Dallas dining is becoming notorious, but not necessarily for good things. There's the "fickle 500," diners who patronize the new and the now only to disappear from dining rooms once a restaurant's six months of fame are up. We're famous for jumping on the bandwagon later than other cities; what's trending now in New York or San Francisco is bound to become a Dallas trend only after other metropolitan areas have long ago moved on.
And, increasingly, Dallas is becoming world-renowned in an embarrassing arena: relentlessly beating a trendy dead horse. By the time we do jump on a bandwagon, we are loathe to let go – especially when it comes to the developers trying to stuff their mixed-use developments with whatever's hot right now.
The city's restaurant scene has become an insufferable echo chamber of repeating concepts; by the time something has been deemed a trend, you're guaranteed to see a dozen forthcoming restaurants trying their best to capitalize on flash-in-the-pan fare. In the era of Facebook foodies and pay-for-Instagram-play, this fad-based dining system lacks both authenticity and staying power. And as we learned late last year, when the city saw an influx of restaurants shuttering all at once, it's more important than ever to think twice about the can of worms we're opening.
These food trends are sweeping wildly across North Texas, and developers and restaurateurs would be smart to take a minute to soul-search before capitalizing on the next big fad, because market saturation is becoming the norm in Dallas — and it's not making our city's food scene any better.
Not every state boasts as strong of an identity as Texas. You rarely hear about new restaurants serving Iowa-inspired fare or boasting an Indiana-chic design. But there is one state that seems to be dominating the Dallas restaurant scene, if even in vibes alone: California.
Malibu Poke, a forthcoming project from Jon Alexis of TJ's Seafood, boasts "California chic design" that's "inspired by the casual beach chic of its namesake city." Sassetta, open now in the Design District, was described in initial press releases as an "Italy-by-way-of-California eatery." Sixty Vines, the breakout Plano hit that serves wine on tap and is preparing to open an Uptown location, is often described as having both decor and a menu inspired by California, with "rustic food, similar to what you might find in Napa Valley or Sonoma, California."
We're also seeing California transplants like Water Grill, which Observer critic Brian Reinhart describes as, "a cross between a Dallas steakhouse, a San Francisco oyster house and a Portlandia sketch." The Uptown seafood spot, which flies in seafood daily, boasts decidedly California prices. Understated beach vibes also seem to be popular, like at the new Lovers Seafood & Market, which is swimming in beach house-inspired color schemes and understated marine touches.
So why does California seem to have such a hold on Dallas right now? A couple reasons could explain the trend: sunshine and healthy food. Healthy fast-casual fare is sweeping across Dallas right now, from Flower Child to Pok the Raw Bar to Freshii to juice bars. On the design side of the spectrum, bright-white interiors, massive patios and entire walls of windows, bathing an already bright room in natural light, are entirely en vogue. Diners (or perhaps developers, or both) seem to equate California with breezy, light and healthy. There's nothing wrong with California vibes or even healthier food – Texas fare is already abundant here, and it can get pretty heavy – but the influx of Cali-chic is beginning to feel like a trend that's liable to seem tired once the wave crests.
There is a light at the end of the trendy tunnel: It seems as if, in one small way, the market has effectively started to pull back on one particularly overwrought concept.
Last year, Southern food was absolutely everywhere: Filament, Ida Claire, Sissy's Southern Kitchen, Pink Magnolia, Julia Pearl, Ellen's, Grayson Social. Food writers the city over groaned with every new press release touting a forthcoming restaurant serving "elevated" Southern cuisine. It doesn't matter how elevated your Southern food is; nobody wants to pay $27 for a Sunday meatloaf dinner.
But what made developers and restaurateurs finally pull back? It's hard to say. Maybe it's the trend toward healthier fast-casual fare. Maybe their existing Southern concepts started to falter. It probably isn't due to market saturation; Dallas has proven time and again that this is a city ready and able to beat a concept to death until nothing but an outdated, unprofitable corpse remains.
That's not to say we're out of the woods just yet, but some of the new Southern-inspired concepts in recent months seem to be giving us something new in the midst of all those stale biscuits. Junction Craft Kitchen, the reincarnated Kitchen LTO that's open now in Deep Ellum, does serve Southern fare, but it's an Asian-Southern fusion that's proven time and again to be worthy of further exploration.
