With its extensive craft cocktail menus and upscale food menus to go along, the gastropub trend shows no signs of slowing down. Especially not in Dallas. As diners increasingly seek out more casual fine dining experiences, gastropubs are happily stepping into the shoes once filled by stuffy and exclusive restaurants.
In Uptown Dallas, the vibe has always been more bourgie than elsewhere in the city, something that has earned the neighborhood a less-than-positive reputation with people who don't live inside the upscale bubble situated in between Downtown and Central Expressway. But at So & So's, Chef Nick Amoriello is working hard to change both the food and the culture of a neighborhood that restaurants seem to be fleeing in favor of hipper enclaves like Bishop Arts.
Amoriello, a Culinary Institute of America grad who has worked at Nobu, Driftwood, and Central 214, joined So & So's after an unexpected exit from Chef Ian Tate. Since joining the restaurant, he has brought upscale dishes to a menu that was in serious need of a little refinement, and a kitchen in desperate need of leadership. I sat down to talk with Amoriello about how the transition went, whether or not the stereotypes that we all have about Uptown are true, and whether or not the traditionally stodgy neighborhood is prepared for cuisine that is a little more experimental.
I'm not going to ask you about what happened with the departure of Ian Tate, but I am interested in knowing how you've changed the food and the vibe since taking the reins at So & So's.
I actually can't get into the specifics of why I am where I am and why he is no longer here, but I would say that we've finally turned this space into something that is really beautiful. When everything is staged and the dining room is all set up, it's striking. To me, So & So's doesn't remind me of a restaurant, bar, or nightclub. I feel like we're just five guys who have this house. Every night, we invite people into our house to eat, drink, or hear some live music. That approach has made me feel extremely comfortable in the kitchen, and it feels like everything has finally come together and is working.
There was a lot of talk when I did take over about what the direction of my food was going to be versus what was in place before. The first couple of dishes that me and my cooks brought out, everyone was like "holy shit, we're going to have the best fucking food in Dallas." We're not reinventing the wheel at all, just reinventing dishes that you've heard of before and that you recognize. We're putting a nice technique to everything and using fresh ingredients. That style of cooking isn't really something that you see on this street. Belly & Trumpet is doing some wonderful things and we've got some great neighbors, but not anything similar or comparable to what we're doing here. For being as popular as we are with the "Uptown" crowd, it's neat when people come in and realize that we don't just have nachos or whatever. When they have beef tartare or hamachi crudo, they think "where the hell are we?"
Did you add any specific dishes to the menu that the crowd has really seemed receptive to?
Obviously we're constantly evaluating the menu and figuring out what works. We recently added a few things that have been extremely popular and a little creative, but I've had to take a step back and look at what our clientele wants. We have hot wings on the menu, but they're done well. They're actually nice. We just threw some mussels on the menu because people were requesting them, and fresh oyster for summers. Our vegetarian pasta is now in the mix, and people really seem to like that. People wanted a dip, so we made a hummus with purple hull peas. We're just stepping things up to a different level.
Can you talk about your background in Dallas and cooking here in the last couple of years?
A few years ago, I opened and ran Meddlesome Moth. After leaving there, I went to work with Graham Dodds over at Central 214, then just kind of hopped around here and there trying to figure out my next home. I helped the guys open up Blind Butcher, worked with Jeana and Colleen open up Mot Hai Ba, and helped Omar [Flores] run Driftwood while he was still juggling the two restaurants. Then the opportunity opened up here, and I stepped in, proved myself, and here we are now. We're finally starting to get some press and people are really excited about what we're doing, so I guess we're doing something right.
The gastropub trend is obviously huge right now. What do you think has changed in terms of people want to eat when they're out drinking at a bar?
I actually hate the term "gastropub." At The Moth, we were the epitome of that. It wasn't necessarily Spanish tapas, but we took a lot of direction from that style of eating. Everybody is nibbling, conversing, and snacking on several large plates, and I really love that. That's something that happens here. People order a few dishes and everyone just shares, and that's great. But I feel that there was a time period a few years ago when bar food was either extremely high-end, or you had the other side of the scale at dive-bars. I think people are kind of fed up with that shit, and it's starting to come back together in the middle. We hate the term bar food, too. We're just a bar that serves really good food. I'm not sure that it's gastropub food or high-end or low-end either, we're just this broad range of cuisines and cooking styles. So it's good food, plain and simple. We want to be known for that.
Everyone seems to hate the term "bar food." Is that because people think of it as garbage you eat when you're drunk?
Partly, but I also think that bar food locks a place's food into a certain few items that people think of. Wings, French fries, hot dogs, nachos. That's not what we're doing here.
Do you feel required to have versions of those things on the menu?
Definitely. The first menu that we did, there's a really funny story there. I originally said that I would never do hot wings, and we had this dish on the menu. It was this beautiful pickled fresno pepper buffalo sauce, and we were frying up chicken skins nice and crispy, then tossing them in the sauce and serving it with shaved celery and bleu cheese. People just didn't get it, or they thought they were getting hot wings. I look back at it and think "shit, if they want wings, I'll give them wings." But I'm going to make sure they're super tender, the marinade is good, and the plating is cool. Just putting my twist on things that people love.
Everybody has hummus on their menu, and I fucking hate hummus. I didn't want to do it. When summer came along and creamer peas were coming out from the farms, we decided to screw with people's minds. It's finally become really popular, but people weren't too sure about it when we first put it on the menu.
