Dallas Chefs and Restaurateurs Embrace the Weird

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Have you noticed the giant blue B and G sculptures strategically placed around town? The ones that invite passersby to pose in the center as an “I” so they can feel like they’re part of the super-sized action? If you haven’t, you really should get outside more often. Fourteen or so of them have popped up around the city over and over again since the campaign started two years ago. The guys behind it at the Dallas Convention & Visitors Bureau brag that Dallas has the biggest contiguous urban arts district, a big nightlife scene and plenty of big sports teams, if you consider Arlington part of the action.

Under the same big-is-better logic, a big restaurant culture is just another part of what makes Dallas a great place to live or visit, and on that score, Dallas puts its money where its mouth is. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Dallas diners spend a bigger share of their income, 6.1 percent, on eating out than any other major city in the country. San Francisco and Los Angeles, whose restaurant cultures are celebrated nationally, if not internationally, come in next at 5.7 and 5.6 percent. But does size really matter? Sure, everything’s bigger in Texas, but promoting size over substance will never get Dallas recognized for its food culture. We may spend a lot eating out, but the only people who generally recognize the city for its thriving, dynamic dining scene are a collection of especially positive-minded diners who live here.

Much of that money goes to chain restaurants that dominate our urban sprawl. Countless new developments cater to franchises and other tested concepts. They’re the safer bets for owners, so they’re stamped out over and over, defeating attempts to diversify the local dining culture. Ubiquitous chains aren’t unique to Dallas, but if we spend more of our incomes eating out yet have a restaurant scene that goes virtually unnoticed by the rest of the country, then we’re probably spending our money the wrong way.

What Dallas is known for — the restaurants that rise above Chili’s and Panera Breads — are the steakhouses, barbecue spots and Tex-Mex restaurants that have dominated the restaurant landscape for decades. Dinner in the Big D conjures Copland’s Appalachian Spring for outsiders: Beef, it’s what’s for dinner. If you’re feeling exotic, we’ll season that beef with cumin and serve it with freshly griddled tortillas. Add a valet stand and a dose of pretension, and we’ll call that fancy.

That has been the stereotype, in any case. But buying into it means ignoring what has slowly been percolating in smaller Dallas restaurants over the past few years. Perhaps slower than food enthusiasts would like, new and interesting ideas are cropping up, and they couldn’t be further from the meat and potatoes, salsa and phosphorescent cheese that have dominated plates in this town.

These next-generation restaurateurs have new ideas of what constitutes a good bar or restaurant. They ask hard-hitting questions, like, “Why are there Hungarian restaurants in Chicago but none in Dallas?” They’re expanding the boundaries of what old Dallas would consider to be edible. They’re brewing and selling funky beers and taking bits of animals that used to be relegated to sausages or the waste bin and showcasing them as standalone dishes. They’re ripping the top off canned fish and calling it dinner and tapping eastern European roots to serve plates that previously were only enjoyed in home kitchens.

They’re also taking a swipe at the glitz and glam that have defined much of Dallas’ restaurant identity. These envelope-pushing restaurants are filled with casually dressed customers who aren’t impressed with caviar and duck liver and will park their own damn cars, thank you. They aren’t backed by big investors, and often the owners spend as much time in the kitchens as their cooks do. This might not be cutting-edge stuff on the coasts, but in conservative Dallas, it’s just short of a revolution. The bigger news is that it’s working, and more restaurant owners and chefs are noticing that hungry Dallas seems ready to embrace their crazy ideas.

"Yeah, this went too far.”

Misti Norris is using a pair of tweezers to try to catch one of the hundreds of carrot slices floating in a white plastic bucket on a counter. The medallions shift about, slithering away in watery swirls and floating white feathers of bacteria. A whiff of spoilage rises from the bucket, and when she finally does connect, the target carrot slice disintegrates into a watery cloud of muted orange.

