To the uninitiated, the restaurant scene in Dallas can feel overwhelming. I would know, having recently moved here myself to cover food for the Observer, a daunting task in a metropolitan area with such a vibrant, diverse food culture. Southern, Vietnamese, Cajun, barbecue, Japanese, Tex-Mex, French-continental — with everything from steakhouses that opened in 1948 to pop-up restaurants that disappear when the meal is finished, it's no surprise that Dallas goes out to eat (and drink) more than any other city in the U.S.
So how does a newcomer navigate such a massive food scene? By starting with the essentials, the restaurants that exemplify the core cuisines that dot the Dallas landscape. From classic Tex-Mex to Texas barbecue and modern Southern fare, this list is a fitting introduction to a city that loves to eat.
-Beth Rankin, food editor
Avila's Mexican Restaurant
4714 Maple Ave.
Newcomers from regions without proper Tex-Mex — anyplace north of the Red River, basically — may wonder what all the fuss is about. What is it, they might ask, that Texans find so appealing about plates of oily, electric yellow-orange cheese, chili powder and refried beans like something out of a jar with a baby's face on it? We don't really know, but trust us on this, it will grow on you like a heroin habit. Do yourself a favor and jump right in to your (slightly shorter) lifelong addiction with a trip to Avila's, a tiny converted house in what's left of Dallas' Little Mexico. They've been dishing up family recipes since 1985 that are lighter on the lard but loaded with spicy goodness. Don't know the difference between a soft cheese taco and an enchilada? Never had a chile relleno that wasn't a batter-dipped monstrosity? Here, you will learn and be happy. And hooked. Take care, Yankees. Unlike many other places, the hot sauce here is truly hot.
El Corazon de Tejas
110 W. Davis St.
West Oak Cliff, stranger, that's a place you need to check out if you want to learn about your new city. Or, rather, if you want to learn about the old, cool part of your new city. West Davis Street is the 'hood's heart, so while you're down there stop by and check out El Corazon de Tejas (a little Tex-Mex play on words there, Yankee). El Corazon's Tex-Mex doesn't exactly break any new ground, coming in just above average overall, but when the cuisine's as ubiquitous as Tex-Mex, rising above average is pretty good. The menu is the usual enchiladas, tacos, fajitas — the latter can be top-notch if the kitchen is clicking — but the consistent prize here are the free chips and salsa. Yeah, we know, it's just chips and salsa, right? Wrong. You're in Texas, a place where the people demand three things: the right to bear arms, the right to park an F-150 in a “compact car” space, and unlimited free chips and salsa with their Tex-Mex, and they better be good, too, as the quality can make or break a meal. Here, they get them right: crisp, not-greasy chips and a hint of smokey chile in the salsa. Of course, El Corazon should know their way around a basket of chips. It's owned by members of the Cuellar family, creators of the El Chico chain that put Tex-Mex on the nation's menu, once catering meals for Princess Grace of Monaco and Presidents Ronald Reagan and George Bush.
2612 Commerce St. and 7328 Gaston Ave. plus locations in Fort Worth and Carrollton
Not that long ago, there was one basic rule for immigrants from the nation's proper pizza-making regions who craved a pie in Texas: Try the Tex-Mex instead. Dallas pizza was to good pizza as Wonder Bread is to a French baguette. (For the longest time, Texans must have believed that pizza was supposed to have a soggy puddle of bread in the middle or — ugh — be sweet.) That started to change about a decade ago as a growing number of local restaurateurs turned up the heat and started to crank out pizzas that could rival the pies made by civilized people. Now DFW has plenty of good places to get a slice, and one man who deserves thanks for that is Boston-bred Jay Jerrier, founder of Cane Rosso and the Johnny Pizza Seed of Dallas, who started spreading the good news about true Neapolitan-style pizza from a mobile oven before taking root in Deep Ellum. A thin, slightly charred crust that's chewy, not crisp, is topped — but not overloaded — with his own mozzarella, sauce from imported tomatoes and locally sourced meats and toppings, then baked in a wood-fired oven. Jerrier also opened a NY-style place called Zoli's in Oak Cliff, but that closed Valentine's Day 2016 thanks in part to a plan by a developer to knock down the old building that housed the restaurant, giving us all another reason to hate yuppies. Look for Zoli's to return in some fashion somewhere later this year.
