It's a beautiful afternoon to eat and drink outside, and I'm sitting at a picnic table hewn of haphazard and reclaimed lumber, sucking oregano-tinged honey from the webbing between my thumb and forefinger. Dogs circle the tables from below, while a swarm of flies circle metal pie plates on the tables from above. A lonely kid plays Twister by himself on a rainbow of dots painted on the concrete. Kids are everywhere, actually — it's a shade away from Romper Room here at Chicken Scratch — just as Tim Byres, Chris Jeffers and Chris Zielke intended.
All three are Oak Cliff entrepreneurs. Jeffers and Zielke owned Bolsa, the farm-to-table gem on West Davis Street, before joining Byres to open the nearby Smoke. Chicken Scratch and The Foundry, the next-door bar, are their attempt to branch out.
"Smoke was a real challenge," says Jeffers, who compares the opening of his second restaurant to a new band's sophomore album. While Bolsa took the neighborhood by surprise, offering a locavore take on casual cookery just as the movement was taking off in Dallas, Smoke delved into barbecue — serious business in Texas. The team suddenly felt the collective scrutiny of the Texas brisket aficionados.
"No matter how good you do it, someone's grandmother made a better pecan pie," Jeffers says of the rocky start. "We found ourselves competing with memories, which you can't win." Byres' novel approach, anchored by his use of old-school wood-fired ovens, helped, earning deserved attention for his back-to-basics cooking. Smoke is still smoking along.
Chicken Scratch is a casual walk-up counter that serves loads of fried chicken. The Foundry is a large, wide-open bar with a respectable beer list that relies heavily on local Texas beers, while also offering brews from around the globe. The two are independent yet closely tied businesses, and they share a sizable patio and courtyard off of West Commerce Street. The owners wanted to use the space to cater to families looking for a casual place to kick back and relax.
"We really want to focus on family-style entertaining," Byres said in an interview with the Observer conducted just before his chicken house opened. "Just like how it's awesome to have a big 20-person spread at your house."
You could almost pretend you're in your friend's backyard while you're hanging out here — provided your friend is a decent carpenter with a polished and creative eye for restaurant design. The east side of the courtyard — or "compound," as Byres describes it — is framed by the two buildings that house the restaurant and bar. To the west, shipping containers that once sat stacked on train cars have been reinvented as furnished front porches, complete with couches, coffee tables and ceiling fans. The box cars are topped with massive translucent plastic cubes that used to hold soda concentrate. "Lemon berry," reads the label on one box, but they now glow in soft alternating greens and blues that get brighter as the sun sets and the space picks up its evening hue.
To the north is an open-sided building with a few more tables, and a set up for corn hole and other games. And to the south is Dallas' most attractive outdoor stage, built from wooden shipping pallets stacked into a cascading rounded giant that drunkenly leans to the side. The four sides frame what might be Dallas' coolest outdoor space, serving up food that would be at home at any outdoor picnic, and lots of beer.
Byres cooks his fried chicken in large, cast-iron dutch ovens that you can see sitting on the range behind the register inside Chicken Scratch. Shallow frying should be expected from a chef who fires his ovens with wood back at Smoke. It's an old-school preparation that happens to impart a killer crust.
The process is time-consuming, taking 15 to 20 minutes a batch, and finicky, requiring careful monitoring and turning. Contact with the bottom of the skillet causes the skin to crisp up in ways that deep fried chicken could only dream of — delicious skin, flecked with celery seeds and other seasonings and drizzled with a touch of honey thinned with vinegar when it's finished. It's a shame that skin doesn't stay put.
It was apparent something was off the second I got my first pie plate of fried yardbird. The exterior was a rich and deep brown, but it had torn a little, exposing naked chicken flesh beneath the crunchy, salty folds of crusty skin. Taking a fork and knife to the bird aggravated the situation. The skin shattered, an almost impossibly crisp texture that broke like Coke-bottle glass, falling off in shards with every stab. This issue presented itself every time I tried the fried chicken over four visits. (I recently issued a formal apology to my arteries.) The skin sloughed off in sheets, leaving the perfectly juicy chicken flesh beneath naked and defenseless against my utensils — a bummer, considering how incredible the flavors were.
On another visit, a chicken roasted over pecan wood was flawless in comparison, but only during that visit. Tender, moist and faintly tinged with smoke, the bird gets a bashful blanket of tangy barbecue sauce before waiters run it out to the tables. But later it was overcooked and dry, practically erasing my memory of that first plate.
The sides and condiments are indicative of Byres' popular cooking back at Smoke. Collard greens are stunning. Smoked turkey necks lend earthy, meaty flavors balanced by aggressive vinegar and guajillo chilies, which lent smoke, heat and the color of wet rust. Tamales are good, too; packed with spicy chicken, the chubby corn husks look like they might burst if you didn't tear into them first. Mac and cheese and mashed potatoes taste like standard-issue, mom-prepared sides but biscuits are all over the place — doughy one day, and dry as a cracker the next.
You might be bummed out that Chicken Scratch charges for condiments (up to $1.50 for crackling gravy), but you'll have to get over it. The buttermilk ranch is thick, tangy and herbal, and Tejano Red should be bottled so the acidic spicy condiment can be added to anything and everything at home. The oregano vinegar honey, which is lightly applied to the chicken after it's fried, is available for purchase as well. Do it.
And while those mashed potatoes are nothing special, the gravy that tops them is magic. Byres skims the excess bits of breading that slough off the chicken during the frying process after every batch. "Crispies," he calls the little nodules of spent flour and seasoning, and they form the base for a delicious and peppery gravy that's sometimes as blond as a yeasty hefeweizen and other times dark and lusty. Order more of this, too, and if the weather is agreeable, wait for your bounty outside while sipping on a Deep Ellum Rye Pils, or any of the other beers poured next door. The combination makes a compelling experience that with more consistent cooking could easily keep the attention of casual Dallas diners for years to come.
"This could be in Austin," a friend said back at our wooden picnic table one night. And it could. Two hundred miles away, a rival Texas city teems with innovative restaurants, compelling outdoor spaces and a certain grit and cool that draws in many trendsetting creatives. The Austin comparison has been made of other Dallas spots such as the Katy Trail Ice House and All Good Cafe. But while the Foundry and Chicken Scratch point to something increasingly not Dallas, lumping it in with Austin doesn't seem right either. "No, it's Oak Cliff," I countered. And rightly so.