Norris is experimenting with natural pickling, a finicky process that makes use of bacteria often found in the skins of fruits and vegetables to preserve and flavor them. In a properly mixed brine solution, the bacteria work slowly, creating lactic acid that acts similarly to vinegar and other preservatives. If the brine is too salty, bacterial growth is stunted and you’re left with salted vegetables. Not salty enough, and the bacteria goes wild, yielding a container of rotten, smelly vegetables. Get the temperature wrong, and the process can go foul too. Norris thinks this batch got too warm and the bacterial growth went haywire. It smells terrible. “This is definitely headed for the garbage,” she says, snapping the lid back onto the bucket.

Small Brewpub is an odd experiment set up by a few beer nerds based in Oak Cliff. Aaron Garcia and his friends got their start throwing private events to show off their home brews. Their suds gained fans, but Garcia had no interest in joining the tide of craft brewers flooding Dallas’ taps with local beer. He wanted to open a place where customers could drink his beers while they grazed on interesting dishes. He hired Norris, and for the past year the kitchen at Small has served as her personal laboratory as she pushes the boundaries of fermentation and aging.

Small is a brewpub by definition, but the name sells Norris short. Brewpubs typically focus on their beers — the standard bar food is an afterthought — but at Small, Norris’ cuisine shares the spotlight. Instead of burgers and sandwiches, she plates up artfully composed dishes comprising obscure and handcrafted ingredients that would look at home on white linen.

Her most popular is a series of butcher’s boards arranged with slices of cured beef tongue, country pâté, bacon made from pork shoulders and other oddities. Much of the meat is cured in a broken-down Kenmore refrigerator stored above the restaurant, which on its warmest setting holds its temperature at a charcuterie-perfect mid-50s. Norris had the weathered box outfitted with a digital temperature display and a fan for circulation, and checks on it regularly, gently squeezing the sausages and other meats to see which have finished curing. For most charcuterie, including the spicy lonza that’s currently on the butcher’s board, the firmer the meat, the closer the salumi’s date with a deli slicer. Nduja, on the other hand, is prized for remaining spreadable as it cures — perfect when smeared over a slice of crusty toasted bread.

Charcuterie, though, has been popular in Dallas for years, and other plates are where Norris pushes her boundaries further. When she first sought to put chickens’ feet on her menu, her coworkers balked, suggesting they might better serve as an accent to some other chicken dish. Norris insisted that the parts responsible for propelling chickens around a barnyard could be made attractive to Dallas diners. After a lengthy braise, a flash fry and some significant garnish work, Dallas’ most unlikely bar snack was born. They’ve been wildly popular.

Even when Norris tries to play it safe, her ideas gradually skew toward complex and even strange preparations. “This is too easy,” she recalls saying of a simple pork loin paired with a celery root purée. So she sweated shallots and garlic in a sauté pan and added a healthy measure of pig blood, cooking the mixture until it curdled. It’s processed until smooth and distributed in small dollops around the pork medallions. While you might not hanker for a side of blood sauce instead of honey mustard for your next order of chicken fingers, in small quantities it adds an earthy, mineral dimension to Norris’ dish. It’s delicious.

This is just the sort of plate that might prompt Dallas diners to search their iPhones for the nearest burger restaurant a few years ago. Josh Sutcliff, a sous chef at FT33, where Norris worked before heading to Small, remembers feeling a little nervous for the young chef as she first described her ideas. Along with many other of Norris’ friends, he wondered if Dallas was the right place for a restaurant like Small. “In cities like San Francisco, New York and Chicago, you can get away with whatever you want so long as your food tastes good,” Sutcliff says. Here, customers are more inclined to enjoy dishes they recognize. He offered that Small had a much better chance on the West Coast.

But Norris says closed-minded diners are exactly who she’s looking for. In San Francisco or Los Angeles, chefs and diners have already proven to be adventurous epicureans. Where’s the challenge in that? To her, Dallas is a city filled with ripe, yet-to-be-converted chicken-foot eaters. “Honestly, I’m trying to change people’s perceptions of what food and dining can be,” Norris says. And Dallasites are licking her blooded and pickled plates clean.

