All-American is a series that looks at beloved, longstanding North Texas eateries and examines their history while exploring how the food has changed — for the good or bad — over the years.
It feels like it changes every day, right before our eyes. The construction cranes whirl around in Dallas, and a new floor of a new building rises. Some change is good: Inevitably there’s a great new bar, with fried chicken and music, nestling itself into the city these days. In Uptown, the people spill out into the street. Driving down McKinney Avenue, you can see the flashes of people bouncing between bars like whiskey-filled beach balls.
Then there’s S&D Oyster Co., where not much has changed in 40 years. It’s a place that feels as old as restaurants get. The waiters wear black bow ties and white shirts and red aprons. There are paintings of battleships, one on each of the sunflower yellow walls of the square dining room. The staff — I counted eight souls on my recent visit — watch over the room, hands formally crossed, ready to drop off baskets of Lance-brand saltines.
Just before noon, I grab a two-top under a painting of a battleship in a tumultuous ocean. My table’s ready to go with a bottle of Tabasco, Worcestershire sauce, ketchup and ground horseradish for the oysters. Now all I need is a cup of gumbo.
It arrives as hot as the Earth’s core, punctuated with chunks of fish, shrimp and oysters. It’s a dark, peppery stew with pitch-dark roux and a light sea breeze. This is Mary Kay’s soup, co-owner Herb Story says. Mary Kay, Herb’s wife, fine-tuned the recipe after years of learning from New Orleans cooks on winter duck hunting camps.
“She really polished it up good,” Story says, and you can hear the smile in his voice. The roux is the crucial element — a challenge that cost them lots of gumbo poured out in the backyard. Onion, tomato and pepper, snapper (or grouper fish), shrimp and oysters stew with that rich roux. With a Saltine, maybe an ice-cold beer, it’s essential Dallas eats. “Everything on the menu is what we started with," Story says.
The Storys opened S&D Oyster Co. just over 40 years ago on Sept. 16, 1976. Herb named the place after his children, Stephanie and Doak (he's an SMU alumnus and a fan of the late, great Doak Walker). He got the idea to open a seafood joint in Dallas after six years of flying with the Navy on the Gulf Coast.
“'It’s a terrible concept and a terrible location,” Story says, relaying what his restaurant pals told him at the time. “I’ll show you guys,” he chuckles. “I thought there was a void here.”
It’s still true; we need this food in Dallas. We need some Southern classics, the great, old food that anchors our city’s flavors to the ground, to balance the lightning-fast cuisine of Dallas’ new restaurants.
A week or so after opening, the Dallas Times Herald food critic published a piece on S&D, and, soon after, lines ran out the door.
“I never tell anyone this, but we were profitable the first month,” he says. “We’re old-school and we’re going to do it the way we’ve done it.” Besides the naval ships, the history is on the walls — the original 1976 menu shows that gumbo was 95 cents, oysters were three bucks and beer (Coors, Michelob or Miller “Light”) was 65 cents. Santos Vasquez, S&D’s chef, has been cooking in the kitchen since day one.
Back at my table, a dinosaur classic arrives in front of me — broiled snapper with a lemon butter sauce. There’s the old-as-Santa sprig of parsley on the plate, and everything’s snowed with paprika. The snapper’s plump, cooked well, but truly needs some salt and pepper. It comes with a deep red cocktail sauce, an ice cream scoop of coleslaw in a chilled dish and a tart Creole rice (lots of lemon juice is a key ingredient). The coleslaw is also Mary Kay’s recipe, inspired by an oyster bar they used to go to in Pensacola, and made from scratch. The fine chop of the cabbage, which gets sliced and diced from special blades, makes the dish. I’m spooning cabbage onto my puffy hush puppy with dabs of Tabasco, which is complete happiness.
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Recently, S&D engaged in a little construction as well. Story added a courtyard and more kitchen space to the 130-year-old building. It hasn't changed the soul of the place.
As the joint fills up at lunchtime, the whole room seems pleased as hell. Sitting in the original dining room, you wouldn't know that the S&D has gone through an expansion alongside Uptown. You don't care about cranes or bricks or $7 toast.
I order a cheeseburger too, a dish that seems to keep coming out of the kitchen doors. It’s tastes exactly like the best Whataburger cheeseburger you’ve ever had. In other words, it tastes like a Dallas-at-heart, seafood joint’s cheeseburger. Story lovingly calls it his “beer joint cheeseburger,” because it’s hard not to adore something that’s so happily out of time.
S&D Oyster Company, 2701 McKinney Ave.