RESTAURANTS NORTHERN STARS

A galaxy of new restaurants north of Belt Line.

WHEN WE SET forth to check out all the restaurants north of LBJ Freeway, we decided we needed to set geographic limits. Dallas is growing to the north so fast that many Sooners are now Dallasites. So we decided to call Central Expressway our eastern boundary; Interstate 35 our western limit; and Norman, Oklahoma, our northern boundary. Some thought Norman too extreme, but we soon found that Soonerville was a reasonable boundary – we didn’t find any restaurants in Oklahoma worth a return visit. But a problem remained: There were still far too many restaurants, opening too fast to keep up with. So we decided to do a two-parter. This month we’ll be talking about restaurants north of Belt Line. We’ll catch the ones between LBJ and Belt Line a little later.

Though we lost a couple of places that closed shortly after opening (Stradivarius being the most lamentable), for the most part, the eateries that open up in Boom-town are immediate hits. There are so many people moving into Addison, Piano and Richardson that the food purveyors can’t keep up with them. Once the restaurants catch up with the population, the shake-out will begin and only the good restaurants will survive.

The new establishments include the expected national-chain members, such as Bennigan’s and Pelican’s and Extra Crunchy Burger Whops. Some chain restaurants produce good food; others produce prepackaged pap served in Muzak-style ambiance. We decided to treat the chains like the other restaurants: If they served something worth recommending, they are included; if not, you won’t find them on our lists.

Other places are branches of locally based restaurants -Andrew’s and Chili’s and Joe T. Garcia’s, for example. Again we followed our rule and included them if they are good.

We also sampled the places in the enclosed shopping malls, most of which now have a snack section that houses carnival-style eateries serving up everything from corny dogs to corn on the cob. We didn’t find anything worth writing about there. Most such places serve convenience, and we were in search of good food.

The variety of new places is extensive, just like in the other areas of the city: Mexican, Chinese, down-home, continental, seafood, steak and potato, Japanese, Indian. If you live in far North Dallas and have a craving for Cherokee bean-and-squash bread, be patient. Someone is probably even now planning a place that will feature native-American dishes.

Though most of the new places are, by necessity, in new buildings, with their special kind of fake atmosphere and glittery ambiance, there are notable exceptions. We even found a quaint restaurant among all the concrete and glass, a neat and elegant little inn tucked beside an antique shop in Piano. We also found fancy new digs run by unimaginative restaurateurs who dish up their specialties out of cans. But all in all, North Dallas is fast catching up with the rest of the city restaurant-wise.

We’ll start at the top, with the Inn of Country Sonshine. The inn is an intimate, graceful little spot at Preston Trails and FM 544 on the southwest side of Piano. Its menu is an ambitious one -duckling a l’orange to veal specialties. Most of the time, the chefs skills are up to his visions, but occasionally he misses. We had a veal and crab-meat dish that, while good, just didn’t have the zing needed to make it really first-class. In retrospect, it could be that the combination is not a particularly workable one. The duckling, on the other hand, was perfect -the orange sauce providing just the right touch of sweetness. It was hit-and-miss with the vegetables, too – the salsify was delicious; the broccoli in Chinese bread crumbs, too salty.

No complaints with the appetizers: The corn-and-shrimp chowder was thick and creamy, chock-full of shrimp and flavor; the oysters on the halfshell were plump and tender. No problems, either, with desserts. The fudge-nut ball was almost too much after the filling veal dish, with a rich, five-star fudge sauce. The chocolate torte, on the other hand, was light and delicate and delicious, the perfect end to a rich meal. The only other complaints: Margarine was served instead of butter, and the bread was ho-hum. The inn is not easy to locate, but it’s a find.

The Rusty Scupper, 4951 Belt Line, is part of a seafood chain, but it’s a cut above most chains. There are fresh catch-of-the-day specials posted on a blackboard. Stick to those and you can’t go wrong. We had a trout stuffed with shrimp and herbs that was as good as any fancy seafood offering we’ve had in landlocked Dallas. On the other hand, the accompanying fries and salad were best left alone. But our dessert -a pecan, caramel and ice cream concoction called turtle pie – was excellent.

The Mandarin House, 5403 Arapaho, glitzy and new, serves some excellent dishes, but it also serves some vegetables that look and taste suspiciously like precooked. We found the sub gum fried rice superb, with plenty of pork, shrimp, egg and beef. But we were disapponted on most other counts: egg rolls were greasy; soups bland.

J. T. McCord’s, 15101 Addison Road at Belt Line, is a hamburger, chicken-fried-steak, nacho place. The hamburgers are good, made with plenty of meat and other stuff. We found an interesting appetizer, too, in the French-fried cheese. The atmosphere is furnished-barn and Sixties rock V roll.

Chili’s, 4291 Belt Line, serves up hamburgers as well as chili. The burgers are thick and juicy, a class act all the way, but if you’ve really got an appetite, try the Grande. For five bucks or so you get a bun, hamburger, hot dog, tomato, sauces, chili and barbecue sauce.

Livingston’s, 1790 Promenade, is a different burger joint. It’s quiet and intimate and more drink-oriented. The burgers are righteous enough, the other fare less so, though we did have a nice beer-cheese soup.

Taffy’s, almost next door to Livingston’s at 1902 Promenade, tries to be everything to everybody. The menu contains at least a thousand entries, from sub sandwiches to steaks. As is usual with such places, the food is mostly of the quick-fix variety and doesn’t have much to recommend it. But Taffy’s does better with breakfast, serving up fluffy pancakes, both plain and fancy and omelets that are only okay.

People’s, 4021 Belt Line, succeeds with something for everyone where Taffy’s fails. Besides an extensive menu, there is the Food Bar, a true Texas extravaganza. For $3. 95, you can get everything your gluttonous little heart desires in the way of salads, soups, breads and desserts. There’s a mousse that is perfectly suited for Tex-ans: It has all the subtlety and delicacy of a sledgehammer. There’s also chocolate-chip pudding, which isn’t as bad as it sounds. We’ve found that the Food Bar is the real deal at People’s; the regular menu offerings are hit-and-miss.

Stanley’s, which is next door to Livingston’s at 1792 Promenade, is more of a nacho-fun place than Livingston’s. The menu is more extensive; the pace, more frantic; and the noise level, much higher. We didn’t find anything outstanding about the food, although the nachos were credible.

Up in Piano proper, there’s a strange little place called Albert’s Delicatessen &Catering, 1416 Avenue J. The menu features deli sandwiches and “specialties, “which include croque monsieur sandwiches, soups, hot dishes such as lasagnaand moussaka, and basturma, which is anegg dish fixed with aged beef that tastesa lot like country ham. Al also servesup a creamy, cinnamon-flavored cheesecake, and lots of friendly chatter with thecustomers. Albert’s has a nice, neighboryfeel to it.

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