We all spend time hunting down the best in life, but as a food critic I'm inordinately slammed with requests for superlative restaurants. If I'm out in the world, at the bar or the grocery store or a really long stoplight, and someone finds out that I eat and write for a living, they invariably want to know: "What's the best place for Mexican food?" or "Where's your favorite sushi spot?" or the ever-popular, incredibly vague and impossible to answer: "What's the best restaurant in Dallas?"
Hunting for the best resonates with what's left of our primal instincts. We're hard-wired to find the best mate, build the biggest nest, and in matters of nutrition, to seek out and consume the best foods to fuel us. But while our desire to find the best restaurants might be partly a matter of survival, that ignores the intangible benefits of sitting down at our favorite restaurants.
It's the creative elements and traditions of the culinary arts that stir our emotions. Meals cooked with artistry stay with us long after we have relinquished our napkins and signed our checks. Dishes prepared with soul replace our hunger with a desire to share our experiences with our friends. Passionate eating is more about creating memories — and that's something that can't be fully realized by simply finding the best.
Which is why, over the last several months, I went looking for something that Dallas' food scene is often said to lack: restaurants that are interesting. Restaurants that throw curveballs when diners are waiting on a fastball, that know life doesn't always begin and end with a cheddar-draped bacon burger. The 50 restaurants that follow, in no particular order, all serve great food, make for great stories and ultimately offer something that will stick to more than your ribs.
50. Joyce and Gigi's
1623 N. Hall St., joyceandgigis.com
There wasn't much in the way of Bolivian cooking in Dallas before Joyce and Gigi's opened on Hall Street last December. Gigliola Aguilera, a Bolivian native and former line cook at Fearing's, partnered with her mother, Joyce Stenvall, to offer a modern twist on South American cuisine. Now they're contributing something truly unique to the Dallas dining scene. Where else can you get a brilliant escabeche of sea bass brightened with apple cider vinegar, with onions, fennel and sweet currants, alongside empanadas filled with duck or beef or a blend of cheeses?
49. East Hampton Sandwich Co.
Multiple locations, ehsandwich.com
Too often, the sandwich is an afterthought — something to be picked up and eaten on the run, or stuffed into a bag and consumed long past its prime. But East Hampton Sandwich Co.'s creations reinvent the game. Owner Hunter Pond and his team of sandwich constructionists have created a menu filled with creative twists from the classic playbook, and Dallas' sandwich scene is all the better for it.
48. 20 Feet Seafood Joint
1146 Peavy Road, 20-feet.com
Most fish shacks serve up clam chowder, and 20 Feet is no different, but not many offer the occasional coconut soup with shiitake mushrooms. Mussels flavored with ginger and lemon grass, and ramen loaded with thickly sliced pork belly point to a casual seafood restaurant with worldly aspirations.
47. Taj Chaat House
Multiple locations, tajchaathouse.com
The best way to attack Taj Chaat House is with as little restraint as possible. Bring friends so excess food does not go to waste, then order with reckless abandon. Check out the pictures on the menu board to determine what looks good (it all is) and approach the counter, where a pile of pencils and paper slips wait to help conjure your meal.
46. Mot Hai Ba
6047 Lewis St., mothaibadallas.com
Grilled pork vermicelli is seldom this good. The kitchen chars pork belly aggressively and pairs it with slightly pungent fish sauce. Crab legs are served on top of noodles dressed in a sauce made from the crab tomalley, and frogs' legs are fried in batter flecked with dill. It's impossible to get bored with the menu here.
45. La Nueva Fresh and Hot
9625 Webb Chapel Road
The tortillas are soft and pliable with a pillowy consistency that's rare in corn tortillas. They're light, almost ethereal and perfect when stuffed with a hearty guisado verde stew. Don't worry about the lack of seating. Your taco will disappear long before your feet get tired while you eat off the trunk of your car.
44. Pera Turkish Kitchen
17479 Preston Road, peraturkishkitchen.com
Don't miss the dolmas, which are rolled by hand and have lots of texture compared to the paste-filled grape leaves you're used to. Don't miss the ezma, either, a small plate of diced soft vegetables swimming in pomegranate and thick, black molasses. There's cacik, a savory yogurt with cucumbers, garlic and mint, and a shepherd salad loaded with tomatoes, pepper, cucumber and onion, too.