3406 Mcfarlin Blvd.; 6465 E. Mockingbird Lane; 2340 Victory Park Lane
Cane Rosso wasn't the first Neapolitan pizza joint to hit DFW. Before Jay Jerrier opened up in Deep Ellum, this tiny University Park outpost was serving genuine Neapolitan pizza pies smoldered in a brick oven fueled by split oak. Housemade tomato sauce (secret process) is simmered from tomatoes imported from Italy. Housemade mozzarella too. Crust is thin, crackly, moist and pillowy in all the right places. When the ovens and cooks are riding on the rails, the pies are just about the best not only in Dallas, but anywhere in the States: USA Today put it on its list of “51 Great Pizzerias in the USA.”
408 W. Eighth St.
Lucia may be the one restaurant in Dallas that needs no introduction, even to newcomers. It does require patience, though. Plan about a month out to get a reservation. Have a special occasion you’d like to mark? Get a reservation at Lucia. Looking for an impressive first date? Lucia again. Craving delicate pasta and other Italian specialties that inspire visions of Tuscany in spring? You get the idea. Lucia anchors Oak Cliff as a place to be and puts Dallas on the map as a dining destination. Of course it doesn’t help that the dining room isn’t much larger than a postage stamp. Those adverse to planning ahead have once chance for salvation. Four seats line the back bar and peer into the kitchen that's responsible for some of the best Italian cooking Dallas has ever seen. The seats are available on a first-come, first-served basis. You'd better get there early.
2817 Maple Ave.
You say your move to Dallas came with a new job and bigger — much, much bigger — paycheck. Well, congrats, Mr./Ms. Moneybags. Can we recommend a good place to celebrate? Uchi, Dallas' most ambitious sushi restaurant, offers plenty of ways to enjoy a meal filled with inventive and exciting Japanese food; you just need to decide how much money you're willing to part with. Not ready to take out a home equity loan? Come during happy hour between 5 and 6:30 p.m. daily, and you'll find plenty of bites for less than $10 and budget-friendly drinks to wash them down. These plates may be small (even by Uchi's diminutive standards), but they are no less intricate than their regular menu counterparts and provide incredible value. At the other end of the spectrum is the omakase, the chef's tasting, which turns almost complete control of your meal over to one of the masterful sushi chefs working behind the bar. The chef takes charge of everything from ingredient selection to pacing — including how much a diner is charged. More than 200 bucks for one person, not counting booze? If you got it, flaunt it, baby. It's worth it.
1722 Routh St.
Noodles are hot in Dallas, unless you're talking about cold noodles, that is, then they're … um … not hot per se but … wait, let's start over. Asian noodles are riding a trend in Dallas, but Tei-An has remained a constant, turning out progressive Japanese cuisine in what has become one of Dallas' finest and most popular restaurants. Folks looking for everything from a casual lunch to a multi-course omakase will find what they're looking for in this smartly appointed, minimalist dining room. Soba takes center stage. Unlike most restaurants, Tei-An makes the noodles fresh and serves them with garnishes and sauces that change with the seasons. The ramen is the most fawned-over bowl you will find in Dallas, and by far one of the best lunch deals. In the evenings, Tei-An becomes a sleek and dimly lit restaurant filled with well-dressed diners who appreciate fresh sushi flown in daily from Japan. You can explore flavors that range from clean and briny to assertive notes that explode with umami.
