When I was growing up, my family frequently argued about stew – Irish Stew, that is. We all knew that a good stew needed meat, but which meat was a matter of controversy. My father always held out for beef, big hearty chunks that sank to the bottom of the pot like anchors. My mother, being from County Mayo and therefore of a more refined palate, preferred lamb, as much for its historical value as for its taste: The Druids reportedly made their stew with kid and mutton. My great aunt was partial to pork, but she was 93 and lacked clout. I didn’t care one way or the other so long as the meat wasn’t stringy. Nothing worse than sitting through a meal with stew meat lodged between your teeth. The bone was always, always left in, and anyone bold enough to remove it was considered criminally fastidious. It’s marrow that gives stews their flavor; on that point we all agreed. As for vegetables, the potatoes went in first, preferably whole, halved if necessary, but never diced or minced. “Slip right through the fork,” my father would complain whenever he came upon a miserly cube of white. Carrots were fine provided they were cooked separately rather than in the stew. A limp carrot found in the pot was taken as a sign of culinary decadence. Sometimes there would be a bit of turnip for variety, and maybe a dish of red cabbage on the side. Condiments were limited to salt and pepper. Thyme, oregano, and other seasonings were considered European – probably French- and very chancy.
Such strong feelings about simple stew. Imagine the passions that would have been aroused if we’d been confronted by haute cuisine – kreplach, for instance, orfettucine Alfredo.
In the following survey of the city’s ethnic restaurants, we’ve tried to stay clear of culinary controversies. No last words here about how to make a real crawfish bisque or true moussaka – write to Craig Claiborne for that. Our mission, simply stated, was to identify ethnic restaurants in Dallas and Fort Worth that, in our opinion, were serving authentic dishes. We didn’t want to duplicate our regular restaurant listings. We were interested mainly in small undiscovered places, though inevitably a few old favorites crept in to fill gaps. Some of the ones we found were obscure for very good reasons, while others turned out to have towering local reputations that hadn’t filtered to the outside world. We considered changing the names and addresses of several places so that there would always be a seat left for us, but that would be a cheap trick. So here goes.
As you read this, Dallas is probably hotter than Athens or Beirut. Reason enough to search out the heavy, full-flavored, sleep-inducing cuisines of the Mediterranean.
When we asked where to find authentic Greek food in Dallas, everyone smiled and said something like “Ha! If you hear of any let me know.” Nevertheless, we did find some. Not surprisingly, the best can be found at the annual food festival at Holy Trinity Greek Orthodox Church (this year, September 27-29). Dolmas, souvlakia, moussaka, pastitsio – all cooked by parishioners and served under colorful tents with enough retsina wine to impress even Zorba. St. Demetrios Greek Orthodox Church in Fort Worth holds a similar festival every June. Some foods are also packaged and frozen for take-home.
Once you depart holy ground, you’re pretty much on your own. At Chateaubriand (2515 McKinney) you’ll find pastitsio and some Greek veal dishes among the sweetbreads and lobster. Goldfinger (2905 Cridelle) gets the nod as the best Greek restaurant in town, though mainly by default. You might want to sample their flaming saganaki or the avgolemeno soup.
The Lebanese are faring somewhat better since the opening of Hedary’s in Fort Worth (3304 Fairfield). The Hedary family previously owned a place called Hedary’s Lebanese Pizza, which served no pizza. Seems they thought “pizza” was the American word for “restaurant” or “cafe.” This new operation is a restaurant where you can get a Lebanese pizza (let them explain it to you) along with kafta, sujuk, kibbi, tabbuli, and dozens of other things. No concessions made to American tastes here, even in music.
If you need a dolmas fix, drop into Antone’s (4234 Harry Hines) where you can get two for fifteen cents at the Po’ Boy counter. An international grocery with a Middle-Eastern bias, Antone’s stocks numerous cheeses, including feta, kasseri, and everyone’s favorite, caciocavallo. Wheat and rice are stored in large dispensers that look like slot machines, right beside the coffee beans that spill onto the floor when you walk by. Throughout the store there are picnic tables where you can pit your fresh olives.
