Dallas, are you ready for your close-up? You better be, because local chefs and restaurants are attracting the attention of the international press. Over the last 12 months, publications such as Bon Appétit, GQ, Esquire, and Condé Nast Traveler have proclaimed a Dallas restaurant or bar a “best” of some sort. And with good reason.
This year, we witnessed the return of reservations: diners are resuming their love affair with lavish dining. Luckily, many of the best new restaurants are offering fine food and fair prices. Seafood is starring on menus all over town. Casual diners are choosing lobster rolls over gourmet burgers. Ramen and Vietnamese cuisine are hot trends. Then there’s the booming cocktail scene. And you can’t throw a stone without hitting a locally brewed craft beer.
I spent the year scouting Dallas’ new restaurants, and I’m happy to report it was difficult to narrow this list to 10. It could have easily been 20. So get ready to smile. Dallas dining is taking center stage.
Matt McCallister fights for the rights of farmers as hard as he fights being typecast. His altruistic aim is often misinterpreted. He isn’t afraid to admit he’s not a classically trained chef—he boasts the fact. He refuses to wear chef whites and prefers to work in a t-shirt. If someone walks into FT33 and wants a wedge salad, he escorts them out. There are more than a handful of local chefs who would not mind watching McCallister fail.
His stylistic modern cuisine, however, is the talk of the town, and his restaurant, FT33, is attracting international attention.
McCallister doesn’t care what’s happening in other kitchens; he focuses on what he wants to do. The method is working. The iceberg-lettuce salad requests have been replaced by scads of enthusiastic diners who gasp at the glory of every menu change.
It has taken a year for FT33 to evolve into a cohesive restaurant. Early issues with service and management have been settled. On busy Saturday nights, the restaurant turns over two times, sometimes three, without a hiccup. “I have aged,” McCallister says. “At first I was bullheaded. I didn’t realize that a chef is only as good as his team.”
McCallister and his staff present the edgiest culinary show in town. The bar shakes, stirs, and pours mind-bending—in more ways than one—cocktails. Mixologist Lauren Fest makes a Truffled Pig with muddled mushrooms (raw maitakes, seared chanterelles), DeLeón Diamante tequila, lemon juice, and honey simple syrup scented with rosemary and cinnamon. The mixture is strained into a dainty coupe and garnished with a seared mushroom. “People hear it and think I’m crazy,” Fest says.
The same sentiment echoes across the dining room each night as eye-catching artistic plates are delivered. A salad of ruffled lettuces, McKinney apples, pickled pecans, and fresh chèvre runs down the center of a round white plate. The left side is painted with strokes of apple butter. At first glance, the salad seems to have slipped across the plate, and the dressing has spilled. At second, it appears as a perfectly composed salad and piece of art.
Interpreting McCallister’s masterpieces makes for great table conversation. Cubes of pork loin and pork belly could be viewed as an avalanche: cascading pink boulders land in a pool of sweet-potato purée and are surrounded by rocks of crushed pistachios and twisted twigs of dried pear skins, some topped with slices of grilled pear. The food is as delicious as it is artistic.
Skeptics who believe McCallister’s act is a fad wonder how he will survive in the long run. He recently added a seven-course tasting menu, but not to answer the critics. “My head thinks like a tasting menu,” McCallister says. “It doesn’t work in a full setting with entrée portions. Plus, it gives me more wiggle room for stuff I can’t get away with on a normal menu.”
Normal menu? If that’s what you’re looking for, you had best google “steak restaurant.”
Just when you think Stephan Pyles has done it all, he does it again. This time, tipping the menu to the comfort food in his home state of Texas. At Stampede 66, you’ll find gussied-up versions of pot roast made with wagyu beef, fried chicken injected with Texas honey, and chicken-fried buffalo steak, all next to down-home classics such as barbecue brisket, shrimp and grits, and pork barbacoa tacos.
Pyles smartly positioned the location of his homage to Texas between the Perot Museum of Nature and Science and Klyde Warren Park. The restaurant is convenient for downtown and uptown diners, but, more importantly, it is the perfect setting for out-of-towners looking for a trendy taste of Texana.
