Dallas/Fort Worth

It was dark by the time we rolled into Dallas, and since we had a little food with us already, we just went straight to my friend’s house.  We planned to be in Dallas for nearly a week, and it would take that long to get to all the places we planned to eat at (about 20).

Pecan Lodge

Pecan Lodge

On our first day in Dallas we drove to the Dallas Farmers Market for an early lunch at Pecan Lodge.  I had a cunning plan to arrive early, check out the market, and then saunter over to the Pecan Lodge about 11:00 am.  Right.  We got there about 10:15 and there was already a line! We got in it and started the long wait.  The time went by fast because we started a friendly chat with the people in front of us.  They were locals, but it was their first visit too.  We met another guy too, who recommended a burger place in Fort Worth (that turned out to be gold).

I remember getting excited when I saw the Pecan Lodge on the show.  I recall that the barbecue looked great, and it could be the best I would ever have.  But now that we had been rolling through Texas my expectations were different.  The barbecue was so unbelievably good at Texas Pride Barbecue, Louie Mueller’s Barbecue and the Salt Lick, I just didn’t think it was possible that there was still more barbecue out there that we could like even better.  It’s a good thing I didn’t bet on it.

We made it to the head of the line and ordered a 3/1 with brisket, sausage, ribs (a rib) and a side of the macaroni and cheese with green chiles and bacon.  The plate includes some pickles and onions, and a serving of barbecue sauce.

Lunch at Pecan Lodge

World Class Barbecue at Pecan Lodge

The food came right out and we took the pictures as fast as we could.  The deep smoke rings on the brisket were driving me nuts.  I ripped open the plastic bag of tools for the fork, but I could have just as well grabbed a spoon.  The brisket was so tender, it was like butter.  I wish I would have taken a picture of the first bite before I shoved it into my mouth, because it was glorious.  It was a flavor explosion of beef and smoke, amazingly  tender, and an unctuous mouth feel.  Anna went for the rib first, and I was thinking, OMG, she’s not going to believe how good the brisket is.  She was thinking the same thing about the rib.  Anna grabbed a bite, and she agreed that it was incredible (as well as the best on our trip so far).  Anna goes in more for the ribs and pulled pork, but this brisket made her a fan.  It was almost sad because I doubt that I will ever have brisket this good again.  I’m going to start trying to do my own when I get home.

The rib was equally good.  Since we were sharing, I was hoping to get more than one rib; but Anna let me have a few nibbles off of it and it was mind blowing.  I don’t know if I would say the rib was better than the Salt Lick, but it was on par with the best we’ve ever had (which is my highest compliment).  Note: we didn’t sample the ribs at Louie Mueller’s.  Without a doubt, the Pecan Lodge features both pork ribs and beef ribs with the most amazing bark and deepest smoke rings we have seen yet.  Showing complete mastery of barbecue, the rib still had some chew.  It pulled away from the bone cleanly, but it didn’t fall off the bone.  There were some mighty happy campers there with the Fred Flintstone sized beef ribs.  I came to Texas for brisket, but the ribs here are amazing.

The sausage was good and smoky, and I enjoyed dipping it in the barbecue sauce, which had a flavor profile closer to a steak sauce.  It definitely wasn’t too sweet and sticky, and Anna thought it had more of a kick than I did.  I’d call it bold and smoky, and we ate all of it.

The macaroni and cheese was fun (and has received tons of rave reviews).  Unlike the typical macaroni and cheese, which has more of a casserole type mouth feel and texture, this had more of a pasta and sauce consistency.  I think the setup works in terms of holding the food for service without it getting gummy and congealed.  The cheese flavor was nicely developed, and what’s not to love about the green chiles and bacon?  I would have preferred a stronger flavor profile with more heat or kick.  Although the flavor was good and satisfying, I think it was relatively mild compared with the bold and smoky flavors of the meats.  Still, it’s probably the best macaroni and cheese we’ve had at a barbecue place (and I appreciated the generous portion size).