Al’s Grocery (Park Lane and Greenville) is a similar establishment, less spacious than Antone’s, but a good source for fresh pita bread, Greek salads, olives, halvah by the hunk, and just about anything else Mediterranean. Probably the largest selection of Greek wines in town. Both stores are so gloriously aromatic that you wonder how you could ever return to one of those air-freshened supermarkets. A visit to one of these groceries should be part of everyone’s cultural education.
Avgolemeno soup – chicken soup thickened with eggs and flavored with lemon juice.
Blintz – a crepe rolled and filled with cheese, potato, or fruit.
Dolmas – grape leaves stuffed with meat and rice.
Feta – a soft white Greek cheese made from sheep’s or goat’s milk.
Gefilte fish – ground or chopped fish mixed with eggs, onion, and seasonings, shaped into oval balls, and cooked in salt water.
Kasseri – a hard Greek cheese made from ewe’s milk.
Kibbi – crushed wheat and ground sirloin or lamb, spiced and made into small beehive shapes.
Caciocavallo – a hard, yellow, slightly salty Italian cheese that is eaten sliced when young, grated when it’s older.
Kreplach – small dumplings filled with cheese, chicken, liver, or chopped meat, and served in soup.
Halvah – a Middle-Eastern confection consisting of a paste made of ground sesame seeds and nuts mixed with honey.
Moussaka – eggplant and ground meat, usually lamb, arranged in layers and then baked with cheese and a white sauce.
Pita bread – A Middle-Eastern hollow or pocket bread that is often stuffed with meat or salad.
Pastitsio – Greek macaroni with meat.
Sujuk – Lebanese hot beef sausage.
Tabbuli – a salad made with cracked wheat, onions, parsley, and other seasonings, dressed with lemon juice.
Saganaki – kefoloteri cheese battered, pan-fried and flamed at your table.
There are always cars parked in front of The Haunted House Cafe (2807 Hatcher). Walk in the door and you practically fall into a steam table loaded with ham hocks, smothered steak, chicken giblets and noodles, plus an assortment of greens and hot corn bread. One meat and one vegetable for $2.50; a slice of sweet potato pie is extra. There’s a pool table in the back, with a large “Positively No Gambling” sign over it, and along the walls there are booths, towards which you grope blindly because there are no windows in the dining area. A real crush at lunch and a serious eating place anytime.
Ditto for the L & J Cafeteria at 2410 Pine Street. It’s a bit more uptown than most soul food restaurants, with plenty of plastic bric-a-brac on the walls, but it serves terrific barbecued ribs, fried fish, corn and okra gumbo, and so on. The menu changes daily, so in the course of a week you could probably sample most dishes that could be called soul food. “And always smothered steak on the weekend,” says the cashier. “Our customers couldn’t get through it without our smothered steak.”
A battered sign outside Vern’s (3600 Main Street) warns you that there is no curb service available. There’s no curb either, or much else to tell you that this is a restaurant rather than a grocery or an old gas station. But a restaurant it is, serving large portions of fried fish, turkey and dressing, pigs’ feet, yams, blackeyed peas, and other essentials. Be prepared to wait at lunchtime; like most of these places, Vern’s can accommodate about 30 persons, including those sitting on the pool tables.
It’s a bit harder to find good Cajun cooking in Dallas. One restaurant that takes it seriously is Broussard’s, at 603 South Beltline in Irving. The place has all the charm of an abandoned store, which it used to be: long refectory tables covered with vinyl, iced tea in Igloo coolers, soft drinks in the fridge. The one touch of color is owner Frenchy Broussard, a dapper fellow in a tall chef’s hat. He is usually scurrying around the kitchen prodding the help. Broussard’s serves huge platters of boiled crawfish for $5, along with boiled shrimp, frog legs, fried catfish, hush puppies, a good gumbo, and a superb piquante. Half orders are available on everything. A no-nonsense restaurant; we need more like it.
