Best Of :: Food & Drink
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.”
Crisp pastel meringue filled with vanilla, pistachio lavender or raspberry paste, these are macaroons from heaven above. Nothing wrong with traditional macaroons, but the macaroon can be so much more than a wad of coconut. Every country has its own variation. Be glad you're not a Scot (think in terms of leftover mashed potatoes). Now, Oak Cliff has its own signature macaroon—one so delectable it might knock the coconut kind off its throne one day. Shop Rush Patisserie online, or, better yet, visit the store and tempt yourself with all sorts of artisanal delights—breakfast pastries, quiche, chocolate and fresh fruit confections, cookies and cakes.
James Thurber once said "One martini is all right. Two are too many, and three are not enough." And we couldn't agree with him more. This year's top pick for best martini goes to Inwood Lounge, part of the art deco Inwood Theatre off West Lovers Lane. Why? Well, it just happens to be a full-service martini bar. Wait. That's not all. Gin. Vodka. Vermouth. The Inwood Lounge has it all, and the bartenders know what they're doing when it comes to concocting everything from a classic martini to a chocolate one. We suggest attending one of the Midnight Madness movie showings, and while you're waiting, order up a dirty martini and slowly sip it while relaxing at a table by the cascading water wall. Oh, and you might want to hold onto the olives because the only food here is popcorn.
Dallas has no shortage of great burgers, and we've eaten most of them—The Stodg at The Porch, Twisted Root, Wingfield's...we could go on and on. But for sheer consistency, the half-pound Angry Dog Burger gets the nod every time. It's always there for you. No bullshit lunch-only hours, no Sunday and Monday only availability (we're looking at you, The Grape), and no wussy health restrictions—you want it medium rare, you're getting it medium rare, and piled high on a perfectly toasted bun, to boot. And at $6.75 with fries—which we like to douse liberally in the Dog's spicy seasoning salt—it's still one of the cheapest destination burgers in town.
You get the feeling that many of the regulars at Barbec's have been coming there since Johnny Cash and Kris Kristofferson first played "Sunday Morning Coming Down" together 30 some-odd years ago. It's a testament to the East Dallas mainstay's good old-fashioned, no-frills country-style breakfast. No frills, that is, until you take the first bite of Barbec's famous beer biscuits. Washing down the sweet, buttery biscuit with that first cup of coffee is the perfect way to warm up a hungry stomach just before ordering the "Double Barrel Breakfast." The popular platter features two eggs, two pancakes and bacon or sausage, and it's certain to satisfy any hunger—or hangover.
The Sixth Floor Museum has expanded into the 501 Elm Building across N. Houston Street from the museum, with administrative offices upstairs and a really cool new café and store on the ground level. The café, with food from La Duni and excellent coffee, looks out on the site of the city's great shame, the event that labeled us "The City of Hate," which means that French tourists can sip lattes and despise us in air-conditioned comfort. This has to be good for the economy. Meanwhile, the store offers work by local artisans and Fair Trade/Eco-Friendly manufacturers, some with references to Kennedy, some of it more about the Kennedy era and Dallas. Name another city that has turned its worst disability into a profit center.
Get it with brunch—a pile of these dry ham flakes on the side—and you'll wonder why you bothered ordering anything else. The ham has a way of taking over. Smoked out back with a blend of mesquite, pecan, cedar and oak, or in the hundred-year-old smokehouse indoors, a taste of chef Tim Byres' ham is like discovering a whole new animal. Nothing about it suggests the watery vacuum-sealed lunch meat you knew before. You'll find there are fatty pieces and crustier ones, but all of it sweet, smoky and hard to forget—and, we'll just come out and say it, oddly like the breading on a Chicken McNugget. An unlikely comparison, maybe, but in the city's best spot for fancy barbecue, it's the standout meat. You'll realize it's what ham should taste like, and everyone else is doing it wrong.
When our sweet tooth takes over and we're craving something more than an ordinary, run-of-the-mill dessert, the first place we think of is Crème De La Cookie. The Snider Plaza treat boutique bakes up irresistible cookies, cake balls, cupcakes, bars and brownies, as well as signature offerings like the whoopie pies with marshmallow butter cream (a gourmet take on a Moon Pie) or fudge brownie towers drenched in chocolate ganache known as Screamin Os. Last year, Forbestraveler.com featured the spot's OMG Chocolate Chip Cookie as one of the top in the nation, noting the cookie's "deep rich flavor" and high-quality ingredients like Schokinag Chocolate imported from Germany. Crème De La Cookie is also one of only a handful of places in Dallas where you can get a cup of coffee brewed with beans from Chicago-based Intelligentsia Coffee, which the shop used in a few of the delectable treats, like the wonderfully gooey Chocolate Espresso Chip.
Sure, we can appreciate an aesthetically pleasing cheese board with locally sourced artisan meats and gherkins, a platter of Thai-inspired steamed mussels and other fancy-pants gastropub fare. Still, when we think of bar food, we're thinking cheap, crispy and brown. And with its beer-battered onion rings, jalapeño-topped cheese fries and tasty burger, it's clear that the cooks at the Landing know their way around a deep fryer and a flat grill. Nary an item tops the $10 mark, and the food is served late enough that you can give your stomach lining a healthy coating of grease before you try to drive home.
Chef Michelle Carpenter doesn't just have casual fans; she has devotees. The half-Japanese/half-Cajun sushi expert is known for her elaborate Omakase dinners, which grant her the freedom to serve whatever she feels like making (get ready to be wowed by such items as popcorn-sized fried octopus, smoked apple and bacon yakitori and a miso-marinated black cod that's worship-worthy). Her sushi-making skill has been called performance art, with impeccable slices of raw fish molded like tiny sculptures over rice. She's known for adding touches of Southwestern flavors to her sushi, strips of lime, speckles of jalapeño or cilantro. Our own critic commended her for her raw fish respite blazing trails in Oak Cliff's Bishop Arts District.
Let's say you have the sudden need to throw a party for 50 at your home and most of the guests are from the East Coast where the chance of them experiencing genuine Tex-Mex is not only unlikely, it's unheard of. You are short on time, and your spouse is no damn help, so you call Pappasito's Cantina and book the evening and food and watch as they do the rest. On the appointed evening, they swoop in, set up tables, chairs, festive decorations. They man a frozen margarita machine, which you sample for taste. A lot. A cook stands over an industrial strength mesquite grill, preparing tasty chicken and beef fajitas. Several more staff work the quesadilla station that will rock your world. Their professional servers offer just that, professional service, and best of all, after the party peaks and the guests begin to leave, they clean up after themselves. Which is its own blessing, because it's late and you're too smashed to even try.
Mama's Daughters' Diner