March Madness reaches its end tonight, and our staff held a fantasy draft. But not for basketball teams. Instead, five of our hungriest editors got together to hold a fantasy dinner draft, picking dishes and drinks from around Dallas in an attempt to create the ultimate meal.
Here’s how it worked. Our players had to select a “team” of a free snack, appetizer, main course, side dish, dessert, and drink pairing. We used a randomizer to create the draft order (standard draft, not snake).
The biggest twist: once a business was picked, nobody else could have any dish from that business.
On a recent afternoon, D editors Matt Goodman, Nataly Keomoungkhoun, Mike Piellucci, Brian Reinhart, and Kathy Wise gathered in a conference room and made our picks. Beforehand, we built draft boards and discussed our strategies. Kathy told the group, “What I’ve got is chaos that I hope represents me.” Brian put a twist on the common draft term BPA, which now stands for Best Plate Available instead of Best Player Available.
First, we’ll list out our finished meals. Feel free to hit the comments, social media, or the streets to tell us whose meal is your favorite. After the completed dinner teams, you’ll find each player’s explanation of her or his draft strategy, whether they got their first choices, who stole their picks, and if they have any regrets.
First pick: Matt Goodman, online editorial director
- First round (first overall pick in the draft): Assorted Cattleack Barbeque meats (main course)
- Second round: Foie gras stuffed dates from Lucia (appetizer)
- Third round: A Coors Original and a shot of Bulleit from Peak Inn (drink)
- Fourth round: Neighborhood Services tempura fried asparagus (side)
- Fifth round: Churros from Zaguan Café (dessert)
- Sixth round: Chips and salsa from Casa Rosa (free snack)
Second pick: Kathy Wise, executive editor
- First round: Pork al pastor, El Carlos Elegante (main course)
- Second round: Deconstructed margarita from Ayahuasca Cantina (drink)
- Third round: Pan-fried pork buns from Fortune House (appetizer)
- Fourth round: Contadina pizza from Baonecci (yes, a pizza as a side)
- Fifth round: A whole Neapolitan cake, Cretia’s (dessert)
- Sixth round: Popovers at Neiman Marcus’ Zodiac Room (free snack)
Third pick: Nataly Keomoungkhoun, dining editor
- First round: Continental gin and tonic, Tatsu (drink)
- Second round: Fried shrimp and grits at Roots Southern Table (appetizer)
- Third round: Trompo’s elote (side)
- Fourth round: Salt and pepper fish at First Emperor Chinese Restaurant (main)
- Fifth round: Swiss Madrisa cake from Henk’s European Deli (dessert)
- Sixth round: The lolly bag of sweets at Quarter Acre (free snack)
Fourth pick: Mike Piellucci, sports editor
- First round: Zoli’s Dope Sopp pizza (main course)
- Second round: Bacon burnt ends at Heim (appetizer)
- Third round: Legendary Rustic Rita from the Rustic, including the popsicle (drink)
- Fourth round: Revolver Taco Lounge birria tacos (side)
- Fifth round: Route 66 pecan pie with cinnamon roll crust (dessert)
- Sixth round: Dinner rolls from Del Frisco’s Double Eagle (free snack)
Fifth pick: Brian Reinhart, dining critic
- First round: Petra and the Beast charcuterie board (appetizer)
- Second round: The George Jettison “perfect Manhattan” cocktail at Jettison (drink)
- Third round: Rabbit pappardelle pasta from Gemma (main course)
- Fourth round: Creamed spinach from Knife (side)
- Fifth round: Taquero’s chips and three salsas (free snack)
- Sixth round (last overall pick of the draft): Botolino gelato (dessert)
Matt explains his draft
Nobody likes lines, but everyone likes barbecue. Especially from Cattleack, which our esteemed dining critic recently declared to be the ninth best restaurant in all of Dallas. I drafted to win. Nothing too weird, just quality. And I figured out a workaround: nobody picks a single meat option from a great barbecue spot, especially if you spent hours in line one morning. So, pick what you want. That’s brisket, beef ribs, sausage, turkey. It’s the tequila sunrise pork belly ribs and the brisket pastrami. These other suckers left you with a single option for your entree.
