Complaint Desk

How to Explain the Dallas Restaurant Scene to Out-of-Towners

A spread of momos at Peak Restaurant, one of America's tragically few Nepalese sports bars.
A spread of momos at Peak Restaurant, one of America's tragically few Nepalese sports bars. Alison McLean
The Dallas food scene is a confusing, tumultuous place. Restaurants open and close constantly, and fads seem to sweep in from the coasts with regularity before receding.

For out-of-towners, Dallas is especially mysterious because our reputation is out-of-date.

Around America, food lovers know Houston is a mellow melting pot of global influences; San Antonio is where, as the movie Bernie put it, “the Tex meets the Mex;” and Austin is an innovation lab for clever, young, mostly white chefs. But, nationally, Dallas is kind of a big question mark.

The best way to put it is that we’re becoming a mixture of all three of our sister cities: globally diverse with a burgeoning pop-up and underground food scene to push back against the establishment.

To go into a little more detail, I’ve imagined a hypothetical conversation between a Dallasite and an out-of-town guest. Feel free to plagiarize these lines when you’re talking to your own friends and family.

Q. So, Dallas is all steakhouses, right?

A. We used to be. Today, it’s all tacos. This is a huge taco town. But it’s more complicated than that. The Dallas area is one of the most diverse in America, and our food scene is almost as broad-ranging as Houston’s. We have seven courses of beef from Vietnam, suya from West Africa, dumplings from Nepal, you name it. Except for Brazilian foods that aren’t steak, and Bosnian. Those are pretty much the only things we’re missing.

A spread of momos at Peak Restaurant, one of America's tragically few Nepalese sports bars. - ALISON MCLEAN
A spread of momos at Peak Restaurant, one of America's tragically few Nepalese sports bars.
Alison McLean
Q. Oh, cool. So it’s almost like Oakland or Queens, where I can walk out my front door and think, “Do I want pupusas or ramen?”

A. Well, uh, kind of. It’s kind of like that.

Q. Why are you hesitating?

A. Dallas is heavily segregated. That is a big problem for a lot of reasons, but it applies to the food scene, too. You can definitely walk out your front door and debate all the world’s cuisines, but you’re going to have to drive 15 miles. Most of the Vietnamese food is in Garland or Arlington, almost all of our Korean food is in two specific neighborhoods, many restaurants owned by African-Americans are south of Interstate 30, everything Nepali is in Irving — you get the idea. The only food that’s everywhere is tacos.

Q. Why is everything so separated out like that?

A. Oh, gosh. We’ll be here forever. Can we recommend some history books?

Q. Never mind. So you guys have a strong taco game. Any other strengths?

A. We’ve got some of America’s biggest concentrations of Laotian, Nepali, Korean, Pakistani and Japanese restaurants. Tons of stuff from Central America. There’s a lot of good Indian food, and we have a few chefs who came here from Iraq and Syria. We play a pretty damn good pizza game — not like there’s Dallas-style pizza, but there are good places to get all of the big styles. And you will not find a better burger in the universe than you’ll find in Dallas.

Q. What about high-end stuff? Fine dining?

A. We’re working on that.

Q. As in, not great?

A. Well, it’s complicated. Generally speaking, rich people in Dallas have pretty bad taste in food. This isn’t like Seattle or San Francisco, where all the annoying tech bros are hip to the good stuff. So our really high-end restaurants are constrained by the conservatism of that crowd. But around the edges, there’s kind of a rebel fine dining scene with cool, innovative food. A lot of them survive as pop-up series or consulting chefs, or even work in bars. And like a lot of other cities now, they don’t make you dress up fancy.
click to enlarge Khao Gee at Khao Noodle Shop - ALISON MCLEAN
Khao Gee at Khao Noodle Shop
Alison McLean
Q. The idea of a rebel fine dining scene is a little weird. Most places, you’re either fine or you’re not.

A. Right? If the Michelin guide came to Dallas to hand out stars, most of the people who deserve stars would not want them very badly. A lot of really good chefs here pursue pop-ups as a career. Others operate tiny restaurants. Or they might do a tasting menu but it’s only one or two nights a week, or it only serves like eight people. Or, on the other end, they’re doing really intense things in the kitchen but serving everything for less than $10 in a really casual format. Maybe they’re working out of a brewpub or a music venue or redesigning the menu of a Mexican bar.