5430 Gurley Ave.
You're in meat country now. Steak, brisket, steak, burgers, steak and steak make up our Monty Python-esque menus, but don't despair, vegetarians. God, one of them at least, is looking out for you. This highly ornate restaurant, named after Kalachandji, an ancient Hindu deity once considered the "Supreme Personality of Godhead," is the oldest vegetarian eatery in Dallas. Situated in a center of worship founded by Divine Grace A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, the chefs here practice what they claim is the Ayurvedic art of cooking for the body, mind and spirit. Much of the menu comes from the standard Indian playbook, with dals and curried vegetable dishes forming the backbone of a buffet that changes daily. There are crispy papadams like Frisbee-sized crackers, and deep-fried fritters called pakoras, filled with even more veg. But dishes like layered rice, tomatoes and cheese you will think is a lasagna, and other casseroles and enchiladas, don't lean as heavily on the flavors of the subcontinent. There's something here for everyone, and everyone will be all the better for indulging in it. You can always have a steak tomorrow.
2702 Main St.
While we're on the subjects of meat and religion, let's talk barbecue. Be warned if you're new to Texas, we're treading dangerous ground here. We're not saying anyone has ever been shot for uttering the wrong words about barbecue, but Texas is a gun-friendly state, and the people here take their barbecue very, very seriously. They're sort of like those folks in Kansas City or Memphis or South Carolina, but our advice is don't mention that when you go out for a slab of smoked meat. Even regions of Texas can get downright waspish about what's acceptable barbecue. While folks in Central and South Texas might scoff, some of the best barbecue in the Lone Star State is found at Pecan Lodge in Deep Ellum (a 'hood you'll definitely want to check out). Barbecue has always been a humble affair, but pit masters who treat a great cut of brisket with respect and a good dose of smoke make cowboy chow a thing of beauty. That savory crust and intense flavor would be insulted if you dabbled it in that tiny cup of tangy sauce. Save it for the smoky sausage. Ribs and pulled pork don't stand out as brightly, but it's hard to shine while in the shadow of Dallas' bar-none best brisket.
2702 Main St.
As the name implies, there is plenty of barbecue — from brisket to ribs to real Carolina-style pulled pork. But Smoke is more than a barbecue pit. Chef Tim Byres, formerly of Stephan Pyles, takes the name very literally. He cooks almost everything the restaurant offers over burning hardwood, in the traditional way of the pre-electric South. Fresh fish and scallops carry a smoky tinge, as do house-cured meats and grilled vegetables. Breakfast is one of the city's best. But dinner ranks up there, too — as long as you don't mind smelling like smoke on your way home.
400 W. Davis, Dallas; 1026 E. 15th St., Plano
Lockhart Smokehouse is named for the town of Lockhart, a little burg south of Austin that is to Central Texas-style barbecue what Vatican City is to Catholics, or Waco is to Baptists. One of its creators is a step-granddaughter of Edgar Schmidt, owner of Kreuz Market in Lockhart, and the old-time, all-time great in the Texas barbecue world. Like some fundamentalist group of snake-handling churchgoers, to stay true to its roots, Lockhart Smokehouse didn't offer forks when it opened in Dallas in 2011. You ordered meat by the pound and ate it with your hands, and if you wanted sauce, Interstate 35 would take you straight to Kansas City, sinner. They've loosened up on that, but you still might want to kick it old school, as Lockhart's fatty brisket, remarkably tender and flavorful, doesn't need sauce or cutlery. Consistent with Texas tradition, the array of accompaniments includes pickles, raw onions, jalapeños and cheddar cheese. There's Shiner Bock at the bar.
Maple & Motor
4810 Maple Ave.
Burgers with eggs. Burgers with foie gras. $18 burgers. Ostrich burgers. Burgers, burgers, burgers. Dallas is burger mad these days — it'd have to be to support an $18 burger. If, however, you like a, you know, hamburger, made the way God and America intended, we've got you covered plenty of ways. First up is Jack Perkins' Maple & Motor, one of the pioneers in the city's burger trend. The style there is thick, juicy and grilled, with a good-size patty and a light charring. The onion rings are neither too thick nor thin, with a crispy, not greasy, coating, and the tater tots are kissed by angels. Lines are long at the counter and the burgers are worth the wait, but do yourself a favor: Don't take a table until you place your order, and think twice about bringing your kids along if they're not well-behaved. Perkins has some famously strong opinions about good manners, which is another good reason to grab a burger there.