Like other restaurants by Stephan Pyles, the interior of Stampede 66 is dynamic. The props are familiar: longhorns hang over the bar, cowhides cover banquettes, and ranch brands line one wall. A lighted, coiled-wire rattlesnake separates the bar from the dining room, where TV screens play videos of cowboys riding the range. What could be a kitschy calamity is a sophisticated and playful dining experience.
Visitors and first-time diners will get a kick out of the wooden margarita cart. Just say please, and the server will add generous pours of Don Julio Blanco tequila and Patrón Citronge to cactus-fruit purée, fresh lime juice, and agave syrup, and stir the mixture with liquid nitrogen until it is the consistency of a Slurpee. It’s a showstopper and likely to be listed in guidebooks as a must-do in Dallas.
Behind the smoke and mirrors, you’ll also find some seriously scrumptious food. The aforementioned fried chicken is plump, juicy, and covered with a fine, crisp batter. A breast and drumstick are served in a tin bucket packed with a tiny mason jar filled with pickled okra and bread-and-butter pickles; two mashed-potato tater tots; buttermilk biscuits; and a mini pitcher of earthy ham-hock gravy. Thick roasted corn chowder, with chunks of firm potatoes, is flavored with huitlacoche and bacon relish.
Pyles makes choosing one dessert impossible. The inspired list includes a pecan buttermilk tart, butterscotch pudding, and sweet-corn ice-box pie. If you find a cobbler listed, order it. The hot, semisweet fruit filling is covered with a biscuit crust as light and fluffy as the clouds in the West Texas sky.
Belly & Trumpet
Brian Zenner is the culinary artist in the kitchen at Belly & Trumpet. His “soulful global” menu is an eclectic assortment of small and large plates. Don’t confuse the concept with tapas—sharing a variety of Zenner’s creations is more like creating an inexpensive tasting menu. Many of the dishes that change continually could command higher prices in high-end restaurants.
The setting is edgy yet elegant. The rose-colored walls hold stunning images of gothic fairies and pixies by English graphic artist Ruben Ireland. Dark curtains cover the side windows; oriental rugs are scattered across the hardwood floors. The vibrant room puts you in the mood to experiment.
On one trip, I fell hard for Zenner’s antelope heart tartare: finely diced heart and foie gras torchon blended with Calabrese peppers, parsley, chives, shallots, and a touch of egg yolk. When I returned, the tartare was gone, so I took comfort in a bowl of Portuguese green soup scented with garlic and onion, and filled with kale, potatoes, and chorizo. I thought about the soup for months. One email to Zenner, and the recipe was mine.
Zenner’s Asian-inspired creations include a plate of steamed buns filled with elongated slivers of beef tongue spiced with star anise, garlic, and sweet soy, hoisin, and Sriracha sauces.
Crunchy cucumbers and pickled turnips add texture. It’s a whimsical nod to modern food.
Belly & Trumpet is not stuffy; it’s user-friendly. The wraparound porch in front makes a perfect post-work perch to people-watch. The cocktail offerings are just as creative as the food in the dining room. Go if only to try the scorched belly made with Rittenhouse Rye, Dolin Blanc vermouth, and Aperol, garnished with a slice of scorched lemon. You can thank me later.
Chef Eddy Thretiphuangsin was born and raised in Thailand and is tired of timid Americanized versions of Thailand’s cuisine. Owners Tiffanee and Richard Ellman (Oak, Belly & Trumpet) hired him to create a Thai menu like no other in Dallas. At Pakpao, he presents a cross section of Thai dining experiences. The menu is filled with everything from street food to some of the fine-dining dishes he cooked for the Thai royal family.
If you order short-rib massaman curry or red curry with catfish, be sure you have a bottle of Lucky Buddha beer nearby. Thretiphuangsin doesn’t hold back: the hot peppers will clear your sinuses and make your eyes pop out. Rich duck noodle soup and pad thai will satiate faint-hearted wimps. The dishes may not be spicy, but both are intensely flavorful.
The dining room seats only 45, and it’s usually full. Waiting for a table is fun. Thretiphuangsin and his cooks scoot back and forth across the open kitchen in the back, which is fronted by shelves stocked with Thai grocery products. Chula and Pakpao kites hang from the ceiling, and the bar is a fine place to perch with a beer. The windows fog on cool evenings, and, until you overhear a woman order a “drah-ink” with a loud Texas twang, it’s easy to pretend you’re in Bangkok.
