A little over a week ago I threw my belongings into a 16-foot Penske, drove down 16th Street past the White House, and headed west. Finn, my 14-year-old wonder-mutt, sat shotgun, along with a spider plant, a bottle of port, some Gatorade and a bar of chocolate. I was leaving my home in D.C. to be the new food critic for the Observer.
I drove for 24 hours. The journey was a full-blown bitch, featuring a blown-out tire, a bum passenger-side mirror, enough gasoline to fund a Middle Eastern sheik and some really bad food, including multiple bags of Combos. Coupled with my first experience in Dallas, which was plagued by delayed flights, lost luggage and the longest, drunkest interview of my life, I was starting to wonder if I'd made the right decision. The candid words of friends and an article penned by my predecessor gave me more doubt. If I'm to believe what I've heard and read about this city, I inherit a food scene that is fundamentally broken, devoid of fine dining, lacking a defining style and overrun with a mollusk that isn't even indigenous to Texas.
We'll see about that.
I've eaten a week's worth of meals all over Dallas and had some beautiful plates placed in front of me, including a burger (at NHS Tavern) that nearly erased the memory of all those Combos, and a gorgeous ceviche (stay tuned to the Observer for details on that one.) Then again, lousy guacamole at multiple restaurants is giving me pause about the state of Tex's Tex-Mex.
On the off chance that you care: I grew up in the restaurant industry, working as a kid in red-sauce Italian joints, steakhouses and crab shacks on the Eastern Shore of Maryland. I waited and bused tables. I ungratefully washed dishes. And after a few years I graduated to the line, where I learned a little about food and more about how to hustle. I also learned that restaurants made for hard work, and that the employees cooking and serving us deserve our respect. (If anyone should be able to empathize with working conditions that melt butter at ambient temperatures, it should be you, Dallas.)
Unable to take the heat -- or maybe just ready for something new -- I holstered my spatula and picked up a pen. I wrote for blogs, developed recipes based on restaurant dishes and earned a chance to work with some of DC's best chefs. Eric Ziebold, protégé of Thomas Keller, taught me the importance of acid and balance. Michel Richard taught me how to bend the will of a chicken into roasted succulence. Morou Ouattara taught me how to use agar-agar, a blowtorch and other molecular gastronomical oddities that made my head spin. I learned that chefs are bad at committing recipes to paper. But their weakness was a gift to me. In making their recipes work for home chefs, I learned to cook well and trust my palate.
When I first reached out to the editors here, I told them I was ravenous to explore their city. Now, I'm hungry to make Dallas my own. Bring on the smoky brisket and the brave Mexican restaurants that dare not flank every plate with rice and beans. Bring on tacos by the literal truckload and what appears to be a blossoming pizza scene.
I hope you guys are as excited -- and as hungry -- as I am.