Lucia’s foie gras-stuffed dates have never led me astray, especially when they were $1 a pop. Same deal with Nick Badovinus’ tempura-fried asparagus; I would’ve gone with one of the vegetable options at Teppo, but unfortunately Teppo is no more.
The drink is strategic. You can get a beer and a shot at any reputable neighborhood bar in town, and we need to protect these at all costs. Dallas is losing history and comfortable bars left and right—the Stoneleigh P and the Grapevine both will close with ambitions to move, for instance—and we need to support them however we can. I went with Peak Inn because of two reasons: It’s the bar I wish was in my neighborhood, and they serve beers in frozen pint glasses.
Zaguan is one of the city’s most underrated treasures, and I miss the one down in the weird downtown tunnels. It didn’t make it out of the pandemic.
And as for free, it doesn’t get better than chips and salsa. And the best I’ve had in recent memory are at Casa Rosa, the Cuellar family’s latest Tex-Mex foray.
Vote for Matt. There are no other choices. And I made you read fewer words than Mike.
Kathy explains her draft
The only fantasy draft I ever won was the one year I only used autodraft, so I found this process to be surprisingly stressful.
Should I be going for the lowest common denominator, like I figured Mike would, with a pizza-burger-wings-donuts-Mambo Taxi combo? Should I be going for the most exclusive and obscure, like I figured Brian and Nataly might, with a Purepecha Room-Tatsu-Petra and the Beast-One Night Only Pop-Up insidery sort of deal? Or should I be focused on tried-and-true classics, like I suspected Matt might go for, with an Inwood Tavern-Cosmo’s-beer and barbecue bar crawl?
Nay, I decided, I would go my own way.
My way entails a Magical Mystery Bus Tour that will deposit you at each location with zero drive time so you can enjoy the ambiance along with each spectacular course. And I think it tells a story of Dallas—certainly a story of my Dallas.
While boarding the bus in front of Neiman Marcus: You will be handed a lovely plate with a popover the size of your head, a ramekin of strawberry butter, and a teensy, tinesy mug of warm chicken broth from the Zodiac Room. What better place to start a food tour of Dallas than here, with an iconic Proustian bite from Helen Corbitt’s playbook? She had to keep shoppers happy while they waited an hour for a table. But don’t worry, this bus tour will run right on schedule.
First stop: Ayahuasca Cantina for what I am calling their Deconstructed Margarita. If you haven’t been to this dark, romantic speakeasy behind Xaman Café on Jefferson, you are missing out on one of the greatest hideaways in town. A couple of weeks ago my sister was visiting from Denver, so I had to take her. We had three in our party, and the server was concerned that we’d be too cramped at our reserved table; he suggested that we sit at the bar. Now, I have been many times, but I have never sat at the bar. And (mostly) a rule-follower, I have always ordered from the cocktail menu—like the Birria-Rita (spicy and tangy) or the Matzantli (fruity and bright). But this night, the bartender was mixing up off-menu magic right in front of us. There was foam. There were tinctures. There were flourishes. Pointing at his creation, I asked him to make me one. It was like a dream of a margarita, like you took a perfect margarita and Snapchatted it and it disappeared and you could never quite find it again, ephemeral and unforgettable. I wish I knew what it was called. I feel like if you asked for “that foamy marg” he’d know. I can only hope.
Second stop: Fortune House for their Pan-Fried Pork Dumplings. Now, don’t start picturing some lame-ass potstickers that you got from Uber Eats. These beauties have a basic name but they are anything but. They are pillowy bao, more a steamed bun than a limp wonton, and their bottoms are patted with sesame seeds, then browned to perfection in a pan. Soft, steamy, juicy, crispy—they were the only takeout I picked up during the entire pandemic. And I would eat them as soon as I got in my car, the steam singeing my nose and the pork juice pouring down my chin. But. I. Didn’t. Care.