If the weather is nice, take a seat on the patio and order an array of appetizers. It’s easy to spend an afternoon discovering the wonders of fried cashews mixed with green onions and bird’s-eye chiles; deep-fried hard-boiled eggs; chicken meatballs laced with lemongrass; or thick slices of pickled daikon topped with Niman Ranch pork belly sauced in a reduction of garlic, soy, and five-spice blend. Make sure you pay attention to the asterisks on the menu.
The Slow Bone
To many, eating barbecue is a religious experience. Dallas has a colorful history of mom-and-pop joints that have passed from generation to generation. Sonny Bryan’s (William Jennings “Red” Bryan) and Dickey’s (Travis Dickey) are the business success models, but the heart of soulful barbecue beats in the smokers of small joints with large woodpiles out back.
Jack Perkins, the man behind Maple & Motor Burgers & Beer, took a risk when he decided to go into the barbecue business. Perkins had already proved he could handle a burger joint, and he wanted to master the art of barbecue. He had witnessed the recent success of Diane and Justin Fourton (Pecan Lodge) and Aaron Franklin (Franklin’s in Austin), who fast-tracked the traditional learning curve of smoked meats. They started with no experience and developed a cult following fast.
Perkins, friends with the Fourtons, set up shop on Irving Boulevard near the Design District, and—under the watchful eyes of barbecue snobs and skeptics— opened in April. There were lines out the door. The afternoon Perkins opened, an employee overloaded the smoker, and the meat was mangled by a rotating metal shaft. He had to close for the day. The told-you-so’s snickered.
But Perkins didn’t miss a beat. He reloaded 24 hours later and is now serving some of the best brisket in Dallas. The funky joint attracts a loyal congregation who feast on brisket, sausage, pork spare ribs, chicken, and pork loin stuffed with fennel sausage.
Grab a tray, choose your meats, and move down to the innovative side dishes, such as green-bean casserole with mushrooms and fresh cream; sweet-pea salad with cubed cheddar, pimento, and mayonnaise; and grilled cauliflower and Brussels sprouts.
If Perkins is around, ask him what he thinks about the share-the-love world of the new barbecue business. “It’s a meritocracy,” Perkins says. “If your food is good, you’re accepted in the community. It is how the world should be.” Amen to that.
Spoon Bar & Kitchen
What a banner year for chef John Tesar. his small, stylish seafood restaurant made national and international headlines. Bon Appétit named Spoon one of the 50 best new restaurants in America. Esquire deemed it “the most exciting new seafood restaurant in America.” Condé Nast Traveler claims it is one of the 70 best new restaurants in the world. Could there be a finer plate of Alaskan halibut with parsley emulsion, tomato Picholine olive vinaigrette, wild watercress, and toasted quinoa on Neptune? If not, then I proclaim Spoon the best seafood restaurant in this solar system.
It’s about time national (and intergalactic) food writers paid attention to the food coming out of the kitchens in Dallas. The swordfish shipped to Dallas is just as fresh as the swordfish sent to Las Vegas. Ask Tesar; he has cheffed in both cities. No other chef in Dallas prepares a more elegant seafood dish.
The dining room of the 60-seat restaurant is sophisticated and welcoming. The lights are low, and Carrera marble-top tables are set with Bernardaud china, stemmed Riedel crystal glasses, and candle holders made of French porcelain. Service is stellar. If you long for the good old days of white-tablecloth dining, you’ll appreciate the pace. The high standards do not translate into a formal dining experience. The music playing faintly in the background includes Petty and Hendrix. Diners wearing jeans equal the number in fancy little black dresses and designer ties.
Tesar spends most of his time in the kitchen with his trademark thick-rimmed black glasses perched on his forehead. Plates of classic seafood with a modern twist are delivered to tables where they are met with a chorus of oohs and ahhs from the diners. You cannot help but ask your neighbors what they are eating. If they’re sampling one of the eight to 10 crudo offerings, order your own. I’ve tried all of them—Hawaiian big-eye tuna, uni, yellowtail, scallop ceviche, spiny lobster, cuttlefish, and geoduck—and would do it again.
