MOST VALUABLE PLAYERS
Some restaurants seem to have it ail: reliably excellent food in portions that won’t leave you hungry, a com- forting and cosseting ambience, and prices that actually reflect the experience. Here are some of our favorites:
Adelmo’s. This is the Mediterranean bistro of one’s dreams, complete with a charming owner/host, fresh flowers on the bar, and a perfect menu blend of French, Italian, and North African influences-at a surprisingly affordable price. There’s a wide variety of prices among both appetizers and entrees. If you really wish to economize, there’s an ample selection of main courses in the $10-$15 range-try the duck sausage sliced over ethereal couscous, juicy grilled salmon, or a pasta option. Many diners seem to forgo ordering an appetizer, since entrees are preceded by a splendid salad topped with peeled, perfectly ripe tomatoes, even out of season, But two people could split an appetizer and still come out with a check under $50 for their all-the-trimmings meals. Or you could spend $100-it all depends on how you order. 4537 Cole. 559-0325. -W. L. T.
Aransas Pass Cafe. Chef/owner Tony Knight’s background at the Four Seasons, The Mansion, Beau Nash, and still-mourned Ratcliffe’s, plus (he freshness of his own ideas, give the food at Aransas Pass an upscale polish at comfortably midscale prices. The style is fuss-free New American, and servings are generous enough to make a meal of salad and an entree. While such a creative kitchen will change its menu often, the knockout Texas Caesar salad ($495) will surely be a standard. As, I’d like to think, might the shrimp-sausage quesadilla with tomatilla chutney ($6. 95); any of (he pastas (from $10. 50, available in half-orders. too); and (he peppery honey-glazed pork tenderloin with a corn-and-black-bean chile relleno ($14. 50). Serv-or after-dinner libations than this restaurant’s garden view alfresco tables-a bright little oasis in (he midst of the city. 2912 N. Henderson. 827-8650. -B. C.
Bishop Arts Cafe. Good hot bread and sweet butler, brought not just once but replenished as needed, automatically take a restaurant halfway to a diner’s heart. I’ve never understood why more eating places overlook such a simple fact. This one certainly hasn’t-the bread is fresh, crusty baguettes; the butter, molded in little china tubs, has flower shapes sculpted on the surface. First courses flexed from $2. 50 for asparagus cream soup to $7. 25 for escargot with tarragon, both exemplary, if unnecessary to whole-meal fulfillment; entrées, in the mid-teens, include a sparkling salad, plus fresh, simple vegetables that rounded out one plate’s succulent veal Marsala, the other’s shrimp-scallop saute. Another plus point for this pretty, plant-accented Oak Cliff oasis: You bring your own wine, which is uncorked and poured into crystal stems with as much flair as if it had come from some proud cellar, all at no extra charge. 316 W. 7th St. 943-3565. -B. C.
Bistro Bagatelle. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again-the most delicious dining values result from a top-flight chef’s breaking from the mainstream to open his own modest restaurant. Gerard Bahon, ex-executive chef of the Adolphus and Fairmont hotels, did it in Arlington, in a charmingly refreshed old house. While his food’s not cheap, dining here is something like, oh, say, having a half-price ticket to one of Dallas’s haughtier hostelries. First courses range from $395 to $595; desserts are $4, 25. Entrees are mostly mid-teens, with only a couple creeping closer to $20. We’re talking truly creative fare here, a French-Mediterranean mix that might, on a given evening, include such marvels as duckling sausage or molded salmon on mixed greens appetizers, fresh Caesar salad, splendid seafood sautes with ribbons of cabbage, or roast rack of lamb. Desserts are celestial, espresso’s bold and dark, and the ambience and service pomp-free and gracious. 406 W. Abrams. (817) 261-0488. -B. C.
Brazos. The regular menu is dependably good, ranging from remakes of retro items like King Ranch chicken to pure inventions, but you get the best deal here when you order off the extensive blackboard list of specials. The food is as imaginative as The Mansion’s, but at hoi polloi prices: Caribbean “jerk” snapper with bitter orange; grilled tuna with mango chili relish; Gulf crabcakes with corn; and epazote ravioli in smoked yellow tomato salsa. Specials run between $12 and $16. 50. Don’t miss the margaritas. 2100 Greenville Ave. 821-6501. -M. B. M.
Cafe Athenee. This romantic Romanian restaurant assumes that romance doesn’t kill the appetite. The cozy, candlelit cafe serves mountains of food, and the cuisine isn’t exactly light to begin with: plump Romanian sausages, chicken-stuffed dolmas, sautéed veal, moussaka (a casserole of meat and eggplant), and roast pork loin with red wine sauce. Use portions are all around $7 or $8 at lunch time-so you don’t have to feel like you have to finish it all. if romance is prospering. 3365 Spring Valley. Suite 150. 239-8060 -M. B. M.
Cafe Le Jardin. Entertainment is a budget-stretching bonus here-a dinner’s worth of dollars gets you a whole evening’s worth of music Some of it’s sing-along casual, with hospitable regulars encouraging newcomers to loosen up and join the group. Accompaniment varies from the usual pianist/singer to (on our last visit) a piano/singer duo. What you do is dine first in the airy, country-serene back half of the place, then move up front to the action for coffee or other libations. While food prices are not under average (low- to mid-teens for entrées), dishes are well prepared and generous. A big bowl of minestrone laden with goodies will, with a salad, make a meal in itself for well under $10. 4900 McKinney Ave. 526-0570. -B. C.
Cafe Margaux. Dallas’s premier Louisiana-style restaurant has never looked very fancy. But I have always thought of a visit to Cafe Margaux as a big night out because the food that proprietors Tom and Kay Agnew and their succession of chefs have served has always been something special. So many places that have sought to cash in on the national fascination with Cajun cooking just try to duplicate the latest craze from New Orleans. But at Cafe Margaux the menu isn’t overburdened with cliche dishes. You choose among delightful variations on mostly Creole themes-Gulf fish, shrimp, and soft-shell crabs-with down-home-sounding vegetable accompaniments rendered subtle by knowing hands. 4216 Oak lam. 520-1985. -W. L. T.
