Tucked away in a residential neighborhood, on Stults Road just off Forest Lane, the Buddhist Center of Dallas sits quietly six days a week, providing a solemn refuge for area Thai Buddhists looking to get closer to enlightenment. There’s a manicured garden out back, and down just a few steps, koi the size of Labrador pups dance beneath the surface of a small pond, while fountains fill the otherwise quiet air with the sounds of trickling water.
But on Sundays around lunchtime, it’s harder to find your inner stillness here. A din of hungry chatter rides on the breeze, and with it the scents of grilling meats and pungent fish sauce. The temple, wrapped in a tapestry of metallic Crayola, seems a little brighter. For two hours, the space, while no less peaceful, is suddenly also a very fun and delicious place to be — no dogma required.
Behind the temple in a small parking lot, a number of food stalls peddle street meats, conveniently sold on a stick. There are thin sheets of pork fan-folded on bamboo skewers and sausages filled with ground pork and the same sticky rice you’ve seen paired with mango and black sesame seeds at the end of your typical Thai meals. Grab one of each, eat them immediately, and then quiet your mind and listen for a heavy thumping sound that will guide you to a savory and refreshing dish.
You’ve had papaya salad for sure, but not served this way. A woman works a large mortar with a pestle and spoon, blending a mixture of fish sauce, lime and chiles in a hulking rhythm. Thud, scrape, thud, thud, scrape, and then she reaches for a squirt bottle and adds a little more fish sauce. It’s thick and opaque; from four feet away, it smells strongly of umami and low tide . The resultant papaya salad drips with the savory concoction, which will make your salivary glands seize up and the whole world slow down. This is bold and aggressive cooking. It’s anything but your average strip mall Thai food.
Which is weird because many of the volunteers working the stalls are employees at area Thai restaurants when they’re not busy personifying loveliness and tranquility. Maybe they cook with a little more heart knowing the proceeds of their labor benefit the Buddhist Center. Maybe it’s all the fresh air, sunshine and serenity that somehow amplify the flavors, but when you’re walking through clouds of porcine grill smoke with a chubby sausage in your hand it’s hard not to get absorbed in the place. Finally, street food that actually eats like street food.
In a downpour it might not sound like a good option, but the Sunday lunches are held rain or shine, and a particularly wet spring did little to slow activity, which resembles a Thai takeout more than an outdoor picnic. On a recent Sunday, volunteers wrapped their entire bodies in plastic to match their plastic gloves, and went about their tasks like normal, the clanging of metal spoons against woks matching the cadence of the pounding rain. Let that clashing metal be your siren song.
The first stall as you enter the lot is the only permanent structure. It’s made of wood, and basically serves as an open-air kitchen framed by a counter where you order and pick up your food after your name is called. It’s filled with cute old ladies you’ll want to hug after you’re handed your lunch, and produces smells of more fish sauce (clean and bright this time) and searing vegetables and meats.
Stir-fried fat noodles are right behind pad thai in the hierarchy of Americanized Thai cooking clichés. Usually the noodles are over-cooked and cling together in glutinous clumps — the whole dish often swims in a thick and sweet sauce. Here, they have a thin, satiny sheen. The taste is sweet, but not cloying, and the heat comes on in a slow and steady glow unlike the five-star napalm noodles that often catch diners off guard and do little for flavor. The vegetables are fresh and have crunch, and they also have that kiss of the wok flavor you’ll only find in kitchens that offer small batch cooking. It’s food worth waiting for.
Large crowds and small batches equal long lines and longer waits. At the Buddhist Center the wait is further aggravated when a warm sun and a cool breeze draw even more hungry people. It will be OK. Find a shady spot beneath a tree, or a bench that faces the pond, and let your mind slow down for a while. There’s a small stage above the pond and kids can’t resist a performance in miniature as they jump on and off. This could be the most un-Dallas spot in all of Big D, made even better by an ice-cold milk tea.
Besides, crowds can add energy to an experience, which is why once a year the Buddhist Center teams up with the Thai Community Center of North Texas to hold a festival that takes a typical weekend at the Buddhist Center and turns the volume up to 10. This Saturday and Sunday, the temple and surrounding gardens will be decorated with blossoms and colorful tapestries. Food vendors will offer adventurous dishes they’d otherwise neglect, volunteers will dress in Thai clothing, and musicians will perform traditional Thai music. If you squint your eyes, you can pretend you’re on the streets of Bangkok, not Dallas. And with the market in full swing, you can even take home souvenirs to complete the illusion of a real trip to Thailand.
But the Dallas Buddhist Center stays hidden and quiet most of the year. Either you’ve never heard of it, or each time you walk through the gates you ask yourself why you don’t visit more regularly. At least you can no longer claim to be in the dark. And whether you go during the big festival or on a random weekend, you’re bound to take some memories with you as you walk off the grounds and the monophonic tones of chanting wither behind you. Make note of the warmth in your belly radiating outward. You deserve to experience it far more often.
Buddhist Center of Dallas
8484 Stults Road, 214-349-1998, watdallas.com, 10 a.m.-2 p.m. Sundays, $