Nearly 2,500 people converged on Centennial Hall at Fair Park last night for the ninth annual Dallas Observer Iron Fork, which showcased 40 of the city's best restaurants — and a particularly delicious array of Texas-produced spirits. There was incredible food throughout the room. As people ate and mingled, the World Food Championships hosted a live chef cooking contest during which Aundre Blassingame of WFC Team Texas and Keith Browning of The Meat Shop had to whip up dishes using a secret ingredient: quail eggs.
In the end, chef Keith Browning won with his three-egg quail and Southwest chili lentils, which he infused with Alaskan Husky IPA from Alaska's nearby booth where the brewery doled out beers from its core brew lineup.
On the gluttonous side of the event, diners had the opportunity to vote for their favorite dish. This year's people's choice winner: The Cedars restaurant Ten Eleven Grill, which won people's hearts (and stomachs) with Chef Ty's Cajun-Style "Scrimp N Gritz." The buttery, creamy grits felt perfectly indulgent for the occasion.
There was a ton of killer food at this year's Iron Fork. Fletcher's Corny Dogs doled out classic turkey, veggie and jalapeno-cheese Corny Dogs to fans excited to get their fix before the next State Fair of Texas. Trinity Groves vegan restaurant V-Eats Modern Vegan wowed the crowd with an impossibly rich vegan bananas Foster bread pudding, and at the booth next door, Banh Mi Station, which recently opened in Sylvan Thirty, served addictively creamy red curry mac and cheese with perfectly cooked five-spice pork belly over kale slaw.
Tulum, a new Mexican restaurant in Highland Park, served unbelievably tender and juicy beef short ribs with a red fresno chile sauce. As is the case every year, Hutchins BBQ drew long lines with perfectly smoked brisket, juicy jalapeno sausage and "Texas Twinkies," a beautiful meat and jalapeno concoction wrapped in bacon. Tortas Insurgentes wowed us at this year's Tacolandia, and they did it again with beautiful antojitos filled with everything from chicharron prensado to bistek and huitlacoche.
Another standout from Tacolandia that had us coming back for seconds at Iron Fork: Arepa TX, which served the most delectable little brisket arepas. We watched diners return to the booth for seconds while asking, "OK, where are y'all located again?" (They're on Royal Lane in North Dallas, and you should visit immediately.) Open Palette served juicy braised short rib and addictive crispy Brussels sprouts, and Five Sixty by Wolfgang Puck went all out with a beautifully plated A Bar N Ranch wagyu sausage with smoked shallot and lactic carrot with Profound Farms microgreens. There was a whole lotta great beef last night, including the steak au poivre on bleu cheese puff pastry from Fleming's, and we loved One90 Smoked Meats' brisket, as usual. Like Five Sixty, Luna Grill's plating was over-the-top pretty, but their falafel tasted even better than it looked. Sundown at Granada served a creative and delectable banh mi "loaf" — topped with Profound Farms microgreens — that we would have eaten twice, had we any room left in our stomachs.
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But by far, our favorite bite of the night came from Sandwich Hag, the Cedars banh mi shop helmed by Reyna Duong. She turned her cult-favorite Xiu Mai meatballs (made with house-ground pork, spices, jicama and onion) into shooters with lightly salted coconut milk and Vietnamese basil. There was such incredible, soul-warming flavor in these shooters, which get their depth of flavor during the two-day process required for their creation. The meatballs themselves are cooked down in a tomato-garlic sauce for eight hours. Next time you spot a Xiu Mai special on Sandwich Hag's menu, run, don't walk, because this dish often sells out fast.
We left last night's Iron Fork impossibly full but also a bit more enlightened about some of the spirits served on-site. Devils River, a small-batch Texas bourbon, whipped up a gorgeous smoked cocktail, and we loved sampling spirits straight at booths manned by Waco's Balcones Distilling and Venezuelan rum producer Diplomatico. TX Whiskey made a lovely Lavender Palmer with whiskey, tea, lemon juice and lavender simple syrup.
This year's Iron Fork might have been our favorite one yet, and we left with a new list of must-visit restaurants to keep us busy for the next few weeks.