Dallas Could Learn a Lot from the Restaurants in Marfa

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I didn't leave for Marfa with the highest expectations when it came to dining. Recommendations for art exhibits and hot springs and other attractions fell out of every face I told I was headed to the tiny West Texas town for vacation. When I asked where to eat, they mostly fell mute. The most common advice I received was that there were so few restaurants to patronize in Marfa, I shouldn't put too much thought into it. And from someone else: "I think there's a food truck or something."

They were right, in a way. With a population just north of 2,000, Marfa isn't teeming with sushi restaurants or upscale burger concepts, but the town has managed to cultivate a restaurant scene that's creative, interesting and unlike any other. There aren't too many towns that offer grilled cheese sandwiches in a museum of electronic wonders. There aren't too many places you can eat world-class falafel on a school bus.

Dallas, actually, could learn a little from a town like Marfa.

I spent a lot of my time between bites wondering why such creativity isn't more apparent here in Dallas. There's a lot of great stuff going on here: Small Brewpub strikes me as the most creative restaurant going right now, and Luscher's Red Hot and Monkey King Noodle Co. are both outside-the-box businesses that are helping expand Dallas' restaurant scene. There are others, too.

But still to an outsider looking in, many of these gems get lost in the sea of corporate chains and older institutions that muddy the waters of the local dining scene. What we need is a lot more weird shit -- restaurants that can be heard over the din of the Dallas dining blahs.

Take Food Shark, for instance, my favorite Marfa dining experience. Imagine ordering a simple sandwich stuffed with falafel from a food truck that looks like it was recently dragged off a scrap yard. The massive falafels are made with a coarse mixture and fried to a serious crunch. Now imagine an owner who had the sense to use a tortilla to wrap it all up, instead of crappy pita bread shipped from Chicago. Imagine all of this is served in a run-down school bus heated with an electric space heater, while public radio plays on the same kind of radio your dad had in his shop when you were a kid. I realize this is a lot of imagining, but this is Marfa. Keep up. It was a hell of a falafel sandwich.

Later that night, I talked with Food Shark owner Adam Bork, who was working his second job: cooking grilled cheese sandwiches in another restaurant, which doubles as a museum of electronic wonders. He was working the counter, and I asked the secret to his falafel back at the truck: How do you get the exterior so substantial and crunchy without drying out the insides?

Bork seemed perplexed, and offered that it might be the corn meal he added to his recipe. He learned the trick from an Israeli man who also made falafel and worked in a scrap yard in a nearby town. Bork had no idea how the corn meal worked, but he said it helped the texture. He said another trick for awesome falafel was to fry them halfway to hell.

Minutes later I was sitting in a plastic chair, eating a grilled cheese stuffed with artichoke petals and pickled cauliflower. It was served on a tray lined with fuzzy Astroturf, and I was surrounded by vintage televisions displaying weird art videos, including images of more delicious grilled cheese sandwiches. And I thought, This would never happen in Dallas.

Part of the reason I think such a restaurant like this would never open for business in Dallas is because guys like Adam Bork, and the other cast of characters I met in Marfa, rarely think to move to Dallas. These are people who are running from Austin because it's too commercial; Dallas would feel like a caustic bath. But there has to be more keeping the local dining scene from reaching its creative culinary zenith.

City hall isn't be helping. I've never heard a restaurateur speak fondly of the permitting process in any city, but Dallas seems to drive business owners especially bonkers. Ideas that closely conform to the city's definition of a restaurant (or even markets or events or food trucks) are the easiest to permit. But as soon as someone tries to expand those boundaries -- a requirement for creating anything truly new or innovative -- the gears or bureaucracy grind to a halt. This friction has hampered small farmers markets and small restaurants. It stymied the local food truck scene. It nearly killed Monkey King Noodle Co. There's no way a 1974 food truck with a standalone diesel-school-bus-turned-dining-car would sneak past -- not without a cultural shift and some policy change downtown.

Trinity Groves is a bit like Marfa if you think about it. The property values may not be Marfa cheap, but it's cheaper than commercial real estate in Uptown or the Park Cities. Trinity Groves is dusty and expansive like Marfa, has art like Marfa, and it serves as a blank slate for budding restaurateurs.

But instead of serving as a hot bed of culinary weirdness and innovation, it feels more of a proving ground for the next Panera Bread, even if it turns out a good dish or two. What's worse: It's siphoning off potentially creative restaurant ideas and turning them into cookie-cutter restaurants.

Dallas doesn't need to embrace a full-on restaurant-meets-performance art mentality if it wants to up its restaurant game. But it does need to find a way to reward the little guy so new ideas can come to the forefront, and eventually land on our tables. Imagine falafel that's worth an eight-hour drive served in Oak Cliff, or a sandwich that combines everything good in both a Cuban and a Reuben.

I had the latter at the Thunderbird Hotel. It was filled with thick slices of roast pork and corned beef that were bound by an impossible amount of melting Swiss cheese. A healthy slathering of mustard woke everything up, and the marbled rye bread was something to get lost in. Food this good can stay with you for a while. Dallas could use some more of it.

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