Third stop: While we’re up north, we might as well head to Baonecci for the Contadina Pizza. I had not even heard of this place before we started doing research for our pizza issue (February 2023). Stefania and Walter Gambaccini closed their famed North Beach restaurant in San Francisco to move to Frisco during the pandemic. Feels like a bit of a wrong turn, but not for us. Stefania’s pies come on an incredible crust that looks sort of like a Dutch Baby and a pita pocket had a baby, only when you bite into the airy dough it shatters like a Saltine. The Contadina is spread with earthy Gorgonzola and then topped with a cloud of spiral-sliced pears. I’m telling you, this pie will change your life. And it’s not too filling, so there’s plenty of room for the…
Fourth stop: Pork al Pastor at El Carlos Elegante. This was a tough call. El Carlos Elegante was my utility player, and with the second overall draft pick, I knew I would pull it for my roster. The only question was for which position? I could have picked the Negroni-ish for my cocktail, or the Charred Eggplant one-hitter for my appetizer, or the Mayan Hummus for my side, or the tiny bowl of chilled fruit and cucumber with chamoy for my complimentary snack. But I decided to go all-in for my main. I don’t know how they cook such a lean cut so that it is meltingly tender, but it’s like butter. Wrap a slice in the housemade blue corn tortillas, swipe it through the adobo and pineapple, and take a bite—pure heaven in an absolutely gorgeous setting.
Final stop: Cretia’s for a WHOLE Neapolitan cake. Feel free to take home what you can’t eat. I’m a sucker for a moist crumb and a whipped buttercream, and who wants to choose chocolate, vanilla, or strawberry when you can have them all? When my wife and I got married in 2013, we had to go to NYC because it wasn’t legal in our home state. When we got home, we threw a big party in our backyard with a New York-inspired menu to stick to the theme. But the cake—that was this one.
Nataly explains her draft
Coming up with dishes for this draft kept me awake several nights in a row. There was overall anxiety about not getting the dishes I wanted and realizing that I could have left off a fantastic dish I had tried and loved. As a dining editor, I think most people tend to assume my taste in food is refined or complicated. It’s not. To put it plainly: I love good food in all its forms and at all ends of the culinary spectrum. So if it tastes delicious, I want it. And I think you’ll understand why I drafted these delicious dishes. I believe I’ve come up with a meal that touches on all parts of Dallas dining.
Tatsu Dallas’ continental gin and tonic is a balanced, fresh G&T that isn’t over the top. Tatsu Dallas’ beverage director Janice Brown once worked at Pogo’s Wine & Spirits and knows how to make a mean one. With more fish on my overall menu, a good gin and tonic is complementary and won’t take away from the dishes.
The fried shrimp and grits at Roots Southern Table pack a flavor that kick the meal off with a Southern vibe. They aren’t your typical plate of shrimp and grits—these are fritters that have been placed on top of a delicious tomato broth.
The entrée is an order of salt and pepper fish from First Emperor Chinese Restaurant in Richardson, one of my favorite dishes in North Texas. This dish comes with rice. The fish filets are fried, seasoned with salt and pepper, and stir-fried with heaps of garlic, green onions, and sliced jalapeños. Each bite is crispy and packs a spicy punch that makes my brain tingle. Doesn’t a sip of that G&T with this sound so refreshing?
The side, elote from Oak Cliff Trompo, is a nod to Dallas’ roots in Mexican and Tex-Mex cuisine. Corn is one of my favorite vegetables, and a creamy, spicy elote with a squeeze of lime hits the spot of every meal every time.
Dessert was hard for me, but I had to choose a classic from a Dallas favorite: the Swiss Madrisa cake from Henk’s European Deli. This cake, light in its sweetness and heavy in its fruitiness, is a perfect ender. This is also my dad’s favorite cake, and it will forever remind me of him.
But, wait! A complimentary item I love and had to have on this dream draft was the lolly bag from Quarter Acre, which is a smattering of biscuits and chocolates given to patrons in a small bag at the end of the meal. With this meal I’ve planned out, not even the dessert tips the scale of making this dinner too sweet. A lolly bag is an ideal way to satisfy that sugar rush without being too much.
