How Do Diners Know When "Local" Means "Good?"

Diners who've doted on the salmon-topped deviled eggs at Neighborhood Services Bar & Grill have had no way of knowing the smoked fish came from TJ's Seafood Market -- a situation TJ's owner Jon Alexis aims to change.

As Alexis announced in a comment appended to Leslie Brenner's latest restaurant review (Nancy Nichols at D magazine has already written about the Observer this week, so I'm completing the circle here), when Neighborhood Services next reprints its menu, it will attribute the popular salmon to TJ's. That's a bit of branding that bodes well for Dallas diners.

When I first moved to Dallas, I kept asking food geeks which farms I'd see cited most frequently on local menus. I'd been living in a town where the farm-to-table ethic was so strong that even hot dog joints and ice cream shops felt compelled to list their sources -- some of which became culinary clichés. I wanted to make sure I knew the difference between the Dallas food producers who pimped out their names and those who had a reputation for quality.

My informants assured me I didn't have to worry. Most Dallas restaurants weren't in the habit of namedropping farms.

As I discovered when I started reading Dallas menus, even great restaurants with real locavore cred shy away from sharing producers' names. The online menus for Local, York Street and Park reference "local arugula", "local grits" and "local field greens."

Obviously, buying and serving locally produced food is far more important than which words end up on a menu. But the designation "local" doesn't tell diners much: Local is not a synonym for good. Specifying sources accomplishes the twin goals of imparting valuable information and drawing attention to our talented hometown producers. It's a slightly more sophisticated approach to local eating.

There are two Dallas names which do make it on to menus: The Mozzarella Co. and Jimmy's Food Store. Jimmy's sausage shows up on the menu at Fireside Pies, which Alexis reports is what got him thinking about the menu at Neighborhood Services.

"I'm not afraid of self-promotion," Alexis says. "I thought it was a neat way to showcase an independent product."

Alexis characterizes the Neighborhood Services deal as a win-win: Restaurant goers who might not know about TJ's will see the market's name, while Neighborhood Services gets to broadcast its support for another locally-owned business.

Alexis now wants to see TJ's name on more menus: "Hopefully, this menu is the first of many," he says.

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