After I turned the recorder off, Kingston also told me about going salmon fishing in British Columbia and catching a king salmon so big that, after it was cleaned and portioned, he went home with 14 pounds of meat. So the guy cares about eating well.
The transcript below has been edited to remove the boring parts.
This is something that our new mayor was too scared to tell me. He never participated in our food industry survey. So the question Eric Johnson won’t answer: What is your Dallas comfort food?
Why didn’t he answer that? When you’re in office, you really can’t have a negative opinion about a restaurant, particularly one in your district, even though clearly some things need to be criticized. Dallas comfort food. Probably steak. It’s what I seem to gravitate back to.
It’s an iconic Dallas food. Any particular where?
Currently obsessed with Town Hearth. It’s so freaking good. And (my wife) Melissa’s super obsessed with it too. It’s so flipping expensive that it should cause us to go less, but it doesn’t really. I just got hired by a law firm again, so I have more money than I really ought to. Mostly I just give it all to Melissa. Back when I was in office and not making any money, (Scott) Griggs used to joke that my retirement plan was “be nice to Melissa.”
You’ve been in Dallas longer than I have.
I’ve been here almost 20 years.
It was extraordinarily good at the top end, it was extraordinarily depressing at the middle. My biggest problem is I grew up in San Antonio and the Mexican food here was abominable. People who grew up here don’t know that. In Dallas people are delusional about Italian food and about Mexican food. They’re more delusional about Italian food. They sort of understand that Mexican food maybe isn’t the strongest genre here — it’s gotten a lot better — but they’re completely delusional about Italian. There are only like five or six good Italian restaurants in town, but everybody is dying to take you to their favorite shitty Italian place. I have eaten more bad Italian food here from people who are just so excited.
Griggs took me to this joint over on Davis that is just awful. Griggs and (Adam) Medrano and I all went there — it’s close to Zang — it’s on Davis on the south side of the street — Medrano and I went in with Griggs, and we’re like, seriously? We’re eating here? And he’s like, no no no, it’s good, you gotta get the chicken piccata or whatever, some dish, so we get that. Totally fucking Chef Boyardee. We were walking out and Medrano and I were both like, “That place sucks!” Griggs goes, “No, that dish is really good.” We just ate it, and it’s not!
But it’s gotten better. Lucia is really solid. Nonna and Carbone’s are good.
There was kind of interesting stuff when I got here — old-school steakhouses that weren’t going to survive. There was this place in the West End called Butcher Block or something that was just miserable. It was the quality of the Old San Francisco without any of the fun factor. But the Mexican food was so depressing. I can remember so clearly when Avila’s opened and somebody, probably an Observer writer, gave it a good review. I was like, no, no fucking way. And we went over there and I was like, holy crap! This is actually good!
There was a middle class of restaurants here back then, but it was Chili’s. I know that I’m being subjective because my income changed over that period of time, and certainly I got pickier. We get in bad ruts, too, like — it’s just the easiest thing if you get home and you haven’t made arrangements to cook to wind up at Lakewood Landing.
I’ve heard you’re a big home cook.
Yeah. Every year, Melissa and I pick a kind of cuisine to learn to cook. So last year was Vietnamese, this year was supposed to be Oaxacan but we have had so little time this spring that I haven’t had time to execute any dishes yet. But I feel like I got pretty good at Vietnamese. We did Chinese, mostly Sichuan, one year. We did Italian food one year.
I started out on the river in San Antonio at a place called Kangaroo Court, which was the oldest restaurant to actually use the River Walk as a serving area. I bartended at Kangaroo Court and there was another joint called — I cannot remember the name of the other place I worked. It was in where Rosario’s is now. That old grocery store thing on South Saint Mary’s. It was a really good restaurant, too. It was Latin fusion. It wasn’t chef driven, it was owned by a dentist, but they hired a consulting chef to do the menu and the menu was fabulous. There was a bed and breakfast in King William that grew all the herbs.
The thing that working at restaurants allowed me to do is, I had it worked out to where if I took the daytime shift on Sunday, my manager worked it out to where I would always work the night time shifts on Friday and Saturday. That allowed me to work three shifts — which was enough to pay for school! I was supporting myself pretty well. I was not suffering at that point. And the other thing that it did was, it kept me away from quite as much party scene. I didn’t do that intentionally, but that was very good for me. I definitely as a kid — this is part of why I didn’t want to go to UT, because I was very sure that I would spend all my time drinking.
