Restaurant Reviews

In Deep Ellum, Will Call Creates Brilliantly Eccentric Cheesesteaks

In Deep Ellum, Will Call Creates Brilliantly Eccentric Cheesesteaks
Alison McLean
Deep Ellum’s newly-relocated neighborhood bar, the locals-only watering hole where residents escape the area’s chaos, is even more colorful than ever. Will Call, in its much larger, new space down the block from Pecan Lodge, is a chill bar, a music venue and a home to some of Dallas’ most delightfully deranged food.

click to enlarge If you're going to have a program, it might as well be a cheesesteak program. - ALISON MCLEAN
If you're going to have a program, it might as well be a cheesesteak program.
Alison McLean
The bar itself, almost always patrolled by its co-owner J.R. Muñoz, stocks a solid lineup of local craft brews, plus bottles of Rolling Rock. The almost table-free dining room packs in customers on weekends and relaxes mightily on weeknights.

And the kitchen doesn’t just serve a cheesesteak sandwich — it has a cheesesteak program.

“Cheesesteak program” is a magical phrase. When I texted friends, “Are you interested in checking out a cheesesteak program?” the answers were euphoric. Of course everybody wants to see what happens when chefs decide to produce a bombardment of weaponized beef and onions.

click to enlarge Chef Josh Farrell - ALISON MCLEAN
Chef Josh Farrell
Alison McLean
But the real story at Will Call is the guy who’s slinging the sandwiches and coffee-dusted bar nuts: a fine-dining chef who worked under Bruno Davaillon at The Mansion.

Here’s a look inside the mind of chef Josh Farrell. To make a $5 side he calls “pickle fries,” he first takes a flaky salt and freezes it — frozen salt, when mixed with water, takes on what he calls a “slushie texture” rather than dissolving. He infuses the salt with pickle juice, which gives the flakes just the tiniest whisper of tartness. Then he shakes salt and dill over his fries.

Oh, but he messes with the potatoes, too. They’re twice-cooked, of course, and between the blanching and frying steps, they spend some quality time in a pickle brine. On some nights, the difference is barely detectable; on others there’s a definite pucker.

The added step also makes the potatoes difficult to fry. All the more miraculous, then, that they come out with such a flawless crispy texture.

Alongside, Farrell serves Kool-Aid ketchup, a concoction that tastes so strongly of SweeTARTS and off-brand jelly that the only possible reactions are love and loathing. I thought the sweet-pickle combo was appealingly daffy, but the reactions of my three tablemates ranged from revulsion to near-rioting.

Or take another ingredient at Will Call: a dry rub Farrell’s team uses on chicken wings. It’s called Recycle Rub, because it’s made by taking all the vegetables left over at the end of the night, dehydrating them and grinding them into dust.

click to enlarge The bar at Will Call - ALISON MCLEAN
The bar at Will Call
Alison McLean
“I said, let’s start making salts,” Farrell says. “One of them, we took all the main stuff that we always have on hand — garlic, pepper, onion, carrot, pretty much everything we’re having as food waste — added citric acid and salt, made kind of an everything seasoning, tried it and it was really fucking good. We tried it out as the dry rub on the wings. It’s not even on the menu, and it’s one of our biggest sellers.”

Sorry, I buried the lede there. All that work is for an off-menu secret item.

click to enlarge Pickle fries. You read that correctly. - ALISON MCLEAN
Pickle fries. You read that correctly.
Alison McLean
What is on the menu, besides a handful of officially sanctioned wing dishes, is the cheesesteak program. When we visited, the kitchen was serving four, lab-testing two more and keeping at least one sandwich secret for regulars.

The consensus favorite on my visits was the Tejas, which is topped with pickled jalapeños and crushed tortilla chips ($10). Squeeze a bit of lime over the top of the sandwich to produce a meaty bite of Texas, in which the grilled onions and hot peppers pull in both sweet and spicy directions.

I could also easily demolish the “cheesesteak and eggs,” a platter on which each half-sandwich comes topped by a runny egg cooked sous vide at 65 degrees ($13). At this temperature, neither the yolk nor the white are fully set, and they ooze through the whole sandwich like a spectacular sauce.

click to enlarge Cheesesteak and eggs - ALISON MCLEAN
Cheesesteak and eggs
Alison McLean
One thing that all of the cheesesteaks have in common, which sets them apart from the sandwiches I grew to love as a gluttonous youngster, is that there’s a note of sweetness in each. That replaces the grungy, greasy, beautiful taste that comes from a filthy flat top griddle.

Those differences can be explained by Farrell’s background. He grew up in Boston, which has a cheesesteak culture independent of Philadelphia’s. His mother, Cyndi Delgado, is Puerto Rican (she makes the bar’s gorgeous flan, $5), and that heritage gave him the idea to braise strip loin in sofrito rather than slicing, searing and calling it a day.

“From what I’ve seen, no one’s cooking their steak meat in braise or stock or sauce,” Farrell says.

click to enlarge Chef Josh Farrell making magic - ALISON MCLEAN
Chef Josh Farrell making magic
Alison McLean
Despite all the heavyweight sandwiches, my personal favorite items are the pickle fries and two appetizers that don’t exactly jump off the menu. For example: Will Call has shockingly good salad.

We forgot to choose a dressing, and wound up with possibly the lightest blue cheese dressing ever made ($7). It’s technically a vinaigrette, and it hangs on the leaves as lightly as a good linen shirt. Buried under the Profound Microfarms greens are a couple of nuggets of blue cheese, and scattered on top are candied and coffee-coated nuts.

The salad bowl also comes along with two breadsticks. On one visit, we also ordered the breadstick starter separately ($7), which yielded us a total of eight. No problem. They’re baked until they have actual texture — hear that, Olive Garden? — and doused in garlic parsley butter.

click to enlarge Salads come with exceptional breadsticks. - ALISON MCLEAN
Salads come with exceptional breadsticks.
Alison McLean
The real magic is the crumbled-up cheese on top, which is so dark it borders on orange and so intensely savory that each bit is like a flavor grenade. I called Farrell to ask what cheesy dehydration magic he’d invented.

None. It is, in the chef’s words, “dogshit Parmesan in a tub.

“I just wanted this nostalgic, shitty thing,” he explains. “I wanted that nostalgia.”

One time, his team ran out of Parmesan, so they ran to a nearby pizza joint and borrowed some of the little paper packets.

God, those breadsticks are good.

click to enlarge The Tejas cheesesteak - ALISON MCLEAN
The Tejas cheesesteak
Alison McLean
There’s more to come from Will Call. They’re working on a brunch menu, and it’s as unconventional as the rest. Farrell is starting with an epiphany I feel stupid for not having first: Why do all the squares on a waffle need to contain the same topping? Why not alternate them like a chess board?

If brunch is as intriguing as it sounds, it will become yet another way that one of Deep Ellum’s most comfortable bars is pushing food well outside its comfort zone.

Will Call, 2712 Main St. (Deep Ellum). 972-755-3490. Open 5 p.m. to 2 a.m. Monday through Thursday; noon to 2 a.m. Friday through Sunday.
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Brian Reinhart has been the Dallas Observer's food critic since spring 2016. In addition, he writes baseball analysis for the Hardball Times and covers classical music for the Observer and MusicWeb International.
Contact: Brian Reinhart