As sandwiches go, the meatloaf burger served at Urban Acres is a very good one. Filled with well-pedigreed ingredients, it tastes like a meat lover's dreamwich. The puck of meatloaf in the center is made with 100 percent grass-fed beef, and it's cradled in a sumptuous bun baked at Empire Baking Co. just a few miles away.
To call the condiment lapped across the bread aioli would be accurate, but the description would leave savory details untold. The chipotle peppers for the spread were made from some seriously coddled jalapeños: grown on-site, smoked, sun-dried, softened with hot water and blended with mayonnaise made from eggs produced by the pasture-raised chickens of Vital Farms, the egg of choice for chefs and home cooks all over Dallas who want to make the best omelets, cakes and fried-egg sandwiches.
It's a sandwich with heft. It has heat from those peppers and a sharp zing from pickles that were brined for no other purpose. It's a sandwich good enough to make someone reconsider their relationship with meatloaf sandwiches altogether. Damn that cold hunk of foil-wrapped beef in the fridge that needs to be reinvented before it spoils; meatloaf should be made solely for the purposes of enjoyment between two slices of bread the next day.
Whether applied to a sandwich or a well-manicured dinner plate, these extreme locavore tactics point to the kind of cooking you'd expect from high-profile chefs looking to elevate their dishes with the very best ingredients. But the meatloaf burger isn't sold in a restaurant, or even as a blue plate special at a posh hotel. Urban Acres is a co-op, grocery store and learning center that came about when a man who once sold eggs from the back of a VW Rabbit decided to go Old MacDonald on a quarter-acre of cement.
That man is Steven Bailey, who likely never envisioned himself discussing the phosphorus content of chicken shit or the benefits of keyhole gardening when he was working as a personal chef for a bunch of Park Cities families. Five years ago, Bailey catered to affluent households that, unlike most cheffy undertakings, had no food-cost restraints. The free-flowing cash allowed him to focus on procuring the best ingredients and valuing nutrition.
So after stumbling upon Food Inc., a movie that's widely credited for its impact on the farm-to-table movement, Bailey and some friends decided to visit local farms within driving distance of Dallas in search of better food. They collected raw milk and cheeses made from the same dairy. They bought chicken eggs with bright-orange yolks and chickens with thunder thighs and rap-video rumps. They bought crisp, fresh produce with the spots and bugs that are the telltale sign of organic horticulture. In building out his own pantry with these ingredients, he planted the seeds for his desire to make changes to the food system around him.
More of Bailey's friends got the bug when they saw how much more vibrant his ingredients were than their grocery-store counterparts. It started with a simple request for a dozen of those spectacular eggs, and it quickly turned to a weekly meet-up with nearly 20 families in a McKinney Avenue parking lot. At that time, Bailey was only marking the products up enough to cover gas and ice. That didn't last long.
After serving up to 50 customers while working out of a rented space on Davis Street in Oak Cliff, Bailey decided to quit his personal-chef job and open a small grocery store with his partners. "It beat the shit out of us," he says, mostly because they had no idea how to run a grocery business. A year before, they were selling bundles of kale and making change in their heads out of the back of a beat-up hatchback. Now they were trying to take on Central Market and Whole Foods. "It was a cluster."
But while Urban Acres as a grocery concept had its issues, the experiment gave way to Urban Acres the urban farm. And a walk around the current property on North Beckley Avenue inspires a lot more than plastic crates of produce and a perfect breakfast scramble. Here you'll find a chicken coop designed specifically for urban environments by Texas A&M. Get close enough and you'll hear the birds chortle and cluck as they scratch and peck at the earth. Beside the coop, you'll see a small greenhouse capable of turning out tomatoes far beyond what the typical Texas growing season allows. There's an aquaponics garden with tilapia swimming about, waiting to fertilize a hydroponic garden bed, and a keyhole garden shaped like a heap with a chicken-wire chimney that needs a fraction of the water of typical beds.
On the other side of the property are fruit trees that will hopefully bear figs, plums, peaches and pears in the next growing season or two, and bees make honey and buzz around on the roof. Bailey is buzzing around himself, in a bright red hoodie emblazoned with the co-op's logo and a green trucker hat. The hat bears the city of Dallas logo, its stylized tree replaced by a cocksure rooster.
But for all the growing, building and buzzing about, ask Bailey what he's really proud of and he'll tell you, "We're proud of the kitchen." He's leveraged these hyper-local gardens with the relationships he's forged with farms for more than five years now. Together, they give him access to ingredients a restaurant can only dream of. "We're not monitoring food costs," Bailey says. "We're asking, 'What do we want to cook for ourselves?'" And the results, so far, are some exemplary sandwiches.
The grilled ham and cheese features ham from Pederson's Natural Farms and cheese from Full Quiver. It's balanced with a sweet onion marmalade made with local onions and served on more of that Empire bread. There's a barbecue chicken sandwich made from chickens that had the chance to walk around, exercising their legs and creating lots of the myoglobin proteins that make dark meat dark. That meaty flavor pulls out the smokiness of the guajillo chilies that were turned into a sweet barbecue sauce, and more pickles add brightness. All in all, it's the sandwich to make you forget all previous chicken sandwiches.
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Many customers come in for a sandwich and maybe a glass of fresh-squeezed lemonade, but many more stop in for a pork chop or cow tongue for tacos and other produce and grocery items. Whatever you're looking for, start with the menu board above the counter and branch out from there. Many of the ingredients that surround you can be found in the kitchens of some of the more prominent chefs in Dallas. Or come even just to sate a sweet tooth. On the weekends, trance-inducing pecan and chocolate chip cookies emerge from the oven, perfuming the entire room with a sweet and nutty aroma. Good luck leaving without them.
But while that kitchen may give Bailey the most pride, the produce shares are still the heart of the business. With pickup locations as far away as Fort Worth, Frisco and McKinney, Urban Acres provides produce to more than 2,500 members devoted to supporting family farms -- far more than any other co-op or CSA in the Dallas area. These shares serve diehard locavores of the highest order, willing to cook their way through pounds of okra in the summer and an endless supply of cold-weather greens when the weather cools off. Day after day, they show up empty-handed and leave toting bags and boxes with leafy greens protruding from the top.
Urban Acres 1605 North Beckley Ave., 214-466-1260, urbanacresmarket.com, 8 a.m.-2 p.m. Monday-Thursday, 8 a.m.-8 p.m. Friday, 8 a.m.-6 p.m. Saturday, 9 a.m.-5 p.m. Sunday, closed Monday. $
Meatloaf burger $13 Pulled barbecue chicken $11 Ham and cheddar $11 Veggie sandwich $11 Cookies $5