Dessert at Spoon is a lavish, three-course presentation. It begins with a demitasse of warm milk-chocolate mousse covered with caramel foam and ends with a rectangular plate lined with tiny, one-bite wonders, which include a white peppermint strip with the Spoon logo that melts instantly on the tongue. It, like Spoon, is a transcendent experience.
Mot Hai Ba
Jeana Johnson and Colleen O’Hare, Dallas chefs and owners of Good 2 Go Taco, spent weeks riding motorcycles through the northern regions of Vietnam. They stopped at anything that resembled a restaurant and devoured whatever was on the menu. Upon returning to Dallas, experimenting with Vietnamese cooking began.
Their passion for the cuisine led to the opening of Mot Hai Ba, an intimate, 36-seat restaurant in the East Dallas spot that once housed York Street. They’ve added a patio with an additional 22 seats. The small menu features intense and imaginative renditions of the food they experienced in Vietnam.
Pho, served at lunch only, is true to the version found in Hanoi. Once a bowl is set on the table, steam scented with ginger, cassia bark, lemongrass, black cardamom, and star anise envelops your olfactory senses. If you favor the sweet notes found in the pho of Southern Vietnam, you should probably order the Bun cha, rice noodle soup filled with charred strips of grilled pork belly and soft pork meatballs.
The green papaya salad is the best in Dallas. Julienned strips of crisp fresh papaya are tossed with fried shallots and soft bites of house-made dried beef. Even more inspired is the salad made with thinly sliced banana flowers mixed with peanuts, daikon, cucumber, green papaya, carrots, and toasted black sesame seeds, tossed in a fish sauce-based dressing.
Beef lovers will be wowed by the Shaking Beef, thick cubes
of seared, spicy and slightly sweet tenderloin. Seafood devotees can get down and dirty with a whole Dungeness crab spiced with chile peppers, or sample a sophisticated yellow-eye rock cod lightly covered with a sauce of fresh dill yogurt with lemongrass, ginger, and turmeric.
I’d hate to see Johnson and O’Hare’s produce bill. Many of the dishes are accompanied by a garnish plate with a pile of soft herbs that includes green-leaf lettuce, Thai basil, opal basil, fish-scale mint, bean sprouts, cilantro, Vietnamese coriander, red perilla, cilantro, and water spinach. The luxurious display is just one of the many details that make this restaurant so unique.
Lark on the Park
Before Lark on the Park opened last March, I asked co-owner Shannon Wynne to describe the food he and chefs Dennis Kelley and Melody Bishop were considering. “We plan to present noncute food,” Wynne said. “No mac and cheese or mama’s fried chicken. Just good meals at a fair price.”
To achieve his goal, Wynne and partners Keith Schlabs and Larry Richardson—the trio behind Meddlesome Moth, Flying Fish, and Flying Saucer—recruited Kelley and Bishop from Caroline Styne and Suzanne Goin’s Tavern restaurant in Brentwood, California. The couple is dedicated to cooking with local, fresh ingredients and using global spices and techniques. Kelley has a strong Italian culinary background, so he insists on making fresh pappardelle. Bishop worked in Thailand and showcases her skills on the grilled skirt steak with cherry tomatoes, basil, Thai chiles, mint, and cilantro. The menu is peppered with the flavors of India, Asia, Mexico, Northern Africa, France, and Latin America.
Instead of sliders and flatbreads, you’ll find dishes such as a shallow bowl filled with warmed greens mixed with chanterelles and fried fingerling potatoes topped with a poached egg. Strips of braised beef brisket lay over beluga lentils and wilted Swiss chard. The Poulet Français is a nod to traditional coq au vin: juicy chicken is served with Beluga lentils, baby carrots, pearl onions, and goat cheese.
Beer, wine, and cocktails are a highlight at Lark. Schlabs, a masterful program director, rotates 18 drafts and 60 bottles. Lark hosts regular Pairdines, their newly minted term for a wine or beer pairing dinner.
Lark on the Park’s interior is as brazen as the cuisine. Floor-to-ceiling windows provide an excellent view of people frolicking at Klyde Warren Park, and cork-paneled walls provide a warm backdrop for seven framed slate enamel blackboards. Local graphic designers, cartoonists, and art students are invited to create themed drawings. The installations change every three months, a sensational approach to refreshing the interior. “Computer graphics have diluted the demand for free-hand illustration,” Wynne says. “We dedicate our walls to anybody out there who can still draw.”