Chaplin’s. Chaplin’s combines pure white-tablecloth quality and service with unpretentious atmosphere and affordable food. This is the American version of a neighborhood French restaurant-civilized, but easy. Entrees are all under $20, but the food is worthy of twice the price. Appetizers, salads, and desserts are in the $4-$5 range, so if you’re watching the wallet, choose an entree and one other course. The seafood tamale transcends the genre; the rack of lamb, crusted with Dijon and bread crumbs, melts in your mouth; and the off-the-menu Stilton cheesecake with walnut crust is delectable with a little glass of port. 1928 Greenville Ave. 823-3300. -M. B. M.
East wind. East Wind’s muted plum and platinum setting is as cosseting as a setting can be, and the gliding professionalism of servers matches its tone. Happily, prices do not. The cuisine’s mostly Vietnamese, with some Chinese accents. The best bargain in appetizers, though, borrows from Korean origins: Billed as carpaccio, it’s a plenty-for-two mound of immaculate, raw, lean beef shreds, marinated in chili fire and served with a pair of piquant sauces for $8. 45. An entree of crispy noodles lavished with shrimp scallops, chicken, and vegetables bound with brown oyster sauce is only $9. 95. About the biggest extravagance you can commit here is to order East Wind’s new weekend specialty, a whole red snapper, lightly battered, deep-fried to gold, and presented standing on its tail before being carved and drizzled with fresh-gingered lemon sauce at tableside.. At approximately $28, this star performance serves four-I make that $7 a head, and worth it. 2711 Elm St. 745-5554. -B. C.
Hofstetter’s. What you get here is almost more than you pay for-in stress-free ambience and service, as well as food. As for the latter, a special care for freshness is evident in both ingredients and preparation of dishes; rather than the slab-like heaviness often associated with German fare, first courses and entrees are graced with innovative (ouches: lighter cream sauces, dressings, and pestos zesty with sun-dried tomato and balsamic vinegar. Portions are no less generous, though-the menu changes weekly, but when I’ve been there, almost any two appetizers would have made an under-$10 meal. And almost half of the main courses, which run mostly in the $10-$12 range, include some sort of salad crunch as well as vegetables. 3840 W. North-west Hwy., Suite 400. 358-7660 -B. C.
India Palace. Since its opening, India Palace has offered the Metroplex’s finest North Indian cuisine. Besides exemplary versions of the dishes that have become standard in Indian-American restaurants-chicken and lamb roasted in the clay oven called the tandoori, curries of every degree of spiciness, the delicious Indian flat breads-the menu has always extended itself to lesser-known dishes. India Palace was thus a very special restaurant even at its original location. But since it moved south a few blocks, across LBJ Freeway, its ambience, as well as its cooking, have lived up to its name. Without undue ostentation, the new India Palace has become one of Texas’s most beautiful Indian restaurants. And the royal mood of the place doesn’t keep people from having a good time. 12817 Preston, Suite 105, 392-0190. -W. L. T.
Malibu Cafe. This discretely attractive Oak Lawn refuge is another of those places that serves up entertainment along with pleasantly priced food-an urbane piano player creates a relaxed dinner mood that the versatile New American menu does nothing to dispel. You want pastas or poultry? Seafoods or steaks? They’re all here, imaginatively conceived, nicely executed, and modestly tagged-highest entree price is $13. 95. including vegetables. Greed will not let me share my favorite appe-tizer-a round of Brie, brushed with oil and herbs, grilled soft-hearted, and garnished with every fresh fruit of the season, $6. 75-but the sen ing is generous enough for two to enjoy, as is everything else I’ve ordered at Malibu. 4311 Oak Lawn. 521-2231 -B. C.
Mario’s Chiquita, Since its birth as Chiquita’s on Oak Lawn nearly two decades ago, Mario Leal’s place has been one of Dallas’s outstanding dining bargains. Now in three locations (including North Dallas’s Mario and Alberto), Mario’s Chiquita still offers Mexican treatments of beef, chicken, and seafood with pizazz at moderate prices (and better-than-average versions of Tex-Mex standards at even lower prices). These art great places to take out-of-state visitors to show off Dallas dining without spending an arm and a leg. And to boot, all three locations also look like places to have a fiesta-the signature eye-popping paper flowers and tin candelabra provide exciting settings for the shrimp pipos (deep-fried tortillas wrapped around shrimp) and the beef tenderloin filete de la casa. spiked with garlic and pepper. 4514 Travis. 521-0721. 221 W. parker, Suite 400, Piano. 423-2977. -W. L. T.
Pinot’s wine Bar & Cafe. This laid-back little establishment offers a near-painless format for learning how to match foods with wines. The back part’s a retail wine shop displaying bottles tagged lower than most restaurant levels. The front’s a bistro, offering a limited but well-rounded daily menu selection of appetizers, soups, salads, entrees (ranging from $6. 95 to twice that on my last visit), and a variety of by-the-glass wines, starting at $3. 50. We found an Australian table red a particular bargain at that price; intriguingly called Tyrell’s Long Flat, it was eminently drinkable. Chicken chasseur, a tender breast under a commanding saute of mushrooms, onions, and tomatoes, stood up sturdily to our wine-pairing gamble, and a pasta pesto with red bell pepper and artichoke hearts sang in harmony, too. Both were under $10, and service was at-home amiable. 2926 N. Henderson. 826-1949. -B. C.
Ruggeri’s. Some Italian restaurants, when they go for atmosphere, lay it on too thick. Ruggeri’s doesn’t overdo the ethnic angle, but it does project a romantic glow. You won’t find the see-and-be-seen crowd from Sfuzzi,and the kitchen isn’t striving for the ultimate in Mediterranean authenticity. Ruggeri’s appeals In middle-of-the-road tastes with solid cooking of veal, seafood, and pasta. It feels like a very competent Continental restaurant, but with a warmer welcome and unextravagant prices. 2911 Routh St. 871-7377. -W. L. T.
You my be willing to sacrifice atmosphere, but at these places you certainly won’t have to sacrifice taste-or affordability.
Athens cafe. This narrow Addison cafe, unlike other Dallas Greek restaurants, brings you solicitous inquiries from grandmotherly proprietors rather than the gyrating ministrations of belly dancers. It’s certainly sedate, but warm and welcoming. You are not paying for a floor show, so the prices art low. And the food can be outstanding. Our favorite things here are the appetizers-a delicate pink spread made of fish roe, bread, garlic, and olive oil; by far the best stuffed grape leaves and spinach pie around; and meaty slices of broiled lamb. Main courses aren’t quite as good, but the souvlaki (the Greel version of shish kebab) is dependably delicious. 5290 Belt Line, Suite 118. 991-9185. -W. L. T.
