A fellow food writer recently told me that food is one of the greatest pleasures of life you get to experience three times a day. If you followed this convention, you'd have more than a thousand opportunities to consume something beautiful every year. Our daily meals seem like an almost endless opportunity for culinary exploration.
The thing is, most of us don't unearth even a fraction of this potential.
Breakfast is almost always forgotten. If we eat at all, our mornings are often mired in microwavable oatmeal or a terrible bagel sandwich purchased and devoured on the run — hardly inspirational eating.
So many lunches are squandered on mindless meals we bulldoze in a hurry, collecting our calories at drive-thru windows, munching sloppy sandwiches on bad bread from the cafe in an office basement or wolfing down lukewarm Chinese takeout during a quick afternoon break.
Dinner seems more sacred, but even this meal falls victim to the countless intrusions of other important activities in our lives. Our ultimate barrier to pleasurable dining is our demand for convenience.
Unless you have a lot of free time, you probably get only a handful of opportunities a month to go out and eat something wonderful, and those experiences often fall victim to a restaurant rut. Overwhelmed by recommendations offered by newspapers, magazines, blogs and friends, we fall back on our old familiar favorites and then wonder how we ended up stuffed with mediocre Tex-Mex again.
Even as a professional food critic with a dining budget, I'm not immune to the occasionally uninspired meal. If you ever see me stuffing a 7-Eleven egg-salad sandwich into my face outside the office you'll know I'm really behind on a deadline. This is how we end up trying to wrap our faces around another burrito at Chipotle (which is a fine enough meal, but hardly an exciting one) or at the prepared foods section of Whole Foods. This is how that frozen pizza ended up in the fridge.
The richest dining experiences require us to let go of our comfortable restaurants and venture to try something that will often turn out to be a disappointment. If you gamble enough, every now and then you'll stumble across the undiscovered treasures that drive the best food lovers to constantly seek new dishes. This is how you find the small-batch, hand-crafted cooking that gives any food scene its core identity.
Not all of the following dishes, gleaned from my year eating out in 2012, are gems, but they all bring something significant to the table. If you dig deeper and learn how they're inspired, prepared or made, you'll find they're all interesting in some way. They all have a story.
Use a single dish for your launching point to check out a new restaurant you hadn't previously considered, or as a stepping stone into a neighborhood you'd never otherwise have visited. There are hundreds of culinary treasures to be discovered in and around Dallas. This list barely scratches the surface.RELATED: Our 100 Favorite Dishes in Dallas
Suadero Tacos at La Banqueta
Fanned out on a plate like daisy petals with two limes where the yellow center should be, La Banqueta's suadero tacos look just as good as they taste. They're a little salty — good salty — and sparsely seasoned. The brisket isn't muddied with too much cumin or other spices but flavored simply by the heat of a flat grill instead. Some pieces are tender and fatty, others have a bit of chew, and still more get rendered down into crunchy, desiccated bits of salty meat like brisket bacon. With a hearty squeeze of lime and a squirt of bright green tomatillo salsa, this is one of the best bites you can buy in all of Dallas.
Turkey Sandwich at Bolsa Mercado
Turkey sandwiches are usually dry and bland, so I'll only order one when I feel as though I've hit my burger quota on any given week. Bolsa Mercado's smoked turkey sandwich could change this. The soft, freshly baked ciabatta roll is springy and supple, while an avocado spread keeps it from eating like a sack of sand. The turkey is smoked in house, and a pepper spread brings brightness.
Chicken Shish Kebab at Pepper Smash
Put aside the skewers and roll up your sleeves. You're about to make a killer sandwich. Pick up a huge, tender hunk of juicy chicken, blistered in a hot tandoor oven. Fold it into a hunk of freshly baked naan bread. Smear a little tahini dip and yogurt on your makeshift sandwich before topping it with a little tabbouleh laced with lemon. The people at Potbelly in the same plaza have absolutely no idea what they're missing.
Babaganoush at Baboush
Typically, babaganoush is about a point or two higher than hummus on the boring scale of Mediterranean dips. Baboush's dish is more sturdy, based on a simple blend of roasted eggplant given personality with the subtle heat of fresh jalapeños. A dollop of creamy basil pesto adds unexpected flavors that are offset by bright bursts of fresh pomegranate.