Tin Star is bright and chic. Tin Star is simple. Tin Star has catchy theme: "salsa, smoke, and sizzle." Tin Star is cheap.
But Tin Star doesn't sparkle, because the most important point in this twinkler--the food--is as dull as a butter knife.
"There is no reason that great food needs to be expensive," says Tin Star co-developer Morgan Hull on Tin Star's Web site (www.tinstarinc.com). "Ours will be food that you can eat without alienating your palate or your wallet."
Hull is dead-on about the wallet thing. Tin Star coddles the wallet, entertains it even. The most expensive items on the menu, fire-grilled beef tenderloin and fire-grilled salmon, ring in at $9.75. Plus, all menu prices are figured with tax and priced so that all change is rendered in quarters. My billfold swoons.
Yet while my wallet was happy, my palate was resoundingly disaffected. Our first visit proved only modestly disconcerting: Peeling away the thin foil cloaks sheathing Tin Star's soft tacos revealed doughy, gummy flour tortillas, and the innards weren't so hot either. The roasted beef taco with grilled onions, jack cheese, and avocado hunks was clotted with grease.
But on the second visit, at breakfast, that disconcertment morphed into horror. This, even though the gummy tortillas were remedied: The breakfast tacos sported wraps that were moist yet firm with little splotches of griddle singe. The smoked salmon breakfast taco with egg and sauteed spinach in crema fresca was the culprit. It was inedible. No, it was worse than that. It blitzkrieged the nose and shut down the respiratory system. We held our noses after peeling away the foil wrapping. My companion couldn't muster the courage to put her lips around it. So it was up to me to summon the fortitude, and I was instantly struck with gastrointestinal regret.
The fire-grilled salmon also inflicted anguish, though not enough to provoke retching. Gleaming in a cloying sweet-sour glaze, the moist flesh wafted with hints of finny malodor, which is a shame because the spinach bed upon which it rested, leaves sauteed with pico de gallo and finished in lemon-butter sauce, was fresh, racy, and perfectly wilted with a firm crispness. But a side of "very tiny round pasta," a clump of culinary BBs, tasted like it was bathed in cheap margarine.
Tin Star strenuously strives for fast-food hipness mixed with Southwestern airs. Hard plastic dinnerware does duty with stainless flatware. And Tin Star doesn't have servers. The service contingency is limited to Wal-Mart-style greeters, busboys, and cashiers--a perky, friendly bunch. Orders are placed at the counter, and a transparent disk speckled with light-emitting diodes is given to diners. When the order is ready, the red lights flash, summoning you for a pick-up. During busy times, orders are taken while you wait in line with checks whisked to the counter via a pulley system so that in theory, your order is ready when you belly up to the counter.
The style is carried through in the decor, sort of Southwestern industrial chic. Walls drenched in orange, red, and yellow are impregnated with wood paneling and corrugated aluminum. Table and counter surfaces are concrete. Tin Star's chairs--with blond wood seats, split metal backs, and metal rod frames with coarse, machined connectors--look like mechanical insects. Metal stars are scattered above the bar in front of the open kitchen.
Yet not all of the food suffers in this quick-draw grub shanty. Cowboy Kimchi, a brilliant twist on the Korean dish of fermented cabbage, is vibrant, crispy, and sweet with speckles of roasted corn. But this sparkling treatment couldn't rescue the mushy fish tacos, tortillas plugged with fried white fish, kimchi, pico de gallo, and chipotle cream. The only other worthwhile taco was discovered at breakfast. Taco Blanco, egg whites, house-mashed black beans, and pico de gallo, was moist, well seasoned, and lightly refreshing--so different from virtually everything else here.
Tin Star was launched by an energetic food-service quartet: chef Al Nappo along with Hull, Mark Brezinski, and Rich Hicks. A Tin Star extension at the Tollway and Briar Grove should open sometime this summer, and at least two more metroplex locations are scheduled to open before the year closes.
The backers are abuzz with the energy of their creation. "We feel that our food is superb. It's exceptional," says Tin Star partner Scott Weiss. "People don't like the dining experience of an hour and a half. They want to get in and get out. We feel that we can offer them so much more quality with our food."
Ouch. Maybe Weiss needs to take random samples from the menu every now and again, because if this fare is superb, these folks have tin tongues.
