ingredients can fit safely into the 10-inch standard tortillas, but for those of you who wake up with a hole in your stomach, there's always the massive $4.50 Super Breakfast Burrito, which is rolled up in a 15-inch tortilla. While you're there for breakfast, pick up some gorditas and tamales. At La Victoria, both are made from scratch.

Best Yogurt Shop That Time Forgot

TCBY

TCBY

Surely you've noticed that there has been a veritable explosion of boutique yogurt shops in this city. They have landed here from New York and California and points in between and go by names such as Pinkberry, Yogilicious, Orange Cup, I Heart Yogurt and Red Mango. They are self-serve or counter serve, offering exotic flavors and fresh fruit and decadent toppings too numerous to mention. They tout probiotics and no fat and no sugar added—a way to eat yourself to better health through more dessert. Yet among all the new and the hype, there remains that little shop on the corner (Mockingbird and Abrams) and it's known by the odd acronym TCBY (The Country's Best Yogurt). Yes, it may be your dad's yogurt shop, but it has great service and maintains long hours and a drive-thru window and picnic tables, and reasonable prices and damn good yogurt, which you can still frou-frou up if you're inclined. For those favoring good taste over active cultures, it's worth going retro and returning to the Country's Best.

Neighborhood Services

It's rare that a meatball not of the Italian or Swedish persuasion would rise to the level of a "best" anything, particularly a meatball not swimming in sauce, be it spicy or sweet. But Neighborhood Services defies convention and meatball mentality and brings you its BBQ Spiced Nimon Ranch Brisket Meatballs with crumbled Point Reyes blue cheese. The presentation is simple enough. Seven beefy balls, lined up like soldiers, one following the next, each pierced by a wooden pick to make for ease of eating. Nothing fancy here, other than the blue cheese addition, a great taste enhancer. It's a bit steep at 10 bucks—that's $1.43 a ball—but don't think for a minute that it's anything more than an appetizer. And yet it's a damn fine one at that. Quality adds value to them there balls.

Hypnotic Donuts

If you haven't heard of Hypnotic Donuts, we don't blame you. There's no sign at the storefront it shares with The Pizza Guy in far North Dallas, and it operates from only 7 to 10 a.m. Saturdays and Sundays. Heck, even when you find it and it's open, Hypnotic can be frustrating, as it only accepts cash, and owner James St. Peter prepares the doughnuts while you wait. But we knew this upstart was on to something when we heard St. Peter was making doughnuts with bacon and jalapeños, and we soon realized he offered the best-tasting doughnuts we've found, highlighted by an imaginative menu that includes The Hypnotic (featuring crushed Cap'n Crunch Peanut Butter Crunch cereal and pretzels), Lucy in the Sky with Lemons (topped with Lemon Heads candy) and Special High in the Mountains (chilled to 40 degrees with fresh strawberries).

Cutest Couple

La Duni’s Taco and Duni Borga love their work and work at their love. By Hanna Raskin • PHOTO BY MARK GRAHAM

Espartaco and Duni Borga know they’re not at their cutest when they’re working.

But when the pair travels and leaves behind all the stresses that come with running four (soon to be five) locations of their uber-popular Latin restaurant and bakery, they’re downright adorable.

“When we get away, we get away as lovers,” explains Duni, who met Espartaco (he goes by “Taco”) more than two decades ago.

Both Taco and Duni say their partnership hasn’t always been easy and continues to tax their staffers, who aren’t always sure which Borga is in charge. When married entrepreneurs ask Taco for advice on how to negotiate the sticky topic of working with one’s spouse, “The first thing I tell them is, ‘If you can deal with the darkest part of your relationship on a daily basis, you might have a chance,’” he says. “The restaurant business is so difficult...You have to be patient.” Patient with the pace of restaurant success and patient with each other. Taco, 47, and Duni—who wouldn’t provide her age, though Taco says she’s “much younger” than him—first met in Los Angeles in the 1980s. Taco owned a club, and the perks that came with knowing a nightclub insider appealed to Duni, a native of Bogota, Colombia, who was anxious to get a foothold in the L.A. scene. The two soon began dating. “Then, one day, he looks at me and goes, ‘I’m moving to Dallas,’” Duni remembers. “There’s no beach, no nothing, no way.”

The couple stayed in constant telephone contact, but didn’t reunite until Taco tracked her down at a cousin’s house, delivering an impassioned speech worthy of a Hollywood romance.

“He looked at me and said ‘I have nothing to offer you, but let’s work together on a future,’” Duni says. She drove back to Dallas with him to help open Zuzu Handmade Mexican Food in 1989, a phenomenally popular Mexican chain, with which he would remain until Arby’s bought it.

The two stayed together until Duni relocated to New York, where she spent four years working in restaurants and baking as a hobby, before Taco summoned her to France.

“I was opening ZuZu in Paris and I invited her to come with me,” Taco says. “She’d never been to Paris. We fell in love again there.” Duni returned to Dallas in 1996 to rejoin Taco. She began studying child psychology, a discipline Taco respected but firmly believed was a bad fit for the woman he’d marry three years later. Recalls Taco, “I remembered she really liked baking in New York. I said, ‘Why don’t you take a one-day cake decorating class?’ She loved it so much.”

Rather than continue with her child psychology studies at UT-Dallas, she enrolled in a pastry course at El Centro. She remembers being terribly intimidated on the first day, surrounded by professional bakers clad in chef coats. But the more rosettes she formed and cake layers she frosted, the more she felt she belonged. “And of course, every day, she would bring home something delicious,” Taco says. “It was unbelievable. She was just in heaven.”

Duni soon asked Taco to help her open a bakery. He responded by whisking her off to Europe, where they visited all of the continent’s best pastry houses—including Laduree, which provided inspiration for the new restaurant’s name.

Taco was visiting family in his native Spain in 2001 when Duni learned they’d finally secured a location on McKinney Avenue.

“She calls and tells me she has two pieces of news for me,” Taco says. “We got the McKinney location and the second piece of news is, she’s pregnant. So I have to run to Dallas.” Realizing the McKinney space was far too big to support with coffee and cake, Taco insisted on adding five savory dishes to the bakery’s opening menu: pollo aljibe, Cuban pork, pollo menta salad, tomato hearts of palm salad and carne asada. “They are still amongst the best sellers,” Taco says. La Duni was soon a full-service operation, and was singled out by The Dallas Morning News in 2001 as the year’s best new restaurant. Then Esquire praised the eatery in a rave that helped Duni land a three-day gig at the French Culinary Institute in New York City. When a representative greeted them at the airport, Taco recalls, his sign read “Welcome Duni.” Taco, who’s always handled the restaurant end of the business, suddenly realized his wife was responsible for much of La Duni’s overnight success.

Despite being big proponents of patience, Taco would rather speak frankly, Duni preferring instead to skip the talk and just charge ahead. Both admit, though, that they argue, especially when they’re developing a new product. Taco says Duni doesn’t like the monotony of making and remaking a recipe: La Duni’s famous cuatro leches cake, for example, went through 30 iterations before Taco felt it was ready for sale.

“I can never say what I’m thinking because what she’s saying when she asks me if I like it is, ‘Don’t you think this is perfect and love it, as is?,’” Taco says. “I have to take the temperature and see how the moon is and then maybe I have the right answer.” And yet the couple says they’ve figured out how to weather their dust-ups. “We’ve made a choice of never going to bed angry,” Duni says. “There’s nothing worse than feeling a cold bed.”

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