All that the varied cuisines of the Orient have in common is their strangeness, at least to Western palates. Now some of the more exotic dishes are making an appearance in Dallas.
A word about the Thai dishes at the Willow Garden Restaurant (6712 Camp Bowie, Fort Worth): They’re hot! The waiter smiled as I wept uncontrollably into my Yum Kung (spiced shrimp with cabbage and cucumbers), but became more concerned when everyone at the table suddenly developed laryngitis. “Not mild like Szechwan,” he said agreeably. “It’s the jalapenos.” “Jalapenos!” we all gasped. “In everything,” he replied. Once over the initial shock, you’ll probably find the food intriguing. Everything we tried was served cold, but there are several hot dishes also, like Peu Wan (a sweet and sour pork creation) and Lad-Na (Thai fried noodles with beef or chicken). The Willow Garden also features Northern Chinese specialties, most of which seem to contain ginger, garlic, and scallions. If you’re in the mood for something different, here’s something different.
We’re not sure why Dallas’ only Thai restaurant, Siam (10018 Monroe), would be located in a little shopping center off Walnut Hill near Harry Hines; but then, we don’t know what the appropriate location would be. The day we visited, most customers were ordering chow mein, but there are plenty of authentic Thai treats to be had: charbroiled octopus on a stick with peanut sauce (delicious, especially if you don’t look closely); a soup with rice noodles, squid, and fish balls; and a wonderful curry made with coconut milk and mint leaves. If you’re into oddities, try the Chinese plum juice – as strange a beverage as we’ve ever tasted – and for dessert have the Attaps fruit, which are like big flat gumdrops. There are also less exotic items, like top sirloin.
For purely adventurous eating, there’s probably not a stranger menu in town than the one at Kobawoo, a Korean restaurant (3109 In wood Road at Cedar Springs). We can safely say that if you ever get a craving for sea cucumber, this is the only place to go. At the other end of the spectrum, for faint hearts, is “Korean Bar-b-q.” But as long as you’re there, you might as well experiment. They have something called skirt fish (a kind of ray which the waitress tried to warn us away from) as well as good old octopus. The menu also listed jellyfish, but you’ll have to order ahead – they rarely stock it because, the waitress says, “nobody ever orders it.” That’s reassuring.
Mihama-Ya (7713 Inwood Road) is listed in the Dallas Yellow Pages under Delicatessens, which gives you an idea of how fluid the ethnic foods scene here is. It’s actually a small Japanese restaurant with an ambitious menu, including numerous sushi and sashimi dishes, and one of the most elaborate non-functioning bars in town. (They serve only beer.) Next door is an Oriental grocery stocked with the usual assortment of eel, dried squid, seaweed, and exotic herbs and spices. What you can’t identify, Betty or one of her family will, usually with a smile that says that mystification is essential to appreciation.
Deep in Oak Cliff, in. the middle of the Westmoreland Heights Shopping Center, sits Saigon, a Vietnamese restaurant with black velvet paintings of bullfighters, a poster picturing the Dallas Cowboys, and a waiter in Adidas gym shorts. While we were enjoying the excellent appetizers and soups, the waiter returned to say “Sorry, no more. She’s not cooking.” It seems the air conditioning had conked out and “she,” the chef, had decided it was too hot to go on. So the rest of our order is still there waiting to be filled: asparagus and crab soup, “crab fried dry with salt and pepper,” puffed frogs’ legs, and something called “Vietnamese steak.” Our guess is that it would have been great.
Jung Oriental Foods (2519 North Fitzhugh) has been one of Dallas’ mainline import groceries for years. It stocks every kind of noodle imaginable, including Cup O’Noodles, a vast assortment of teas and spices, woks and cleavers of all descriptions, and a freezer full of odd-looking fish, including giant milkfish from the Philippines. “You probably don’t want one of those,” the owner remarked. He was right. But I did take along several tiny sacks of fresh pea pods and bean sprouts, and on my next visit I may buy a genuine tea set.