331 Singleton Blvd, No. 100
Two schools of thought about what constitutes a good burger: Some want something so monstrously thick that you need a knife and fork to eat it and a tree's worth of napkins — and a shower after — to wipe up the juice. Other people, the right-thinking, realize that a burger should be moist, but it is, in fact, A FREAKIN' SANDWICH and should be eaten out of one's hand. We won't say what side we fall on, but we love Off-Site Kitchen's compact, tasty burger in a completely non-platonic way. (Don't ask.) It has bits of crisp char on the outside, and plenty of moistness, but no grease bath, inside. Beefy tasting beef and just enough to fill you without bringing on a coma. Plus, there are coolers full of beer and uncommon sodas; sweet, crisp onion rings; and a patio filled with picnic tables that's cozy enough to draw you outside even in summer (March-November).
6537 E. Northwest Highway
Sure, it’s a drive-up and you won’t be getting any foie gras on your burger, but until you’ve been to Keller’s, you haven’t been to Dallas. This is a drive-in frozen in time. Classic cars and leather-decked bikers on the weekends share space with shiny BMWs and kid-choked Camrys. And all served by smiling carhops. The food is equally vintage. A plain burger is around $2, last we checked. The #5-a poppy-seed bun, double cheeseburger, tomato, lettuce, special sauce and grilled onions is the most popular item at just a bit more. Trick out your order with tater tots, fries, onion rings and a milkshake and still pay less than 10 bucks. Patrons can even toss back a beer with an order or get a case or two of brew to go.
2010-B Greenville Ave.
Is Dallas a Southern city like Atlanta, Memphis or Mobile? Or is it more Southwestern, like Albuquerque and El Paso? You can spend much time and many drinks over dinner hashing that one out, and if you’re leaning to the Southern side of things, Remedy, the soda-fountain-meets-diner on Greenville Avenue, is a good place to hold your debate. Its walls confine a permanent Thanksgiving — a year-round food holiday for anyone craving sweet excess. It’s an excuse to order a burger with not one slice of cheese, but two, and a place where you hope your sundae-maker’s finger lingers a little longer than usual on the whipped-cream trigger. The pork chop is particularly good, with soft and buttery fat you’ll want to scrape from the bone, and there’s fried chicken, of course. The best reason to come here, though, is dessert. The pies and ice cream sundaes are massive and will keep your sweet tooth at bay for days.
2023 Greenville Ave.
When you walk through the door, you won't think Rapscallion is the sort of restaurant to serve up fried chicken and catfish. The dining room is sleek and modern, there are a few too many tinctures on the bar and the wine list is too long for relaxed plates like those. But if you look around you'll see items on the menu echoed in the decor. Horseshoes, a cast iron skillet and a dinner triangle call out, affirming chef Nathan Tate's Southern roots. Not than diners are bound by Southern clichés here. Sure, there's fried chicken, but it's dressed up in a mala sauce that smells a bit like Chinese food, and that catfish comes with cherrystone clams and dashi broth. You can get okra and greens, but they're embellished too, with peanuts and other ingredients, and garnishes that make these classics new.
Meat & Potatoes
5300 E. Mockingbird Lane
In a landscape littered with meaty joints, John Tesar’s Knife brings something different to the table. Whether you want to blow your paycheck on steak that’s been aged for 240 days or you’re looking for an inexpensive, rustic cut of meat, there’s a little bit of something for everyone here. There are classic sides like spinach, and macaroni and cheese, and innovative appetizers like the bacon-crusted bone marrow. There’s even some skillfully prepared surf alongside all that turf. The cocktail program is just as involved as the best cocktail bars in town, and every bit as dangerous. It's a comfortable steakhouse that's fancy enough to take a date, and a solo diner will find plenty of people to talk to at the bar.