All this is to say that I do think I have a very gratifying meal. It pains me to think about the delicious things I could have chosen (Zoli’s Pizza and The Zodiac Room were both taken before I could get them), but I find delight in believing my meal represents the old, the present, and the future of what can come from Dallas’ dining scene. Plus, everything just, like, tastes really good.
Mike explains his draft
I’ll begin by assuring you that I’m in on the joke.
I lack a smidgen of the depth and breadth of our culinary scene that Brian Reinhart and Nataly Keomoungkhoun possess. I have none of Kathy Wise’s worldliness. I am no man about town like Matt Goodman. When I asked Brian why, exactly, he wanted to include me in this exercise, he told me he needed a wild card. Then he made a joke about my selecting In-N-Out fries as my side dish.
Which stung—for a moment. But then, my friends, I grew empowered. I, like you, fancy myself savvier than the average diner. I scan Yelp reviews for unsung local spots. I know holes in the wall. I have pointed opinions on the BBQ scene—don’t endure the hellish line at Pecan Lodge when you can walk five minutes to Terry Black’s and stroll up to the counter—and I’d like to think I’ve had most of the burgers worth a damn this side of Fort Worth. I have more fingers than I do foods I don’t enjoy. Triple D? Lovely television program.
But I’m also not above the occasional chain restaurant, and far more often than not, I’m eating around my North Dallas neighborhood versus hitting many of trendiest spots in town, because they’re disproportionately located in parts of the city that most of us don’t live in nor can we easily access on a weeknight. Is that because they really are all down there? Or is that because my colleagues, lovely as they are, represent the food bourgeoisie sneering at the proletariat that just ain’t gonna drive to Bishop Arts on a damn Tuesday?
So when our dining critic chose to shame me from his truffle oil-basted ivory tower, I could have taken umbrage. Here he was, mocking me. Mocking us.
People of his ilk like to say—maybe … probably … possibly—revenge is a dish best served cold.
I—we—will serve ours hot, loaded with salt and sat fat.
Because I’m not going to play their game. Sure, my colleagues’ menus are sophisticated. Nuanced. Impressive. But they are rooted in a culinary experience that is completely foreign to how the rest of us nasty humans live on a daily basis, and the subtext is such exceptionalism is inherently, objectively better. That it’s a badge of honor to wait weeks to score a 9:30 table to drop three bills on food that will satisfy 42 percent of your appetite and make you wonder why you got a sitter. Nothing underscores my point better than Kathy, who, when I noted the accessible price point of my selections, taunted, “So, why would they want your meal that they can pay for any day?”
Nah. I’m not here for that. What I am here to do is prove them wrong. For me. For you. Each piece of my menu is something you’ve eaten before, and I dare say it’s something you love. Rolls. Barbeque. Pizza. Tacos. Margaritas. Pecan motherfuckin’ pie. The most expensive item costs $21, and you’ll get at least two meals out of it. The next time you require a reservation at any of them, much less fight for it, will be the first. All but one of them boasts considerable amounts of parking. Don’t worry, I picked the best of the best—again, I’m no rube, and you’re not, either. But we are normal-ass diners, and damn proud of it.
There is precisely zero chance that any of their menus will taste better than this one. That’s the cost of a half dozen items that, eaten together, will probably put you in the hospital. And when you’re there, just before they zonk you out to perform bypass surgery, vote for me. By which, of course, I mean vote for yourself. You’re better than them telling you how superior their menus are to the stuff you eat each week. You’re better than their best.
1.04: Zoli’s: Dope Sopp’
The piece de resistance of my menu comes from our reigning Best of Big D winner in the pizzeria category. Damn near everything on Zoli’s menu would be the highlight of most other pizza joints, but this blend of tomato sauce, hot soppressata, ricotta, and soppressata marmalade is an award winner, as well as my weapon of choice.
