Every year is a good year to be a food writer, but 2018 was an especially interesting year to eat in Dallas. The city’s diversity really came to the foreground: I visited restaurants as remote as McKinney and the far side of Arlington, and investigated the cuisines of Laos, Egypt and (according to an Esquire magazine writer) Narnia.
When the time came to choose my 10 favorite dishes of the year, I didn’t count too closely. Here, instead, is a top 12. There are some famous restaurants on the list, but this list isn’t about being the “best.” It’s about my own personal favorites, the meals that I’ll remember most fondly. So, yes, FT33 and Macellaio and other beloved spots are here. But have you ever been to — or even heard of — the place that served my favorite meal of 2018?
12. Takoyaki at Mr. Max
3028 N. Belt Line Road, Irving
Takoyaki is a great Japanese bar snack, but it’s easy to do wrong. This deep-fried doughball comes with a nugget of octopus in the center, and at many Dallas-area restaurants there’s an element out of whack: The octopus might be overcooked and rubbery, or the dough might turn to gloop at the touch of a fork. At Mr. Max, the long-running izakaya in Irving, they’re perfect. You can savor the crispy-fried edges and soft, buttery seafood in one big bite, then chase it with a glass of Japanese draft beer. Perfection.
11. Hot hummus, ezme and kunefe at Tantuni Mediterranean Grill
925 Abrams Road, Richardson
A year ago we wondered if Tantuni, in Richardson, might be the Dallas area’s best Turkish restaurant. This December we returned — to a completely empty dining room — and, by the end of the feast, had decided that the answer is most assuredly yes. The biggest surprise? Hot hummus, piled high with lamb shawarma. Yes, hot hummus is a thing — a garlicky, creamy, beautiful thing. Along with Tantuni’s spicy ezme dip, it’s just about the best thing you can put on bread.
10. Sicilian pistachio mousse at Flora Street Cafe
2330 Flora St. (Arts District)
This year’s MVD (Most Valuable Dessert) is one I had three times, including on my birthday. More recently, I stopped by Flora Street Cafe after dinner just for a plate of their pistachio mousse, which is much more complicated than that: a composed platter that also comes with toasted meringues, pistachio butter, whole toasted pistachios and chocolate mint leaves. Flora Street will soon become a more casual restaurant with a largely new menu, so hurry in for this dessert before it’s gone.
9. Steak frites at The Mitchell
1404 Main St. (downtown Dallas)
I’ve had steak frites before many a time, but The Mitchell is the only place where my steak frites has come with a side order of roasted bone marrow still in the huge, log-like bone. Pats of bone marrow butter atop the meat helped ensure that the whole dish was a perfect picture of healthfulness. It’s also one of many reasons my friends and I keep coming back to The Mitchell when we’re feeling indulgent — but not too indulgent. (These steak frites were, at the time, a bargain at $20.)
8. Bison pot-au-feu at Bullion
400 S. Record St.
Last winter, Bullion ran a one-day-a-week special of pot-au-feu, the indulgent French stew loaded up with red meat, carrots, turnips, peas and more veggies. The meat of choice: bison, cooked until bright red from edge to edge and topped with chives and flaky sea salt. This winter, chef Bruno Davaillon and his crew are making their pot-au-feu from plain old cow, but I’m pretty sure that’s likely to be great too.
7. Next-day beans with a pastrami beef rib from Cattleack Barbeque
13628 Gamma Road (Farmers Branch)
Cattleack Barbeque has been on this list before, because any visit to this exceptional and infrequently open barbecue joint is special. But if Cattleack is selling its beef ribs coated in a pastrami spice rub, try to resist the temptation to devour it all immediately. The day after our visit, we took our prized leftover package — half of the rib — and put it in a pot with a can of beans, a splash of beer and a bunch of spring onions. The result was, pretty clearly, the best beans I’ve ever had.
6. Prime rib taco from Meat Church at Chefs for Farmers
Silly me: I didn’t think it was going to be the best taco I ate all year. When I got to the Meat Church Barbecue tent at this November’s Chefs for Farmers festival, the collaborating chefs — Matt Pittman and Cody Sharp — had already run out of two of their three taco offerings. The third, a prime rib taco with horseradish crema and chives, sounded less interesting than the others. But it blew me away: a primal-instinct combo of meat, heat and flawless La Norteña flour tortillas. Lesson learned for next year: Hit the Meat Church tent first, and order one of everything.
5. Sonoran hot dog at Las Almas Rotas
3615 Parry Ave. (Expo Park)
My girlfriend hates it when I talk about her in restaurant reviews, but by now she’s already told half of Dallas about how Las Almas Rotas’ Sonoran-style hot dog is the best she’s ever had, so it’s not exactly a secret. This bacon-wrapped, frijol-dunked, onion-slathered, cheese-topped monster was the life of the mezcal bar’s Fourth of July party, but it was a one-day-only special, so my lovely partner is mounting a one-woman, word-of-mouth peer pressure campaign to make sure they do it again next year. I’m happy to help.
4. Oniony summer toast at Macellaio
287 N. Bishop Ave. (Bishop Arts District)
Macellaio has a lot of eye-catching dishes — that charcuterie board, those beans bathed in molten cheese puree — but as a millennial, I am required by law to say that my favorite plates are the toasts. Can you blame me? What’s not to love about grilled bread topped with super-fresh gooey stracciatella cheese made in-house, plus a pile of sweet green and white spring onions?
3. Lasagnette with ragu and cream sauce at Petra and the Beast
601 N. Haskell Ave. (Old East Dallas)
This is the second-most-recent meal on the list, but I remember the details of it least, because we inhaled our tray of pasta in a sort of mindless rapture cloud of carbohydrates and meat. There were definitely flat, curly lasagnette noodles and two competing sauces, a richly savory ragu and an equally luscious cream. But beyond the warm, fuzzy mom’s-home-cooking feelings we got from our pasta, the rest is a happy blur. If Petra is still serving the lasagnette, we might have to go back and refresh our memories.
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2. Last call at FT33
My favorite restaurant in Dallas closed down in June, and I was lucky to be there for the final service. On its last night, amid please-drink-me discounts on the restaurant’s wine and liquor, FT33 put on a spectacular show with dishes like halibut crudo with salsa macha and pickled mustard seeds (pictured), ricotta gnocchi topped with a rustic Italian eggplant sauce and a chowder of crab, fresh corn and a dash of crunchy breadcrumbs. FT33 had a reputation for fussy high-end food, but these dishes were all straightforwardly delicious and brilliantly executed. Better yet, chef Matt McCallister says that the food at his next restaurant, Homewood, will be very similar to the more approachable style he developed in FT33’s final year.
1. Literally everything at Fattoush Mediterranean Grill
2304 W. Park Row Dr., Pantego
It may not be objectively the “best” restaurant we reviewed in 2018, but Fattoush Mediterranean Grill might just be my favorite. Led by Iraqi-born chef Bashar Al Mudhafar, this strip-mall spot in the tiny Arlington suburb of Pantego serves some of the region’s best lebneh dip and falafel, the latter based on a recipe for the same falafel Al Mudhafar ate on the street after soccer games as a kid. The lamb chops are dusted with ground pistachios. But my favorite dish is the Iraqi ground lamb kebab, ground in-house and cooked just beside the fire to ensure perfect juiciness. Tasting that kebab for the first time, recognizing the similarity to kebabs I’ve had with my own family in Turkey, I got a little emotional. Is that a weird thing to admit? Maybe there was some dust in my eye. But probably not.