The Blind Butcher
1919 Greenville Ave.
Simmered down to its tagline, “cured meats and craft beer,” Blind Butcher offers just that, though the results are far from normal. Chef Oliver Sitrin's charcuterie conjures an angry, tattooed salami that’s seriously spicy and listens to Motörhead. Caramel corn comes with bacon and the french fries sizzle in duck fat. House-made pastrami is tucked with sauerkraut into perfectly fried egg rolls. It’s creative, intense stuff. Matt Tobin and Josh Yingling, who brought Goodfriend to East Dallas, are ascending the culinary ladder with their latest addition to Lower Greenville. You might wonder if you’re still in Dallas.
1717 McKinney Ave.
Chef Stephan Pyles was among the chefs who put Dallas on the culinary map a couple of decades ago, and his Stampede 66 gives Dallas an over-the-top food experience that is ready for the big time. Tricked out with more Texas kitsch than a roadside bazaar, the dining room screams Lone Star State from the ceiling to the floor. Quirky decor aside, Pyles' reputation as a competent chef will not be tarnished by downtown Dallas' homage to rural cuisine. From refined versions of rustic stews and Frito pie to whimsical presentations of crispy pig ears with green apple lollipops, Stampede 66 has something for every sort of diner. There are even tacos on the menu, boasting freshly pressed tortillas and salsas that come out six at a time. Skip the overwrought margaritas and stick to cold beer. This is cowboy cooking, redefined.
2927 Henderson Ave.
Good thing the food's so delicious at Hibiscus, since the portions stretch the limits of the word gargantuan. A baked crab dip app at this New American eatery could easily feed four, while the prime strip "brick" weighs in at an impressive 18 ounces. But the cooking isn't nearly as ham-handed as the brutish sizing might suggest: The menu features an unparalleled lamb osso bucco, delicate ceviche and satisfyingly crunchy tempura-battered onion rings.
1617 Hi Line Drive
Dallas needed an FT33. In fact, it needs more of them — restaurants where chefs are not only brave enough to think outside the box, but also diligent enough to do it well. Places like this shift a city’s dining culture for the better, and they’re also a lot of fun to visit. Where else can you get a cut of flap steak flanked with okra pieces and tiny tomatoes that taste like they’ve captured the entire sun, or mushrooms sautéed with herbs and paired with potatoes that evoke a smokey campfire? Plates like these are hard to come by in Dallas, and the sleek, minimalist dining room that sets the stage is a fine place for eating.
2121 McKinney Ave.
The work of another iconic Dallas chef, Dean Fearing, this restaurant in the Ritz Carlton is a perfect, harmonious mix of setting and food. The distinct design in this modular restaurant is as critical to the experience as the mopped rib eye on the plate. Question: Does the apricot barbecue-glazed bobwhite quail taste the same in the Rattlesnake Bar as it does in the Sendero? Or do the Rattlesnake's leathers, inky caramel mahogany, ranch-regal couches and chairs, and wild Cadillac ambience add a raciness to the bird? And would a honey/chili-lacquered duck breast (sunny side-up quail egg) smell as sweet in the outdoor Live Oak bar (shade trees included) as it would in the Oscaso, with its water features purring bubbles to its putting-green manicured landscape? Or in the frosted-glass coddled Wine Cellar with its vaulted stone ceiling and dining table carved from a single, huggable oak? This restaurant couples with Fearing's menu to create a ravenous feast for the senses unlike any other.
333 W. Jefferson Blvd.
This is not your average brewpub, and the changes reach far beyond producing pints of beer that you actually want to drink. Small turns out plates of food that look like they belong in a Stephan Pyles restaurant and then somehow manages to charge you as little as 10 bucks for them. Misti Norris is in the kitchen, and her time at FT33 is evident in plates that involve several components and then several garnishes more. While these plates sometimes get a little crazy, there’s enough beautiful cooking here to warrant experimentation. A great place to start is with any of the pasta dishes. Don’t miss the tagliarini dressed in a buttery sauce and covered with a paper-thin shroud of pancetta. Don’t miss the booze either. The peppercorn pilsner seems destined for awards and the cocktail program provides an elevated take on classic drinks without the fussiness you find at many Dallas cocktail bars.