2.04: Heim BBQ’s Bacon Burnt Ends
Matt made Cattleack the top overall pick for a reason, but as great it is, the BBQ scene is so deep here that the margins have narrowed. Everyone has great brisket and a savory sausage link. To stand out, you need a differentiator. A trademark. And no one in town has a more distinctive one than Heim’s Bacon Burnt Ends. They’re savory. They’re decadent. They’re irreplaceable.
3.04: The Rustic’s Legendary Rustic Rita
It’s a margarita with a popsicle dipped inside. I repeat: a margarita … and a popsicle. If that doesn’t sell you, there is no buying.
4.04: Revolver Taqueria’s Cabrito Birria Taco
A great general manager adapts when the draft board falls their way, and that’s what I did here. How did the best taqueria in town—and the seventh-place finisher on our 50 Best Restaurants—stay on the board until the end of the fourth round? I don’t know, but I pounced accordingly.
5.04: Haywire’s Route 66 Pecan Pie
What’s better than pecan pie? Pecan pie with a cinnamon roll for a crust. You heard me. And, for good measure, vanilla ice cream plus a caramel sauce made with Balcones whiskey. A rare case where too much turns out to be just right.
6.04: Del Frisco’s Double Eagle Steakhouse’s rolls
Imagine a sweet roll that woke up a little salty in the morning. That’s my best attempt at describing whatever dark magic produced these doughy wonders.
Brian explains his draft
Picking last stinks. I created a monster of a spreadsheet because I was sure that my first choices for nearly every category would get taken before I could get to them. Sure enough, Matt drafted the foie gras stuffed prunes at Lucia before I could draft the pasta at Lucia; Mike took Revolver’s tacos off the board just one pick before I planned to draft Revolver’s tacos; Zoli’s and Cattleack came off the board in the first round.
But in some categories, I overprepared so much that I had the opposite problem: too many good options. I picked Taquero’s chips and salsa because they give you three different kinds of salsa, and the chips are good, too. But I really thought about the bread service at Meridian, where we had an incredibly crispy focaccia roll last month.
Three more categories where I had information overload were sides, mains, and desserts. I grabbed Knife’s creamed spinach as my side because it’s as indulgent as you can be while technically remaining a vegetable. I think by weight it is about 60 percent cream. Gemma’s rabbit pappardelle is another Dallas institution and a good utility player that pairs well with all kinds of starters and sides. In hindsight, though, I wish I had taken Revolver’s tacos earlier for my main course, to spite Mike.
I plumped for a bowl of gelato from Botolino for two reasons. First, if you get three scoops, that means you can get three different flavors. Second, I was worried that after eating the rest of the meal, I’d be too full for anything besides ice cream. The Botolino pick has caused some scandal among my friends and family, who were all sure I’d get my actual, true favorite dessert in Texas: the kinafa from Bigdash Ice Cream and Pastries in Richardson. This is a big, pie-sized circular dessert that has outer layers of shredded wheat surrounding an inside made of gooey molten white cheese. The whole thing gets cooked in a wild-looking metal contraption that rotates the kinafa over open flames, then soaked in sweet syrup and topped with pistachios. Maybe I should have gone with my heart and picked Bigdash. But if you haven’t tried it, it’s hard to explain the appeal of “gooey crispy cheese dessert.” So I sold out for votes. Lame!
Not lame: my first two picks. I had a pre-draft strategy chat with friends and we agreed that only three items in Dallas were worthy of the honor of being selected first overall. One was Cattleack’s brisket, which Matt did indeed take with the first pick. The other two were the amazing, bounteous Petra and the Beast charcuterie board and cocktails from Jettison. And I got both! My colleagues did require me to choose a specific cocktail, which scuttled my plan of pairing my dream meal with literally all of them. So I went with the George Jettison, a $26 special-occasion drink that bartender George Kaiho describes as his vision of the perfect Manhattan. His vision is good.
A fun blind-item quote from the drafting process
“I’m not prepared. I didn’t have backups. I had Zoli’s in there. I’m gonna panic!”