Norris is hardly the first chef to try to expand Dallas’ food horizons, or to face doubters. Stephan Pyles says he heard similar things as he prepared to open Routh Street Café in the early ’80s. Back then, stuffy French restaurants and shoulder pads dominated Dallas’ fine dining, and Pyles was initially cast as an outsider. Looking at Pyles’ innovative ideas today, they hardly seem edgy.
A fish mousseline made with trout was as common in French cooking as coq au vin, but Pyles wanted to update the dish based on trends he saw flourishing in other cities. The local food movement was just starting to take off out West, so he replaced commonly used trout with catfish in his own mousse and paired it with a sauce made from crayfish. Pyles also riffed on Tex-Mex dishes using ingredients like lobster and foie gras.

“I was often told Routh Street Café was very ahead of its time,” Pyles says, or that his restaurant was “something that should be in California.” Instead of backing down, he doubled down, refining what would become a new Southwestern cuisine. Pyles smoked duck over local hickory before tossing it in salads and spiced soups and other dishes with mouth-burning chilies.

Local chefs grumbled, but “the press was supportive,” he says. Cooks Magazine wrote up the restaurant, and The New York Times made multiple mentions. Pyles was soon regarded as one of the best chefs in the country, going on to win a James Beard award and remain a fixture of Dallas dining. Local French chefs are still weeping in their consommé.

Norris hasn’t drawn that level of attention yet, but Small Brewpub has been open only a year. Bon Appétit wrote of her “tiny menu of a half-dozen offal-heavy dishes” and “outsize ambitions.” Her cooking is lofty but it also exhibits an earnest character that makes her challenging dishes likable. Norris’ food is satisfying but it always keeps you guessing.
Restaurants don’t have to offer pickled pig parts and house-cultured butter to stand out. Other young restaurateurs are making their marks with less “outsize” preparations. When Peter Novotny opened Armoury D.E. with his partners in Deep Ellum, he cautiously tested whether Dallas would bite on Hungarian food. Chicago and other cities in the North had scores of restaurants devoted to the cuisine his immigrant grandmother prepared for the family table. Why not here?

Novotny worked with his chef to add a gulyas (a stew) based on his grandmother’s recipes to a menu containing less interesting menu items such as grilled mahi mahi steaks and dinner salads. They offered the csavargó, a hearty sandwich with pickled jalapeños that made use of a Hungarian sausage called gyulai; a simple sautéed chicken breast was hit hard with a spicy sauce for a compelling paprikash.

These weren’t fancy tweezed items courting an elevated dining set; they were peasant dishes offered for less than $20 a plate, and customers devoured them. When a new menu was released a few months later, a grilled steak salad was gone and a plate of pörkölt and spaetzle filled in the space. The rich and spicy stew makes use of tender and fatty rib-eye, and the pasta dumplings boast a seared crust and plenty of salt. It’s a satisfying dish that’s the perfect counter to cool winter weather. Another hearty stew called lesco is now offered alongside the popular gulyas.

Just across Elm Street, Cliff Edgar tested diners’ notions of Southern cooking, fusing familiar dishes like fried chicken and deviled eggs with bold Mexican flavors. Edgar wasn’t even hoping to open a restaurant when he drew up his plan for Brick & Bones. The former manager at the popular but defunct Cedars Social just wanted to open a bar that served likable bar food. He hired Rey Morales, whose Mexican heritage infused the menu. The chicken is brined with chilies, and the gravy served with biscuits is hot with jalapeños. Esquites, a Mexican corn salad, is served as a side along with fried huauzontle, a Mexican vegetable that vaguely resembles broccoli.

