At the end of each of the last few years, I’ve presented a list of the best meals I’ve eaten at Dallas restaurants while working as the Observer’s food critic. In 2019, for example, I considered 200 restaurant meals for a highlight reel of favorites.
But 2020 was different. This year, the restaurant industry fought to survive against a disease that is easy to transmit in indoor spaces filled with the sounds of conversation and laughter, and the industry also fought to survive against state and federal governments that repeatedly refused to offer adequate help.
For this year’s list, I’ve expanded my list of favorite meals beyond a top 10 to 14, which is just the random number I landed on. I’ve considered only takeout meals that were eaten on picnics or in my own living room. And we’re listing my favorite meals alphabetically by restaurant, rather than ranked in order.
These favorites are diverse geographically, culturally and by price point, but they all share some fundamental truths: They all gave me some hope and happiness, they all reminded me just how resourceful and skilled the restaurant workers of Dallas are and they all brought me comfort in a year when I needed it.
Here, then, alphabetically, are my 14 favorite takeout meals of 2020.
Texas Comfort Foods from AllGood Cafe
There’s a whole lot of comfort food on this list, but few dishes are as homey — or as huge — as the ones at AllGood Cafe. I delightedly tore into their chicken club sandwich at a picnic one day, with its crispy, peppery bacon, avocado and sourdough. Later in the year, I attacked AllGood’s smothered pork chop so savagely that my knife went through the bottom of the styrofoam container.
I think the main lesson I’ve learned from AllGood is that my own home cooking doesn’t involve nearly enough black pepper. Every time I stop to admire the cafe’s soul-satisfying, stomach-filling food, it’s the sheer pepperiness that’s making everything so good. That’s especially true of the gravy that slathers their pork chops, chicken-fried steak and mashed potatoes. If they sold gravy by the jar, I’d fill a whole shelf of my fridge with it. (2934 Main St.)
A Fourth of July Picnic from Las Almas Rotas
The pandemic has ruined many holidays this year, but the Fourth of July — fireworks or not — was still great. We drove through the glittering, colorful drive-thru at Las Almas Rotas, grabbed some bacon-wrapped Sonoran hot dogs and Topo Chicos and picnicked in Fair Park in the shade. It was calm, peaceful and perfect. And there are few better ways to celebrate America than to enjoy the ways immigrant traditions have woven themselves into our country’s.
Also, it’s a bacon-wrapped, onion-loaded, bean-topped hot dog. Of course it’s great. (3615 Parry Ave.)
Bánh Mì from Bánh Mì Station and Sandwich Hag
In 2020, my favorite food group was cookies — followed by bánh mì. The Vietnamese sandwiches are booming around Dallas right now, with brand-new examples coming from restaurants such as Ngon Vietnamese Kitchen, Red Stix Asian Street Food and LaVui.
Sandwich Hag is the Dallas standard-bearer, and I’m in love with the “2.0” remake of their grilled pork sandwich. The recipe had to be rewritten after a massive price increase on lemongrass made the old technique impractical; the replacement doubles down on garlic and onions in a big way. It’s ultra-savory and preposterously good.
But the sandwich shop I’ve visited most during this pandemic is Bánh Mì Station. It’s nearer to my house, and it’s also got a stacked menu of vegetarian and vegan sandwiches — the tempeh satay might just be the best offering. My other favorite offering contrasts crisp veggies with rich, fatty duck. Plus, I can grab a soft shell crab bao and killer seasoned fries as sides. Yes, these fries are crispy enough to withstand the drive home. (Sandwich Hag: 1902 S. Lamar St.; Bánh Mì Station, 1818 Sylvan Ave.)
Del Sur Taco’s El Santo
Gosh, what a good taco. Grilled pork, sliced matchsticks of radish, a huge hit of guajillo salsa: What’s not to love? This was my takeout order on my birthday this year, and it was a good choice. Be sure to get your tacos as a “plate” in order to secure a side cup of Del Sur’s great beans. (720 E. Jefferson Blvd.)
