Best Of :: Food & Drink
Something about The Cedars Social is perfect. It may have something to do with the fire pits with the polished rocks, the late-night oysters, brioche-bun burgers and succinctly astounding cocktails. No, hang on. That’s not it. No. The Cedars Social is awesome because it has somehow managed to completely own a Secret Agent/007 theme. The menu comes out like a “for your eyes only” dossier. Come on, what’s not fun about that? Did we mention late-night oysters?
“I would like to do an in-your-face Texas concept,” Stephan Pyles said when he was interviewed in the Observer about the state of Dallas dining in 2010. “Maybe it’s a little Disneyland-like.” Pyles lamented the lack of “Texas” in local Texas cooking and suggested that Dallas chefs had gotten off track. As he spoke he was sowing the seeds for his latest restaurant, Stampede 66, which delivers Texas custom tailored to downtown Dallas with the volume turned up to 10. From the color-shifting lights and quirky artistic sculpture to the images of cowboys branding calves, and the wall-mounted longhorns, Stampede 66 is as in-your-mug as it gets. If there’s one restaurant to take an out of town guest to show them everything Dallas is about, Pyles’ latest creation is it.
Barbecue is a humble art, and there's something special about brisket procured from a barbecue shack on the side of the road. Trouble is, most of the ramshackle joints across Texas don't serve very good smoked meats — that is until Travis and Donna Mayes first fired up their brick smoker in 2009. They've been serving up exceptional barbecue in this modest, smoke-stained building ever since. And it's the best "shack" barbecue you'll find around. The menu is hand-painted on the brick exterior next to the take-out window, and parked cars compete with massive piles of wood for real estate. There's no pretension here, and there's no seating either. All you get is smoky, tender brisket, ribs that pull from the bone. The smoky understand that this is precisely how barbecue was meant to be experienced.
You're finally up to order at Lockhart and despite how much time you spent in line you still haven't figured out what you want to eat. So you ask the guy taking orders because he works here and his epic beard conveys a lot of authority about meat. He tells you that if you're going to try anything today it should be the special, turkey breast, and your first impulse is to think that's absurd — you came for barbecue, after all, and barbecued turkey just sounds like a waste of good sides. But you know it would be rude to not take his suggestion, and he still has that authority-commanding beard. And thank God you listened to him. After that first spicy, tangy, juicy bite and the decadent blue cheese coleslaw you can't believe that for a moment you doubted that guy or his beard.
Get it? Because you smoke barbecue slowly, and ... OK, you get it. Fortunately, the meat is even better than the innuendo, with brisket that can be falling-apart tender and smoky, great sausages and ribs, and daily specials that can be hit-or-miss but always creative. Also noteworthy for those who aren't solely focused on the meat, the sides — often an afterthought at great Texas barbecue joints — are outstanding: green-bean casserole that doesn't come from a can, dessert-like sweet potatoes and even hush puppies. The meat alone puts this place among Dallas' best barbecue restaurants, and the quality side dishes make it one of our favorite restaurants period. Huh huh, we said "period."
It looks like a hot dog, even though it's too long and too skinny. It smells like a hot dog too. But as soon as your teeth snap through the casing on a Post Oak Red Hot, you're bathed in endorphin rush that's transformative. It's as if all your childhood memories — the dog your old man bought you at your first baseball game, the wiener you grilled on a stick at camp — are simultaneously unlocked in your cerebellum to set off a hot dog euphoria. The link is a perfect example of pedestrian charcuterie, and creator Brian Luscher adorns it with handcrafted condiments that only enhance the magic. Spicy mustard, pickled peppers and cucumbers, onions and tomatoes are all nestled in a pillow-soft bun speckled with poppy seeds. The only rub is you have to hit the White Rock Farmer's Market to get one until Luscher's opens in East Dallas late this fall.