Five years ago veteran restaurateur Mico Rodriguez, the godfather of local Tex-Mex, was a man without a restaurant. The co-founder of Mi Cocina and Taco Diner lost control of his life and the empire he and his M Crowd partners built. M Crowd continues to roll on without Rodriguez, but that hasn’t stopped him from staging a comeback.
In 2011, Rodriguez started over the way he began. He opened Mr. Mesero, a tiny restaurant with Mexican-American fare. Fans returned. Business boomed.
In September, jaws dropped when Rodriguez opened the doors to Mesero Miguel, a 5,000-square-foot, two-story restaurant on Henderson. He transformed the building that once housed Cuba Libre into a glamorous restaurant with an ambitious menu.
Rodriguez has not lost his sense of style. The downstairs dining room has a 1960s-Palm-Springs vibe. When the weather is agreeable, the crowd spills out onto the patio. The bar upstairs, The Pedro, is a tribute to Spanish film director Pedro Almodóvar.
The menu—“American Grill, Mexican Menu”—is a combination of fancy Mexican dishes, such as braised pork ($16) smothered with caramelized peppers, onions, and mushrooms, and American classics like a Prime New York strip ($47). In between, there are several tasty ceviches, lump-crab fritters, Maine lobster rolls, and a combination plate with the best chicken mole enchilada I’ve ever tasted.
Chef Jon Stevens, formerly of Nosh, worked with Rodriguez on the menu. Stevens will make sure the kitchen is running smoothly before he heads to Oak Cliff to open his own restaurant, Stock and Barrel, in February.
The room comes alive when Rodriguez walks the floor. There are hugs, air kisses, and backslaps. He smiles and takes his success one day at a time.
20 Feet Seafood Joint
Earlier this year, I added the fried whole-belly Ipswich clams served at 20 Feet to my last-supper wish list. The fat clams lightly coated with panko and served with house-made tartar sauce are addictive. The geniuses behind the dish are Suzan Fries and Marc Cassel, the former fine-dining chefs turned seafood-joint cooks. Cassel turned his back on fancy food to concentrate on putting smiles on the faces of Dallas diners and homesick New Englanders who come for the lobster rolls and to argue about the authenticity of his chowder.
Cassel doesn’t care to debate; he plays it cool by preparing a more-thick-than-thin version filled with whole clams, a touch of cream, and an undercurrent of bacon. If that doesn’t shut up the haters, the fish and chips made with line-caught cod will. Cassel portions the fish himself with a light tempura batter. The result is a hot, moist finger of fish covered with a subtle, thin crunch of crust.
The casual, order-at-the-counter restaurant appeals to food enthusiasts as well. Many have followed Cassel’s journey through the kitchens of Baby Routh, The Mansion, Star Canyon, Dragonfly, and the original Green Room, where he refined his “collision cuisine.” At 20 Feet, he offers coconut soup with shiitake mushrooms, his famous mussels flavored with ginger, a radical ramen loaded with thick slices of pork belly, and falafels.
The atmosphere is fun and boisterous, and the BYOB policy makes it easy to dine on lobster rolls and responsibly caught seafood without maxing out your credit card. It’s peace, love, and whole-belly Ipswich clams, baby. Don’t forget your corkscrew.
In This Article
Restaurants: Eclectic, New American Design District
1617 Hi Line Dr.
Restaurants: New American Downtown
1717 McKinney Ave., Ste. 100
Belly and Trumpet
Restaurants: New American Uptown
3407 McKinney Ave.
Restaurants: Thai 2 Locations
North Dallas, Design District
The Slow Bone
Restaurants: Barbecue Design District
2234 Irving Blvd.
Spoon Bar & Kitchen
Restaurants: Seafood Park Cities
8220 Westchester Dr., Ste. B
Mot Hai Ba
Restaurants: Vietnamese East Dallas
6047 Lewis St.
Lark on the Park
Restaurants: New American Downtown
2015 Woodall Rodgers Fwy.
Restaurants: Tex-Mex Henderson
2822 N. Henderson Ave.
20 Feet Seafood Joint
Restaurants: Seafood East Dallas
1160 Peavy Rd.