Edgar says the response to his dinner menu far exceeded expectations, and the bar he’d originally planned on opening operates a lot more like a restaurant. Customers come in earlier than they would for a bar and request food menus. Many are here for an oily, fried bird with roots in Nashville known as hot chicken. The drinks are a bonus.
The customers at Brick & Bones are hungry for something other than burgers and Buffalo-style chicken wings when they go out for drinks. Why is this happening now, when a burger and a beer at Lakewood Landing has been the gold standard for bar food in Dallas for decades? Edgar thinks Dallas is at a tipping point, spurred on by earlier efforts by young chefs like Matt McCallister at FT33. Years ago, when McCallister ran the kitchen at since-closed Campo, he was one of the first to bring the trends toward foraging, charcuterie and offal that were sweeping more adventurous cities into his cooking.

Every successful menu or trend is a tentative green light that signals Dallas is ready to embrace new ideas, and what we’re seeing is a slow but steady snowball effect, Edgar says. It makes sense. Novotny also sees the Dallas restaurant scene coming to a boil. He says he wouldn’t be surprised if more chefs step out with creative concepts in the coming year.
One of the weirdest ideas to date took shape when newly opened Eight Bells Alehouse owners Meri Dahlke and Michael Hickey came up with a solution to their impossibly small kitchen. The couple recently took over the Amsterdam Bar in Fair Park and refused to let kitchen equipment costs erode their tiny budget for the space. They now offer a small menu of conservas, or carefully canned fish and shellfish, along with a selection of pub ales. When a customer orders the mackerel, for instance, a can is ripped open and the tender filets are carefully plated with capers, lemon wedges, olive oil and other garnishes. The results are a bar food menu that reads like no other in Dallas.

Hickey admits not everyone gets it. He likes to point to a specific Yelp review in which an apparently clueless customer complains that everything on her plate came out of a can or jar. But most of his customers seem enamored with the menu. These aren’t the same cans found on grocery store shelves, but high quality products imported from Spain. Carefully tinned sardines with crackers and pub ale make for a very compelling bar snack.

If the beer drinkers at Eight Bells are willing to pay $40 for a can of impeccably preserved cockles with their pub ale, you have to wonder what else is being left on the table when Dallas is labeled as a meat and potatoes town. You also have to
wonder what would happen if more Dallas chefs made an honest attempt to sculpt what their customers think constitutes a great dining experience.

Or what if a bar-back with a Polish grandmother sees the success at Armoury D.E. and decides to open a pierogi bar filled with family recipes? A few years ago, a restaurant built entirely on Eastern European dumplings would have seemed like the type of spot you’d find in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, and only if you were on a list. Now it’s not that hard to imagine a lively bar tucked into a small space in Deep Ellum or downtown, where customers order short rib and potato filled pierogies while slamming crystalline shots of chilled Chopin. Dallasites relishing pickled herring and smoked fish pâté? It doesn’t seem like a long shot these days.

Locals have already proven their affection for dumplings, as evidenced by the success of Monkey King Noodle Co.’s Andrew Chen, who brought the street foods of Taipei to Main Street in late 2013. Chen had the foresight to bring dishes predominantly served in the suburbs to the center of the city, and continues his work to introduce Dallasites to new dishes. He may not be sure the durian he’s experimenting with (the fruit is known for its putrid smell of rotting flesh) will make it to the menu of his coming dessert restaurant Monkey King Banana Stand, but he’s testing ice cream recipes. Chen says he would love to see his customers have that option along with other interesting flavors including black sesame and oolong tea.

Making use of obscure and challenging ingredients, resurrecting techniques that haven’t been popular in kitchens for decades, printing menus that force diners outside of their comfort zones before they order a plate — these are the types of big ideas needed to give Dallas a dining culture that stands firmly with its own identity. Dallas has a long way to go if it wants to gain a reputation as a great culinary destination, but it’s standing on a ton of potential.

Will it happen? There’s too much going on in other American cities for those changes to not affect our dining culture here. The rate at which that change occurs is a function of restaurateurs’ willingness to keep embracing weird ideas paired with chefs’ abilities to thoughtfully execute them. If this momentum continues, though, the coming year could be exciting for local diners as chefs and restaurant owners continue to take more risks. It’s distant, but you can almost hear the music for a new theme breaking out amongst the din of clanking tableware. Creativity: It’s what’s for dinner.

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