John Paul Valverde and his partner Miguel Vicéns have a knack for envisioning and executing compelling spaces. Their design business Coevál Studio kept them busy with color palettes, lighting fixtures and layout before they decided to dive headfirst into the restaurant business itself. They opened Campo Modern Country Bistro and enjoyed the adulation of Dallas' diners in their cozy well-appointed restaurant on Beckley Avenue in Oak Cliff for a while.
The restaurant was highly acclaimed, even if most people didn't understand why Argentine and French cuisine belonged in the same kitchen, or why beef heart was suddenly a thing they should be consuming raw.
The love affair faded quickly when their star chef Matt McCallister, who'd become the face of the restaurant, left to start his own fine-dining concept in the Design District. Valverde and Vicéns made their best attempts at damage control but their efforts seemed flailing and reactionary. They promoted their sous chef Josh Black before replacing him with Michael Ehlert, who had just left The Chesterfield, and then announced the restaurant would close just weeks before its first anniversary. The story doesn't end here, though.
Did I mention John Paul Valverde and his partner Miguel Vicéns have a knack for envisioning and executing compelling spaces? Just two months later they opened Outpost American Tavern in the little house that once held Campo. Other than the white-tiled pass that looks into the kitchen and the quirky angular bar, you'd never recognize the space as a former fine-dining charmer. Gone are the washed whites, angular fixtures and odd bar seats that were fun to look at but not fun to sit on. They've been replaced with dim lighting, dark wood tones and other embellishments you'd expect in a bar that features chicken tenders and a hamburger. There's even a flat-panel television tacked on the wall, outside on the front porch.
On a recent Sunday afternoon with unseasonably and almost sinfully warm weather, that porch and the surrounding patio were packed with brunchers who didn't seem interested in the basketball game playing on the screen. They were wrist-deep in sloppy breakfast burgers topped with runny fried eggs, and buttery johnnycakes topped with savory roast pork and sweet syrup. They forked and knifed their ways through ham and cheese sandwiches ladled with béchamel, and munched on chilaquiles laced with braised chicken capable of dismantling the worst hangovers. And they reveled in the affordability of their new neighborhood restaurant. Nothing on the current brunch menu costs more than $10.
The affordable dining model has been tested and approved on this street before. Right next door, Jonathon's Oak Cliff has been selling approachable riffs on diner classics like pork chops and pancakes with much success for almost two years now. That same sunny Sunday I visited Outpost for brunch there wasn't a single empty table on the patio at Jonathon's, and more customers waited in a queue on the sidewalk out front. Business has been steady for the modestly priced, casual restaurant, and Outpost follows suit with a similar but boozier version that feels more like an urban tavern than a country diner.
In the evenings Outpost turns into a drinking den with the usual suspects. Sandwiches with breaded chicken, burgers and bar snacks, and salads topped with chicken and grilled fish join some less staid dishes. There's a beef stroganoff on the menu loaded with soft, braised tri-tip spooned over fresh fettuccine noodles. If the sauce had a bit more mustard or used something with more bite, the dish would be excellent. For now it's very good.
A flatbread topped with chicken, grilled onions and goat cheese sports a crust that could use some structure and flavor, but the toppings work well together. Order one of these to share at your table and it will disappear quickly.
There are other dishes that fail to impress. Fried pickles sport a well-fried, crunchy exterior, but the spears are rather thick and arrive dangerously hot. By the time they cool, the coating has lost its snap and the snacks have lost their luster.
I can't figure out why such messy sandwiches are served on flat serving boards. Eating can feel precarious here and the meat stuffed inside both a French dip and pork sandwich is pallid in flavor while the bread surrounding both could use an upgrade. Still, they make for decent eating if you're here for a beer or cocktail.
Even though the execution is mostly quite good throughout, many dishes have a component or ingredient or two that's lacking: the sad, wet and cheap-tasting ham on a croque-madame during brunch; the similarly flaccid breast meat hiding inside the chicken tenders; the dreadfully out-of-season corn in the elotes. Many restaurants in Dallas have fetishized the latter, but few seem to offer versions of the popular street food more attractive than what you can buy in a Styrofoam cup outside a Latino grocery. Imagine roasted summer corn, finished on a grill till a few of the kernels blacken. Picture those same kernels, bursting with sweetness, juxtaposed with fresh crema and some acid from hot sauce and lime and the saltiness of cotija cheese. Even the laziest renditions of this dish taste delicious, but elotes can be transcendent when made with sweet summer corn. Something is left on the table when the cob tastes like it was pulled from a freezer bag.
With prices comparable to casual restaurants, which pale in comparison to the cooking at Outpost, it's hard to be too critical of the cooking here. But it's also hard not to wonder what would happen if some of the ingredients were upgraded a touch. With bread from a great bakery and more focus on seasonality, the prices on the menu might have to adjust a little, but the resulting food would be improved immensely. For now Outpost is a good addition to the neighborhood. With some tweaks it could be a real destination.