Psychologists like to administer something called the Alternative Uses Test. Unlike the Rorschach, it doesn’t require staring at blobs or revealing your Freudian obsessions. Instead, it’s a test of your problem-solving skills and your ability to adapt to unfamiliar situations. The test measures “divergent thinking,” whether you can let your mind follow a new or unusual path to solutions.
The original Alternative Uses Test goes something like this: here’s a screwdriver. Think of as many uses for this screwdriver as you can, and none of them can involve screws. Maybe you can use the tool as a bottle opener, baton for conducting an orchestra, or very tiny rolling pin.
I’ve recently been wondering what it would be like to apply divergent thinking to restaurants.
Think about all your favorite places to eat. There are ways that you use them, like tools. This one’s for brunch. That one’s for drinking beers while the Rangers lose. That other one’s for special occasions. Okay, but what if they weren’t? What if you used them differently? What if we took an Alternative Uses Test, but for Dallas restaurants?
You could go to a very fancy restaurant, but only for dessert. Get brunch for dinner. Order extra takeout sandwiches for leftovers. Do a food crawl, ordering appetizers only at three different places.
But there’s one big one, an alternative restaurant usage better than any others. Call it the ultimate Dallas food hack (I can’t believe I’ve just written that).
You should eat weekday lunch in Deep Ellum.
Not everyone can, of course. Some pesky employers insist on making their workers report to offices in Plano and so forth. But if you can get to Deep Ellum on a Tuesday at noon, an entire neighborhood of near-empty restaurants awaits you.
On Friday nights, some of Dallas’ best restaurants are packed. At brunchtime on Sunday, they’re buzzing. On Wednesday afternoon, they’re still there, and most of them are still open, waiting for you.
In the last few weeks, I’ve had superb ramen at Ichigoh Ramen Lounge, while the restaurant tended to only three other diners; I’ve been the only customer at Ruins; and Cane Rosso has accommodated a big group of my coworkers.
How can you lunch in Deep Ellum? Let’s count the ways. Sky Rocket Burger, with its phenomenal smashed patties and easy custom-ordering, is usually doing good-but-not-crazy business. Ichigoh has something like 10 specialty bowls of their generous, remarkably balanced ramens at any given time, plus a brothless bowl for hot summer days. Nori Handroll Bar welcomes walk-ins Wednesday through Friday to dine at what once was one of Dallas’ most coveted reservations. Trend-chasing foodies may have moved on, but Nori is still great.
Tourists still reliably line up at Pecan Lodge, but Terry Black’s BBQ is just down the street and has a more satisfying, diverse lineup of sides. (Here’s a pro tip: the Mexican rice at Terry Black’s is, weirdly, more colorful and flavorful than the Mexican rice at almost any local Tex-Mex restaurant you can name.)
The torta milanesa at Ruins, with its black beans and avocado, is a satisfying mix of creamy and crispy textures, and you can dunk your side order of fries in a cup of mole. Angry Dog serves its wings, cheese sticks, chili cheese dogs, and nachos every day from 11 onward. And every Tuesday, Dallas’ best tacos al pastor are on special at Revolver Taco Lounge’s takeout window.
Deep Ellum is a lunch-eater’s utopia, and it’s hardly ever busy. Maybe this is because people are afraid of parking, or afraid that the Friday night crowds stick around all day, too. Maybe customers from other neighborhoods have seen the news headlines about Deep Ellum’s weekend crime problems and assumed that the same atmosphere is present during the workday.
Whatever the reason, lunch in Deep Ellum is the ultimate Dallas food cheat code. In economics, they call it a “market inefficiency”: a resource that is undervalued, which you can therefore exploit. In sports, they call it Moneyball: picking up players who aren’t esteemed accurately by other teams, and taking them to the playoffs. In my world, I call it walking into some of Dallas’ best restaurants and having no trouble getting a table and a great meal. Not only do you not need reservations, at some hours you may not even see another customer.
So this week, for Lunch Box, we’re not recommending a specific restaurant. We’re recommending a whole darn neighborhood. A whole way of thinking. Take the Alternative Uses Test. Go to Deep Ellum for lunch.