Is it even possible for food to be "unconventional" anymore?
We've reached an age when the restaurant industry thrives on pushing the limits with unexpected ingredients, methodology and settings. Cooling a cocktail glass with liquid nitrogen? Sure. Dinner in a location you won't learn until you're texted an address an hour before the meal? Yeah, OK. The race for boundary-pushing has yielded curious things on our plates, and it becomes harder and harder to define "unconventional" or "alternative," as the lines blur a little more with every meal.
But if you want to stretch your culinary boundaries, there are places in Dallas where that's possible — places where you can almost guarantee that you'll try something you've never had before, at least not in this iteration. There is creativity out there, in sourcing and execution. There's room for adventure. And there's ample opportunity to sheepishly admit that you have no idea what's on your plate. Here are the Dallas spots where we love to try something we've never had before.
333 W Jefferson Blvd.
It's not uncommon at Small Brewpub to look at the slate board sitting before you and have no idea what you're looking at — and that's perfectly OK. In fact, it leads to some serious culinary adventure at this Oak Cliff spot. In true defiance of the unfortunate brewpub norm — where the food and beer can be simultaneously underwhelming — Small creates stunning plates and great beer simultaneously. And they do both with bold, unabashed creativity.
Farm-to-table has become a meaningless marketing phrase, but the idea of working closely with local farms and seasonal produce is something chef Misti Norris takes seriously. Her Instagram account shows real-time proof of her frequent visits to local farms, where she harvests greens herself just hours before service and greets the hogs she'll eventually butcher in Small's kitchen. After running the charcuterie and butchering at FT33, Small became her opportunity to really stretch. And boy, has she ever stretched.
Flash-fried chicken feet, sweet tea-brined pig tails, dehydrated green elderberries pickling in fermented celery brine — you could dine at Small five nights a week and eat something you've never had before every evening. Butchering her own meat in-house for the charcuterie board also yields fun plates in Norris' whole hog program, which features different parts of an animal featured in every service. When you order that day's whole hog dish, you are completely at Norris' mercy — and it's the best possible way to eat. "I believe it's more responsible to buy a whole animal when possible; it gives you the ability to support the people who took such good care of the animals," Norris says.
Pickling and fermentation, too, offer Norris an avenue to experiment. "I think almost every dish we have on the menu has some form of fermentation or by product," Norris says. "It's become very much a norm for us. We use live brines from fermented vegetables to make the bread on the pickle board, at the moment we have fermented sweet potato that is charred on the board, as well as the sweet potato brine bread."
That creativity doesn't stop with the food. Aside from a truly beautiful cocktail list that changes regularly, brewer Aaron Garcia has a lot of fun with the beer brewed on-site: toasted rice biere de garde with lemongrass, rye saison with chamomile, a Belgian dubbel brewed with ribbon cane syrup. When it comes to beer, Small is more interested in experimentation than in tradition, and Dallas is all the better for it.
On the Lamb
2614 Elm St.
This new Deep Ellum brasserie steps away from "mainstream meat" in an attempt to focus on less traditional animals and cuts. With an emphasis on lamb — owner Anton Uys is a native of South Africa, where lamb is a staple — the small but frequently changing menu is likely to introduce you to some cuts you've never had before.
Charcuterie is on just about every Dallas menu right now, but at On the Lamb, it's a must. Pick three items for $14 or five for $21 from a list that includes succulent duck ham, lamb pastrami with an absolutely beautiful layer of fat and a lamb pate that is everything pate should be — rich and velvety with that perfect punch of organ meat flavor.
“I’m getting accustomed to using a lot more organs. We decided not to use mainstream meat and I’m trying not to make it taste so fucking lamby,” chef Ross Demers says. “I’m using a lot from the lamb neck.”
From lamb belly with herbs and citrus to papparadelle with lamb neck and lamb sloppy joes, this cozy spot has a menu that's likely to offer you a cut of meat you haven't had before. The incredible smell of grilled meat emanating from the open kitchen is reason enough to become a regular at this Elm Street eatery.
1101 N. Beckley, Dallas and 1314 W. Magnolia, Fort Worth
On its face, Spiral Diner's menu looks as conventional as it gets — nachos, taco salad, a Philly cheesesteak, burgers, a patty melt. But when you consider that everything coming out of this kitchen is vegan, suddenly that blue plate special seems a little interesting.
Spiral Diner opened in 2002 after its founder, Amy McNutt, worked on a short film about factory-farmed cattle. Perturbed by the state of the modern dairy industry, she decided to open Spiral Diner in Fort Worth, bringing vegan, often organic food to Cowtown, USA, later opening a second location in Oak Cliff. But their cruelty-free ethos extends beyond the menu. Spiral Diner buys only environmentally-friendly cleaning products, biodegradable take-out containers and cutlery and encourages customers to bring their own to-go containers to cut down on waste, according to their website.
Inside the quirky modern diner space in Oak Cliff, diners can fill up on vegan beer ("many beers and wines are processed with animal ingredients," Spiral Diner says), almond milk lattes and "meatball" subs while reading from Spiral's collection of books about vegan feminism and factory farming. Despite their hard-line stance on animal products, this place doesn't have a militant vegan feel — omnivores are welcome, and they're likely to be surprised at how much they love meat-free takes on their favorite dishes.
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You'll find plenty of faux meats, tofu and soy protein on this menu, but there's a lot of creativity on this menu. Their famous nacho cheese is made with cashews, spices and red pepper, and it's a shockingly close approximation to its dairy-filled contemporary. Their country gravy made with soy and flour is good enough to slather on everything, and if nothing else, it's fun to see what a little ingenuity can do when it comes to building meals while being conscious of our impact on the planet and its four-legged inhabitants.
2817 Maple Ave.
You'd be hard-pressed to find a Dallas menu that's workshopped harder than Top Knot's. The little sister to Uchi, Top Knot stepped away from just sushi to create a menu that blends flavors from Southeast Asia, Latin America, Japan and the U.S.
Yucca chips, hot fried chicken, a brown sugar salmon topped with Japanese bonito flakes that sway and dance as they react to the heat from the dish, making it look alive — on their own, these ingredients are not entirely unheard of in fine dining, but the juxtaposition of flavors and cultures on this menu keeps things interesting.
Banh mi served in the form of a hand roll, a pot du creme made with peanut granola and yuzu marshmallow, pickled shrimp served with chicharron — the mix of cultural cuisines creates a genre of food that can only be described as Top Knot.
(Be sure to read the rest of our counterculture guide to Dallas.)