I’ll be brutally honest: Oklahoma-born, with even my parents briefly living in Dallas, it’s long been one of my least favorite American cities. I had a job in my younger years that brought me there almost every month and after many visits, I never found its charms. Even though I sought out “artsy” areas like Deep Ellum, it was the kind of artsy that still had too much big hair, thick layers of make-up and cheap beer alongside its galleries and coffee shops.
And while the corporate, mall culture feel is not gone, I have to say the fact that I am raving at all is a huge step forward. Maybe “raving” is too strong a word but it’s clear Dallas has a fast-rising food and drink scene with appealing neighborhoods bringing the city to life. Austin is the hipster, predominantly white, smaller city that gets all the love nationally-speaking. Houston — another city I hadn’t much enjoyed in visits of years past — is the more international city with Gulf charm and oppressive heat (let’s face it, the entire state was excruciatingly hot). More to come soon on both.
But surprisingly — especially to me — Dallas was not “the third wheel.” In fact, I had some of the best meals and drinks of my whole, two week Texas road trip this July in Dallas. A few places even stand out in terms of the whole country. Here, through the lens of food and drink, is why Dallas is worth another look.
The Closest I Got to London-Style Cocktails Was… Dallas?!
Midnight Rambler was the most unexpected surprise of my Texas trip. I travel to and write about cocktail bars around the world and have been to many considered the “world’s best” (also judging in Tales of the Cocktail‘s international Spirited Awards, and being an annual voter in the World’s Best Bars, to name a few). In this light, Midnight Rambler has an international quality about it. More importantly, it is the one place, outside of drink pioneer Tony Conigliaro‘s Drink Factory in London, where I have seen a tiny but robust cocktail “lab” hidden in a back room, packed with expensive lab equipment from sous vide to centrifuge.
No, expensive equipment doesn’t make a bar great but owners and New Yorkers’ Chad Solomon and Christy Pope have brought world-class sophistication to Dallas. Solomon trained with Conigliaro and both Pope and Solomon have worked in many of NY’s best bars (Milk & Honey in the early days, Pegu Club), founding Cuffs & Buttons in 2006 with cocktail pioneer Sasha Petraske.
For the cocktail geek, Midnight Rambler is a must-visit drink destination. But for the average drinker, all this “fuss” isn’t spelled out so it can be just a cool place to drink.
Located downstairs in the chic Joule Hotel, the bar also calls to the passionate music lover (like myself), from LP/record shelving artfully lining the staircase to a vintage mini-piano their friend, actor Jason Schwartzman, no less, found for them, sitting in the back of the bar next to comfy leather couches (there is also a hidden back bar for events).
Under an arched, wood-lined ceiling, patrons lounge around retro-chic furniture over bites from the wonderful CBD Provisions upstairs (see below). The cocktail menu is playful and breezy while still intelligent (think “shots” like the $6 Pho-King Champ, a mix of wheat vodka, Oloroso sherry, aromatized beef stock and a cilantro leaf).
While the herbaceous lemongrass and kaffir-infused gin base of the Savory Hunter cocktail has garnered a lot of press since the bar opened in late 2014, I found some of the most unique cocktails to be the likes of Cobra Snake Necktie ($14), melding white apple brandy, fino sherry and yellow Chartreuse (resulting in subtle dry, sweet, herbal nuttiness) with bitter almond and an invigorating splash of sparkling wine.
Another standout? A light alcohol, house aperitif: Red Pegasus Redux ($10). This is one example of where that back room lab comes into play: bitter-sweet French aperitif Suze and dry Italian vermouth are infused with Texas cedar wood, perked up with grapefruit zest and soda water. It goes down easy and refreshing but the subtle, woody-herbal notes make those of us who care stop in our tracks. Consider it a thinking man or woman’s version of easy drinking.
Fine Dining Vision at FT33
Amid rows of design shops (somewhat of a strip mall layout), FT33 has received its fair share of awards since opening late 2012, including the naming of Matt McCallister as one of Food & Wine’s 10 Best New Chefs 2014 (his new restaurant Filament was supposed to be open by the time I was there but is currently slated to open this fall).
FT33 was easily one of the best meals I’ve had in Texas. Certainly, it fits in the ubiquitous New American, farm-to-table category now common nationally (and decades old in my city) but the team does it as well as many of the great restaurants nationally and would fit comfortably in many a city. The cocktail menu, from bar manager Scott August, and the wine list from GM/Wine Director Jeff Gregory, keep pace with the food, alongside choice craft beer bottles like Austin cult favorite Jester King’s excellent Gotlandsdricka.
