All-American is a series that looks at beloved, longstanding North Texas eateries and examines their histories while exploring how the food has changed — for good or bad — over the years.
Find a counter stool, and you’ll see the signs: Steel guitar croons over the speakers. Across the street, steam chugs out of Taqueria El Si Hay and the line for the roasted corn cart builds up. You can see the winding line through the wheeled-up garage doors, which lets in a rare cool breeze at lunchtime on a weekday. Raise a glass to the Centro-Matic poster above the bar — the alt-country band founded in Denton — and all sights and sounds will coalesce, like stars forming a constellation, into one sign: Bolsa is uniquely Dallas, from patio to oven.
It’s midday, and there’s only a couple of other patrons in the dining room. On the bar TV, the Rangers knock a few foul balls into the crowd. Two cars nearly crunch fenders across Davis Street, which doesn't disturb anyone in the restaurant. Bolsa is nothing short of a hearth that will warm your tired hands. Bolsa is Oak Cliff’s Red Headed Stranger, where the goat tacos roam and the pastrami and the arancini play. Restaurants rise and fall in the churn — just up the street, construction is reshaping Bishop Arts in true Dallas style — but Bolsa is a 10-year-old lighthouse in the fog. There's a reason why, amid the cacophony of new brunch spots swarming DFW, we named this old-timer Best Brunch in this year's Best of Dallas awards.
Christopher Zielke was 18 when he moved to Dallas with his brother. He was born in Madrid and routed his way to Texas through Central America with little more than animated moths in his wallet. Once settled into Garland, young Zielke biked to his job as a busboy at Ryan’s all-you-can-eat buffet. Later, he graduated to the beautiful chain restaurant known as Bennigan’s.
“I thought I had entered fine dining at its highest,” he laughs. A job at Highland Park’s Italian hub Patrizio was next. Then, like he’d done as a kid, he traveled upward. He tended bar at some joints around the city, coasted to manager at a few others and landed at West Village’s Nikita. Hotel ZaZa was his next venture, a project that’s strangely fascinating to juxtapose to his now-iconic Oak Cliff eatery.
Around the time the housing bubble popped, Bolsa turned on the lights. Chef Graham Dodds was in the kitchen at the time, and legendary mixologist Eddie Campbell, who was shake-weighting cocktails long before it was cool in Dallas, helmed at the bar. Charcuterie was a delicious face-punch at Bolsa before it was a delicious face-punch at copycat gastropubs. Drinks were extraordinary, long before you’d find nutmeg enigmas or charcoal-black concoctions on other bar cocktail menus.
The crumbled sausage flatbread and the cheeseburger are two Dallas gems. They’re the two mainstay dishes that have gone unchanged, for the most part, since opening. Show up for an early bird dinner, and you may literally see how the sausage is made — the grinder is tucked away in the tiny, open kitchen corner. On a recent visit, the circles of banana peppers stun the brain with heat. Every thought in my mind shot out like fireworks. The flavor profile is a stand-and-eat New York pie, right down to the flour dust on your hands that you wipe on your pants.
“We didn’t ever really see this as fine dining," Zielke says. “I think it was kind of a revelation at the time for Dallas. There wasn’t a whole lot that bridged the gap between chain restaurants and fine dining.”
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A decade later, the cheeseburger is as sharply simple and delicious as it was in 2009. They pan-sear the house-ground patty, top it with the usual lettuce, tomato, red onion and thick, crispy planks of bacon. It’s good. Really good.
“We don’t do anything really crazy. We don’t put pork jowl on it,” he says.
Staff changes happened, and the menu Tetris'd around local foods, but for a decade, Bolsa has kept the train on the tracks. It’s achingly real food in the age of over-availability. The burger has big beef flavor, and the bacon is crispy. It’s gone in a few minutes over lunch — a simple, damn good meal in an Oak Cliff classic.
Bolsa, 614 W. Davis St. (Oak Cliff)