Anna and Justin

Anna and Justin at Pecan Lodge

The whole time I was eating, I was hoping that I would get the opportunity to interview the owner and ask about this amazing food.  I asked for him, and even though they were super busy, he came right out and sat down with us.  Justin was super friendly, as well as tall, athletic, good looking, articulate and personable.  He was working in corporate type work, but he probably could have worked as a male model, a professional athlete or a rock star.  His wife, Denise, was home with their son (who was sick), so we didn’t get to meet her; but I’m sure it would have been a treat.  From watching the show, she looks like she’d be the life of the party and a real kick in the pants.

Their story is amazing, and defies all the odds.  They gave up the financial security of their corporate jobs and started this business on a shoe string (a wish and a prayer really).  Justin had grown up around great barbecue his whole life, including his grandfather’s ranch, the original Pecan Lodge.  They bought the smoker and started out selling sandwiches to local businesses out of a truck.  Very humble beginnings, which you just wouldn’t expect from fast-track corporate types.  Justin recalled that it was a surreal feeling, rolling up to a local auto repair shop and offering their food for sale.  I can imagine.

Over time, they picked up more happy customers and developed a solid lunch route.  By working hard and networking, they started to pick up catering gigs and developed that into a significant chunk of their business.  All the while they were making crazy good food and developing their craft.  They were having to finagle whatever they could for commercial kitchen space and jumped at the opportunity to build out their own kitchen at the Dallas Farmer’s Market.  The counter sales took off, especially with the help of DDD and a feature in Southern Living magazine.  Now they have a line out the door and sell out every day!  There were literally hundreds of people in line when we left, and they all looked happy to wait their turn for the magnificent barbecue at Pecan Lodge.

Slim Pickins

The person wearing this sign
is one happy camper.

I asked what happens when they run out of barbecue with people still at the end of the line?  They do their best to estimate how much barbecue they have left and where in the line they’re going to run out.  They then pick out the person in line where they expect to run out and offer him or her to wear the “Slim Pickins” sign board in exchange for a free lunch.

Justin was happy to report that he managed to find another smoker and was getting ready to go pick it up the following week.  The second smoker will allow them to increase their production and resume servicing their [very lucky] catering clients.

In addition to the foods I’ve already mentioned, Pecan Lodge also offers fried chicken, banana pudding and other delights.  They’ve also created a signature dish that was featured on the show called the Hot Mess.  Don’t let the name throw you.  It’s a loaded sweet potato with butter, cheese, barbacoa, chipotle cream, bacon and green onions.  We saw one come out and it was gigantic.  I was sad that we couldn’t try one, but if we had, we wouldn’t have been able to eat the rest of the day.

For what it’s worth, Justin runs the brisket low and slow in the sixteen to eighteen hour range, with a family secret spice rub and a blend of mesquite and post oak.  It’s all about the smoke.

I’d love to go back before we leave town, but there are just too many great places to sample the food in the Dallas/Fort Worth area.  So do yourself a favor and make sure you arrive at the Pecan Lodge ravenously hungry and plan to eat till you are stuffed as a tick and have to waddle out.  It’s a destination.  Next time I go to the Pecan Lodge, I’m going to have at least one of everything.

We left the car and after strolling through the rest of the market we walked up to the Deep Ellum part of downtown.  It was kind of eerie because the streets were surprisingly devoid of traffic, street people, and the typical hustle and bustle.  Parking lots were empty, and buildings were boarded up.  We don’t know much about downtown Dallas, but it looked like the beginnings of some kind of an exodus (maybe to the suburbs or cyberspace).

We waltzed into the famed Twisted Root Burger Company and got in line to order a burger.  I had Anna grab us a pub table at the front window while I ordered us their Tex Burger; a big burger with cheddar cheese, chipotle mayonnaise, barbecue sauce, onion strings and guacamole.  In a fun little twist, instead of giving out boring numbers, they give people cards with distinctive names.  For the life of me I don’t know why the clerk thought Joe Montana was a good pick for me, but he somehow managed to find it amusing.

Just so I wasn’t setting myself up for a major disappointment, I asked what they season their burgers with.  Without missing a beat, the guy looked me in the eye and said, “Love.”  That was good enough for me.