There may be no better example of trend-based market saturation than the humble poke bowl. A year ago, there were only a few places in DFW serving poke, the Hawaiian dish chock full of raw seafood and fresh veggies. In the last year alone, we've seen a huge influx of concepts based entirely around poke. It started in the suburbs with Ahi Poke Bowl in Arlington and Below 40 Poke House in Plano, then quickly spread to Dallas proper. Pok the Raw Bar in West Village. FreshFin Poke on Greenville Avenue. Poke Bop and its Instagram-friendly poke doughnut. Go Fish Poke in Preston Center. Hoki Poki in North Dallas. The new Poke Time in Plano.
On top of the poke-centric concepts, you can now find the dish on almost every sushi- and seafood-heavy menu in town: Kabuki Japanese Restaurant in the Galleria. Fast Furious Japanese Grill. Sushi Bayashi in Trinity Groves. The Blue Fish. Uptown Urban Market. Lovers Seafood & Market. As long as this list is, it barely scratches the surface – and more poke is on the way.
Bowls & Tacos, a new concept from Braindead Brewing, opened last week in Deep Ellum with a menu focused on poke bowls and street-style tacos. When announcing his new Malibu Poke restaurant, opening this fall, TJ's Seafood owner Jon Alexis seemed aware of poke saturation in the Dallas market. “We figured we wouldn’t be the first poke restaurant in Dallas,” Alexis said in a press release, “but we took time to fine tune every detail and create something unique.”
We're not the only market that's swimming in poke, as you'll quickly realize when Googling the phrase, "poke craze." Food writers in Washington, D.C., New York City, San Francisco and L.A. all lament the insane influx of restaurants capitalizing on the food trend. Poke is certainly a great dish during long Texas summers – it's fresh, light, healthy and works well in the ever-growing fast-casual segment, which mirrors both diners' desire for quick meals and restaurateurs' quest to cut labor costs.
But basing a restaurant model on a flash-in-the-pan food trend is a risky endeavor; just ask anyone whose bakery died when the cupcake fad finally kicked the bucket. Poke was largely considered the "it" dish of 2016, and even though Dallas tends to hop on trends a bit later than other major cities, there's no way we'll be able to sustain so many restaurants centered on a dish that is likely to lose its luster among diners who hop-skip from one trend to another.
Perhaps the most innocuous of proteins, chicken has flooded the North Texas dining scene in a way that feels absolutely unsustainable. An extension of the waning Southern food trend, fried chicken in particular is having a moment, and that moment has lasted far too long.
Fat Chicken, Streets Fine Chicken, Farmbyrd, Chicken Moto, Whistle Britches, Quincey's Chicken Shack, Prohibition Chicken – these are just some of the chicken-centric concepts that have opened in DFW in the last year alone. That list doesn't even include the new and forthcoming eateries – like Sumo Shack, Hot Joy and Rise Biscuits Donuts – that prominently feature fried chicken on their menus. Korean fried chicken joints are also on the rise, competing with an already saturated Southern fried chicken market.
Perhaps even more puzzling is the emphasis on fried chicken as an expensive indulgence. Some of these new chicken spots are serving $34 buckets of chicken and charging up to $19 for a half-chicken. This seems to strip fried chicken of what is arguably one of its greatest assets: affordability.
With the new addition of a Lewisville fried chicken joint that has its own dubious "speakeasy," we're ready to call it: Fried chicken has officially jumped the shark. Can we collectively agree to move on?
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This one is a sensitive subject, and one that requires treading lightly. Dallas has a rich tradition of long-running independently owned taquerias (La Banqueta, El Si Hay, Barbacoa Esta Hidalgo), the kind of places whose Yelp pages are sprinkled liberally with the word "authentic." But as with pizza and coffee and brunch, somewhere along the line, eating tacos became a badge of honor for the upper-middle class. The endless T-shirt slogans say it all: "Let's taco-bout it." "But first, tacos." And, the T-shirt that will forever make me cringe deep down in my bones, particularly when I spot it on a white lady doing a headstand next to me at a Park Cities yoga studio: "I hate tacos, said no Juan ever."
We get it: Tacos are cool. And as such, we're seeing an influx of restaurants serving "authentic street-style tacos" that cost far more than their less flashy counterparts.
There is fresh, forward-thinking greatness happening in the Dallas taco scene right now, thanks in no small part to taquerias like Revolver Taco Lounge, Trompo and Tacos Mariachi, Hispanic-owned businesses that pay homage to the tacos of their youth while bringing something new to the table. With the opening of Taquero, West Dallas is poised to become its own bonafide Dallas taco district, and one that deserves all the attention it's been getting.
But if tacos continue their upwardly mobile trend ("Keep calm and eat tacos," said no Juan ever), we're poised to see market saturation when it comes to $5 "street tacos." I'm sure there's a T-shirt out there that says, "There's never enough tacos!" but let's be real here: That just isn't true.