Restaurant Reviews

Joyce and Gigi's Warm Up East Dallas

Have you met Joyce and Gigi? Depending on your vantage point, they're either a South American mother and daughter chef duo, or a quaint yet seductive South American restaurant in East Dallas. Both descriptions are true, and certainly restaurants named after their principles are nothing new. But in the case of this casual family-owned bistro on Hall Street, just off Ross Avenue, it may be especially hard to tell where one Joyce and Gigi begins and another ends.

Joyce and Gigi's Kitchen opened in December after hiding behind butcher-papered windows for more than five months. Gigliola Aguilera, a Bolivian native, graduate of Le Cordon Bleu and former line cook at Fearing's, partnered with her mother, Joyce Stenvall, to bring Dallas a modern twist on their South American cuisine.

Aguilera designed the dining room herself, and while structurally the building isn't at all interesting, she worked well with the space she was given. Aguilera left one wall exposed brick while painting the rest in bright and sunny yellow. She stained the concrete floors a deep and mottled brown and gently lit the space with fixtures that hang from the high ceilings above. The dining room is a soft and muted backdrop from which the tractor stools lining the bar, the window treatments, napkins and aprons pop in a vibrant and sultry red.

Joyce and Gigi's is a casual neighborhood restaurant, but it's not at all sleepy. On a recent Friday night the ever-present valet workers jogged up and down Hall Street as customers trickled in for a late evening meal. At 9 p.m. the dining room was packed, with many patrons sitting at the small bar and most snacking on a simple house-baked bread served on a wooden board with compound butter. Getz/Gilberto, the classic jazz-bossa nova album, and other Latin rhythms filled the air, rounding out a restaurant that feels like it belongs anywhere but Dallas.

If you happen upon the restaurant late and don't want a full meal, you'd do well to try the empanadas. The small, tan and lovely fried pastries come three to an order filled with cheese, beef and duck. Each is topped with an elegant garnish of onions cooked down until they're sweet, and an aioli spiked with heat from locoto, a Bolivian chili.

The churrasco presents a sizable hunk of chewy and extremely flavorful flap steak, twice as sexy as the rib-eye steaks served at the upscale steakhouses downtown. Here the meat comes flanked by small links of homemade chorizo, which are mild and a little dry, expertly fried batons of yucca with fluffy interiors and a garnish of pickled onions. The plate is meant to serve two, so if you're on your own and craving beef, opt for the skewers, which feature similar flavors paired with a savory chickpea purée.

Chilean sea bass may not be the most interesting fish at a restaurant's disposal, but here the rich and buttery flesh is spun anew, perched atop a yucca cake flecked with herbs that sits in a smoky chili broth. Deep-fried curls of fish skin as crunchy and as addictive as popcorn lend texture and flavor to the dish.

The same fish finds its way into a brilliant escabeche, bright with apple cider vinegar, with currants for sweetness and wisps of fried plantain that lend a crisp texture to every bite.

There are a few bombs to be avoided, and they usually occur in dishes with modern twists or riffs on classic preparations that don't come together. The chicarròn is dry, tough and chewy and can't be saved by a cilantro pesto and grilled corn. A chicken milanesa, served over quinoa cooked to mimic grits, is plagued with heavy and mundane fried poultry while a side of beurre blanc sauce only aggravates the issue, even if more delicious pickled onions try to cut the fat.

A beef heart pâté is what you might expect from such a lean muscle. Wine and herbs infused with the meat lend depth and flavor, but the dry and crumbing charcuterie doesn't hold its shape and is difficult to eat.

Desserts are spotty too. Dry and heavy bread pudding and pumpkin fritters with gooey centers don't impress.

Still, when you're charmed by someone, overlooking a few flaws is easy, and there's something undeniably charismatic about Joyce and Gigi and the restaurant they've created.

Perhaps it's the stunning line of specialty cocktails turned out by a bar featuring a selection of fruit juices you've likely never heard of. Chirimoya, a large tropical fruit that tastes something like the love child of a pineapple and a papaya, does wonders with a classic margarita, while a caipirinha made with sugar and lime pays homage to Brazil's most popular cocktail. A pisco sour kissed with papaya is great choice if you're looking for a faithful recreation of the Peruvian classic flip.

With drinks like these, and the simple dishes that really sing, it's easy to fall for Joyce and Gigi, and certainly the folks who live nearby are already smitten. Despite being open for just a few months, they've cultivated a strong local following that enjoys dining late into the evening. This underserved section of Hall Street desperately needed a strong neighborhood restaurant. How lucky that it got such a charming one.

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Scott Reitz
Contact: Scott Reitz