Best Of :: Food & Drink
Tracy Wilkinson-Claros moved to Austin from England in 2004 and immediately set about introducing her neighbors to authentic artisanal British hot puddings. Her "Sticky Toffee Pudding" is a confection you heat up for maybe 10 seconds in the microwave, just long enough to barely melt the topping, and serve on its own or in a bowl with whipping cream. It's made with fresh dates, whole eggs, espresso, butter, brown sugar and so on. It's got some fat in it and some cholesterol and some sugar, sure. It's not health food. Nobody said you had to sit down and eat the whole box with a spoon watching old movies at four in the morning. But if you just have to be that way, invite us over.
When Oak opened earlier this year it captured the attention of an entire city. Six months later not a lot has changed. Chef Jason Maddy's cooking has been consistently praised, and the restaurant still feels like it's gaining momentum, likely because in addition to great cooking, the menu is relatively affordable. Not that you'd know it by looking at these plates. A daily crudo features a fresh fish that rotates with availability, paired with pickled vegetables and a soy caramel sauce. A pork and octopus dish features tender jowls and tentacles. And a berbere spiced lamb loin accompanies an amazing sweetbread panzanella. That food this good comes in one of Dallas' most comfortable dining rooms doesn't hurt things either.
Jay Jerrier just may be building a dynasty if his recently expanded Deep Ellum pizza restaurant can continue its run. His traditionally topped rounds are as authentic a Neapolitan pizza as you can get in Dallas, while more aggressively topped pies resonate with the pizzas we all grew up on, and occasional special pizzas are works of real culinary creativity. The best seat in the house is always the bar, where you can watch Dino Santonicola, the Italian-born pizza master, work his magic with hundreds of soft and pillowy dough balls. Ninety seconds later that fragile round of dough is a perfect leopard-spotted pizza pie you can pound completely on your own. Swill back a few Peronis while you're at it and take in a Rangers game on the big screen. You'll have a fan to either side of you.
Sharaku, the izakaya next door to Yutaka, only adds to the latter's attraction. Have a seat at Sharaku and grab a cold lager and a skewer threaded with crunchy, gritty chicken cartilage. If you're not inclined toward gristle, you can have a regular piece of chicken instead, but either way the salty grilled snacks are the best way to wake up your palate while you wait for your friends to arrive. With your party assembled, walk next door to Yutaka and hope for seats at the bar. There you'll watch a serious team of sushi pros perch short, thick ribbons of gemstone-fish on rice seasoned with enough sugar and rice vinegar to let you know it's there. Don't order grocery store tuna rolls here. Mackerel, uni and sweet shrimp served with impossibly crunchy, deep-fried heads are where you should spend your time. Finish your meal with a hand-roll. Now you're a sushi professional.
David Chang did a great thing in bringing ramen into new popularity, but he also spurred a lot of idiots who think any bowl filled with noodles, topped off with steaming broth and decorated with condiments will make the grade. Now trendy restaurants offer shoddy bowls of soup that are giving proper ramen a bad rep. Thankfully, Tei An offers a bowl that sets the ramen record straight. Fresh noodles cooked perfectly retain a subtle bite, and broths made from bones and not soup bases taste light but flavorful and are a real pleasure to slurp. Heat it up with a little of the neon-colored chili oil and watch it disappear into the murky bowl. A thin sheet of seaweed adds scents of sea and vegetation while bamboo shoots lend crunch and a chewy texture. A slice or two of roast pork is your reward for making it to the bottom of your bowl, which you certainly will do.
For some reason, seafood restaurants in Dallas generally fall into two categories. The first, like Dallas Fish Market and Oceanaire, peddle high-end fresh grilled fish, seafood towers and $7 beers. Then the hole-in-the-wall restaurants answer with menus that feature an entire aquarium breaded and deep-fried. These places are affordable but they leave a lot to be desired for true seafood lovers. Rex's comes in right in the middle with a casual, open and bright space that features great seafood at decent prices. It's the best place in Dallas to eat oysters from the Gulf and both coasts, and on Fridays serves the city's most promising lobster roll. Lunch service is packed here most days as customers wait for tables to indulge in sauteed fish sandwiches on Empire baked bread topped with crisp salty bacon. Not too bad for a strip mall restaurant in Northeastern Texas.
