Just under nine years ago, before a salad of raw, cubed fish painted with soy sauce became everyone’s favorite food fad, East Dallas’ Urbano Cafe had poke on the menu. Chef Keo Velasquez, who helped owner Mitch Kauffman get his kitchen off the ground, sparked casual pasta dishes with his born-and-raised Hawaiian background.
“We eventually had to take it off because it became a trend,” says Kauffman, owner of the humble little neighborhood gem. "I didn't know what it was when he put it on the menu."
An hour after lunch rush, the streets surging with cold rain, I’m the sole diner. The shucking sound of a cook's whisk on a metal bowl mixes with “Tangled Up in Blue,” and it feels like a real, honest-to-goodness neighborhood spot. More customers will come later.
For now, a warm blanket of smoked cheddar, nearly an inch think and melted into grill-seared beef, is only dining partner you'll need. It's the precise, juicy, trend-free cheeseburger that a changing East Dallas needs. It's cooked to order like the restaurant knew you were coming.
“Some people have a concept called neighborhood restaurant," Kauffman says. "I always figured if you had to call yourself that, you’re not really that.”
Before anchoring into Fitzhugh Avenue, snuggled up nice and warm against the bounty of Jimmy’s Food Store, Kauffman’s cafe bounced around Uptown. He served paninis and salads until the rent exploded.
In June 2009, he had a kitchen next to Jimmy's and nine tables in the room. Velasquez' menu weaved Hawaiian flavors, folks brought their own wine and it was a happy little joint.
This year, with gentrification whisking up Fitzhugh, things have moved along with rapidity. Last year was one of Urbano's best, and Kauffman has expanded into the space next door and the one next door to that. He’s done pop-ups in one of those spaces — two have featured chef Graham Dodds and one Misti Norris. Later, he'll open a patio in the back and grill outside.
In other words, Urbano stays the course. New gastropubs, when they overload a block, can feel like they're sucking all the oxygen out of the tried-and-true neighborhood spots. Urbano's sandwiches are breaths of fresh air; they live on the menu without caring if you know.
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The burger is a simple thing of beauty. A beef patty, laced with wagyu-style fat, sears on the flat grill until it has a crispy cap, then sits on a nest of grill-charred red onions. The juices of the beef flow downward, dressing the romaine lettuce underneath. It’s buttery and rich brown like gravy and becomes a condiment. The bun is soft, edged with burn-crunch from the griddle. Cheese finds the beef in inch-thick clouds of smoked cheddar. It’s got the heart of a neighborhood spot since before #neighborhoodspot might have been a hashtag.
“I wish I could give you a nice 10-step process for the burger, but really it’s just wagyu beef seasoned with salt and pepper, and that’s it,” Kauffman says.
If a cheeseburger is the front door to a restaurant’s execution, then that’s all you really need to know.
Urbano Cafe, 1410 N. Fitzhugh Ave.