Bronx. We used to count this as a burger joint, although home-style specialties were always the rule at dinner. Now the whole place could more accurately be called an American bistro-a catch-all term that usually indicates high-quality food for reasonable prices in low-key surroundings. In fact, you can only order the terrific burgers after 9: 30 p. m. -upsetting news when you’re eating with two kids. (They broke the rule for us. but don’t tell them 1 told you. ) Besides burgers, which came with sophisticated rosemary roasted potatoes instead of fries, we tried the seafood special- fried popcorn shrimp, catfish mousse, scampi. crabcake-a fish feast For $995. Redfish with lime juice, tomatoes, onions, and cumin was delicious and “heart-healthy, ” too. The menu changes weekly. 3835 Cedar Springs. 521-5821. -M. B. M.
Cafe Madrid. Dallas still doesn’t have a great Spanish restaurant. But this tiny café, limited to a single row of tables and a stand-up bar, is a good stopgap. The specialty is tapas-those little plates of food that can serve as accompaniments to drinks, as appetizers, or as a whole meal, The best bets are either special imports from Spain like the manchego cheese and the Serrano bam or simply cooked items like grilied quail. Cafe Madrid also offers a nightly special, often paella-the great Spanish dish concocted of saffron rice, chicken, pork, and seafood. Prices for individual items here are low, but be careful of the syndrome that can afflict hearty eaters at am restaurant that offers lots of small plates-ifvou get carried away, all those little plates can mount up to a big bill. 4501 Travis. 528-1731. -W. L. T.
Caffe Paparazzi. In the actual quality of food when it comes to the table, this may well be Dallas’s best Italian restaurant in over a decade. The kitchen specializes in what one might call “Northern Italian short order”: pastas perfectly cooked and interestingly sauced; and sautéed veal scallopini, not overbreaded, superbly tender and flavorful, and again knowingly sauced. It’s possible to spend a fair amount of money at Caffe Paparzzi if you indulge in appetizers. But you can get half-orders of pasta, and excellent salads come as part of the entrée price; if you order at all carefully it is possible to eat very reasonably here. Many in the neighborhood seem to dine here weekly or even more often, so the storefront space is usually crowded. 8989 Forest Lane. Suite 136. 644-1323. -W. L. T.
The Greek Bistro. As seems to be true at mam places these days, you can make an excellent-and less expensive-meal out of appetizers alone at (his informal, gallery-like cafe. My favorite dishes on the menu-the wonderful, cheesy, broiled new potatoes, soft pita bread, and fabulous souvlaki-are on the starters list and I shop no further than that except to add a Macedonian salad of feta cheese, tomatoes, olives, cucumbers, and greens. 2014 Greenville Ave. 826-8989. -M. B. M.
Hard Rock Cafe. Huge is the word for the food here-prices may not strike you as actually cheap, but if you could price it out per pound, you would see it’s a bargain. Enormous two-fisted burgers, half a smoked chicken, and haystack-high piles of French fries, plus the well-named “Pig Sandwich, ” are typical of the generous, unpretentious eats served here in the Supreme Court of rock ’n’ roll-actually, the whole place is larger than life. 2601 McKinney Ave. 855-0007, -M. B. M,
Hibochl-Ya. Unlike most Japanese restaurants featuring hibachi-grilled foods, this one doesn’t force diners to function as a sort of pep squad for the performing chef. The option’s there, if you choose bar seating overlooking the bust grill; but white-linened tables offer a more tranquil perspective in this genteel little place. Chicken and seafoods are offered on the tiny menu, but the beef is the buy, handled sashimi-style in starters and in succulent variety in entrees. Beef dinners range in price from $9. 50 (sliced sirloin) 1o $1395 (filet mignon and shrimp). My favorite’s still the Ume steak, filet mignon marinated in plum sauce before grilling, (hen cubed into bite-size pieces for easy chosticking. 3850 W. Northwest Hwy., Suite 510. 350-1110. -B. C.
La Madeleine. The bakery cases packed with flaky French pastry make this an obvious breakfast idea, but you may not expect to find your supper here. Fact is. it’s a great spot for a bargain dinner. The menu is brief, but you know what they say about quality and quantity. The cooking here is good, home-style French: boeuf bourguignon, poulet au moutarde. French-style pizza with fragrant Nicoise olives, crisp salads, and. of course, crusty bread and fresh pastries at prices that would please a thrifty French housewife. 3072 W. Mockingbird, 696- 0800. -M. B. M.
Momo’s Italian Specialties. At its best. Momo’s is one of Dallas’s great restaurants. The menu is like a textbook Irving to teach American diners how real Italians eat-there’s an involved descriptive history of just about every dish. Often the execution matches the ambition; but equally as often it doesn’t. Luckily, Momo’s is not expensive. You won’t mind an occasional plate of overcooked pasta or the crazy desserts (mostly spiked with too much Italian liqueur) if you develop a taste for the marinated seafood salad, the authentic pizzas, or the veal dishes with wry individualistic, assertive sauces. 9191 Forest Lane, Suite A2. 234-6800. -W. L. I
Old San Francisco Steakhouse. For a midpriced steak in Dallas, the only real choices an one of the many Steak and Ale locations or Old San Francisco. We have a fondness for Steak and Ale, but over the years have found that its steaks too often taste overcharred, and the loud canned music can be a real nuisance. Old San Francisco has its drawbacks-the tables are overcrowded, the wait can be long. and that girl on the red velvet suing gets on one’s nerves after a while. But on the whole we prefer it because the steaks seem to be more tender and cooked to order, and the salads appeal to us more than a salad bar. Above all, a visit to Old San Francisco seems like a real, if slightly corny, occasion. 10965 Composite. 357-0484. -W. L. T.
shogun of Japan. Getting your money’s worth here can be as iffy as trying the same trick in Tokyo-language problems do exist, and some esoteric dishes defy translation. Our last visit’s server, for instance, hadn’t the English to describe the peculiarly. Asian appeal of baby whitefish on grated daikon radish, and we hadn’t the wit to heed her hesitant warning on that and several other appetizers that were less intriguing than we’d hoped. Most, though, were wonderful (standouts: Japanese-style scallops, soft-shell crab, fried tofu. steamed crab dumpling) and. at $3-$5 each, inexpensive enough to make a meal of sampling several. Sushi and sashimi are fine here, loo. but the most economical approach is via a Shogun dinner-the one we liked best was a vast plate laden with a perfectly grilled salmon fillet, many vegetables, and rice. Including soup, the whole ample meal is $11, A bargain. I’d say, in any language. 5738 Cedar Springs. 594-6911. -B. C.