Something weird has been happening to burgers over the past few decades. They've gotten bigger, cheesier and more obnoxious, and for the most part, they aren't any better for it. Leave it to Off-Site Kitchen to counter the trend and return the burger to more restrained proportions. Yet they somehow keep the flavor turned up to 10. The meat clocks in at a respectable quarter-pound and is cooked with the care all burgers deserve. The finished product is rosy, juicy and less guilt-inducing than a burger that arrives the size of your head, so you can over indulge some of the best burger toppings you'll find. Try it "Murph Style" with roasted jalapeños, bacon relish, cheese and creamy sauce that will really stick to your ribs. It's a small burger, sure, but don't mistake it for health food.
Anywhere else the turkey burger is a second-stringer. It's what you choose because you're trying to be healthy, or because you just exercised and you don't want to feel guilty about really, really indulging yourself. So you skip the regular burger and go for the turkey. Not as rich, not as juicy, but at least it's leaner. But Goodfriends' Gobbler is not the healthy alternative (well, it is relative to the El Jefe burger with brisket and bacon). It's thick, it's greasy and it's juicy, and it's presumably lean but certainly doesn't taste like it. And you can't beat a menu with beer recommendations for every sandwich.
The people behind Subway and Jimmy John's should be strung up. They've reduced the greatest ingredient delivery system to a mere commodity. Lucky for you, East Hampton Sandwich Co. rights all wrongs. They may even take the humble sandwich to places it has never been before. You've likely had many chicken sandwiches, but East Hampton's version with tender roast chicken in a Meyer lemon vinaigrette opens up new dimensions of sandwich creativity. Bored with roast beef? Try a hot short-rib sandwich with oozing cheese and horseradish cream. Be careful. These East Hampton creations have a way of ruining you for the classics. And should you find yourself stuck with a commodity sandwich again, you'll be overwhelmed with sadness.
This year the sandwich crown goes not to some arugula-strewn, aioli-slathered bistro creation but to an honest-to-God, no-bullshit Italian sandwich. Jimmy's Food Store's hot Italian sausage sandwich will make a New York transplant feel, if only for a moment, like they've come home. It's loaded with Jimmy's ubiquitous Italian sausage, sweet peppers, onions, stringy gobs of mozzarella and a tangy marinara sauce, all just barely contained by flaky French bread. Be patient, because they make it all from scratch. You can watch, or browse aisles stocked with wine and pasta, and fridges and freezers filled with lobster ravioli and containers of an unbelievable creamy vodka sauce. Take the sandwich to go or pull up a chair inside the Wine Room past the meat counter. On the way out, do not forget the cannolis.
If flavors were sounds, the lemon in Marc Cassell's lobster roll would be the faintest whisper. The subtlety should be noted. In a city that has turned lobster rolls into a fetish, most restaurants create versions with way too much noise. Mayonnaise is often used in excess, or they're weighed down with butter. Sometimes the lobster meat comes in frozen. At 20 Feet, everything is as it should be. Lobsters are brought in live and steamed in batches before their shells are picked clean. The knuckles and tails get dressed in the tiniest bit of mayo brightened with lemon, and the simple salad gets tucked into a house-baked bun. That's it. That's the whole recipe. And that's why 20 Feet serves the best lobster roll in town.
It's hard to understand, if you haven't spent sufficient time (it doesn't take much) in Pennsylvania or New Jersey. The hoagie is more than a sandwich; it's a way of life. And once you've learned to love the hoag, its absence will cause a persistent and dull ache for the rest of your life. You'll miss things like shredded lettuce and high-quality cold cuts stuffed into a soft but chewy roll, and white butcher paper stained with oil and vinegar. Carbone's won't completely satiate your longing, but their Italian combo is very good methadone. They get their chewy bread from Padre Vecchio, a bakery out in Arlington, and they stuff it with some of the best cold cuts you can buy. The sopressata and hot coppa are from Molinari, a San Francisco company that's been hanging salamis since 1896, and the mortadella is made right behind the counter. You might as well be in Philly.