David Zhu was tired of the downtown grocery store dance. You’re probably familiar with the struggle if you live in the heart of Dallas: the eternal circling of Uptown, downtown and anywhere near the high-rises to find a single open parking spot. He’d been living at the AMLI in the Design District a handful of years, and the hassle of obtaining basic groceries grated him.
At 28 years old, he has already belted some businesses. He sold a medical marijuana business a few years ago in Colorado, and at one point, he bought a gross of hoverboards to sell for profit. Now, a year into owning Bodega at Hi Line in the Design District, under the very building he lived in for five years, Zhu looks comfortable in the owner’s chair.
He’s behind the register on a recent visit, wearing a bright smile. He sits with a co-worker who uses some down time to bottle his coffee, a powerful cold brew called Night Rider. All around Zhu are the fruits of his labor — planks of wood fashioned into seating, panels that showcase the work of local artists (there’s also a vending machine filled with rolled works of art), local sodas, condoms, batteries, Reese’s Puffs cereal, cigarettes — they’ve thought of everything.
“I didn’t want it to be a Whole Foods,” says Zhu in excited bursts. He wanted his bodega, which was inspired from frequent trips to the well-known haunts in Manhattan, to be a “mom-and-pop shop for the community.” In this case, he’s both mom and pop.
“People don’t want to get in their car and circle the lot three times for cigarillos,” he says.
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The menu is full of the good stuff. Starting at 7 in the morning, he has tacos, pizzas, quesadillas, a few burgers (he’s using an old-school log of ground beef, smashed into the hot griddle) and a crusty, porky Cubano that time-travels you right into some past beach vacation. At this point I feel it’s prudent to repeat that the full menu begins at 7 a.m.; a Cubano right after the sun comes up is a gift to our fast-moving city.
Zhu roasts the pork in-house and slices it thick to order: Each is a delicate sheet, sewn with rosemary and salt and pepper. This is wonderfully fatty and tender pork. The rest of the immense sandwich is as you’d hope: ribbons of good ham, dill pickle and Dijon mustard. Swiss cheese fuses to the bolillo roll — it’s the only sandwich that he presses with heat — which crackles and busts as you take a bite.
It’s immediately a new favorite thing, a breath of salty air in a feverishly changing city. Just after the lunch hour, Zhu takes the order, walks back to the kitchen and disappears for a few minutes. He emerges with a full plate, one half of the sandwich neatly against its other half (knowing full-well it beckons a meat tourist like me to snap a photo), and reclaims his seat behind the register. His store opens at dawn and, on weekends, closes at 3 a.m., but he’s still relaxed. Why? It could be he knows he's got a delicious Cubano sandwich, or the ability to find parking nearby. Either way, we're out of excuses
The Bodega at Hi Line, 1400 Hi Line Drive, Suite 120 (Design District)