Yoli’s. This pristine little cafe, run by a Chinese family on the East Dallas Garland border, has a casual, modern decor that manages to look more inviting than utilitarian. The reasonably priced seafood it serves can also be of the no-frills variety-it fries and grills with aplomb. But there are fancier dishes surprising in a moderately priced suburban eatery, loo. One friend of mine used to lunch here weekly to have his fix of the shrimp New Orleans-the crustaceans are matched up against lots of bell peppers and garlic, and everybody wins. The dish is a particular bargain at noontime. 9220 Skillman. 341-3533. -W. L. T.
HOW TO EAT AT AN EXPENSIVE RESTAURANT WITHOUT LOSING YOUR SHIRT.
ROUTH STREET CAFE
I set out to eat at what many consider Dallas’s premier restaurant, Routh Street Cafe, for something like half the usual check- my goal was a total price of $75 for two people. Not so long ago, such an austere adventure would have been impossible, since Routh Street Cafe offered only a prix-fixe menu. Now. though, it is possible to order anything off the menu in whatever combination you wish; one of my goals was to see just how a party that chose to economize would be treated.
To achieve a total bill of $75 (including tax and tip), we had to keep the food bill under $60. Here was our strategy: We would each order an appetizer, then I would order a second appetizer and my partner one of the less expensive entrées as a main course, and finally we would split a dessert. We had to do only a little picking and choosing among the appetizers to meet our price goal. Salads have always been among chef Stephan Pyles’s most triumphant successes, so we ordered the arugula-pear salad with walnuts ($8) to lead off for my companion, who was going to have the entree afterwards. I began with the braised rabbit-black bean tostada. which was about average in price for the appetizers at $10. then went on to one of the more expensive appetizers, the splendid salmon fillet wrapped in a hoja santa leaf imported from Mexico, for my main course. Among the entrees proper, there was a selection of several at around $22. My companion chose a superb pecan-breaded red snapper, lapped with a fennel-grapefruit sauce and accompanied by a warm potato and goat cheese salad. For dessert we. split an order of three miniature crème brulées. The $8 dessert brought our food total exactly to the $60 mark.
Obviously, this order didn’t bring nearly so much food to the table as Routh Street’s prix-fixe menu (a pretty good value itself these days at $48). But we were served the same wonderful little extras as any other customer- tiny hors d’oeuvres of duck liver and goat cheese on toast, the legendary blue cornbread sticks, and chocolate truffles at the end of the meal. The lack of accompanying vegetable or starch with the appetizer ordered instead of an entree left a real danger of leaving the table a mite hungry-but since we were trading around and sharing our portions and there was a constant supply of bread, we were both satisfied.
How were we treated by the staff of this famous restaurant when we came at the fashionable hour and were obviously trying to economize? Our waiter could not have provided more thoughtful or informative service. He made recommendations and answered questions about the food, and neither he nor the others who waited on us seemed bothered that this very restrictive budget didn’t even allow us to order wine with our meals. In fact, we were so impressed by the service that we broke our budget in rewarding it.
Would I recommend that anyone actually try and duplicate this feat at Routh Street Cafe? Truthfully. I think that someone who only wanted to spend about $75 on a meal would do better to go to a res-taurant like Chaplin’s or Adelmo’s. There you could have a wider selection of food, all the trimmings, and glasses of wine with dinner for the same price. But a couple who are just dying to try out the hand of one of our top chefs (for. as good as the more moderately priced restaurants are, the kitchens aren’t quite in the same league), and are convinced that they can afford 575 but not $150, can venture into Routh Street Cafe confident that they will get their chance to taste food fit for visiting royalty and be treated pretty royally, too. 3005 Routh St. 871-7161. -W. L. Taitte
I have to admit I gritted my teeth for this assignment. Eating at The Riviera is one of the real pleasures of living in Dallas; to have to sacrifice a splurge, even for the sake of a story, went against my inclination, if not my nature. Surprisingly, though, we didn’t have to struggle too much. We came in only $10 over our goal of S75. but. as usual at The Riviera, it was a million-dollar evening. The lovely room has an Old World grace and the service is perfect, from the greeting at the door to the second cup of coffee.
Our dinner started with a complimentary treat-golden-toasted brioche topped with luscious sautéed morels. Most of the entrees cost around $25, and the average cost of a first course was close to $9; these are not nouvelle portions, so two courses is plenty. Still. I squeezed in three-a wonderful fresh and sun-dried tomato soup with a crab meat-topped toasted crouton floating on the surface, then a beautiful seasonal salad sided by a round toast spread with herbed goat cheese. I could afford both because I ordered the roast chicken, a golden bone-in bird with goat cheese and basil leaves stuffed between the skin and the meat (only $23). It came with delicately crisp haricots verts and two crunchy browned rice and cheese cakes. My dining companion made a more consolidated investment. He started with an incredibly beautiful lobster salad and then had a juicy, sesame-sprinkled piece of yellowfin. We enjoyed wine by the glass and blew the budget by splitting a slice of three-nut tart swimming in caramel sauce and ordering two cups of decaf. 7709 Inwood. 351-0094. -Mary Brown Malouf
Place settings include a crystal knife rest. A silver sauce spoon accompanies appropriate dishes. Crystal stems are. if not Baccarat, of equal perfection. So is the service at The Conservatory, which approaches the magical: cordial in attention, and nearly invisible when it comes to changing out flatware for each course, refilling water stems, replenishing bread and butter. The question is, can a couple find happiness here in this splendid show-place for under $100? The answer: Yes and no. On the one hand. I indulged myself shamelessly by ordering, after an exquisite house salad ($5. 50), my favorite appetizer as an entree-fresh foie gras, barely sautéed and complemented with blond raisins in Armagnac sauce-the sumptuous sin of the dish balanced by whipped potato ($20). My companion’s first-course lobster-corn chowder ($6) led delectabiy to his mid-range main dish, twin cuts of swordfish fillet on a bed of oven-roasted vegetables ($24). He had the signature dessert, raspberry-hearted crème brulée ($6): I settled, to counter the foie gras’s richness, for espresso. We allowed ourselves one glass of wine each ($7)-and it was this that blew our $75 base budget: The check came to just over $78 before tax and tip. Conclusion: As a challenging assignment, the experience was fun; but for myself, if I hunger to sample the Good Life. I’d rather do it whole hog and less often than in a penny-counting way. 400 Crescent Court. 871-3242. -Betty Cook
Now we’re talking cheap. You can eat out every night at these prices. Food’s good too.
