Road trips are all about the food and perhaps a cocktail or two. Going to New York, we plan our trips to Union Square Cafe or Primola. In LA, we stayed up late to hit AOC and Mozza. After getting stranded in Las Vegas after the All-Star Weekend from hell, we blew the budget at Daniel Boulud Brasserie. Are you sensing a trend?
When I heard someone from the NBA suggest a terrible, generic restaurant in the West End as a possible media dining spot, I felt called to action, along with my esteemed dining enthusiast, ESPN.com senior NBA writer Marc Stein (see his Top 5, below).
Here’s a list of places media-types should consider during All-Star week. These aren’t necessarily the best spots; they’re just right for scribes, talking heads, photogs, and producers that will descend on North Texas looking for an interesting hangout with great food. Also, for the sake of cheap cab fare, I kept the choices within pretty close range of the media hotel.
Many will want to try Tex-Mex. It’s too hard to narrow down this category to one, so a few suggestions are in order. For my money, the best in Dallas is Avila’s. It has a fresh, original menu and does a wonderfully authentic Mexican margarita—not that sick-sweet crap. It’s not a real scene-y spot and might not impress Johnny Sportswriter from New Jersey. To do that, I would send him to Mi Cocina. I’d recommend the West Village location, because it stays open later, and the crowd can be a bit livelier, ranging from the hot gay guy to the hot young coed. If he wants the MILF factor and to see Dallas’ elite, Johnny has to jet to Highland Park Village. The third-floor bar (aka Monkey Bar) is one of my favorite places to watch a game. For prime post-game drinking and dining, it’s got to be Primo’s. It’s our post-game hangout during the playoffs in the spring. It’s got a good scene, good queso (add jalapeños), and can give anyone a real taste of young, late-night Dallas.
Nick & Sam’s is a must-do simply for the scene. Media types nowadays would have a hard time getting an expense report from Nick & Sam’s approved, so I would recommend hitting the bar for an appetizer and a cocktail. It’s prime cougar-hunting territory. I would also add Ocean Prime as a solid cougar-hunting spot; just skip the food there.
All-Star Weekend inevitably leads to a lot of long days and late nights. The media hotel will have a hospitality suite, but late at night, it simply offers bad chicken wings and cold mini-quiches. I would recommend Village Burger Bar in the West Village. It stays open late, there are a number of Mavs and NBA fans on staff, and the food is great any time of day. The sweet potato fries are my favorite fried carb.
For a fabulous dinner that shows what the creative minds in Dallas do best, I suggest crossing the Trinity to Bolsa, which was just named Restaurant of the Year by D Magazine. To me, it’s reminiscent of the chef-driven restaurants that focus on local, fresh produce in Seattle. It totally breaks the Dallas mold. I know many out-of-towners have this preconceived notion that all we do in Dallas is BBQ and beef. Bolsa dispels that.
For pizza, hit Coal Vines. The folks there are also big Mavs/NBA fans and will always whip up something right before the kitchen closes to take care of you. Plus they have good wine and decent beer, which would make Johnny Sportswriter very happy. Fair warning: don’t get the pizza to go; it always gets too cold. If you’re willing to spring for a bigger cab fare or have a car, it’s got be Campisi’s Egyptian. It’s just the essence of Dallas legendary dining. It oozes history—Randy White and Harvey Martin used to go there every Monday night when they played for the Cowboys—plus the veggie pizza rocks. I’ve eaten a whole one before.
For an authentic Texas experience, head outside of downtown Dallas to Best of Big D winner Fuel City, a 24-hour gas station and truck stop. Get the tacos, smell the fresh elotes, and enjoy them.
STEIN’S TOP 5
1. Bob’s Steak and Chop House
You undoubtedly have steak on the brain when you arrive in Dallas, and this is the quintessential Dallas steakhouse. This is my spot, especially when entertaining NBA out-of-towners. Bob’s 12-ounce NY strip is consistently tasty, and the onion rings? Right up there with Morton’s hash browns and the tower of shoestring fries at Fleming's in the pantheon of immortal steakhouse side orders. Bob's also has a lively dining-room ambiance that would win style points from the demanding likes of Ms. Miller, and it makes you feel like you're part of an exclusive Dallas club. The only problem: I suspect this weekend will be one of the toughest in history to snag a table. Bob's is not only well known to NBA types, but this is also Valentine's Day weekend. It's going to be packed.
2. La Duni
Here you’ll find some of the best Latin American cuisine on these shores, with a distinct infusion of European influence and more menu depth and versatility than you'll see on any NBA bench. Among the many highlights: unique appetizers, hearty sandwiches, savory salads, intricate entrees, life-changing desserts, and an other-worldly coffee menu with more than 20 java choices for caffeine addicts like me. It’s also one of a few truly outstanding breakfast spots in town, particularly for Sunday brunch. I'm only slightly exaggerating when I say that two prominent NBA general managers still talk to me only because I turned them on to this place.
If you're looking for a top-shelf dining experience but don't want to restrict yourself to steakhouse fare, this is the place. The starters are so good—peerless crab dip and a seasonal crispy beef tenderloin appetizer come to mind—that I can't possibly do them justice in this short space. (I’ve also found that the food is just as good across the street at Hibiscus' more casual sister restaurant, The Porch, if you prefer a blackboard of specials and spacious bar.) I am not exaggerating when I say that a few ESPN.com colleagues still thank me for taking them here for a staff meal during the 2006 NBA finals.
4. The Loon
The Loon is a pillar of the local bar scene—it’s been known to attract late-night visits from Mavs players and staffers—but it also serves an insanely good burger. Just be advised that it gets super-crowded as the night wears on. Long lines after dinnertime are common every weekend, so I can only imagine what All-Star Weekend will be like. (Two more casual favorites for me: Ten Sports Grill, when you’re looking for a quality sports bar in the heart of downtown, and Snuffer’s, a local favorite for cheddar fries.)
I flirted with offering some pizza suggestions in the No. 5 spot—I’m partial to Louie’s, if you’re curious—but ultimately I decided on Hattie’s, modern Southern cuisine you can get only in Dallas (and it happens to be reasonably priced). It’s another good Sunday brunch spot, too. (Blue Plate Kitchen and York Street also merit a mention on the list of good, exclusive-to-Dallas neighborhood establishments.)
Hiddem Gem: Chic From Barcelona
I can’t resist touting one of my regular haunts, because Chic serves up a true taste of Spain. If you’re up for a trip to North Dallas, which really isn’t that far away, you’ll be treated to gazpacho (in my Uncle Josef’s honor), tapas, and rotisserie chicken of the highest standard. The menu is small, but that’s only because Chic insists on absolute authenticity, down to the Gaudi tiles. For a European wannabe like me, it’s nirvana.