In no way did the Ten Bells Butty seem attractive to me. "It's basically a french-fry sandwich," the bartender said, when I admitted the menu description left me confused. The description was clear — house-made chips means french fries when you're in an English pub, and more often than not brioche is bar-speak for sandwich. I just couldn't envision anyone on this side of the Atlantic ordering the creation often enough to warrant a permanent mention on the menu.
French fries served between bread slices isn't a new concept. Pittsburgh-based Primanti Bros. built a small empire on sandwiches made with butter-soaked meat topped with fried potatoes and tangy coleslaw. In the butty, however, spuds take center stage, accented with white cheddar that's melted but not oily, thinly sliced onions cooked down until they're sweet and almost spreadable, and a small cup of boozy Jack Daniel's mustard with a mild bite.
While calling the bread brioche is a serious stretch (it's more like white bread than the decadent French loaf enriched with eggs and butter), I can't deny the appeal of the sandwich that lands on the table like a sack of sand. After declaring several times that my next bite would be my absolute last, and then feigning surprise that I'd nearly finished the thing, I was forced to confront the undeniable truth: Despite being nothing more than deep-fried starch wrapped in more carbohydrates, and a paragon of pure evil, the butty is pretty good. That a bag of potato chips is served in the same basket is borderline comical.
Ten Bells Tavern, the small house-turned-pub just east of the Bishop Arts District, is the product of owner Meri Dahlke's rampant Anglophilia. Since graduating from UNT after growing up in rural Wisconsin, she's spent time every year in England, where potato chips are crisps, french fries are chips and pubs are a part of everyday life. Dahlke wanted to bring that concept back with her every time she returned to the States, and when a plain-faced house reminded her of the country taverns she grew up with back home, she knew she'd found her spot.
Dahlke leased the house with partners Michael Hickey and Greg Mathews, and together they grabbed their tools and tore into a project that would take them more than half a year to complete. They used a jackhammer and tore into the cement floors to add plumbing for new bathrooms and a kitchen. They built a U-shape bar and custom tabletops. They painted stools and walls and converted the barren front and back yards into patio and parking spaces.
With the kitchen completed they enlisted the help of Carlos Mancera, who Dahlke met while working at Dude Sweet Chocolate. Mancera drew on experience from short stints at Eddie V's and Cedars Social among other restaurants and assembled a short, tight menu that offers significantly better food than most bars in the neighborhood.
In addition to the palpitation-inducing butty, there are other bar food classics you'd expect with the English pub theme. Fish and chips feature flounder instead of cod in a well-executed basket of fried seafood and potatoes. The batter is thick but not greasy and ready to absorb a shake or seven of malt vinegar or a slather of tartar sauce loaded with pickles and capers.
Just behind the bar, in three large jars, eggs in various shades of yellow and green would look at home on the shelves of a biology classroom next to pickled sea creatures. The pickled eggs are another pub classic with a significant twist: custom brines that take a pedestrian snack and spin it anew.
A classic version based on vinegar and onions adds coriander, cardamom, black peppercorns and other spices, while a curry version pairs a heady spice blend with fiery, fresh jalapeño slices. If you're soured on the magenta-colored orbs floating in plastic tubs at a gas station, give these handcrafted eggs a shot. The bacon version is hampered by soggy swine, but the others work beautifully. They're also a hell of a lot more interesting than the deviled eggs that have taken over every bar menu in Dallas.
From there the menu turns to items you'd expect at every local bar, but don't think something as mundane as chicken wings would stay dull in the hands of Mancera. The chef fries them in oil till they're done but still tender and then sauces them in a combination of ketchup and Frank's Red Hot. The combo sounds a little Sandra Lee, but with beer, brown sugar and other seasonings and some time on the stove, the ingredients distill down into what resembles a tangy, sweet barbecue sauce.
The wings could use a little more crispness, but it's hard to care when you realize the blue cheese that's pooled on the plate beneath them is another scratch condiment. Mancera spikes his own buttermilk dressing with funky Point Reyes blue cheese, sprinkling a little extra of the crumbled cheese over the top with some thin wisps of celery as a final garnish.
There are finishing touches everywhere: in the prime rib that's roasted and sliced on site for an impossibly tender French dip, and the minced chives that finish many dishes including the eggs Benedict on a compelling brunch menu. The cherished meal of the hangover set features pasture-raised, organic eggs from Vital Farms that are turned into impossibly large sandwiches and other breakfast plates, many flanked with finely diced and crunchy home-fried potatoes.
Not everything is perfect here. The do-it-yourself approach Dahlke and her partners took to get the bar running saved them money, but the space has a distinctly homegrown feel. The U-shaped bar bends outward into the dining room, turning patrons inside the corners away from their friends, and the stage that anchors the outdoor space looks like it was assembled on a whim.
And then there's the burger: a thinly pattied, double-meat, double-cheese beast that's a lot like what you'd expect from a fancy fast-food restaurant. Mancera told me he likes the thin patties because they cook fast and evenly, but that seems odd considering all the hard work the chef puts into his other dishes. Then again, the British are known for their abuse of beef. The thin, well-done patties just might compose an authentic English hamburger. Either way, Oak Cliff has an excellent new bar, and Dahlke's effort succeeds in creating an excellent neighborhood pub on this side of the pond with a stamp of her own.