Aw Shucks. It’s amazing that a liny restaurant amid so many others on Lower Greenville should be able to conjure up the feeling of a seaside purveyor of the treasures of the deep. But a visit to Aw Shucks feels like a visit to the Gulf. Maybe it’s the picnic-style tables set on slippery rocks outside, More likely it’s the impeccably fresh oysters, either served on the half-shell or crisply fried, Or the crackling shrimp and crunchy fried catfish. And the bustling air of conviviality, with everybody jostling for a place at the order counter or at the cash register. One drawback is the loud music on the speakers, interrupted only for announcements that orders are ready. It’s possible to have a conversation at Aw Shucks, but you have to fight to do it. 3601 Green-ville Ave. 821-9449. -W. L. T.
Balls Hamburgers. Bite into an under-S5 burger most places, and you’d belter hope the beefs well done-its quality usually won’t merit any other option. Not so at Balls, where $3. 50 gets you a full half-pound patty of fresh ground good enough to have rare or. “any way you like it, ” with the usual vegetable requisites. That’s the Big League Burger. Lighter appetites can do very well for themselves here with an order of Little- Leaguers, dinner rolls filled with a mini-patty of meat, grilled onion, and deli-good dill pickle. $1. 75 buys three, a quarter more gels you cheese; or carry home a bag of 10 for the kids for $560 plain, $6. 20 with cheese, $830 with double beef. If you can see past the burgers (I never can), other selections include chicken-fried steak, pork fritter, and fried chicken sandwiches in the same ballpark price-wise, plus a bucket-big, low cal-dressed Ty Cobb salad with turkey and bacon for $5. 50. 3404 Rankin. 373-1717 -B. C.
Celebration. Lots of food for the money has always been Celebration’s philosophy; for this to be a real deal, you need to go with several people, With your choke of entrée-homey dishes like spaghetti, baked chicken, and meatloaf-you get your choke of vegetables and salad served family-style, with the bowk refilled upon request. Skip dessert-it costs extra-and have another roll with honey instead. 4503 W. Lovers Lane, 351-5681 -M. B. M.
ei Ranchito. Folks from the South Texas/Mexico border area find that El Ranchito inspires homesickness. This big, cheery place on Oak Cliff’s main street lures down-home Texans and Mexicans alike to sample the definitive cheese enchiladas and plump tamales, which come from an authentic supplier. The menu also includes more exotic fare like sweetbreads, grilled and served fajita-style, tumbled together with hunks of onions and peppers. It’s worth a visit to try out El Ranchito’s blend of charm and user-friendly authenticity. 610 W. Jefferson. 946-4238. -W. L. T.
Gennie’s Bishop Grill. The new squeaky-clean location seems to call for more expensive food, but Gennie’s is true to itself, offering home-style fill-you-ups like chicken-fried steak, baked chicken, yeast rolls, and peanut butter pie at old-fashioned prices-still the best home cooking in town, at prices only slightly higher than Mom’s, 321 N. Bishop. 946-1751 -M. B. M.
Kincald’s, Even Dallasites find the splendor of these from-scratch hamburger constructions well worth frequent pilgrimages to Fort Worth. What you get is an inch-thick round of great ground, perfectly grilled, stacked on a warm bun with whatever fixin’s you choose-all for an incredible $3. After standing in line for yours, you munch it standing at a counter along with the other faithful. Kincaid’s does chicken and dumplings and other plate lunches, but it’s the burgers that draw everybody back again and again. Add your 50-cent drink, potato salad, and banana pudding or cobbler, and you’ll still have trouble seriously wounding a $10 bill in this place. 4901 Camp Bowie Blvd., Fort Worth. (817) 732-2881. -b. c.
La Suprema Tortilleria Out in the middle of a well-scrubbed, respectable, blue-collar neighborhood, there is this pink and green restaurant that looks like it landed from another planet. It specializes in, of all non-Bubba things, vegetarian Mexican food. Go figure. Some of the menu is serious vegetarian, like tempeh and tofu and soy milk cheese; some of it is just healthy; and some of it is plain old high-cholesterol Tex-Mex. All of it is excellent and cheap, You can customize your own enchiladas-pick a filling and a sauce-but go for the goat cheese version on the menu. Filled with fresh, mild, cream goat cheese and topped with tangy tomatillo-chili verde sauce, this is the kind of dish you expect from fancier eateries, for a lot more than $6. 95. 7630 Militan Pkwy. 388-1244. -M. B. M.
Mai’s Cuisine. Vietnamese food is cheap all over town, and actually Mai’s is not the least expensive, but the added comfort and service you get at this location (there’s even a short wine list), plus the consistently high quality of food, make Mai’s the best value. Many of the dishes-like the wonderful hot pots-are also generous enough to be shared Chinese-style. 4814 Greenville Ave. 739-5424. -M. B. M.
Peggy Sue bbq. Most barbecue meals really constitute a hefty snack or one of those dinners where you make up the vitamins later, but at Peggy Sue’s, there’s nothing wimpy about the ’cue. You get a complete meal-great vegetables, good bread, and good desserts-plus service, You order from a menu, not a cafeteria line, and they even refill your bathtub-sized iced tea glass if you can drink enough to make it look used. Sandwiches, for those who insist, are $4. 50 for basic brisket; $4. 75 for non-purist smoked-chicken salad. Better is the full meal deal, a huge two-meat combo that for $6. 95 includes a choice of two vegetables. If your meat is chicken, this barbecue comes out fairly “light. ” but you’ll blow your calorie savings on one of the incredible fried pies, 6600 Snider Plaza. 987-9188. -M. B. M.
Red’s Cajun Queen. This hideaway at the rear of a big. new shopping complex actually used to be an Aw Shucks, it still boasts some of the advantages of that inheritance, namely excellent fried seafood that may in fact surpass the quality of its predecessor. The additions of some real Louisiana expertise are improvements. too. The gumbo is far closer to the real thing, and the Cajun boiled shrimp far superior even to Red’s own regular variety, Red beans and rice, crabcakes, and shrimp kebab all add variety to what we have come to regard as Dallas’s best seafood bargain. 3701 W. Northwest Hwy,. Suite 310. 350-9777. -W. L. T.