The menu changes regularly but a variation on their Windy Meadows chicken ($34) remains popular for good reason. Thai-inspired in coconut broth and basil oil with tomato and green papaya, it’s an expensive but memorable chicken entree. Ricotta gnocchi ($28) is a dish I love — and have had dozens of times in SF and around the US. McCallister’s rendition dissolves in soft, airy goodness as the best ricotta gnocchi should, accented with fennel and fennel fronds, onions and carrots, decadent in house cultured butter.
Asian accents are found here and there, as with a Gulf crab starter ($18) marked by avocado crème, green tomato, Vietnamese nuoc cham sauce and crunch from puffed sorghum. The vegetable composition platter ($28), served on a wooden slab, was one of the great dishes, even for us meat-eaters, recalling the vegan “charcuterie” platters Gather did in Berkeley back when they opened in 2009. On my visit, fennel, artichokes and sunchokes all took center stage in creative interpretations.
Pastry chef Maggie Huff’s desserts are also destination-worthy. While Negroni milkshakes ($10) and tart buttermilk pie ($10) delight, in some ways, the seeming simplicity of butter and vanilla-doused local peaches and blackberries ($10) over peach curd, covered in almond streusel and warm vanilla sabayon, was sigh-inducingly good.
Though loud and too closely packed (the one downside), FT33 should be a Dallas “must” on any foodie’s dining list.
Nashville Hot Chicken Elevated — Paired with Killer Cocktails
Barely two weeks old when I visited in July, Rapscallion was already one of the best meals I had in Dallas. In the hip Lower Greenville ‘hood, it’s a destination for excellent cocktails and Nashville hot chicken, which is currently trending nationally and has long been the signature dish in Music City.
Food is high quality across the board. Pickled veggies ($7 — okra, green tomatoes, cucumber) are delicately fried in cornmeal and dusted in Parmesan, lovely dipped in smoked tomato aioli. Down South Mezze ($19) is a snack platter of grilled flatbread and benne (a Low Country sesame seed) wafers dipped in boiled peanut hummus (seen that in a few restaurants now), three-cheese pimento and rotating charcuterie selections.
Chef Nathan Tate’s grass-fed, three-cheese pimento burger ($14) is stellar — and so is the hot chicken. The Long Walk to Nashville ($23 half bird, $36 whole bird) is their gourmet version of what is often a hole-in-the-wall experience in Nashville at legends like Prince’s Hot Chicken. Here the chicken is brined, cooked on the rotisserie, then fried, served with a spicy Szechuan mala (dried chili pepper) sauce — it’s tender and crispy, fantastic and less greasy than some classic versions. There is also “Rotizzerized” chicken ($23 half bird, $36 whole), tea-brined and spit-roasted over pecan wood, doused in rye whiskey “gravy.”
Boozy floats ($12) make for cooling finishes, as in the case of Ode to Peche, where vanilla bean ice cream is swimming in absinthe, Luxardo Maraschino Liqueur, sea salt, candied fennel seeds and an Amarena cherry.
Cocktails from barman Eddie Eakin are worth a visit on their own with standouts across the menu. Rum and Tiki cocktails — lovely with spicy, Southern food — particularly shine.
The bar turns out great rum classics like Hotel Nacional or Three Dots & a Dash. But the house version of a rum Negroni is unique to Rapscallion. Dubbed the Rapscallion ($9), it is a bracing mix of Carpano Antica sweet vermouth, cacao nib-infused Campari and a house rum blend dubbed Rap 5 R(h)um (the “h” is because it includes a rhum agricole — the French, fresh sugarcane-juice style of rum, mixed with other molasses and cane juice-based rums).
Another favorite drink is the Southern Shipwreck ($13), showcasing the subtle funkiness of Smith & Cross Rum with the sweet spice of Knob Creek Rye Whiskey, tempered by orgeat (almond rose water syrup), lime, brown sugar and Scrappy’s Chocolate Bitters.
Bar Talent (Without Attitude) at Two Excellent Bars
The bar talent in Dallas these days is strong. Friendliness and hospitality are a welcome Texas signature. But paired with top-notch cocktails, the result is bars you wish were in your neighborhood. You have to know where to look, to be sure.
I liked the chill vibe but found cocktails hit-and-miss at The Standard Pour, pleasant and light at Boulevardier (a solid brunch experience), and better on paper (in their fantastic, vintage-looking menu books) at brand new Ida Claire, an ambitious, new suburban Dallas restaurant with fantastic, whimsical decor but pretty uneven food and cocktails — and patchy staff knowledge/training on their drink offerings.
Dallas is not always so much about cutting edge cocktails — Midnight Rambler being an exception — as it is about quality and hospitality, which is what bars should be first before they are anything else. There are some bars where all come into play.
