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The James Beard Foundation Keeps Dallas’ Victory Parade Going

South Dallas’ Las Almas Rotas has gained national attention.
South Dallas’ Las Almas Rotas has gained national attention.
Melissa Hennings

Everything’s coming up Dallas.

First, nearby Richardson ice cream parlor and pastry shop Bigdash scored a feature in The New York Times. Then our city was subject of a lavish feature in a 2019 issue of Bon Appétit magazine, proclaiming Dallas the Restaurant City of the Year. As if that weren’t enough, Texas Monthly chose three local spots for its list of the state’s best new restaurants — and the magazine also chose Dallasite José Ralat as its first taco editor.

Now the James Beard Foundation has weighed in, and the parade of peace, love and goodwill is still going strong. In the newly created Best Chef: Texas category, our city scored four of the 20 semifinalists — second only to Houston’s five.

More remarkably, there are five Dallas contenders for national awards: Salaryman is up for best new restaurant in the United States; Kessler Baking Studio cookie wizard Clyde Greenhouse is an outstanding baker semifinalist; Las Almas Rotas is officially one of the country’s best bars; and two pastry chefs, Maggie Huff of Homewood and Ricchi Sanchez of Bullion, are contenders as well.

A bit of context: Last year Dallas was nominated for three national awards. In 2018, that number was a big, fat zero.

There are many factors behind our sudden upswing into the spotlight. For one thing, our food scene is undeniably on a hot streak right now. Openings such as Bullion, Homewood, Khao Noodle Shop, Las Almas Rotas, Macellaio, Petra and the Beast and Salaryman have added an electric jolt of energy to the Dallas dining experience. They’ve also mostly done so at a lower price point than traditional fine dining.

Need proof we’re in our groove? Of the nine semifinalists we have this year, only two, Tei-An and Kessler Baking Studio, are more than 3 years old.

Another factor in our rise, I think, is our self-love and self-esteem. Dallas’ dining scene has historically been split apart by infighting and cliquish distrust. Our food writers long took a skeptical outlook, spending more time wishing we were like some other city than cheering on our homegrown successes.

Maybe that’s finally changing. Maybe we’re finally getting to a point where we have enough confidence and comradeship and guts that we can finally face the rest of the country and say, “Give us a Beard award, dammit!”

Finally, frankly, we’ve had some strokes of good luck. Being trendy is often like being hit by lightning: You’re walking along being your wonderful self and it just happens, whether you’re ready or not.

We all know you can't visit Petra and the Beast in Old East Dallas without getting their current meat board.
We all know you can't visit Petra and the Beast in Old East Dallas without getting their current meat board.
courtesy Petra and the Beast

Last year, at a public discussion called The Food Talk, chef Stephan Pyles wondered why all this recognition didn’t arrive years ago. We could speculate on theories, but sometimes you get hit by lightning, and sometimes you don’t.

Am I happy with our full list of semifinalists this year? Sure. Do I wish we had scored a couple more? Sure. (I’m also astonished that Comedor, in Austin, was snubbed.) Whatever. No awards show is ever perfect.

Khao soi at Khao Noodle Shop in East DallasEXPAND
Khao soi at Khao Noodle Shop in East Dallas
Alison McLean

I was surprised at a headline in the Morning News, opining that the city “barely makes a dent” in this year’s Beard semifinalist list. We certainly made a far smaller dent two years ago. Even forgetting the historical angle, I’m just not sure that the complaint is true.

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Compare Dallas’ nine nods with cities of similar size across the country: Austin lagged with six, San Antonio scored only three, San Diego just one. (San Diego is bigger than Dallas, by the way. Remember that for your next pub trivia night.) We tied with Phoenix and came in just ahead of Philadelphia.

In other words, proportional to our population and restaurant scene, we did pretty well. There’s always room for improvement. But that’s my point: We are improving. Every year, this city is becoming a more fascinating, complex, delightful place to eat, and the rest of America is noticing.

Let’s keep going. Let’s win some awards. And if we don’t win the awards, we’ll survive. We can console ourselves with Kessler Baking Studio cookies, Misti Norris’ noodle bowls and a flight of mezcal at Las Almas Rotas. Doesn’t sound bad.

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