Tasty china. The age-old saw about eating Chinese food in restaurants patronized by Chinese-American eastomers is actually a good guide. And the place where some of the most knowing and demanding Chinese choose to eat out is Tasty China. It has a double menu-one of Chinese dishes that Americans are familiar with and another of more authentic chokes. But. unlike some other places that don’t care about educating Westerners. Tasty China is kind enough to translate the authentic menu and put it at the end of the other one. Not everything on it will appeal to finicky American tastes. But almost everyone will love such unique specialties as golden crispy-skin chicken, honey and garlic spareribs, and sautéed prawns with black bean sauce. 3514-A W. Walnut. Garland. 276-1999. -W. L. T.
Zuzu’s. This ever-growing chain of Mexican fast-food restaurants represents a minor miracle. Prices are quite low, the atmosphere sophisticated in its utilitarian way, and the food,,. the food is some of the most imaginative and best-executed Mexican cuisine in the city. Most of the options center on the superb marinated and grilled chicken. But the accompaniments, including black beans and (he most flavorful Spanish rice in town-are constantly surprising in their excellence, too. Brightly lit, upscale little Zuzu’s is also the only place most Anglos are going to encounter gorditas, those little handmade boats of cornmeal dough grilled and topped with goodies. About the only drawback to Zuzu’s is that it’s almost too sophisticated. Some people are taken aback when they go into a fast-food Mexican spot and the food isn’t recognizable Tex-Mex, and some people don’t like it when their food comes to the table sprinkled with a confetti of authentic Mexican hard cheese (something like Parmesan) and chopped cilantro. 6423 Hillcrest. 521-4456. -W. L. T.
At some restaurants in Dallas, fashion is just as im- portant as the food. Here are a few of our favorite hot spots where you are part of the scenery.
Bravo. Bravo’s a Beautiful People grazing ground, and for budget-bound diners who enjoy fashion flash with their food, the menu has something to offer. Prices aren’t high to start with, and they range broadly. Appetizers run from $3. 50 to $9. entrees from $9 to$18 with only a couple at the top end. Which means you could bottom out quite respectably for around $15 with a house salad of mixed greens with julienned vegetables in champagne vinaigrette, followed by the day’s pasta-our last visit’s was parpardella Bolognaise, a lusty mix of noodle ribbons with ham, beef, veal, vegetables, and two cheeses. A new menu was in the works when we were there, but these or comparable selections should still be available. 2621 McKinney Ave. 871-2786 -B. C.
Buffalo Club, Okay, so it’s not exactly cheap, but it’s not expensive either. and next to The Mansion, which is very expensive, it’s the most star-studded dining room in town. It’s also a lot nipper and louder, but if you’re into celebrity viewing, save a buck and eat here. The fashion parade and (he excellent American grill offerings keep this place packed. New location: 2800 Routh St. in the Quadrangle. 748-2400. -M. B. M.
Deep Ellum Cafe. This was the first casual New American bistro in Dallas, and it remains one of the best. The casual downtown setting with the appealing garden patio out back is reminiscent of Auslin or New Orleans or any number of laid-back, charming towns-atypical for Dallas. And the menu’s blend of Southwest, Thai, and classic cuisines is still successful, offering thoughtful, inventive food for fair prices. The chicken with dill dumplings, the refreshing and filling Vietnamese grilled chicken salad, and the roast garlic with goat cheese are all-time favorites, but we meet new ones every visit. Dinner here can be an occasion or it can be an impulse-the ambience and the selection can respond to both. 2706 Elm St. 741-9012 -M. B. M.
Flip’s Wine Bar & Trattoria The place is jumping on a Saturday evening. Down at the tip of Lower Greenville, it can feel as though a neighborhood block party from the M streets or East Dallas has wandered in. The air of conviviality may be partly due to the influence of Bacchus. (Flip’s is one of the few places anywhere in the universe still to use the phrase “wine bar” in its official name, and the selection by the glass is particularly nice. ) The menu walks a fine line between Italian and American grill. For about $11, you can order your favorite combo of pasta and sauce in huge portions. A delicious soup of the day and a huge bowI of salad precede all entrées. Specials tend to feature the more erotic kinds of fish, grilled and imaginatively sauced. Desserts are American-style homey, if you have room. 1520 Lower Greenville Ave. 824-9944. -W. L. T.
The Grape, This long-reigning favorite goes a winning step further than others by offering entrees in full or half-order portions. Fart flexibility is a keynote here-light diners an order thriftily with a meal of the legendary fresh mushroom soup, a Caesar salad, perhaps a shared round of baked Brie. But the colorful wall-chalked menu has grown in sophistication as well as variety. The roast lamb loin on my last visit was as fine as many $30 versions I’ve tried-and this at $13-25 for the full serving, $8. 25 for the half. By-the-glass offerings of wine ranged from $4 to $6. 50. Serv-ice was, as always, warmly good-natured even though the place was packed to the rafters, as always, by the faithful-who know a good thing when they find one. 2808 Lower Greenville Ave 828-1981. -B. C.
Patrizio. This airy trattoria with the inviting patio could be in La Jolla or Carmel, and it’s usually crowded with folks who are at home in both posh places. The stylishly casual Italian cafe is always buzzing with “Parkie” types-tables of charity committee women, businessmen, shoppers-but there’s no attitude here. Lunch specialties, most under $6, are an unabashed bargain, and if two of you want to spend even less, split an order of the pepperoni bread and have a Caesar salad, Skip wine and go for the cappuccino as dessert. Feel rich, see, be seen, and eat elegantly for under $10 apiece. 25 Highland Park Village. 522-7878. -M. B. M.
Piccola Cucina. Lunch is a sellout, but the shoppers have gone home in the evening so this charming restaurant is even more so at night. (And the crowd is just as interesting. ) Whether you’re interested in a bargain or not, this is some of the best Italian food in town. The menu is limited, but what they do, they do perfectly. The salad of slivered artichokes piled over arugula topped with great shavings of nutty-sweet Parmesan can be an excellent lunch on its own with some of the warm, crusty bread. And it only sets you back $6 or so. For more substantial fare, the white pizza with milky, fresh mozzarella and grilled vegetables-beets, zucchini, eggplant, asparagus, and tomato-sandwiched between thin, crisp rounds of crust is plenty for two with a salad, or try the hot shrimp calzone. The slab of tiramisu, covered with thick cream, would make civilized portions for three. 1030 NorthPark Center, Suite 330. 691-0488. -M. B. M.