Sharma’s International Store is an Indian grocery tucked away in Preston Valley Shopping Center. You won’t have any trouble finding it – there’s usually a woman in a sari sitting out front. Inside there’s an assortment of whole and shelled nuts, teas and spices, sacks of rice, mango pickles (of which the manager seems very proud), every sitar record ever made, and a small sari shop in the rear.
Another Indian and Pakistani grocery that doubles as a bookstore is the Yoga and Health Center, 2912 Oak Lawn. Everything written about Maharishi Mahesh Yogi and the mysteries of the lotus position can be found on its shelves. Don’t pass by the herb and vitamin section (next to the sacks of Uncle Ben’s rice), where you’ll find cures for impotence, constipation, and other ills.
The old rule that you’ll find good ethnic food only where there are plenty of good ethnics to eat it is borne out by Dallas’ Mexican restaurants. In number and variety they surpass every other category, ranging from spiffy expense-account places to hole-in-the-wall cafes where anyone in a suit coat is suspected of being a federal agent.
You know there’s something different about Las Campechanas (5336 Singleton) because the menu is painted on the outside of the building. What’s more, you probably haven’t tried most of the dishes: tripitas, lenguas, menudo, cabrito tacos. Inside there’s a small steam table, an even smaller bakery counter, and a dozen or so tables that are usually filled by locals. Knowing a bit of Spanish is a help, though you can do just fine by pointing and smacking your lips. Sunday morning is a good time to drop in.
Ranchero (5122 Singleton) is just down the street from Las Campechanas and caters to the same clientele with a slightly different menu: ranchero steak, guisado de puerco, chicharrones, barbacoa. Both restaurants do a bustling take-out business, so you may have to wait while a customer fills a five-gallon jug with hot sauce or menudo. Delicious flour tortillas appear from the back every few minutes.
Guadalajara (3308 Ross Avenue) looks like many neighborhood restaurants in Old Mexico: pinatas hanging from the ceiling, bullfight posters on the walls, a statue of the Virgin looking down at a rack of tapes and records. The menu is divided between standard Tex-Mex and more ambitious items like carne asada, chicken en mole, and a steak smothered in crushed piquin peppers. This is where other Mexican chefs go when they get off work, mainly for the food but also because it’s open until 3 a.m.
Cabrito – kid (baby goat).
Cajeta – a sweet caramel candy.
Caldo de res – a hot meat soup, usually pork, with potatoes, carrots, and other vegetables added.
Guisado de puerco – guisado is Spanish for stew. As served locally a guisado or guiso is more like beef tips in a sauce, served with rice and refried beans.
Menudo – a highly seasoned soup or stew made with tripe. Reputed to be a good cure for a hangover.
Tripitas – the intestines of a milk cow, served boiled or fried.
Chicharrones – cracklings, served crisp or crumbled over beans.
Hernandez Food Store (2120 Alamo) is small, crowded, and noisy, with plastic angels hanging from the ceiling, pigs’ heads staring at you from the meat case, and mariachi music drowning out every syllable of conversation. Whole families surge up and down the aisles filling their carts with corn shucks, cajeta, chili peppers, and dozens of other things known only to the initiate.
Tina’s Cafe (2911 Main Street) is snug as a phone booth and a great place to go for homemade Tex-Mex. Tina cooks everything fresh daily on a small stove in the back, and on Wednesdays she puts together an enchilada special for $1.50 that will hold you for a week. Assorted guisos and tacos all the time, the latter stuffed with stew meat. SRO at lunch, so be prepared to pluck a pool cue out of your guiso every now and then.
Cuca Guzman works all night every Thursday making tamales, which she then takes over to the Little Adam Grocery (5547 Bernal) on Friday morning. Sometimes she arrives ahead of her customers, but more often they’re waiting for her. The tamales are usually gone by noon, and it’s not unusual to see one person carrying off five or six dozen. One of Cuca’s tamales will banish forever memories of those mealy, wizened things you used to pick up at places like El Fenix.