Bring a fan, a cooler filled with 10 pounds of ice and a gallon of water. When it's cold outside, it's hot in La Nueva Fresh & Hot, and when it's hot outside, the small Webb Chapel tortilla factory and taquería is roughly the temperature of the surface of the sun. The air conditioning is dodgy here, but it's the tortilla-making machine that causes the real heat. The massive, squeaking twittering machine turns out hundreds of pounds worth of corn tortillas at a time all while belching heat out into the small swampy storefront. Tortillas don't get any fresher, and La Nueva's are soft, pliable and almost as light as air. Order yours with the guisado verde and sample a variety of salsas on the counter while you wait for your tacos. Each is available to take home if you like it, and pounding spicy salsa will help keep your mind off the heat. When you do get your bounty break for your car and crank the A/C. La Neuva is missing tables as badly as climate control but the tacos are worth it. The green pork stew topped with spicy salsa is the best taco available in Dallas.
Falafel has gotten a bad reputation thanks to the many Middle Eastern restaurants that fry pre-made fritters of pre-mixed batches of chickpea dough long before a customer places an order. Not Charbel Hamad. The owner and operator of Fadia Bakery wants you to focus on his handmade sweets, but it's hard to listen to him with falafel as good as his. It starts with a recipe Hamad got from his brother. He soaks dried chickpeas overnight and then runs them through a meat grinder before folding minced cilantro, parsley, onion, jalapeño and garlic into the mix. Baking soda and a blend of spices, however, don't get added until just before you place your order. Hamad claims his process is the secret to his falafels' texture, but whatever the cause, the results are a fluffy, savory package encased in an impossibly crunchy exterior. Order the falafel sandwich and no more than one side. Hamad is right when he says the sweets are worth saving room for.
Dallas doesn't exactly have a reputation as a baking town. A sea of sandwich shops selling hoagies on flaccid rolls, a dearth of bagels and a general lack of Old World bakeries have cast the city in a negative baking light. The folks at Empire Baking Company are trying to change that image, though, crusty baguette by crusty baguette. Forget the soft, lifeless bread you find at most grocery stores and get ready to embrace bread with personality. Their baguettes sport a crisp dark brown crust that takes real work to get through, but grab a knife and take a look inside the loaf. See all those irregular holes? Smell that complex bouquet of grain that's not hindered by too much yeast? This is the bread that artisans in Europe have spent centuries perfecting. That this much quality comes from the hands of Chris Cutshall makes the bread even more amazing; he's trained as a chef, not a master baker, and he produces the best loaves in Dallas.
The "mom and pop" label has been thrown about so much it now describes just about any small business that's not owned by Walmart. There are still a few restaurants around town, though, that are not just family-run but owned and operated by an actual mom and pop. Mesa has been rocking Oak Cliff's authentic Mexican cooking scene for more than a year now and Raul and Olga Reyes seem only to be gaining momentum. Their small restaurant has given way to an expanded footprint with a large outdoor patio that's perfect for a quiet dinner al fresco, and a lounge next door that will keep you drinking till last call. Don't think all this growth has changed the identity of this place a bit, though. Go see for yourself. On any given night you'll find Raul working the front of the house while Olga keeps the kitchen in line, pouring their hearts into what is definitely a family affair.
While beef sourcing, ageing and handling can have huge influences on the meat that lands on your plate high-end steak houses, all end up serving about the same thing: steak cooked your requested shade and a big fat check. Nick and Sam's has a few differentiators, and their biggest is the steak sauce. Chef Samir Dhurandhar wanted to do something different for the condiment so he leaned on his Indian roots to gather tamarind, caramelized onions, cumin, ginger and charred tomatoes. It's basically a sexed-up hyper refined tamarind chutney. The mixture is cooked over a low and slow flame for three days of reduction it rests in a Jack Daniel's whiskey barrel for 10 days. The results are dark as pitch and require a little lemon and honey to wake things up but all the labor is worth it. Dhurandhar's steak sauce is so complex and intense you only need to dip the smallest corner of a piece of steak into the massive gravy boat of sauce to fill your mouth with flavor.
Dallas is basically flooded with margarita mix. Actually, the entire country is. It makes you wonder why politicians waste time on health care and jobs when they should be campaigning on platforms of margarita reform in an effort to root out the sharp, tart and cloying versions made with bottled mix. If they needed a figurehead, Meso Maya's cocktail would suit nicely. Served over rocks, or up if you like, the drink garners its sweetness naturally from a small wedge of pineapple, and muddled avocado lends the drink body, viscosity and a creaminess that may look a little odd but goes down smooth. Try one with fried tortilla chips and salsa that actually bring some personality to the table. Fresh tomatoes, roasted chiles and a subtle warm glow will stoke your desire for a second drink before you've even finished your first.