There's something odd about The Purple Cow Soda Fountain Diner Burger Joint. Maybe several things. For starters, their motto is "Food you can trust!" What an odd slogan to slap below a leaping, winking lavender cow with conspicuous udders. Are they trying to assure you the food won't turn diners the same color?
Plus, the color is more lilac than purple. And there's a bar. Well, maybe not a real bar. As far as I can tell, it's a small refrigerator with a crowd of hooch bottles on top parked in the doorway to the kitchen. This must be where they sauce the "adult shakes," creations ("for mature audiences" as the menu states) that break the NC-17 rating with squirts of amaretto, coffee liqueur, triple sec, or peach schnapps into an ice cream shake.
The problem here is that the cow-bathed-in-imperial-hues theme flirts with monotony. Menus are purple. Booths are purple. So are the walls. Flanking the entry are two glass cases in which crowds of purplish porcelain heifers pose and posture in an orgy of cuteness. A purple train with a purple cow posed in one of the freight cars chugs along a ledge just inside a recessed ceiling in the center of the dining room.
Purples bend into pinks. The base of the diner's centerpiece, a U-shaped soda-fountain counter, is constructed with glass blocks illuminated in scorching pink. From there you can order a purple cow soda or purple vanilla sundae. Our single scoop of purple vanilla with hot fudge sauce and crushed cashews and a cherry was OK, but the fudge sauce wasn't hot.
Yet the astounding thing about The Purple Cow is that all of this moo-moo mayhem doesn't make you sick. In fact, it's soothing, almost charismatic. Magic kitsch. It's bright, clean, and fresh. Kids squeal like pigs in a mud pit. Even the servers groove with the mawkishness. After watching my pupils throb in profuse purple overload, our server took my burger order and paused: "You look like you need a Shiner Bock." Perceptive fellow. Because if he would have suggested a purple cow spiked with triple sec, I would have punched him.
Somehow, The Purple Cow makes you feel good all over despite the camp. It's not that the food is all that great. Onion rings were crunchy, nearly greaseless, and virtually tasteless. French fries, blond twigs with modest flecks of potato skin, were equally greaseless. The menu describes them as "crisp," but they were served cool, soft instead of snappy, a bit undercooked, and bland. Maybe the kitchen is terrified of seasoning.
The Purple Cow puts a menu note atop the burgers-and-dogs section stating the Department of Health suggests medium-well for any ground beef product. (Actually it's the Department of Agriculture that offers such advice. Except now they've decided that we should stick meat thermometers in our patties and eat only after the center hits 160 degrees.) The menu adds that Purple Cow burgers are cooked "medium (pink)." That's how I ordered my herbed-butter burger with cheese, but it was Confederate gray in the center and more than a little dry. Still, the flavor was good, except for the generic bun with the mouth feel of foam rubber.
The Purple Cow's stab at sophistication, the Santa Fe salad, was tasty. Strips of tender, moist chicken breast, black beans, red onion, bell pepper, and hot jack cheese bathed in a sweetly pungent barbecue sauce kept the palate intrigued while the young ones gnawed on nude hot dogs. The only problem was that the jack cheese wasn't hot as boasted on the menu, though strips of colored tortilla chips scattered over the top gave it a Southwestern funk.
Grilled turkey "light" Reuben with thin turkey slices, Swiss cheese, and kraut would have been winning if the kraut hadn't turned the toasted rye bread on one half of the thing into a sogged sponge. Better was the tasty BLT--despite stingy slices of tomato--striped with strips of lean, crisp, smoky bacon.
Launched by Angus MacKay and Don Lindsley, the pair behind Picardys Shrimp Shop in Snider Plaza, The Purple Cow is dazzling in one of those hard-to-pin-down sort of ways. Still, the menu could use a little of the imagination that fertilizes the soda fountain. Better baked goods and some creative seasonings on things like the fries and onion rings would add lots of Cow Punch. I mean, there's got to be way to make them purple.
Tin Star, 2626 Howell St., (214) 999-0059. Open 7 a.m.-10 p.m. Monday-Thursday; 7 a.m.-11 p.m. Friday & Saturday. $
The Purple Cow, 110 Preston Royal Shopping Center, (214) 373-0037. Open 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Sunday-Thursday, 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Friday & Saturday. $
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