Downtown, Proof + Pantry is a cocktail destination, thanks to co-founder Michael Martensen (also of brand new French-Mexican restaurant Madrina). Completely approachable, his drink savvy stands behind drinks that read “simple” but pull on trends one sees in trend-setting cities like SF and NY. Case in point: Downtown Funk ($9) is a white port and tonic (one of the happiest combos imaginable – great at Spanish stops like La Taberna in Napa).
In seemingly straightforward drinks, Martensen wisely ups the game with one ingredient, like lime curd in the case of the I’m Rich ($11). This is Martensen’s smart twist on a classic Daiquiri and it’s a beauty. Tart lime curd brightens white rum and house Grenadine.
At P+P, one can make a fine meal of charcuterie platters with pickled sherry cobblers (also genius) or Staulks of Rye ($11), rye whiskey and celery soda.
Low-key, retro Victor Tangos is understandably an industry favorite, its dive bar exterior (a nearly 90 year-old space) belying the lively, long bar inside.
It’s also a restaurant with dreamy desserts like PB&J bread pudding ($9) and a strong craft beer list. GM Matt Ragan (who is also the in-house beer guru) creates beautiful but never fussy cocktails. Most importantly, it’s his hospitable, relaxed-yet-informed approach that is a shining example to bartenders everywhere.
Flight of the Concord ($10) was a “wow” moment. Ragan lets the brandy-grape goodness of pisco shine, undergirded by St. George’s pear brandy, fresh Concord grapes, lemon and honey. It’s juicy-fresh yet complex and utterly drinkable. A featured cocktail ($12), San Martin Sour, was another layered stunner — funny enough, also with pisco — plus Fernet Branca, mulled spices, egg whites, lime and an intriguing splash of Malbec wine.
Family-Style Elegance-Meets-Comfort at CBD Provisions
In the chic, high end Joule Hotel in downtown Dallas, CBD Provisions was one of my favorite Texas restaurants after hitting over 50 across the state. The dishes exhibit a modern, urban sensibility with Southern heart, served in a huge yet inviting space.
Executive chef Richard Blankenship elevates bites like smoked carrot dip ($8), laced with sour cream and scooped up with seed crackers, while showcasing the best of the season, like perfect heirloom tomatoes in a salad ($21) touched with smoked goat yogurt, pickled herbs and shallots and crispy house chicharrones.
His family-style platters “kill it”. Berkshire pig head carnitas with tortillas ($49) is the most popular, but Blackenship’s sausages ($32) are worth ordering — from a comforting blood sausage, to a meaty merguez or a perfect garlic pork sausage — accompanied by rice and beans.
Drink offerings are strong across the board, whether wines from CA, OR, France and TX (like McPherson Rousanne or 2012 Duchman Tempranillo with balanced acidity), to Austin cult brewery great, Jester King Provenance ($19 for a large format bottle). Cocktails (like Till the Bitter End: Orange Curacao, Galliano, banana liqueur, gin, bitters, Campari, lime) are also high quality, created by Chad Solomon and Christy Pope, owners of the aforementioned Midnight Rambler, downstairs.
Soda Fountain Cocktail Joys Meet Savory Sundaes
Open at the end of 2014, Remedy is a lofty restaurant in cool grey and lime green tones, ideal for an afternoon soda fountain cocktail or creative sundaes and pies post-dinner.
Though I visited twice, it was for drinks or dessert. I look forward to returning for executive chef Danyele McPherson’s menu, focused on varying US regions — it was the South during my summer visit, with dishes like Nashville hot duck ($22) over griddled challah bread with blue cheese pecan slaw — moving on to a New England menu for the fall.
Bar manager Brad Bowden runs the bar with a gracious, understated spirit (under executive bar manager Mate Hartai), turning out good-time drinks like non-alcoholic RX Cream Soda ($5) — sarsaparilla, birch bark, wild cherry bark, vanilla — and Dew! ($5), a house honeydew melon soda with dried apricot. On the alcohol-free side, I appreciated the refreshing-creamy Orange Lazarus Orgeat ($5), basically fresh orange juice and zest with house cashew orgeat.
On the boozy side, The Melon Ball ($10) is an intriguing combo of house Dew! Soda with funky rhum agricole and a touch of pineapple juice.
The lovely RX Painkiller ($10) is white and dark rums, Tropic Thunder soda (pineapple, banana), OJ and coconut flakes. But Wildcard ($11) was my favorite, mixing rye whiskey, Crème de Cacao, Orange Lazarus (the aforementioned OJ and cashew orgeat), cream, egg white, lemon and soda. It’s like a rye version of a classic Ramos Gin Fizz, prepared with the same expert lightness and creamy-delicate glory.