Pomodoro. From your first eager taste of warm, crunch-crusted Italian bread, topped with a chop of fresh-herbed tomato and dipped in virgin olive oil. what you bite into here is quality in every mouthful. As far as I know, Pomodoro was the first to introduce this oil-dipping custom in Dallas (everybody’s doing it now), along with flown-in-weekly buffalo mozzarella and authentic risotto. The long-simmered rice isn’t cheap ($11 to $13), but portions are generous enough for two to share-as a main dish, even, preceded by a meat-bearing appetizer. For-two menu idea: Start with bresaola, sun-dried cured beef, carved in thin petals and sparked with grapefruit slices, and the pizzaiola carpaccio, shaved raw beef bathed in fresh tomato, oregano, and olive; proceed to a shared order of risotto del pastore (with Gorgonzola and radic-chio), accompanied by more of the aforesaid house bread. Add a couple of glasses of wine, and you won’t leave hungry even though you’ve come in for around $30. 2520 Cedar Springs. 871-1924. -B. C.
Promenade. It’s possible to blow a hundred bucks even at lunch time in the main dining room of The Mansion on Turtle Creek. But the grand hotel also provides a destination for those looking for a bargain at breakfast and lunch. The Promenade-essentially The Mansion’s coffee shop-has a sunny feel to it that can be just as appealing as, and only a little less grand than, the imposing main restaurant. And, though it’s possible to order mundane, if well-executed, sandwiches and such, there are also extraordinary Southwestern dishes invented and supervised by the hotel’s executive chef, the now legendary Dean Fearing. The pizza with an ancho crust is the best new wave pie in our experience, and the various salads reveal the master’s touch. Breakfast is the most elegant ir Dallas, for taste as well as setting. Best of all the prices are competitive with other nice spots for lunch. The Mansion on Turtle Creek, 2821 Turtle Creek. 559-2100 -W. L. T.
Quadrangle Grille. Since its redo a few years back, the Quadrangle has become a crowded post-modern Mecca for winers and diners. It’s hard to find parking, but once you’ve struggled your way in, the Quadrangle Grille is a perfect place to sit back and watch the other highlifers. A lot of tables sit out on the patio facing Theatre Three-prime turf for people-watching. But the view is pretty good from an inside table, too, what with the hip murals and the other diners. The food is imaginative grill stuff, from baroque hamburgers to elaborate treatments of grilled fish and steak. The cooking is better than it has to be. given the sheer fun of just being in the place. 2800 Routh St., Suite 180. 979-9022. -W. L. T.
Scuro. Have a great Italian dinner for two without having to splurge. The excellent salads at this trendy, downtown bistro are a bargain for $2. 50, so you can each have one. Then split a sun-dried tomato and goat cheese pizza for $9 and a rosemary- and lemon-infused roast chicken for $10. Add one extra-dessert, a glass of red wine, or focaccia, and you’ve got a meal fit for a king for considerably less than ransom prices. 2713 Elm St. 741-0111. -M. B. M.
Sfuzzi. Nobody could accuse this debutant’s depot of being downscale-Sfuzzi is famed for million-dollar people-watching as well as its $4-$15 frozen Sfuzzis, or bellinis. But with some menu maneuvering, two can dine here right handsomely for relatively little. I could do it by just roaming the first-course list, combining, say, a Caesar salad ($5) with three-cheese manicotti in basil and tomato sauce ($6. 50). You might prefer the heftier pairing of grilled vegetables with balsamic vinegar ($5. 25) with a smoked chicken pizza sparked with caramelized onion, rosemary, and goat cheese ($11. 50). Or you could skip these and get the best of both with less bulk on an entree plate of grilled chicken breast with honey-thyme glaze and garlic potato cakes ($14). Either way, add a glass of wine and you’ll shoot a 20, while I’ll come in under that with espresso and change to boot. Shall we go Dutch? Shall we figure in one of the menu’s intriguing pastas? Next time-you could have one with a side of splendidly garlicky sautéed spinach for about the same price. Sfuzzi service, by the way, is happily warm, impeccably professional-not at all the contradiction in terms that would seem to suggest. 2504 McKinney Ave. 871-2606. -B. C.
WHERE THE CRITICS EAT CHEAP
When you eat out for a living, every meal is an adventure-which is why I look forward to ordinary evenings out with the family. Here are a few places in town we tend to frequent more than others.
Back in the mid-Seventies, one of my favorite ethnic spots to eat in Dallas was Cuquita’s, which offered homemade Mexican food in a little house on Harry Hines. After a period of decline, the restaurant closed. But several years ago. unbeknownst to many of its old fans, Cuquita’s reopened. Most of the clientele is Hispanic, but there is a liberal sprinkling of knowing Anglos as well. The staff speaks English well and makes everybody feel at home.
And who wouldn’t feel at home when all diners are greeted with a big molcajete full of pristine guacamole waiting to be spiked with some of the fiery fresh picante sauce. Even more noteworthy is what accompanies the gua-camole-freshly made corn tortillas, the mainstay of real Mexican dining, and very hard to find in even the best of Dallas’s Mexican restaurants. The menu is more Mexican than Tex-Mex, and a little experimentation with lesser-known fare will repay itself, and cost very little-hardly anything on the menu is more than $5 or $6, and many things cost far less. 2326 N. Henderson. 823-0913.
My family’s nearly universal choice for an ordinary evening when we are paying the bill is an unassuming little Chinese restaurant in the middle of Richardson’s Chinese enclave. If you don’t read Chinese, you have to order from a quite conservative English menu which doesn’t offer the more imaginative items listed on the Chinese menu.
I don’t even mind the restricted choices however, because the extraordinary kitchen can turn out memorable versions of even the most ordinary-sounding dishes. I have ordered beef with broccoli or moo goo gai pan for the younger, less adventuresome members of my family at what seems like every Chinese restaurant in the Metroplex. Such dishes just don’t come much better than they do here. Obviously whoever commands the kitchen knows how to summon what the Chinese call “wok energy”-that indefinable, but definitely tasteable. concentration that marks the product of a great Chinese cook. 400 N. Greenville Ave. 235-3888.