The Cheese-Filled Pies from Eddie’s EuroMart
This might be my Mediterranean heritage talking, but there’s no food in the world more comforting than pastry dough filled with salty cheese.
Cheese-filled flakey breads and pastries are a hallmark of the eastern half of the Mediterranean Sea, including Turkey (my family’s home country), Greece and the Balkans, the original home of the owners of Eddie’s EuroMart. This grocery and Bosnian restaurant in the shadow of 635 will happily package up a cheesy loaf in a pizza box.
There are meat pies, too, and they’re great — they taste just like my mom’s Turkish turnovers — but, well, cheese is the champ. If you’re feeling inspired to do some home cooking, Eddie’s also has a phenomenal selection of imported European cheeses. (12243 Northwest Highway)
Homewood Roast Chicken
It was only the second takeout meal I ordered after Dallas restaurants shut down in March. At the time, Homewood chef Matt McCallister expressed concern to me that business might be shut down for “a few weeks.” Few people were willing to contemplate a year-long health crisis.
Anyway, that whole roast chicken I carried home from Homewood in March was the best chicken I’ve ever had. No doubt the local farm supplier (Cartermere Farms) had a great deal to do with the quality of the bird itself, but McCallister’s keep-it-simple seasonings and flawless cooking did the main ingredient full justice.
Homewood did family-style meals like chicken early on in the pandemic; now, you’re best off following the restaurant on social media to get advance notice about specials and takeout feasts. (4002 Oak Lawn Ave.)
Day-Old Leftover Pad Thai from Ly Food Market
I’ll never forget the very first takeout meal I got during the restaurant shutdown in March. It was a big box of pad Thai from Ly Food Market in Oak Cliff, the truly elite Thai and Lao restaurant and grocery situated in a neighborhood that isn’t known for its Thai food.
I called in my order and, as soon as they’d taken it, the restaurant hung up the phone. I called back. “Do you need a name or anything?” I asked. “No,” they said, and hung up again.
I drove over, walked into the market, pointed at my takeout, patted my pocket, said, “Oh, I forgot my wallet,” and drove all the way home again without food.
Twenty minutes later, I finally got to dig in. But the noodles were even better eaten cold the next day, when the flavors seemed to concentrate and intensify. The two indelible memories I have of this dish, then, are forgetting my wallet and standing in front of the fridge two days later, eating pad Thai straight out of the Styrofoam box without bothering to plate or heat it. Don’t knock it ’til you try it. (4440 W. Illinois)
Steam (or Fry) Your Own Momos from Momo Shack
One of my favorite momo sources, Irving convenience store counter MoMo To Go, is temporarily closed for the pandemic. Momo Shack, a pop-up event business that frequented breweries and cideries before the shutdown, has stepped into the breach by pivoting to a frozen momo bag service.
With savvy social media marketing, Momo Shack urges its customers to “secure the bag” by grabbing their Nepalese dumplings at a designated pick-up spot on weekends. And the good news is that steaming — or pan-frying — these delights couldn’t be easier or more rewarding. Momos are some of the world’s heftiest dumplings, so just four of them can be a filling main course.
A Big Bag of Goodies from Nori Handroll Bar
Temaki, or handroll sushi, are made to be eaten within seconds. The sushi chef rolls the fish and rice into a stripe of seaweed, forms the roll into a perfect cylinder and places it directly into your hand, if possible, so you can consume immediately. Do not pass go, do not post photos on Instagram.
In a takeout era, that’s obviously not possible. Yes, when you arrive home from a drive to Nori Handroll Bar, the seaweed has gotten a little bit chewy, but the sushi rolls are still all impeccably made, and there are an array of small appetizers to go with them. It’s all very tidily organized in one of Dallas’ best and most easily manageable takeout experiences. (2814 Elm St.)