Pies ($8 slice, $2 a la mode) are even better than what I tried at Emporium Pies (below), particularly their coconut cream pie and tart lemon curd blueberry pie marked by grape nuts in a brown sugar oatmeal crust. You’ll need a few people for the hearty sundaes featuring rotating house ice cream flavors. Sundae configurations are cheeky and often savory-sweet, like The Bob ($8), a mountain of dark chocolate ice cream accented with potato chips, caramel, sea salt and a bing cherry. I most appreciated the one-of-a-kind Andrew Chen ($9). It featured a fascinating sweet chile ice cream and mango pudding graced with crispy Monkey King Noodle Company noodles, fish sauce caramel (you heard right) and whipped cream.
Junkyard-Retro Playground: Truck Yard
Feeling oh-so-Austin, Truck Yard is smack dab in Dallas’ hip Lower Greenville neighborhood where I rented my AirBnB house. It’s a massive beer garden, hip junkyard, retro playground, live music venue and self-proclaimed, “come as you are” hang-out for rum and tequila cocktails, house Philly cheesesteaks and a range of food trucks. It’s hard not to be charmed by this hipster haven.
With three locations (two in Dallas, one in Ft. Worth), Dude, Sweet Chocolate is hipster, to be sure, but it’s a damn good time. In the Lower Greenville shop, a friendly staffer offered samples of anything we wanted, turning us on to Katherine Clapner’s playful chocolates (her impressive background here). Highlights included thick, dark Hippie Crack Chocolate Bark loaded with dried garbanzo beans and sesame sticks, boozy truffles or the One Night Stand Potion, a reposado tequila chocolate sauce.
And While We’re At It, We Need Coffee
Thankfully, third wave coffee has hit most of the country by this point and Dallas is no exception. Austin-based Houndstooth Coffee was my favorite even in Dallas, particularly with its cool wood design, front patio and excellent coffee (they only have two Austin and one Dallas cafe).
Also in Lower Greenville, Mudsmith is more about laptop workspace than superb coffee, though they turn out a solid cold brew and are one of the only places in Dallas I found kolaches, a Texas pastry with Czech roots, often wrapped around a hot dog or in my favorite iteration, a jalapeno cheese sausage. In the Bishop Arts District/Oak Cliff, The Wild Detectives brews bracing coffee in a charming cottage and hip bookstore.
In Lower Greenville, Boulangerie by Village Baking Co. just opened in May so it was only a couple months old when I visited in July. It was like a mini-slice of home being the type of classic French patisserie-meets-modern-American-bakery Tartine perfected back in 2002, ushering in a baking renaissance across SF and the world. Here’s where you’ll find kouign amann and other French pastry classics, now commonplace in major food cities.
In the charming/hip Bishop Arts neighborhood, Emporium Pies is housed in a darling cottage specializing in fresh-baked pies whole and by the slice ($6). Though I adore cherry pie, The Cherry Bomb disappointed, being not tart enough and a little too sweet. But the Snowball — coconut custard on toasted coconut crust — and especially the creamy-tart Mellow Yellow, lemon chiffon pie on a ginger snap crust, were lovely.
PS: A Fast Food Taco Nod
Living over half my life in California (LA to SF) and traveling numerous times to Mexico, I must say — as in past visits to Texas — I still wasn’t thrilled with much of the Mexican food I had across the state, though this will surely gain me haters. I do love a guilty pleasure, cheesy queso or breakfast tacos and have no problem with Tex Mex. I appreciate such American-Mexican food categories but… the quality and freshness of ingredients and even the purity of flavors I’m long spoiled with in Mexican food was often missing (Caracol in Houston was one of the stronger restaurants with a Mexican seafood focus). In Dallas, liked Mesero‘s gracious staff but an overly goopy queso and average tacos, enchiladas, etc. were not exactly destination-worthy, though some locals recommended the place.
Better to veer away from the hunt for Mexico-authentic and go straight for the Americanized stuff (many Texas locals swear by beloved chain Torchy’s Tacos). Velvet Taco is also a mini-chain with only four locations (Dallas, Ft. Worth, Houston, Chicago) so is typically not my kind of place. But after exploring some hole-in-the-wall taquerias and not coming away excited, this one was the most fun. They make their tortillas and ingredients from scratch and they recycle (more concerning is that others don’t?!)
Their rotisserie corn/elote taco ($3.75) is a house favorite, laden with roasted corn shaved off the cob, queso fresco, Valentina hot sauce, crema and lime. And while the crisp tikka chicken masala or Israeli couscous tacos were cool in concept, the most realized — and delicious — is the shrimp and grits taco ($5.75), packed with blackened shrimp, crispy pepper jack cheese grits, charred tomato poblano salsa, Creole mayo and micro cilantro on a corn tortilla. They also do right by the ubiquitous Texas breakfast taco ($3.95) packed with egg frittata, shredded barbacoa Wagyu beef, corn, queso fresco, salsa verde and cilantro on a vivid, purple hibiscus corn tortilla.