That’s a good thing to know about yourself when you’re 17.
It was the only self-aware aspect of my personality at that point.
Do you still tend bar at home?
Yeah, totally. When you wait tables and tend bar, you get super efficient at shit. And I’m sure I’m not efficient anymore. But I still know how to do it. It’s pretty fun.
Do you have a house specialty drink?
Lately we’ve been into the Vesper, which is the James Bond martini. Those are popping up on menus a lot more.
So you’re a trendsetter.
Oh, no. I think we saw them popping up and decided we should try them at home. I, like everyone else in Dallas, am really good at going to older, bigger, more sophisticated cities and seeing things and bringing them back.
I have a theory I’m going to test out on you. I think that there’s kind of a parallel between the way that certain camps of people eat in this city, and their political stance.
Oooh, I like this theory. Even if this is wrong, it’s going to be interesting.
I think maybe it could be that urbanism and adventurousness are aligned. But also a lot of the city’s upper class is concerned with being more like other cities.
Oh, that is 100% true, not just in food, that’s in art, that’s in architecture.
Bridges. It is rampant in this town. The problem with Dallas is that it’s so fucking insecure. It can’t just be what it is. On the positive side, it’s the Stanley Marcus quote about the “city on the make.” Wanting to be better than you are is great! The flip side is when you’re obsessed with being like someone else, and then it’s pathetic.
I’ve been trying to make that point with food. Chefs will be like, oh, we’re hiring a new chef for a fancy restaurant, we’re only going to look at candidates from New York and Chicago and LA because nobody in Dallas can do that. This line cook that Stephan Pyles just hired to run his tasting menu restaurant is from Chicago, and he’s like, “We’re going to make food that Dallas has never seen.” OK. Bring it on, right?
There was this enormous debate among the food writers in town around 10-15 years ago about whether Dallas has a native cuisine. I thought it was super interesting. I think Dallas is one of like three cities that can claim the steakhouse as a native cuisine. But I think it may have been (Leslie) Brenner writing that Dallas’ native cuisine is Southwest. People think that’s Santa Fe, but the two leading cooks in that genre are Pyles and (Dean) Fearing. Bobby Flay has a great reputation in that genre, and his restaurant is good. But it’s not nearly as good as Fearing’s, and it’s twice as expensive.
I guess I never freaked out about not having a native cuisine. I’m jealous of a place like New Orleans, but we’ve been able to absorb so many immigrant cuisines this way.
You get to a certain size city, and you couldn’t possibly say what the native cuisine of LA is. They have fantastic examples of everything.
There’s a lot of discussion here about “modern Mexican” food. Do you have any experience with that?
I love it. I think there’s some really good stuff out there. It just doesn’t seem like it’s being very sustainable. I don’t know why it doesn’t last. I don’t know if people have a mental block about paying that much for it.
Cuz they’re worth it! I don’t know, it seems there is no upper limit on steak places. (Nick) Badovinus is basically robbing people. It’s not just the food. Everything is pushing the edge of what you can possibly charge people. He was charging me like $18 a glass last night for bourbon, for a bottle that costs $50. So if he’s doing that, why does he have to charge me $139 for the rib-eye?
And he has like a $35 order of tater tots on the menu, too.
The tater tots are the weakest item on that menu. I was so excited for them, and they suck. That 90-day rib-eye though, is — I’ve only had one better steak, and it’s the 240-day rib-eye at Knife.
There was this huge movement in the late '80s and '90s to make Mexican food healthier. It’s the dumbest fucking thing ever. A lot of these places that make their chorizo in house, their problem is the chorizo isn’t greasy enough. To this day, there are people in town who will tell you, “We don’t put any lard in the food.” I’m like, why not? I went to a Diana Kennedy book signing at the museum of art, and she was absolutely hysterical talking about people who don’t put lard in Mexican food.
In 2018 you tweeted that you were going to get an RFP for better tacos at Love Field.