Give Betty Mendez (3509 Bryan, Fort Worth) an hour’s notice and she’ll whip up some of the best tacos, enchiladas, and tamales in Fort Worth. It’s all considerably spicier than regular Tex-Mex, and infinitely tastier. Betty cooks in her garage, seating is at two small picnic tables, and the place is open only from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday. If you’re burned out on theme restaurants, give this one a try.
Tienda Mongaras (2602 Caroline) isn’t as colorful as Hernandez, but it’s nearly as chaotic. Signs around the store read Se Habla Espanol Solamente, though patient Anglos can usually get a hearing. The store specializes in cabrito, as well as tongue, tripe, and many varieties of sausage. My favorite items are the large burlap bags filled with dried chili peppers, each variety meticulously labeled and all potent enough to cure pneumonia on the spot.
There are at least a dozen tortilla factories scattered around town, all pretty much the same: one or two large rooms with stainless steel ovens, clacking conveyor belts, and lots of workers counting the Finished products into plastic bags. Luna’s (1615 McKinney) is one of the oldest, LaFe (1213 Singleton) one of the more colorful, and Stados Baking Company (2918 North Harwood) one of the more diversified. In addition to tortillas Stados makes breads, cookies, and special pastries. Many of the small neighborhood restaurants also have resident tortilla maker.
The distinction between a deli and a delicatessen is one that New Yorkers live by and the rest of the world lives with, more or less. A deli, the purists insist, is a small neighborhood operation that serves hot dogs, knishes, French fries, and a few plate specials like salami and eggs, and where everything is washed down with cold – not iced – Dr. Brown’s cream soda. No dairy products are sold, and, according to my friend Steve (the best blintz maker in town), a true deli uses only Heinz beans, never charges extra for sauerkraut, and has a Hebrew National sign in the window.
The closest Dallas gets to this archetype is Manny’s in Preston Royal Shopping Center. Manny is the neighborhood butcher, so his place is as much a meat market and grocery as it is a deli. But it’s the one deli in town where you can get a genuine kosher hot dog, served intact on a bun instead of sliced up. Good selection of New York salamis (most local delicatessens sell the milder Chicago brands), tasty corned beef and pastrami sandwiches, snappy pickles. Now if only Manny served sauerkraut, I’d even pay extra for it.
When Dallasites speak of a delicatessen, they usually mean a small restaurant with a dozen or so tables, a room divider with plastic flowers, and meat and dairy cases along one wall – kosher-style rather than kosher. Our first choice for a sit-down meal was Wall’s (10749 Preston Road). Although the dining room is one of those cheerless vinyl-and-chrome creations, what comes out of the kitchen is generally full of character. Excellent gefilte fish, cabbage and kreplach soups, fair blintzes, and two pages of sandwiches. There’s not much that Wall’s doesn’t serve, which is why it’s generally considered a supermarket for delicatessen freaks.
As the name suggests, Bagelstein’s (8104 Spring Valley Road) does some of its best work with Jewish doughnuts. Onion, poppy seed, pumpernickel – you name it, they probably make it. They even serve free coffee and bagel bits on Sunday mornings, probably as a reward for putting up with the mob of noshers that usually turns up. The dining room is adequate, but everything is served on paper plates. Better for take-out.
Carshon’s (3133 Cleburne Road, Fort Worth) is the one delicatessen in Cowtown that is more than a sandwich shop. Homemade soups, including kreplach and borscht; blintzes, lox and bagels, cheese cake, the whole shtick. Sit-down and take-out service.
Ernie’s (4412 Lovers Lane) gets the prize for the best delicatessen sign in town, a glowing two-story affair that would look perfect on Pitkin Avenue in Brooklyn. Ernie’s is a combination deli, bakery, and catering service, with the latter probably getting most of the attention. Still, they have outstanding chopped liver, good kraut and slaw, a wide assortment of cheeses. Excellent bagels when you can get them, but a sorry hot dog.
