Top 10 DFW Food & Restaurant Trends in 2021

Detroit-style pizza at Thuderbird Pies
Detroit-style pizza at Thuderbird Pies Angie Quebedeaux
2021 was another wild ride for restaurants, but it did deliver some noteworthy food trends. We hope most of them will stick around for years to come.

Alcohol To-Go

When COVID-19 hit in 2020 and the world shut down, the ability to sell alcohol to-go in sealed containers with takeout orders was a lifeline for many restaurants. And on May 12, 2021, Gov. Greg Abbott signed a bill to permanently allow Texans to buy beer, wine, and mixed drinks to go with pickup and delivery orders. This is a step in the right direction, but we’re also hopeful that at some point we see a full repeal of the blue law that bans liquor stores from being open on Sundays and prohibits restaurants from serving booze without food before noon on Sundays.

Diners Aren't Always Right

2021 was the year restaurants said, "There's the door." Like Mom, they had it up to here and actually pulled the car over. We can't blame them. Between trying to keep their ships afloat and employees safe, restaurant operators were no longer always willing to smile and take whatever was thrown their way.  Sandwich Hag turned customers away for violating local health mandates, and Thunderbird Pies made T-shirts out of surly customer comments. Others enforced their own directives despite what others were trying to force-feed them. Gone are the days when "I want to talk to a manager" will get you far. There's the door.

Staffing Shortages

We’ve been to a few places this year where sections of the restaurant are closed or there’s a wait for a table because there isn’t enough staff. While this is not a trend we hope to see continue in next year, the silver lining is that restaurants are offering employees better wages, sign-on bonuses and even health insurance in some cases. Sure, these costs (along with increased prices for goods) will trickle down to the consumer, but if we're able to afford to dine at a restaurant, a few extra bucks to ensure decent wages for the servers won’t hurt.

Ghost Kitchens

Even though ghost kitchens have been around for years, with the current labor shortage and other challenges since the pandemic, ghost kitchens have become a popular option for budding restaurateurs to test their new concepts while saving on the expense that comes with a brick-and-mortar establishment. While some ghost kitchens partner with individual restaurants to share their kitchen, many ghost kitchens operate out of a shared facility, or revolving kitchen.

click to enlarge You can get a birria taco with your barbecue at Hurtado. - PHOTO COURTESY OF HURTADO BARBECUE
You can get a birria taco with your barbecue at Hurtado.
Photo Courtesy of Hurtado Barbecue

Birria Tacos

Birria tacos have been popular on the West Coast for a few years now, but these cheese and consommé-soaked tacos took hold locally — in many variations — more recently.  How can you go wrong with tender barbacoa loaded with cheese in tortillas, griddled to perfection until the cheese oozes and served with a consommé dip? You can’t. You can find these savory style of tacos at several taquerias around the city, but places like Cris and John are adding a Vietnamese twist it with their “angry pho broth” used as the consommé and barbecue joints like Hurtado Barbecue serve them with smoked brisket, shredded cheese, salsa verde, cilantro and onions.

Hawaiian Cuisine

Over the last few years, Hawaiian food started sweeping across the mainland and exploded onto the Dallas dining scene in 2021. Hawaiian plate lunches are loaded with your choice of protein, white rice and macaroni salad. Proteins typically include options like huli huli chicken, luau pig, teriyaki steak or shrimp tempura. Hawaiian Bros Island Grill and Mo Bettahs are two companies that have recently brought this beloved comfort food for Dallasites to enjoy. And we love the tiki bar Swizzle on Greenville.

Charcuterie Boards

Charcuterie boards have been around for a while, but suddenly slapping meat and cheese on a tray has spiked in popularity. These boards are like a work of art. They are the Harvard equivalent of Lunchables and a great excuse to break out a nice bottle of wine with friends. Boards vary based by time of year (or what's in your fridge) and can be tailored towards special occasions.

Detroit-Style Pizza

Detroit-style pizza is a thick square pizza with a crispy caramelized cheese crust and hearty spoonful’s of pizza sauce on top. And this Motor City staple blitzed Big D this year. Currently, the most popular place to get these square slices of heaven is Thunderbird Pies. But Motor City Pizza in Lewisville and Rock City Za in Northeast Dallas are great alternatives if you’re in those areas.
click to enlarge The Nashville chicken sandwich at FireHouse Gastro Pub in Grand Prairie - LAUREN DREWES DANIELS
The Nashville chicken sandwich at FireHouse Gastro Pub in Grand Prairie
Lauren Drewes Daniels

Nashville Hot Chicken

Even a pandemic couldn’t cool off the Nashville hot chicken trend in Dallas. We put together our best hits list here and people were ready to fight about it in the comments. A dozen new places opened this year with more circling. Palmer’s Hot Chicken is one place that has set the standard for hot chicken in Dallas. They serve chicken in either strips, bone-in, sandwiches or wraps as well as shrimp and catfish in four spice levels: naked, novice, Nashville and napalm. The novice is surprisingly flavorful with more kick than one would expect. The Nashville is about as spicy as we could personally handle. We tried the Napalm once and it was like putting a hand on a hot stove. We won’t do that again.

Fewer Days, Fewer Options

Restaurants operate and succeed in a survival of the fittest mode. COVID-19 turned this industry upside down. For those that survived, many got burned out and exhausted. And as we continue to have labor shortages and supply chain issues, owners are now realizing that less is more. Slimmed-down menus are more common. And being open only five or six days a week gives dedicated employees a better work-life balance, while also controlling labor and operating expenses.
KEEP THE DALLAS OBSERVER FREE... Since we started the Dallas Observer, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Dallas, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Angie Quebedeaux is a freelance food writer for the Observer. A "ragin' Cajun" from Lafayette, she's been in Dallas since 2002. She is an HR director by day and loves to “laissez les bon temps rouler.”