Twisted Root

The Famous Big Tex Burger
at Twisted Root Burger Company
“Wahoo”

I had been reading and hearing reviews that maybe the burgers weren’t as good as they were cracked up to be.  So, I was a little apprehensive and didn’t want to get my hopes up.  As it turned out, the burger was fabulous.  It was seasoned and cooked well, and the burger build worked together famously (for future reference, add bacon).  I was very happy and the worrying was needless.  I also hear they have a killer chili dog and hope to make it back before we leave town.  We got to meet the owners, who treated us to a sample of their vanilla milkshake (creamy and dreamy).  We learned that they have been expanding and have locations all over the metroplex.  Great.  We are very happy for their success and wish them continued growth.

I really liked the vibe of this place, and the service was friendly.  They have a big patio as well, and plenty of ice cold beer.  If you like burgers and good times, you’ll love the Twisted Root Burger Company.

After checking out some of the other spots in Deep Ellum, we walked through the downtown to Dealey Plaza.  We had been there once before and went through the Sixth Floor Museum.  On this trip we headed over to the infamous grassy knoll, where we were surprised to meet an eye witness to the assassination of President Kennedy.  We chatted with him for the better part of an hour and to make a long story short, he claimed (quite convincingly) that the story presented in the Oliver Stone movie is right on the money.

After making an afternoon out of it, we ended up back at the Farmers Market, picked up the car and drove back up to the Twisted Root Burger Company.  Directly across the street is another DDD place called Cane Rosso (Red Dog), our destination for dinner.

The main attraction is the pizza oven, and the authentic pizzas are some of the best to be had anywhere.  In fact, it was the best neapolitan pizza we had on the trip, and that was some very stiff competition.  The place is large and very tastefully decorated, and they also sport an outdoor patio.  I got a chance to watch Rob, who has been making pizzas there for five years.  An artist.  The rest of the staff was friendly and our server, Rachael, took good care of us.

We ordered a pie called Luana.  It features Italian tomatoes, house made fresh mozzarella, a locally made spicy hot Italian sausage (Jimmy’s), hot soppresata, mushrooms and basil.  It was a masterpiece.  As a matter of fact, they actually serve it on a big flat plate instead of a pan.  I loved it.  It was cooked perfectly.

Cane Rosso

The Luana Pizza at Cane Rosso

In addition to pizzas, they also serve a wide array of salads, pasta, sandwiches and dessert; as well as a bar.  If you live in Dallas and haven’t tried this pizza, rush down there today.  It’s one of the best pizzas we’ve ever had.  A pizza this good is what happens when you make your dough from scratch, using only the best ingredients, the tomato sauce from scratch, the mozzarella fresh, and time the whole thing perfectly in a 900 degree wood-fired oven.  The other two we had on this trip (La Piazza Al Forno and Dough Napoletana) were equally spectacular; but for us they were narrowly edged out by Cane Rosso.  At such impeccable levels of quality, the difference between these pizzas is just a matter of interpretation.  The pizza was so good, I didn’t even want to share it with Anna.  I could have eaten the whole thing.

Pecan Lodge, Twisted Root Burger Company, Cane Rosso, now that’s what you call a good day in Flavortown USA.  One of the best days we’ve ever had.  We met a lot of great people too.  We were about to have some bad days, but a bad day in Flavortown USA is still pretty good.

We started the next morning with breakfast at the Chef Point Cafe, near Fort Worth.  This is the place where they opened as a gas station in order to be able to build the restaurant.  They had just finished a big expansion and the place was good sized and freshly redecorated.  I liked the decor just fine and the staff were all dressed in black.  Our waiter, Emmanuel, took excellent care of us.

We ordered a blueberry pancake for Anna and a Southern Eggs Benedict for me, which is actually a favorite concoction of mine.  You start with an English muffin and instead of Canadian bacon you use sausage patties.  After you top with poached eggs, instead of using Hollandaise sauce you top with country sausage gravy.  This would be accompanied with a big piping hot order of hash browns on the side.  I had high hopes for the dish and was expecting greatness.  I was hoping to fall in love with it at the first bite.  Breakfast on the road is a big treat for us.

