Restaurant Reviews

Home is on the range

Thank God the holidays are over and we can all recover, not just from overindulgence, cold-weather flus, colds, and the other deleterious effects of close contact with too much family, but from related holiday maladies like homesickness. Holidays hearken to home in the most primitive way, and even when we technically are at home, we tend to feel homesick at Christmas. Think of the music: "I'll be home for Christmas--if only in my dreams," "I'm dreaming of a white Christmas--just like the ones I used to know." Home can be defined in so many ways; it's "where the heart is," it's "where, when you go there, they have to take you in," it involves not just the people and places that surrounded you in a time of innocence, but also the touch, the smells and, of course, the tastes. For most of us, homesickness is evoked by food, and homecoming soothes with a menu.

That doesn't just mean Mom's apple pie and turkey at Christmas. You're not a true resident of Texas if you don't head for a Tex-Mex restaurant if you've been out of the state as long as a week. And every other place has foods that set the sentimental juices flowing, foods that can only be prepared properly and enjoyed fully in their native setting. Jane and Michael Stern are America's encyclopedists of these dishes. Single-minded seekers of America's vanishing regional culinary resources, they indefatigably document the country's diners and chili parlors, reveling in the idiosyncrasies of fast-disappearing local cuisines--some whose attractions completely escape most non-natives. Who but someone reared in rural Mississippi could possibly crave a fried dill pickle? Surely no one but a southerner could eat a beaten biscuit and like it, and it's impossible to imagine a stranger taking to chicharrones at the first bite. Philadelphia cheese steak, Rocky Mountain oysters, Memphis dry ribs, Buffalo wings, and Cincinnati chili are other strange and, until recently, identifiably regional foods.

Alas, the melting pot is omnivorous, and it's the nature of modern American foods to leave their native region (after all, they are concepts with "legs") and creep into the culinary vernacular of exotic climes and places like Duluth and Des Moines. So here in Dallas, we eat Buffalo wings and debate the merits of blue cheese dip, we chow down on those inexplicable pickles, and we crave Memphis dry as much as Texas brisket, all the while declaring that New York will never be able to plate decent cheese enchiladas.

In the past few months, some distinctively other-regional places have opened in Dallas--Texadelphia, a cheese steak palace that arrived by way of Austin, and a branch of Empress Chili Parlor, the place that originated the numerical chili vocabulary of Ohio.

Texadelphia is located with great Austin style in a nicely refurbished old house on a street which owner Tom Landis describes, also in laconic Austin style, as "sorta right across the street from Fog City Diner." I should point out that Texadelphia has the best view of downtown at night outside the Crescent Club, and for only about five bucks an entree. I've eaten cheese steaks in Philadelphia--not at the hallowed Pat's, which claims to be the inventor of the famous sandwich (I hope you know a cheese "steak" is actually a sandwich)--but at Joe's, the second oldest Philly cheese steak house. I can only assume that Joe's so-called steaks are the genuine article, if not the original one, and therefore I guess I'll never be homesick for Philadelphia. I get the concept, and I appreciate it--no one could ever claim my tastes were too haute to appreciate Cheez Whiz melted over sizzled chipped beef--but it goes without saying that, being a Texan, I prefer my cheese food melted with Ro-tel. Texadelphia broadens the original Philadelphia dish (which is no more than beef and onions fried on a griddle, piled on a soft hoagie roll and squirted with said Whiz) by offering variations on the blackboard menu, which also lists hamburgers, subs, burgers, and a chicken cheese steak (I haven't been to Philadelphia in nearly a decade, and it's entirely probable that the city of brotherly love has also been overwhelmed by boneless chickens, so this may be "authentic" now). Jalapeno peppers are one of the add-ons (mushrooms, pepperoni, cherry peppers, lettuce, and tomato are more typical garnishes) you can order on your steak, and as a further concession to Texas tastes, you can also order chips and salsa, chile con queso, and guacamole.

But let's talk about cheese steak. Texadelphia's steak was different from Joe's--maybe it's the water, but I think more likely it's the cheese, which was actual mozzarella, not a processed cheese relation. (That ingredient change could be attributed to an eruption of Austin-style earnestness.) Texadelphia's sandwich, on a soft, seeded bun, held a pile of beef, which was so thinly sliced the resulting texture seemed minced. In fact, the texture was more like a sloppy Joe or the topping on a chili dog--I kept expecting to hit hot dog with every bite of the bun. The chicken version suffered predictably from being chicken, an all-purpose meat these days, but one which doesn't benefit from the harsh treatment given it at Texadelphia. Chicken doesn't have enough fat to stand up to this abuse, and the bits inside my sandwich were a little too leathery to be completely appetizing. Lower heat would help. On the other hand, the cheese steak was pretty good, pretty cheap, and a nice alternative to barbecue or burgers. And the beer was cold. Let's put it relatively: I liked Texadelphia's cheese steak a lot better than I liked Empress' Ohio chili.

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Mary Brown Malouf