Is it hard to do dishes that are more refined in a quick-turn environment?
No, not really. You'd be really surprised at what we can get done in the kitchen. We open up every afternoon at 4, and things are pretty quiet until people are coming in at six for dinner. Then, later in the evening, this place takes on a little more of a bar feel. After that, it's more like a nightclub vibe. We have a DJ going and it's packed in here, so we have so much diversity in what our guests want. And we're working our asses off in the kitchen the whole time.
Does it bother you if the late night pizza and bar snacks take the focus away from the more chef-driven dishes on the menu?
It's interesting because the focus was originally all on the pizza. In the process of changing chefs, we only had pizza for a week so we could get the kitchen switched over. We definitely sell it, but now it's becoming less common. My favorite nights are those random Tuesday and Wednesday nights when we've sold maybe ten pizzas and everything else has been really cool food from the menu. It is starting to go in that direction, and I love it. At the same time, though, I love selling pizza. When we sell a lot of the pizza, it allows me to get weird stuff to experiment with in the kitchen. I don't mind the pizza, because it lets me go off the beaten path. Now, I haven't eaten pizza in about four months.
What about in terms of cost to the customer? Do you think bar food is a good value or is it overpriced?
When we were developing the menu, I actually thought that the cost should be a little higher on some of these dishes. I felt like I was being a little undercut, but they were really trying to be reasonable while keeping our costs in line. We have items on the menu that are $12 or $14, and at other restaurants, you'd be paying $26 or $28. I've never had a problem with that, especially when you consider that a craft cocktail is going to run you $10. We're not trying to gouge anyone, but we do have to keep our costs in line or none of us is going to have a job.
What about being in this neighborhood? Everyone knows the stereotype that Uptown is full of douchebags. After working here every day for a few months, what do you think?
Ooh, I'm going to get in trouble here. I'll just say this: I really enjoy the peoplewatching here. I don't want this to sound bad, but would I hang out down here after work? No. But it is an interesting place to work, and most people don't hang out near their jobs on their days off. It's hilarious sometimes. You'll hear stupid stuff, like a group of dudes arguing about who spent more on their shoes. You do your double-take and think "yeah, those are dudes," and then move on. There's also a high concentration of bros, and that's just not really my style. But it doesn't make me angry and I don't get all pissed off about having to come to Uptown every day and work. I live over by Greenville Avenue, and that's probably more my speed.
Do you think that reputation is overblown? Do you think people don't come to Uptown because of it?
Do people act differently here than other neighborhoods, sure. But as long as they're not hurting me or anyone else, I don't care what they're doing, and neither should anyone else. People don't come here because they think the crowds are awful. My foodie friends tell me all the time that they can't believe I'm in Uptown. But I think we can maybe shake the neighborhood a little bit and make things more diverse.
As of late, Uptown is not where the trendy food places are cropping up. Why do you think restaurants have sort of fled to these up-and-coming neighborhoods like Bishop Arts?
Every restaurant has to decide where their concept fits into the community. Why would we open a place like So & So's somewhere else when it works perfectly right here in Uptown. In these smaller neighborhoods, the foodie, indie, hipster, whatever you want to call it, crowd is there. They're all about trying candied pig tails or whatever. If I tried to put that on the menu here, people would say "ew, that's gross, I'm not trying it," and we would never sell any of it. Chicken on the bone goes a long way here, you'd be surprised.
So it's hard for you to put "weird" shit on the menu?
Yeah, it is right now. But hopefully it isn't for long. We have this beautiful pate plate. It's gorgeous. So smooth, so creamy, and has this ridiculously good flavor. Sometimes, we'll sell ten to twelve a night. Other days, we'll go three days without selling any of it, and we're putting it on the cheeseboard so it doesn't go bad. And that's something simple - just a basic pate. So I have to find the perfect mix - dishes that will attract the foodie types and dishes that I enjoy cooking as a chef.
I want to be challenged and work with new techniques and recipes, but I also have to have things on the menu that our customers are going to want. I don't think it's true at all that you could never have food like that on a menu in Uptown, but it takes work. You have to feel out these customers and take their favorite foods and what they like and elevate them in a way that they're going to love.
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Are there any specific dishes that you think the crowd is starting to warm up to?
Actually, yeah. Our "al pastor" dish is really interesting. It's kind of like nachos, even though it has no connection to a typical "nachos" dish. We candy pork belly, then top it with Korean kimchi, add cotija cheese and avocado. People get down on the confit pork belly, but how do we explain kimchi? Don't tell people it's a fermented cabbage slaw. Tell them it's a mix of marinated vegetables, and that's how we sell it. I'm not lying in that statement, and we're just pumping out. It's like a victory. I've got people eating pork belly and kimchi in the same damn dish and they're loving it. That's how I see the area changing. When you can approach items that are comfortable to people and then throw in weird ingredients that they may not expect.
What about bringing together the bar and food menu?
It is so much fun. We have this group of guys that all work together and brainstorm things that are going to be perfect to this restaurant. It's a really collective effort. We're all kind of the same age and at the same point in our careers, and we all want to do the same thing. Everything is a collaboration - what bands we're going to book, what beers we're going to add in, and what food is going on the menu. No one is really trying to throw around their executive power here.