Q. Why do they feel like they need to rebel, though? Is there some kind of culinary tyranny happening?

A. Oh, no. It’s real estate.

Q. Oh.

A. Yeah. You need a certain amount of capital in this town just to get started. That’s capital in the broadest sense: money, corporate reliability, celebrity. Ultimately, the barrier of entry to a permanent place in the Dallas food scene is high, but the people who are striving and trying to get over the barrier are producing more interesting food than the people who’ve made it. Once you’ve made it, complacency sets in.

Q. So ultimately, where does Dallas rank among all the American food cities?

A. Hmm. Probably like seventh.

click to enlarge We don't care where you're from: Dessert at Homewood is a mandatory stop. - ALISON MCLEAN
We don't care where you're from: Dessert at Homewood is a mandatory stop.
Alison McLean
Q. Seventh?

A. Well, obviously Los Angeles and New York are the top two. And when you take the San Francisco Bay area and metropolitan Houston as a whole, those are probably in the top five as well. Chicago is up there, even though Chicago is getting down on itself recently.

After that top tier, you get to a second tier where different cities have different strengths and weaknesses. Seattle has superior neighborhood spots and mini-chains; Austin has creative cool stuff; Washington, D.C., is a spectacular place to eat if you’re an insider on a fat expense account. On the other hand, Dallas has those cities beat for sheer volume and diversity. And we’re tops at the only food group that really matters, which is tacos.

So it’s all a matter of taste. If fresh seafood and Asian cuisine is more important to you, Seattle might be ahead. If having the best homegrown culture is a priority, speak up for New Orleans. Personally, I think we’re probably seventh. Maybe eighth. That sounds about right.

Q. I’m only in town for a weekend. Where should I go?

A. Well, it depends…

Where to Go if You Want a True, Albeit Slightly Stereotypical Dallas Experience
Pack a lawn chair and a cooler of beer and get in line at Cattleack Barbeque for the city’s finest brisket and pastrami beef ribs. Once you wake up from the post-barbecue nap, head down to Billy Can Can in time for happy hour to enjoy a bowl of red chili and discounted Texas beers and spirits. Then venture over to the Design District and try as many of the breweries as you can stand. The next day, sit in a traffic jam or two en route to a grocery store where you’ll eat elotes from the cart outside the front door. Swing by Keller’s Drive-In for tots and Snuffer’s for cheese fries. Finally, dress up and head to the bar at Knife to chow down on one of its thick, iconic hamburgers, washed down with a bacon old fashioned cocktail.

Where to Go if You’re a Snob Who Thinks Dallas Can’t Possibly Have Sophisticated Food
Start by witnessing the high-wire fusion of Vietnamese and French cooking at Mot Hai Ba. Bring your own drinks to a charcuterie-and-noodles lunch at Petra and the Beast, then head to Homewood for house-made pastas and divine desserts. On the last day of your trip, let Khao Noodle Shop take you on a culinary journey that doesn’t exist anywhere else in the United States. Finally, hey, snob, screw you: Meet us for wings at Lakewood Landing and say it to our faces!

Where to Go if You’re from a Tiny Town and This is Your Chance to Eat Lots of Food You Couldn’t Possibly Get at Home
We’ll bet you don’t have a Nepalese sports bar, so Peak Restaurant belongs on your list. Hit Khao Noodle Shop, our Laotian embassy, and order one of everything. See if Not Your Lola’s, our Filipino grilling pop-up, is doing an event, or drive up to Richardson to grab Syrian ice cream and baklava by the pound at BigDash. One night, after a few too many bottles of soju, get a karaoke room at DanSungSa and start singing.

Where to Go if You Want the Ultimate Taco Tour
Start your morning at Tia Dora’s Bakery for the world’s greatest breakfast tacos, making sure to pack some pan dulces to go for emergencies. Swing down Illinois Avenue to Tacos La Addiccion for the first of two stops dedicated to trompo, then head up to Singleton Avenue for the city’s most beloved stretch of taquerias. The sides are tops at Taquero; Trompo puts its signature dish in its name; Tacos Mariachi specializes in seafood tacos, including octopus and smoked salmon. Take a break for a few hours until you get hungry again, then cross downtown (stopping, if necessary, at Salsa Limón for a snack) to Revolver Taco Lounge, which for overall creativity and execution might be one of the world’s top 10 taquerias. Finally, head to Las Almas Rotas for a flight of mezcals and tequilas. The bar also serves a short food menu including, well, guess.

Where to Go if You Just Want a Chill Time
Lakewood Landing. Zoli’s Pizza. Baby Back Shak. Fort Worth.
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Brian Reinhart has been the Dallas Observer's food critic since spring 2016. In addition, he writes baseball analysis for the Hardball Times and covers classical music for the Observer and MusicWeb International.
Contact: Brian Reinhart