The grass reached as high as her waist, and rogue chickens bobbed around in the backyard. Meri Dahlke was on the hunt for a good location for a “country tavern” — she’d never owned a bar in her life — and one of her first stops was a tiny, shed-looking structure sitting in the tall grass off of Zang Boulevard. The search continued.
Dahlke grew up in Wisconsin, visiting her uncle’s “country tavern" — generally referring to a good, old-fashioned house with a bar cozied up to it that served dry goods and beers to the local farmers — on holidays. She liked to wander behind the bar and knock back as many Pixy Stix as she could find.
When Oak Cliff relaxed its liquor laws, Dahlke and her partners returned to the tiny shed off of Zang. It had taken a Goldilocks-esque year to find the location that was just right. Now, the shed was perfect.
“You know how people are like: We should open a bar! We finally made it happen,” says Dahlke, co-owner of Ten Bells and Eight Bells Tavern. She delivers it with a brightness that marks the sixth birthday of the Tavern.
Making “suicides,” the awful colloquial used for dumping every soda available into a cup and drinking it, was her entire bar resume.
“I honestly had never done this before, except for going behind my Uncle’s bar and eating Pixy Stix," she says.
But now, Ten Bells is in its sixth year, and it's an Oak Cliff staple.
The best way to begin at Ten Bells is with pickled eggs. Do not be disturbed by the jar, murky with onion and vinegar, swimming with handfuls of bright white eggs like they’re prepping dinner for The Shape of Water creature. If it’s late, and it should be for what happens next, and your head is dull-thumping like a hammer, you’ll want a hot dog. You want a hot dog that’s sleeping soundly under sheets of chili, melted cheese, chopped red onion and chives.
Carlito’s Dog, created and so-named after Ten Bells Tavern’s original chef Carlos Mancera, is the right way to celebrate Ten Bells’ sixth anniversary. Everything but the dog is made in-house, including the toasty-to-soft bun. Chili incorporates coffee, beer, onion and big shakes of chili powder. It’s the color of a dark wood.
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It’s simple, beautifully un-nutritious and surprisingly restrained bar food that was created to counteract the madcap insanity of the State Fair of Texas. It’s not choked with heaping scoops of chili and hay bales of cheddar, which, while visually exciting, can taste like you’ve done a face-first plant into the Salt Flats. This chili dog is, like the Goldilocks search for Ten Bells Tavern, just right.
“Sometimes simple is really great,” Dahlke says.
You’ll find Carlito’s Dog from 10 p.m. until 1 a.m., long past the fair's closing time this autumn. Get a cold beer and a pickled egg on the side — the vinegar-brightness will hit you like a rainbow to the mouth — because it’s the right way to celebrate the birth of a great tavern.
Ten Bells Tavern, 232 W 7th St. (Oak Cliff)