This town ain’t big enough for all the “elevated Southern” restaurants we have running around.
Just about every street corner in Dallas harbors a Southern fare kitchen offering deviled eggs, pork belly, burgers and the inevitable shrimp and grits. Many of them are good; some are excellent; most are forgettable. All, even the good ones, sort of run together in my head in a buttery haze of macaroni and short ribs.
Except for the most daring of them all: Junction Craft Kitchen.
What’s happening behind the rather generic name? “Junction” doesn’t just refer to the railroad tracks that run behind its tiny Deep Ellum space. The name is a mission statement from chef and part-owner Joshua Harmon, who keeps finding creative ways to bring East Asian, especially Korean, flavors to American Southern cooking.
In the wrong hands, that would make a case of fusion gone awry, and Junction occasionally serves a few head-scratchers. But that only happens because Harmon and his team have the courage to try just about any audacious thing, and often their experiments work.
Harmon and his crew seem to have liberated themselves from the expectations of conservative Dallas diners, and in so doing, they’ve aligned themselves with a new vision for the city’s culinary future. Look around the dining room: Just about the whole crowd here is people in their 20s, and, age aside, more diverse than at many a Southern joint around town.
Pickling and fermenting, which have become major focuses for likeminded chefs like Misti Norris and Matt McCallister, are especially important at Junction, where the kitchen is so tiny it lacks a freezer. That means Harmon and his crew experiment with housemade pickles and kimchi — like a fantastic, surprisingly mellow, 8-month-old kimchi of black radishes pickled with squid ink. Junction makes its own fish sauce and a large collection of vinegars, too. Indeed, everything here is homemade except the Funyuns and the peanut butter Ritz Bits.
Oh, yeah: They use Funyuns and Ritz Bits. The Funyuns get crushed into a breadcrumb-like crumble and sprinkled on top of a warm potato salad ($9) into which Harmon’s crew folds in smoked kimchi and a green onion dressing. It’s an unexpected, extremely savory flavor profile that, in its salty fusion of likeminded flavors, grows increasingly addicting with each bite.
The Ritz Bits appear in a salad that acts like its identity crisis is a feature, not a bug ($11). Take peppery arugula, shaved radishes and a helping of peas; then add Ritz Bits, cheddar shreds and a thick buttermilk dressing. It’s a cheffy spin on the cheesy Midwestern buffet salads I had as a kid, and it is strange.
A better experiment at Junction Craft Kitchen: bao. The Chinese steamed buns commonly presented with Peking duck or slices of pork belly are becoming an inspiration for creative cooks across Texas, much the same way that Asian food trucks adopted the tortilla and began slinging their takes on tacos. Junction has an ever-changing bao special that’s a reliable must-order ($13). On one recent visit, it came with excellent if rather upscale housemade boudin (no casing) made from pork liver, thigh and ear, plus a bit of duck liver for good measure.
The one appetizer that is required eating is the banchan — yes, the tiny veggie dishes which precede a good Korean feast. Here, unlike in Korea Town, the banchan cost money, a mere $2 each, but it’s worth the outlay to try Junction’s most novel experiments. Order all of them. Some will be odd, such as a gribiche topped with cornbread and sweet barbecue sauce, but many are inspired, like a rillette of salmon and steelhead trout served with homemade marigold mustard, roasted cherry tomatoes topped with dehydrated flakes of olive, simple pickled radishes topped with blooming fennel flowers and a tiny biscuit served with dill and a jam made with figs and pig’s blood.
These banchan illustrate the philosophy at Junction Craft Kitchen. It’s not really about fusion cooking or “elevating” anything. For Harmon and his crew, the core idea is that a meal should be full of unexpected insights. I never thought of combining figs and dill, but now I will at home. And, they'd add, a meal should balance all the major flavors. There should be bitter with sweet, savory in counterpoint to bright. That fork-tender duck leg ($19) could use both a chili glaze and a side dollop of yogurt, with some pickled veggies to give our taste buds some exercise.
Chefs should be hunting down ways to add more contrast to a plate. That idea is the biggest thing the Junction team has imported from Asian culinary traditions, and it’s what makes the restaurant so vital.
Junction falls short when it strays from that philosophy, like with the braised beef main ($26), in which an excellent, flavorful cut of dry-aged meat is braised perfectly and served with a black bean sauce and veggie sides that heighten the savoriness. Perhaps Vietnam, rather than Korea, should have been the inspiration here; bright herb and lime flavors could have given all that heavy umami a swift kick in the pants. The gnocchi, too, might have found something unexpected to set against their miso and mushrooms ($20).
Although Junction’s kitchen has coped with the lack of storage space, the bar is having a harder time. With two beers on tap and an affordable but short and poorly notated wine list, a lot is riding on the cocktails. The barrel-aged vieux carré ($15), made and barreled in advance, is well balanced, but in some others balance and over-sweetness can be an issue. Oddest of all is the Southbound 75, an $11 drink that sounds, on paper, like an old-fashioned with a splash of Deep Ellum IPA for fizz. It tastes, however, like Deep Ellum IPA with a splash of liquor to make it grungier.
As a reminder of Junction’s past life as Kitchen LTO, the walls are still splashed with work from local painters. Service in the cozy dining room tends to be earnest and eager, although I had a hard time judging it: On my first visit, staff recognized my guest; on my third visit, staff recognized me; on the visit in between, we had a trainee waiter on his first day.
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In a way, Junction Craft Kitchen is hard to review. The menu changes every few months, so big hits or misses in summer may be gone by fall. And the food takes wild risks, in which the attempt is often as exciting as the result. My best advice? Order all the banchan to see Harmon and his young team at their most innovative and avant-garde; then seek out menu items that best embody the restaurant’s ethos of seasonality, funk and balance in contrast.
Want to play it safe? There’s always the “double dirty” burger ($18): two thin, griddle-smashed patties with ribbons of pink under warm, oozing blankets of caramelized onion, housemade American cheese and smoky kimchi aioli. Dallas dining may be entering a bold new era of fermentation, local produce and multicultural exchange, one in which traditional foods become vehicles for bold experiments, but we’ll always love a great burger.
Junction Craft Kitchen, 2901 Elm St. 214-377-0757, junctiondallas.com. 5 to 10 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday, 5 to 11 p.m. Friday, 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. and 5 to 11 p.m. Saturday, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Sunday.