Vegan Empanadas from Shoals
There’s only one takeout meal I’ve ordered two days in a row, and that’s the empanadas from Shoals. They’re such marvels of pastry, with bubbly crisp crusts and generally pretty spicy, earthy fillings (hope you like mushrooms, lentils and peppers), that after I tried them one lunchtime, I couldn’t resist going back for more the next day.
Plus, empanadas are an ultra-convenient food. Take them on the go, eat them outdoors, carry them in your pocket. That’s a lot of versatility coming from a business that, at the start of 2020, was best-known as a neighborhood cocktail bar.
Well, cocktails and bars haven’t fared too well this year, but super-portable, excellent vegan food is more necessary than ever. Nice thinking, Shoals. I’ll be back soon. (2614 Elm St.)
A Sky Rocket Burger Double Cheeseburger and Extra-Crispy Fries
Just look at that burger. If it doesn’t immediately tug on your taste buds, I don’t know if we can be friends.
I don’t know what else there is to say about Sky Rocket that hasn’t been said. It’s a simple place, and it uses that simplicity to make sure everything is perfect. Also, the online ordering system (available at the Deep Ellum location only) allows for a truly wild amount of burger customization. (111 S. Hall in Deep Ellum and 7877 Frankford Road)
Everything from Smokey Joe’s BBQ
Just between us, if I had to pick a personal favorite barbecue spot in town, I might just go with Smokey Joe’s. That’s partly because it’s on my side of Dallas, closer to my house than, say, Cattleack or Pecan Lodge. It’s also partly because there aren’t lines of barbecue cultists spilling out the doors.
But let’s not make excuses. The real reason I love Smokey Joe’s is that its food is terrific. It’s a sort of all-star team of Texas barbecue styles, with East Texas hot links, outstanding Central Texas brisket and nearly everything else (including fabulous red bricks of smoked ribs) rooted in the state’s African American traditions.
Also, and I know I sound like a broken record mentioning this in every single article about Smokey Joe’s, but a “slice” of pie is one-quarter of the whole pie, and that brings me no end of delight. What a great place. (6407 S. R.L. Thornton Freeway)
An Urban Taco plate
The award for coolest takeout container? Well, that’s got to be Urban Taco’s three-taco plate, which comes in a huge tray with separate side pockets for your two side dishes. (If you don’t choose black beans for one of them, you’ve chosen poorly.)
I went whole years between visits to Urban Taco, which was a mistake. Don’t be like me. It’s easy to sleep on this Mockingbird Station restaurant or take it for granted, but there’s a huge variety of great tacos to be found here, plus yucca fries and a killer deal on chips and salsa. Grab a bag of chips for $4 and, unlike the tortilla chips at the grocery, it comes with cups of three different salsas of your choice. My favorites are the spicy peanut salsa and the avocado-jalapeño, but the latter should be eaten quickly. That shouldn’t be hard. (5321 E. Mockingbird Lane)
Pizzas from Zoli's and ZaLat
There’s no better takeout food than pizza, and in a year when many restaurants and chefs pivoted to pizza pop-ups to survive, the best results still came from two longtime Dallas standbys at the end of the alphabet: ZaLat and Zoli’s.
Of course, a lot of other people thought so, too. On one of my pickup visits to ZaLat (in the Cedars neighborhood), pizzas were so popular there was a veritable traffic jam of folks waiting for pies. Zoli’s, meanwhile, created a Detroit-style pizza pop-up shop within its restaurant, Thunderbird Pies, which regularly sells out.
But if customers have learned anything this year, it’s not to take their favorite restaurants for granted. If that means I have to keep ordering a ton of fantastic takeout pizzas from two incredible spots, well, I guess I can deal with that.
There is one caveat, though. Have you tried driving across town with a Zoli’s pizza in the passenger seat? The urge to open the box and grab a slice is overwhelming. That must be why they put a little strip of tape to seal it shut. (ZaLat, 22419 N. Fitzhugh; Zoli's, 14910 Midway Road)
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