I’ve tried. I really have tried. Everything’s stalled out right now because we’ve got the wrong management out there, who’s not really demanding better for the traveler. Because of the end of the Wright Amendment, the amount of money that the airport is making has skyrocketed, and it’s masking that they have really shitty management. If you look on a per square foot basis of what that airport produces, it’s laggard. It doesn’t keep up with competitors. If you look at the product mix, it sucks. Love Field needs serious upgrading on its restaurant game. That Pyles concept is good, but everything else is kinda …
It’s a mall food court.
There’s no middle. They’re trying to get the middle with Cool River, but Cool River sucks. You’ve got one high end, I do like that Pyles place. You’ve got Whataburger and Chick-fil-A — I don’t do Chick-fil-A for ethical reasons, but those are things people really like. Every other fast concept in there is shit. Like, Moe’s? What the fuck is that?
One of the good things that we did out there is that, with Gilbert Aransas’ help, we increased the wages out there where now everybody who works out there gets a living wage.
So we need to reform Love Field so that we can get tacos.
Correct. We actually need to sell Love Field. Love Field and DFW both make tons of money but federal law doesn’t allow you to take any money out of it, unless we sell it. It’s so much money that it really could change the financial structure of the city. I think we would make multiple billions of dollars if we sold our aviation assets, and that would allow us to recapitalize our pensions and also pay off our G.O. debt. Like 28 cents of every dollar that you pay to the city goes to debt service. That’s a little high.
We own all the restaurants in front of the Omni Convention Center, too.
Yes. The original restaurateurs wanted out of there, and so Omni agreed to operate them and the city runs them. The total debt on the hotel and that restaurant complex is still above $600M and it might be worth $320M. Total, the citizens of Dallas owe bondholders about a billion dollars in the convention center area.
Omni is accountable to itself. I mean, Omni didn’t want these things. The original owners were going to leave. So Omni is just trying to keep them from being empty. That area of town is just not taking off. Bullion is a destination restaurant. It’s not driving traffic to other places. Here’s the other thing about the Omni. These assholes will all tell you, the Omni’s a great success, look at the occupancy. Now, that occupancy is all taking rooms away from privately owned hotels, but the other thing about it is, they’re not saving up in a reserve fund to do remodeling. Commercial standard is about 10 years before a hotel has to be remodeled, and that hotel is going to need at least $80-100 million. They don’t have it; they’re not putting it away. The taxpayers are going to have to pay for that.
Can we burn it down for the insurance?
The best thing that can happen in the Convention Center is a sinkhole. That would be by far the best outcome. I tried to get the Convention Center sold, but it’s the same thing. Nobody wants it.
OK. What’s the best district to eat in?
It’s 14, but when you have that level of concentration you can’t miss. When I first got in office, we were having significant complaints about valet parking. Greenville had just come back to life, and the way we do valet parking in Dallas is not good. If you fill out the application and all the boxes are checked correctly, our code doesn’t permit us to say that you can’t have a valet stand. And we should be able to say that. I started to look into the issue, and I said, I need to know where every valet permit is. Unfortunately, there are many more stands than there are permits, but I got the permit numbers. This would have been 2013-14. If you took all of the valet permits outside of District 14 in the rest of the city, and added them all together, and then multiplied them by three, you would have almost as many as you had in District 14. The permits. And there are many unpermitted stands, you know? So we tried to tighten up that stuff.
That’s just an indication of how many restaurants there are in District 14. Every restaurant that you would credibly argue is kind of the best in its field is in District 14. Bullion is in District 2.
District 2 has Deep Ellum, too.
The best tacos are probably in 6.
What’s the worst district to eat in?
I don’t know. I’ve probably never eaten in District 5. I’ve eaten in District 8, District 8’s not bad. I’ve probably never eaten in District 4. It’s an absolute dearth of options there, and they complain about it, which they should! They should complain about it. Especially with the slightly increasing wages that we’ve seen in the last few years, you could make a go of it down there. I think you’ll see restaurateurs start to open stuff up in the Redbird area. I think you’ll see some more stuff around UNT-Dallas. You could really have a nice restaurant scene down there, and it’ll be interesting to me to see what it wound up being. Who is the restaurateur who is going to give it a shot, and what kind of cuisine would he or she want?
