The other day Nancy Nichols wrote a post on SideDish complaining about too many burger restaurants in Dallas (just after a list celebrating 20 local burgers was published on the same blog). "Do we need more mac and cheese, burgers and braised short ribs?" she asks, prompted by an announcement for yet another American restaurant. I've been arguing the same point for what seems like forever. I've cheered on the seemingly never coming end to the Great Burger Bubble. I've been begging Dallas to embrace a little more culinary weirdness as other Texas towns have, including Austin and Marfa.
But I don't think my complaining has gotten me very far. And now that someone is openly agreeing with me I feel like playing the other side of the burger patty just to be a jerk about it.
Nichols offers that maybe a dearth of innovative chefs has caused stagnation in Dallas' culinary scene, and I agree. Chefs who are willing to break out of the local meat-and-potatoes mold have been few and far between. Then she wonders why more chefs don't see Dallas as a great market opportunity, a place to move and develop their skills, but I think the rest of her post answers her question. Chefs, the ones who care about the artistry and craft in their cooking, want to be surrounded by innovation and to be inspired. Why would they choose a city that has a longstanding reputation for an overabundance of American and Tex-Mex restaurants?
The other night, I was at Ten Ramen slurping my way through a bowl of Mazemen ramen with my new buddy Chashu. I was a mess, flinging noodles and sauce all over the bar, when two women walked partway through the door and stopped short of entering. They did a quick scan of the restaurant before whispering in each other's ears, and then they very slowly backed out and left. Everyone assumed they were either disappointed by the setting (standing room only, dark and quirky interior) or unwilling to step into a space that offered a glimpse into a different culture. "How often does that happen?" I asked one of the chefs. "All the time," he replied.
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So why the hell would a chef want to come to Dallas to open up a kati roll stand, a Scandinavian restaurant or anything else that doesn't heavily feature burgers or sour cream enchiladas? Sure, there's risk of increased competition in more adventurous cities, but If you're going to move, why wouldn't you pick a place that's proven to have a more well-rounded palate?
And for chefs who are already here, resisting that short rib temptation must be hard, as it has been proven to work again and again. Many first-time restaurateurs are putting their life savings on the line to realize their businesses, which must only heighten the sense of risk.
A subset of Dallas chefs are working very hard to make a dent in the local culinary identity, and some diners are cheering them on, but they are firmly in the margin.
So when is that push to innovate going to hit critical mass sufficient to make a lasting impression? The only way this will happen is if the innovative restaurants are wildly successful. And the only way those restaurants will thrive is if Dallasites go out and spend a bunch of their money in them. Diners vote for Dallas' future culinary culture with every dollar they spend. So if you want Dallas to embrace a more adventurous spirit, pick up a fork and start eating as much of it as you can.