The Red Moon Cafe (4537 Cole) is a cozy spot that’s had its ups and downs recently. Many of the ups can be found among the Cajun dishes, particularly the crawfish and chicken jambalaya. They also serve a pretty good gumbo and excellent chicory coffee.
Banno’s (3250 Samuell) is primarily a seafood restaurant with a smattering of South Louisiana specialties like gumbo, shrimp creole, fried oysters, and hush puppies. Convenient to Tenison Park.
Pietro’s (5722 Richmond) is probably the closest we get to the kind of restaurant you find everywhere in New York’s Little Italy and Boston’s North End. A small family operation that serves hearty homestyle Italian food with a Sicilian touch. From time to time they also have some superior specials like saltimbocca and rollatina of veal.
Long a favorite with the downtown crowd, especially in its old location on Commerce, the Blue Front (1310 Elm) is now something of a hybrid. “We’re German,” explained one waitress, “but in the last few years we’ve had to do some improvising.” Meaning Polish sausage and cold cuts but no bratwurst, domestic Lǒwenbrǎu and Falstaff but no German imports. Still, they have terrific potato salad, good split pea and navy bean soups, and, if you’re early enough, lovely cobblers. Dishes clatter constantly while you’re eating, and motherly waitresses call you Honey. Even if it is improvised, it feels pretty authentic.
Too slick to be a hole-in-the-wall and too popular to be called a discovery, Heidelberger Hof (2104 Jacksboro Highway, Fort Worth) is still the only place west of the Trinity where you can get decent rouladen, sauerbraten, and wiener schnitzel. The menu is certainly comprehensive, so there’s bound to be something to appease your cravings. I could eat several bowls of their winekraut all by myself.
Cappello’s (222 Webbs Chapel Village) is not as cozy as the old store on West Mockingbird, but still the place to go for pasta, Italian cheeses and sausages, tomato paste by the drum – everything you need for your Italian banquet. They also stock a number of Cuban delicacies. Owner Sal Cappello is planning to install a large deli section soon: “We’re going to sell lasagna, ravioli, spaghetti by the bucket – you know, real food.”
The Jǎgerstube (7811 Inwood Road) has the hunting-lodge motif down cold – dark paneling, trophies on the wall, rows of decorative beer steins, and lots of foot-stomping polka music crackling in the background. Not a restaurant that will dazzle you with imaginative touches, but solid and dependable. The rouladen and the entenbraten (roast duck) are excellent, as are the wursts. The sauerbraten has its ups and downs. Every dinner is accompanied by a plate of tasty German appetizers and mounds of black bread. An interesting wine list but, strangely enough, a poor selection of beers – there’s something peculiar about ordering hasenpfeffer and a Hamm’s.
Kuby’s (6601 Snider Plaza) is a truly international delicatessen; everyone working there seems to contribute some favorite culinary delight. Enormous selection of German sausages and cold cuts plus standard delicatessen items like chopped liver and herring in sour cream. The only place that sells knishes over the counter.
Casablanca (2325 North Akard) is a combination bar, pool hall, and restaurant where you’ll find standard Tex-Mex along with house specialties like menudo, caldo de res, and guisado de puerco. Also excellent homemade tortillas. Open late, but the kitchen has been known to keep erratic hours.
Fuji-Ya (13050 Coit Road) is one of the Mom-and-Pop Japanese restaurants in town. The location, just north of LBJ, is something of a problem, but the food justifies the trip. They serve everything from the usual tempura and teriyaki dishes to yosenabe (vegetables, chicken, and seafood cooked in broth) and yakisoba (pan-fried noodles with beef and vegetables). Lunch is a bargain. No liquor.
Oriental Bazaar (6500 H Camp Bowie, Fort Worth) is a grocery-gift shop with a good selection of Oriental foods, lots of wicker furniture, and Japanese food to go. Among the choices are gyoza (egg rolls), yakitori (marinated chicken on a skewer), pork dumplings, and, on Fridays, several sushi dishes. And where, we ask, is the sushi chef the rest of the week?