That could work out really well, and I hope it does. We’re almost to a downturn, and one of the problems with poverty is it’s the group that’s always the last to benefit from economic recovery and it’s the first group to get crushed when there’s a downturn. I would have liked for Dallas to have made more progress in improving the conditions in southern Dallas during this period of extended recovery.
What always happens (in a recession) is the middle gets killed. People who, in periods of greater prosperity, were eating in casual dining restaurants, they abandon that for fast food. I remember in ’08 or ’09 reading somebody’s study about how the downturn was really good for places like McDonald’s and really bad for Chili’s.
OK, time for a lightning round. These will all be really quick, snappy questions. Is a hot dog a sandwich?
Where do you fit on the sandwich alignment chart?
Holy crap. I’m a structural purist, ingredient neutral. If I had to pick another one, I’d probably be ingredient and structure purist. A wrap is not a sandwich. And a wrap frankly should not exist. That is a bad food.
Brownies. The edge or the middle piece?
Fuel City: good or bad?
But here’s the story of Fuel City, and here’s why it got famous, and if you try to veer from this, that’s why you have a bad experience: It’s only the picadillo. That’s it! And it is the best picadillo in town. Everyone should learn picadillo from Fuel City. But no. The tortillas aren’t great. And the tortillas at the M Crowd Group (Mi Cocina, Taco Diner), all those restaurants — they should have to go to prison.
I saw everyone freaking out about Mi Cocina in Highland Park closing for two months, and I thought, well maybe you can go eat real Mexican food.
But that’s not the point. The point there is the scene.
Pineapple on pizza?
If you are road tripping, what is your preferred fast-food meal?
Beef jerky. If you’re going to actually stop and get fast food, it’s Whataburger. I don’t do it very often, but I have an annual dove hunting trip that always involves a lunch at Whataburger on the way back, which helps significantly with the hangovers.
Tipping, or an automatic 20% charge for service?
I have so turned around on this one. When I was waiting tables, I would have fist-fought you if you tried to take my tips. But now I really like having gratuity already included, and I will occasionally add an additional tip on that. I love being in other countries where that’s more the norm. It’s so nice.
There’s this old perception that if people don’t have to work for tips, they will be terrible.
No. Terrible people will be terrible, and good people will be good. You know, these old-school restaurateurs also hate this idea because they like the lack of headache of — if you’re not paying people a real wage, then you don’t give a shit about scheduling. You don’t treat their schedules with respect at all. It’s less headache for you, but it also means you’re a shitty manager. That’s the other thing I like about it. I like seeing these owners who are so much more engaged with the people who are working for them.
Health inspection signs on windows or doors.
I like it. I think it’s becoming a standard. But I’m also a huge skeptic of health inspections. When we had the downturn, one of the things that (former City Manager) Mary Suhm did to balance the budget was she didn’t replace health inspectors as they retired or quit. And the average length of gap in health inspection at each restaurant tripled. Basically we did no restaurant inspections in 2011. There was no increase in food-borne illness. We’re inspecting for the wrong shit, basically. The other thing is, I’ve been aware of at least a couple instances where health inspectors have been corrupt.
What I’d found was that they were inflating scores so that they don’t have to go back. If you see a score of 80, the reason was that if it was 79 or below, they would have to go back.
(laughs) So there were a lot of 80s. (continues laughing) That’s genius!
Yeah! I pulled a spreadsheet of the 25,000 most recent inspection scores. There were 54 scores of 78, 45 scores of 79, and 754 80s.
(laughs) I love it.
What’s the best kind of cookie?
Chocolate chip. Those Neiman’s cookies are really good.
Beans in chili?
Under no circumstances. It’s a definitional thing. If there’s a bean in it, you’ve created a soup. It’s a bean soup.
One last thing. You said there were D14 restaurants you couldn’t criticize while in office. Can you bad-mouth them now?
Oh, sure! Didn’t I already slag the M Group? That is a terrible company. And it’s got some really terrible people in management, too. They’re horrible Trumpers. Someone should serve prison time for Chuy’s. Unpopular opinion: HG Sply. It’s a fabulous scene, I love the people, I like the drinks, I like the rooftop, but the food is garbage. They are literally serving the worst hamburger in town.