Saloons just aren’t what they used to be. In his recent, wildly entertaining book A Short History of Drunkenness, Mark Forsyth traced the history of the saloon beyond the Hollywood myth, to a time when the word denoted a tent with a couple of barrels of whiskey inside. Saloons of those days were perfumed by the horses, and horse manure, parked out front.
“The only two drinks you can respectably buy are whiskey and beer,” Forsyth wrote. “And, frankly, beer is pretty questionable.”
In his 1860 book An Overland Journey, Horace Greeley noted saloon customers’ “careless way, when drunk, of firing revolvers, sometimes at each other, and other times quite miscellaneously.” Many used lanterns for target practice, so saloon owners kept massive stashes of extra lighting. The only thing Greeley liked less than the gunplay was the food, which at one stop on his journey consisted of “three or four cans of pickled oysters and two or three boxes of sardines but nothing of the bread kind.”
A new saloon in Dallas’ Victory Park neighborhood looks quite different from this historical portrait. There is no horse manure and the beer is not dubious. The ceilings are high, the oysters are fried and there are several things of the bread kind.
If any uppity hipster enters this new 21st century model of the saloon and complains that it doesn’t match the original, said hipster can go drink whiskey in a tent. I’d rather live in the present. Yes, this new joint puts quite a high-rollin’, high-falutin’ Dallas polish on the mythology, but that makes it a darn good night out.
The only real problem is the name, Billy Can Can, which I will not mention again, because I find the name embarrassing to even think. My friends and I have taken to calling it “Billy,” “BCC,” “The Saloon” and even “Leslie’s Place,” after Leslie Brenner, the former Dallas Morning News restaurant critic who now works for the saloon’s parent company, Rebees. Anything but the sing-songy real name, a bit of kitsch that conjures up both the Wild West and the Moulin Rouge simultaneously.
Whatever we call it, it’s a place where inauthenticity leads to happy results. True, there are real-deal touches, like the pressed-tin ceiling, brassy beer taps, stuffed animal heads and constant roar of shouty guests. But this saloon is unusually spacious, and there’s hardly a spittoon in sight.
Much unlike the bars in Tombstone, our modern spot is a particularly good place to drink wine, with an exceptionally well-chosen list full of bargains and more than two dozen wines available by the glass. On one visit, my table loved a $37 Morgon that must be one of the city’s best bang-for-buck bottles. The cocktails aren’t so exciting, though they top what Greeley drank.
And the food sure beats a box of sardines. Executive chef Matt Ford, formerly of The Joule hotel, presides over a menu that manages to combine 1880s cosplay with just about every 2018 trend imaginable. Tartare? It’s here, made with venison ($16). Nashville hot chicken? Yup, except the bird here is quail ($21). Duck pappardelle? Why, that was Doc Holliday’s favorite dish ($22).
Sticking to the classics produces terrific results. The small bowl of “red” is a superb no-bean Texas chili thick enough to eat with a fork, its spices warming without being fiery ($10). My Texas-born tablemate professed it as good as her mother’s. She admitted, too, that the cornbread beats her own ($9). Cooked and served in a cast-iron pan, topped with a pat of butter, this is richer, eggier cornbread than many joints serve — practically cake-like, and as tall as a Chicago pizza. (One quibble: we found the promised green chiles in just two bites.)
A peppery sauce on the fried oyster sliders ($5 each) is another example of a kitchen that is locked in on the “just right” level of spice, bold enough to set taste buds on edge but never too far. The deviled eggs sampler tray ($14) — six half eggs, each topped with something different — set our party of four to the difficult task of dividing the spoils with careful knife work. The simplest were best, including one topped with pickled okra and two more with candied bacon and country ham. The only real miss was a paprika-coated egg, which came off oddly sweet.
They may not have had duck pappardelle in the Wild West, but that’s just another reason to keep the time machine turned off. Saloons these days — at least this one — make the wide, flat, extremely long noodles in-house, and are so generous with the confit duck and braised greens that an extra noodle or two might be welcome. The pork chop, with its big hulking bone, feels more in the spirit of things, especially since there’s a splash of bourbon in the brine and the meat is excellently flavored ($29).
Another unlikely saloon dish: skate, the ray-like fish, fried like a Viennese schnitzel and served on a fascinating puree of smoked soft-boiled eggs ($22). The skate itself has brilliant bubbly crunch, although I wonder if the kitchen can find other ways of dressing it than a scoop of fancified tartar sauce. What about going full Bavarian with mustard and pickles? Surely there were Germans in Dodge City.
True, the kitchen sometimes gets overexcited. The venison tartare is thick-cut and boldly flavorful — who can say no to fried shallots? But a dining companion with ranching relations complained that the shallots, spices and egg yolk mask the flavor of the venison itself. Similarly, the hot quail, with its crispy-battered edges, legit-but-not-lethal heat and “pickle biscuits” (the pickles are inside the biscuits), is only distinguishable from hot chicken in that quail is smaller.
Also from the overeager department, a side of spinach has excellent flavor ideas — lemon, crushed guajillo chile, thin slivers of soft garlic — but right now the lemon is smothering its friends ($6). My table was excited by the idea of barbecued carrots and upset to discover that they’re seasoned to taste just like barbecue-flavor potato chips ($7).
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This new saloon fills a useful role in the Dallas dining scene: the Texas-themed restaurant that’s good rather than tacky. I could see bringing out-of-town tourists here to humor their Dallas stereotypes — certainly more so than predictable Fearing’s or one of a dozen boys-club steakhouses. The Yosemite Sam silliness of this restaurant’s name and marketing is more subdued in the dining room itself, present only in touches like foggy old-school mirrors and a monogrammed poker table. (Cards not included.)
So if visitors come to town asking for chili, cornbread and fine French wine, I’ll be happy to take them to this gussied-up, all-frills saloon. I’ll just have to apologize for the name. Hey, it could be worse. It could be authentic. Boxed sardines, anyone?
Billy Can Can, 2386 Victory Park Lane. 214-296-2610, billycancan.com. Open Sunday through Thursday 5-10 p.m., Friday and Saturday 5-11 p.m.