Over the course of 2016, my job as a food critic and writer has yielded probably over a hundred restaurant meals across Dallas, Garland, Richardson, Plano, Allen, Carrollton, Addison, Farmers Branch, Irving, Coppell, Highland Park and Cockrell Hill.
Of the many things I've eaten, these 10 dishes are my personal favorites. They might not be the “best," technically speaking, and this is not an attempt to be objective about the best meals in Dallas or the best restaurants. They are, quite simply, the 10 things in metro Dallas that I most loved eating in 2016 and that I'm most excited to eat again.
10. The one-day-a-month soups at Casa Vieja in Carrollton. On the last Sunday of the month, Casa Vieja serves up ajiaco, an incredible Colombian chicken soup loaded with indigenous potatoes and herbs, plus a big section of corn on the cob. But on the first Sunday of the month, the soup special is even better: a seafood curry-like stew loaded with just about every water creature there is. It’s hearty, slightly spicy, generously sized and worth planning a whole weekend around.
9. Lamb souvlaki at House of Gyros in Mesquite. Eating at House of Gyros is like eating with the family: friendly service, decorations straight from My Big Fat Greek Wedding and delightful conversations with proprietors Bill and Victoria Kaprantzas. Plus, there are $1 corkage fees for BYOB. But back to that lamb souvlaki — it’s just how my Turkish family cooks lamb, with a great spice rub and medium-well meat that, despite losing its pink, manages to stay perfectly juicy and tender. Oh, and those steak fries are way better than you'd think.
8. Pollo en mole at Mi Lindo Oaxaca. This is one of the most remarkable restaurants in Dallas, not least because the kitchen makes its own mole negro from scratch. That means, among other things, buying cacao beans and making chocolate in-house. All the effort pays off in some of the deepest, best mole to be had at any Mexican restaurant in Dallas; try it on enmoladas, a stack of tortillas topped with Oaxacan cheese, or on a quarter chicken, the leg and thigh perfectly tender underneath that rich blanket of oh-so-great mole.
7. Fried chicken at Rice Chicken. Guys, this is the good stuff. Ask for the spicy batter-fried chicken, no sauce, and you’ll be getting fried chicken that dreams are made of: such a crisp, gently crunchy batter coupled with juicy, practically molten meat. On first bite, the chicken might taste like it needs a little salt, but the spice slowly builds to a crescendo of crispy-fried perfection. The side dishes are limited: pickled radishes, coleslaw and a pitcher of Coors Light. You don’t need anything else.
6. Fusilli with brandy cream sauce at Sprezza. I loved almost all the fresh-made pastas at Sprezza; the exceptions were a little over-salted. But the noodles’ textures are always springy and satisfying, and this seasonal preparation from spring — combining fusilli (corkscrews) with spicy Italian sausage and greens — was especially satisfying. The balance of spice, veggies, al dente pasta and that brandy cream sauce — mmmm.
5. Lamb pressé at FT33. FT33 changes its entire menu on a regular basis, so this main course, which I had at the end of August, was probably gone in a week at most. Maybe they’ll bring it back next year: the lamb, surrounded by a slew of Mediterranean vegetables like pureed eggplant, was pressed into a sort of cube and so tender that it fell apart at the touch of a fork. The next day I told a friend that I wished FT33 could deliver a plate of it to me every day.
4. Tea-smoked duck at First Emperor Chinese Restaurant in Richardson. This half-duck is served with the usual fixings: steamed buns, scallions, cilantro, duck sauce — perfect for making a tasty sandwich. But the duck’s meat is simply amazing, like a weird alchemical magic trick: super-tender, infused with smoky flavor, as if it had been smoked at Pecan Lodge, yet with skin so crisp as to be crunchy. I loved that bubbly duck skin and everything else about this mind-bending sandwich, which is one of those so-weird-it’s-amazing bites that make you recognize just how limitless are the possibilities of good food.
3. The mazateño taco at Tacos Mariachi. In the Dallas zodiac calendar, 2016 was the Year of the Mazateño. I probably ate about a dozen of these glorious shrimp tacos, with their pickled onions, cabbage and spicy chile de árbol salsa. Some days there might have been a little too much cabbage, but the shrimp have always been perfectly cooked, the spiciness has always been in glorious balance and the locally made flour tortilla has always been compulsively devourable on its own. I visit Tacos Mariachi at least once a month, and although they keep coming up with new specials, the mazateño is my comfort taco.
2. Smoked half chicken at Blind Butcher. Eating this dish for the first time was like experiencing a religious conversion to the cult of chicken. This is what the billboard cows should be advertising: a chicken slipped into the bottom of the barbecue smoker, where it continually bastes in the juices dripping down from pastrami, brisket, sausage links and more. The Blind Butcher adds garlic and herbs for good measure, because they believe in the power of overkill, but it’s the disarming juiciness and smoky richness of this bird that leave me in dumbfounded awe.
1. Duck bone soup at Mr. Wok in Plano. Call Mr. Wok right now, make reservations and ask about the duck. Everyone in Plano knows about this place, and on weekends the lines become truly cult-like. Why? Because those ducks, which require advanced notice if there’s even a hint of a crowd, are expertly carved tableside, the ultra-crisp skin splintering off like shards of glass, the meat underneath juicy and glorious. Go ahead, chow down. But Mr. Wok is saving the best for last, when they ask what you’d like them to do with the carcass. Ask for soup: a super-rich stock of little more than duck bones and some spices. It’s basically duck broth. But the flavor, oh the flavor. The whole meal has been building to this. Hell, the whole year has been building to this.