Food News

Here’s Why Dallas Is Finally Gaining Recognition as a Food Destination

Nori Handroll Bar's takoyaki, or octopus dumplings
Nori Handroll Bar's takoyaki, or octopus dumplings Alison McLean
Dallas is enjoying a wave of national recognition for its blossoming food scene, highlighted by a feature in Bon Appétit magazine naming us the restaurant city of the year. The local reaction to all that attention is starting to reveal an interesting divide.

In my experience, most diners and younger chefs are thrilled about all the accolades. They’re likely to say things like, “It’s good that all our hard work is finally getting noticed,” or “This is just the beginning,” or “We’re so excited to be part of our city.”

But older chefs are much more likely to say: "Huh? Why now?"

Even locally, there’s been a wave of confusion about our wave of recognition. Facebook and Reddit comments from native Dallasites asked incredulously what we have that New York doesn’t. At an industry panel discussion series that has since been renamed Marination Live, celebrity chef Stephan Pyles asked why Dallas was getting so much attention now instead of five years ago, or five years into the future.

Here, in no particular order, are six answers to the general bafflement about why Dallas is finally having its moment.

click to enlarge Grilled bread from Macellaio, topped with stracciatella cheese and just-barely-scorched onion - KATHY TRAN
Grilled bread from Macellaio, topped with stracciatella cheese and just-barely-scorched onion
Kathy Tran
Our Restaurants Are Getting More Personal

Bon Appétit especially appreciates the way Dallas restaurants are becoming individual, eccentric, even downright weird expressions of their creators’ minds. As writer Hilary Cadigan put it, “These chefs are ditching the large-scale restaurant group models of yesteryear and instead forging their own paths, creating highly specific, highly personal spaces that feel more like stepping directly into said chef's brain.”

That applies to many more places than just the bars and restaurants featured in the magazine, like Petra and the Beast, Khao Noodle Shop and La Viuda Negra. Can you imagine Homewood if it hadn’t sprung from the mind of Matt McCallister? Isn’t it impressive how Peja Krstic respectfully reinterprets Vietnamese food at Mot Hai Ba?

And it’s not just upscale restaurants, either. There may be no better place to step into a chef’s “highly specific, highly personal space” than the world of crispy tacos and luchador masks that is Maskaras Mexican Grill.

Our Middle-Class Dining Scene Is Growing Rapidly

The last four or five years have seen a revolution in “dress up, but not super fancy” restaurants. You know: the kind where you go for a nice date, or to celebrate getting a raise or to counteract an especially bad day — not the kind where you go to drain an expense account.

Back in the old days, between The Mansion, The French Room and Aurora at the high end and dozens of good barbecue and burger joints, there wasn’t a whole lot of middle ground. Boulevardier, The Grape, Teppo, Sevy’s, Nova, notoriously tiny Lucia and a handful of other spots gave the middle classes good spots to eat.

Things are getting better now, quickly. Places such as (alphabetically) Billy Can Can, City Hall Bistro, Gemma, Homewood, José, Kendall Karsen’s, Macellaio, Mille Lire, Mot Hai Ba, Niwa Japanese BBQ, Nori Handroll Bar, Sachet and Uchiba are making creative food in upscale settings more accessible to more people. And that’s just within Dallas city limits.

Our Culinary Leaders Are More Diverse Than Ever

The world’s best food cities are multicultural. Los Angeles wouldn’t be as great a place to eat if it didn’t have tacos and dumplings; New York would be bereft without momos, ramen or pizza by the slice.

But for a long time, Dallas’ most well-known food leaders were six or so white men. That’s finally changing. Diners will travel across town to try food by Anastacia Quiñones-Pittman, Regino Rojas, Tiffany Derry or Misti Norris. A whole generation of young Asian American chefs looks up to the example of Reyna Duong. A new African American vegan movement is growing in southern Dallas and DeSoto.

This evolution doesn’t just make our food scene better. It also makes our best restaurants more representative of Dallas’ population as a whole.

click to enlarge Meze at Chai Khanah: musabaha, tabbouleh, beef kibbeh - KATHY TRAN
Meze at Chai Khanah: musabaha, tabbouleh, beef kibbeh
Kathy Tran
Our Food Writers Are Finally Embracing Our Cuisine

Dallas has long suffered from incurious food writers. I’ve written about this in the past: “Dallas food media has been historically abysmal at covering our city’s diversity. ... Dallas can’t have a national reputation as a diverse, thrilling place to eat unless its own full-time food writers start arguing that it is, indeed, a diverse, thrilling place to eat. We can’t expect to receive all the accolades Houston is getting until we show ourselves supportive of — hell, aware of — the rich culinary cultures we already have.”

Progress is being made, slowly. D Magazine is making a conscious, if hesitant, effort to push its readers out of their Park Cities bubble. The new Morning News critic is acting as the media’s “bad cop,” focusing repeatedly on the argument that many older institutions and celebrity chefs are becoming irrelevant.

One publication doing great work to advance Dallas’ reputation isn’t even local. Texas Monthly hired local José Ralat as its taco editor, joining fellow local Daniel Vaughn, who’s been probably the world’s foremost barbecue writer for a half-decade now.

I think it’s fair, by the way, to give Vaughn and Ralat partial credit for the fact that our barbecue and tacos are on average more creative and better executed than they’ve ever been before.

And, not trying to sound like a jerk here: The Observer has been out in front reporting on Dallas’ growing Nepalese, Laotian, Korean and Mexican food scenes. That’s part of why Bon Appétit asked us where to eat when they researched that “Restaurant City of the Year” award.

The “Test Market” Idea Is Going Global

Dallas was always a fertile stomping ground for corporate chains because of its reputation as a test market. If something sells in Dallas, the logic goes, it will sell anywhere. In the past, that led to capitalism-gone-wild disappointment, like a planned banh mi chain from the owners of Taco Bell filled with communist paraphernalia. Dallas was also recently a testing ground for Chipotle queso and Jack in the Box “tiny tacos.”

Now, though, there’s an interesting twist. International brands are looking at Dallas as their first entry into the American market. An Australian pizza company named 400 Gradi opened its first American store here, as did Korean chicken chain Rice Chicken. Another Korean chain, Myungrang Hot Dog, arrived in Carrollton after touching down in LA.

We’re Very Slowly Getting Less Obsessed With Our Insecurities

The funny thing about Dallasites wondering why the rest of the country is calling us cool is, well, we are cool. We’re just not used to thinking that. Dallas has a low sense of self-esteem and an insecure streak a mile wide. Our civic leaders are habitually comparing us to other cities and wondering whether we’re “global” enough.

This is the part of the movie where the ugly duckling realizes it is a beautiful swan. Yes, we’re lacking in great physical features like a beach or mountains. Yes, real estate developers are constantly tearing everything down and putting in high-rise apartments. Yes, some of our politicians are beholden to rich people who live in suburbs.

But the average person who lives here is pretty cool. And so is our food scene. Our fine dining is laid-back and more personal than ever; our immigrant communities are serving fantastic kebabs, momos, pulao, takoyaki, elote, empanadas and khao poon; we have some of the best tacos in the universe.

We were capable of this awesomeness the whole time. Like superheroes first learning their powers, we just had to learn who we really were and how to harness our strength. That process is finally starting. Get ready, world. Dallas is coming.
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Brian Reinhart has been the Dallas Observer's food critic since spring 2016. In addition, he writes baseball analysis for the Hardball Times and covers classical music for the Observer and MusicWeb International.
Contact: Brian Reinhart