Invasion was supposed to be primarily a sandwich restaurant, with occasional side gigs doing good for the community. Instead, in its first year this tiny East Dallas diner became a hub for goodwill, volunteering and feeding the needy.
All that charity started the day before Invasion opened. On Monday, March 16, chef-owner Airric Heidelberg gathered his team for a pep talk before “soft opening” began the following day and they started offering sandwiches, bowls and chicken tenders to the public.
“I’m giving a speech to the team, getting them ready, and I paused,” Heidelberg recalls. “The TV was on, everyone was staring at the TV, and it said ‘shutdown.’ I stopped the meeting.”
Dallas County’s dining room closure began the day that Invasion was supposed to open, and the kitchen had a full inventory of food, in anticipation of feeding hundreds of new customers.
“We were gonna do curbside, but people don’t know who we are,” Heidelberg says. In a brand-new pandemic, at a brand-new restaurant, would anybody even show up? So Invasion pivoted to a new goal: feeding Dallas’ homeless residents. “The first couple weeks we gave 300 away meals because we had a lot of food.”
Over the coming months, the restaurant continued donating meals each week in partnership with the Human Impact Project, which helped connect the kitchen with volunteers. And after February’s shock winter storm, Invasion kicked into high gear, giving away over 500 meals in a week and running a “buy one, give one” special on its signature fried chicken sandwich.
But Invasion is still a for-profit business, and somebody has to buy its food in order to support all that giving. Which means that some newspaper ought to review it, right?
The restaurant’s specialty sandwiches are mountainous constructions that must be picked up with all 10 fingers. Chicken comes in massive slabs, burger patties in thick, seared fistfuls. The beef and chicken are all halal, not just for Muslim customers, Heidelberg says, but because religious rules demand more humane treatment of animals, which creates superior quality.
“It costs more, but I wanted to be able to help all the community,” he says. “I wanted nobody to feel left out. A lot of people, they have a bad stigma against halal food. A lot of times we find ourselves educating guests and customers, if they say, ‘I don’t want to eat halal,’ we explain that, look, it’s probably better than the food you’re eating.”
Invasion’s interior is as small as its dishes are big, barely more than a thousand square feet, an old diner counter with just 24 seats lined up opposite the kitchen, which is about the same size as the kitchen in my 75-year-old Oak Cliff house.
Until the pandemic is over, I would be afraid to eat inside. Fortunately there’s a big, new wooden patio attached to the side of the building, immaculate, welcoming and blessed with a quiet view of a side street.
Invasion’s sandwiches also hold up on a takeout drive home, thanks to protective measures like butter-toasting buns so they don’t squish and searing off burgers hard enough to create some lasting texture.
One recent lunchtime, I savored a pyramid-like chicken sandwich called the Cardi B ($12), which stacks red cabbage slaw, pickles and jalapeno peppers onto fried chicken. It’s an unholy mess, with spicy mayonnaise running down my fingers and cabbage spilling out around the edges. Who wants a tidy chicken sandwich?
If the Cardi B is somehow too elegant, there’s always the Nashty ($13), an uncommonly good spin on the Nashville hot chicken craze which currently has Dallas in its grip. The spice is serious, and builds to beg-for-water levels even with a generous dollop of sour cream-based ranch dressing and a clutch of pickles. It comes with a side of potatoes, but as I learned with regret, the potatoes are salty enough to fan the flames.
When I was a kid in southern Indiana, our town’s drive-in stand served the perfect combination of two perfect foods: the pizza burger. A hamburger topped with a slice of mozzarella and a ladle of generic store-bought marinara sauce, the pizza burger was messy and, objectively, not good, but it was perfect for a 10-year-old.
Invasion serves a grown-up burger which satisfies that same childhood craving. The ground beef is formed into thick, tall patties which get seared until they’re practically black. A thin layer of mozzarella is hidden inside the meat, Jucy Lucy-style, along with tiny chopped jalapeños. There’s no gloopy sauce, just naked meat and a single flash-fried, crispy basil leaf.
It’s not a pizza burger at all, of course. It’s called the Notorious ($12), and it’s far better than the pizza burger ever was.
To go alongside, consider a cup of sauteed corn one of four ways: plain, topped with basil and parmesan, Mexican elote-style or “Invasion style” ($5). The last is my favorite, a cheesy, well-seasoned concoction; the elotes, interestingly, are well-grilled, gently spicy but served without crema.
There’s an appetizer of roasted brussels sprout leaves as savory, salty and one-more-bite compulsive as a bowl of popcorn ($8). Even the texture is similar, as are the fun little crinkle sounds between the teeth. What I’m saying is I’d eat a bucket of these veggies while watching a movie.
With sandwiches and sprouts like these — plus a range of bowls and humongous house-made Rice Krispie-style treats — Invasion has the hospitality, cozy charm and huge flavors to become a casual East Dallas staple. Now it just needs to stay afloat through a pandemic.
“Before we made any money, we were giving and giving,” Heidelberg says. “Another reason that really made me want to give back — at Kroger, I saw people fighting over food, bags of rice. When pandemics happen and storms happen, people take, take, take, even if they don’t need it. I wanted to show the community another way.”
Invasion, 4029 Crutcher St. 214-272-7312, eatinvasions.com. Open Tuesday through Friday 11:30 a.m.-2 p.m. and 5-9 p.m., Saturday 12-3:30 p.m. and 5:30-10 p.m.
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