It’s hardly respectable for a critic to confess a fondness not only for a chain restaurant but for one that specializes in a pizza buffet. But Cici’s Pizza, at various locations around town, also occupies a special place in our familial rounds. You can hardly buy a cheaper meal, even at the fastest of fast-food places, than the all-you-can-eat pizza buffet (less than $3 for adults and little more than half that for children 10 and under). The buffet offers the usual selection of pizzas, a baked pasta dish, and a modest salad bar. Though the regular pizzas are routine at best, the deep-dish pizzas boast deliciously light, bread-like crusts with toasty bottoms. For the strong in digestion, there are also pizza rolls, stuffed with meat and peppers and boasting a mar-velously raunchy garlic taste. 9090 Skillman. 343-8077.
HIGHLAND PARK CAFETERIA
It’s also not chic to confess a taste for cafeterias-but I think that they serve some of the better American-style food you can find. A recent visit to the original location on Cole at Knox surprised me in that competition has induced HPC to offer a lower-priced, meat-plus-vegetable platter.
I succumbed to an old trick to evade the line and went to the upstairs all-you-can-eat buffet-a relative bargain even at about S10. The buffet offers a number of the classic HPC dishes I love-the fried chicken, the brisket, the yellow squash casserole, the coconut cake. But I still wished I had taken the time to go through the line, where I could have chosen my very favorite things like the stuffed pepper, the chopped spinach salad, or the tomato-avocado aspic. Even the downstairs prices have ridden the in-flationary elevator, but when you consider that this is probably still the best Old American (as opposed to New American) food in Dallas and that you don’t have to leave a tip, HPC seems a real bargain to me. 4611 Cole. 373-3663.
MARY BROWN MALOUF
There are some places we (I never leave home without kids and husband in tow) always seem to go when I’m not working. Here are some of the family favorites:
THE 8. 0 RESTAURANT AND BAR
The 8. 0 is more than the bar-and-burger joint you thought it was and more than the exotic McDonald’s my 5-year-old thinks it is. For kids, there is the 4. 0 burger (a half-size version), coloring books and crayons, and the fascinating painting by the jukebox-look hard for the tin man. The new executive chef, in charge of the Dallas and the new Houston location, has big ideas about better food at hamburger prices. There’s a blackboard special entree or two every night, as well as a list of appetizers-several of the snack-sized portions can make a meal, which at these prices is not extravagant. For instance, grilled shrimp, jicama. napa cabbage, and mung bean sprouts filled a fried spring roll to be dipped in ginger sauce. It was outstanding for less than $5. Smoked chicken tamales in chipotle masa with roast tomato salsa were equally good and equally priced. Thai-style crab salad was a semi-composed plate of white crab meat and mixed greens in a hot basil vinaigrette-light and satisfying and a deal for $6. Evidently, the 8. 0 is aiming for a 10. 2800 Routh St. 979-0880.
For home-away-from-home food, we go to Ali Baba on Lower Greenville, which serves kibbi and hummus the way Siti (that’s Arabic for grandmother) used to make it. Really, a maza plate of hummus (chickpea dip), baba ganough (eggplant), olives, kibbi balls, and tabouli along with an order of the thyme pies (soft pita with oregano and butter) is satisfying, but the gyros and golden chicken are hard to pass up. Then we go shopping at World Wide Food next door for ingredients to make our own next time-even cheaper. 1905 Greenville Ave. 823-8235.
Cisco Grill in Snider Plaza is what the kids pick when we leave the choice to them, and we’re always happy to go there. The little cafe is friendly and comfortable with the small-town feel the Park Cities are always striving for. Our youngest always orders cheese toast-cheese melted over slices of French bread-for $1. 95; the rest of us are more than happy with their excellent grilled chicken tacos or sandwiches, green enchiladas, great soups, and Southwestern-style salads, none of which cost more than a burger at a drive-through joint. 6630 Snider Plaza. 363-9506.
What do a food critic’s own dollars go for? The simplest good food possible, in the simplest surroundings-recess from the rich gastronomic adventures of dining for D. I look for a not-far place I can turn to at odd hours of the day. alone if I choose, looking like hammered hell if I feel like it. And dirt cheap? You bet-these four favorites would be pure-gold finds at twice the price.
When I lust after an old home-style Italian feed, Alfonso’s can dish it out-$6. 25 gets you a good-sized salad, ordinary iceberg lettuce elevated by a superior herbed vinaigrette; more spaghetti and well-seasoned meat sauce than one plate should hold; plus as many Italian rolls as you want. Alfonso’s has relocated from Casa Linda to a bright, new Lake Highland Village setting, but the food and friendliness have lost nothing in the transition. 718 N. Buckner, Suite 222. 327-7777.
Then again, there’s the regular recurrence of a bone-deep hankering for the country cooking I grew up with. Here. I can be torn between two of the best-crisply battered, chicken-fried steak with real cream gravy, or even better country-fried chicken, barely gilded with batter and toothsome to the bone. Man-sized portions come with salad, home-baked hot rolls, and French fries or baked potato-under $5 for the whole shebang. And the buttermilk pie here is a marvel of tart sweetness. Service is like the food-family-warm and indulgent. 4015 Lemmon Ave. 521-2281.
Tex-Mex is okay, and this family-run establishment serves it; but the Salvadoran side of the menu is my idea of Hispanic heaven. My money goes for the Super Special plate-a heartwarming sampling of good things Salvadoran, including pupusa, the cheese- and pork-stuffed grilled tortillas served with tart, slaw-like cortido; a chicken tamale wrapped with a green banana leaf; sweet deep-fried plaintain slices, and black beans and rice delectably married through long simmering. This all signs in for a meager $6. 600 W. Davis. 948-3672.
Take your hot-tempered Thai-I’ll take the vibrant superfreshness of Vietnamese. And I’ll take Saigon as the spot to revel in it. This Lowest Greenville delight has lately changed hands, but the French-accented fare is as wonderful as ever. I can make a $5. 50 meal off two favorite starters: rice paper rolls stuffed with shrimp and cilantro. and a tender, thin, eggy crepe enfolding shredded chicken, sprouts, onion, and cilantro. lced-down beer is $2. and the cold coffee’s still the best eye-opener in town. 1731 Greenville Ave. 828-9795.
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