Chef Point

Breakfast at Chef Point Cafe

Sadly, I did not fall in love at first bite, or the second bite… It took me a little while to figure out how they could have blown it, but figure it out I did.  The sausage was bland.  They used scrambled eggs instead of poached (my mistake that I didn’t catch that on the menu), but the real kicker was that they didn’t use a sausage gravy.  They used some sort of a cream gravy or something, and it didn’t have any flavor at all.  It ruined the dish.  This is what happens when a foreigner tries to interpret a uniquely American style of cooking.  He completely missed the point of having a savory and unctuous sausage gravy.

We ate it anyway because it was hot and filling, but we didn’t care for it at all.  The hash browns were funky too.  I couldn’t pin it down, but they were sorely lacking in flavor and if anything they were kind of sweet.  The pancake was fair at best.  Nothing to write home about.  The chef wasn’t in, or I would have talked to him about his interpretation of Southern food.  I don’t know if anyone in the kitchen spoke English, so we just left.

I will say one thing, the service was great and I really liked the decor.  The Chef Point Cafe might put out some great food, but I wouldn’t go back for breakfast.  I must say that I am intrigued by their “Better than Sex Fried Chicken”, but I wouldn’t bet on that either.  It had mixed reviews, so if anyone has tried the chicken, please write in and let me know what you thought.

I’m still smarting over the fact that I didn’t get to try the Throwdown with Bobby Flay winning fried chicken at The General Store.  A person would have to travel far and wide to sample the best fried chicken this country has to offer.  I’ve got Alton Brown’s pick on my radar, which is Mr. D’s Heavenly Fried Chicken in Lamar, Mississippi.  I wouldn’t complain if I ever get the chance to go on a cross country trip in search of the best fried chicken.  I’ve got several places in mind as it is, and will be getting to some of the them on our trip through the South.  Stay tuned.

We next headed over to the famous Stockyards and met up with some old friends who drove in from Abilene to meet us.  We all headed over to Fred’s Texas Cafe for lunch, a relatively small place by Texas standards.  Fred was not there.  I was hoping to meet him.  We got a table out front, but they were doing construction next door.  Our waitress, Maria, was polite and attentive, but Anna and I clashed with her.

Fred’s menu has “Fred’s Tacos” and “Regular” Beef Tacos.  She seemed to be confused or upset that I wanted her to explain to us the difference between the two.  I think she said they both have the same chipotle ground beef, so we ordered the regular tacos on corn tortillas.  She recommended the corn over flour tortillas and assured me that the corn tortillas were grilled on the flat-top.

Fred's Tacos

Beef Tacos at Fred’s Texas Cafe

The tacos came out and they were awful.  We would have promptly sent them back, but our friends still had to drive back to Abilene and we didn’t want to screw up their lunch.  What can I say about these tacos?  The tortillas did not seem grilled to me (or just barely).  The tacos were not hot, and the meat seemed to be dry.  The worst part however, was that the tacos were soggy and falling apart.  The bottom of the basket was wet, probably from all the lettuce.  We couldn’t even lift them up out of the basket in one piece, and basically had to eat them with forks.

Our friends enjoyed their food, but they wouldn’t know what good food tastes like if it smacked them in the face.  Yes, I’m joking.  Or am I?

We sampled their food and it was okay.  I wouldn’t rave about it.  They both ordered specials.  Becky had chicken tacos which were served on a plate instead of a basket and they weren’t soggy.  Curt had stacked enchiladas and he seemed to be quite pleased with his selection.

I’ve got no doubt in my mind that Fred’s serves good food, and maybe spectacular burgers; but Fred wasn’t there and the stars didn’t line up for us on this day.  The burgers look great, but we were already planning to have so many burgers in Dallas, that I welcomed the opportunity to try someone who was brazen enough to feature tacos on their menu.

Just like Mike’s Chili Parlor in Seattle, Fred’s Texas Cafe is an old-school building surrounded by brand new trendy construction.  In other words, Fred wouldn’t sell out.  I really wanted to fall in love with the place; but this is a perfect example of what happens when the owner isn’t around.  It was a mistake for the kitchen to put those tacos out like that, and it was a mistake for our waitress to serve them like that.  We most likely could have sent them back and ordered something else, but then you run the risk of pissing off the kitchen staff or who knows what.

All that being said, I would be happy to go back to Fred’s Texas Cafe, order the Fred’s Tacos and one of his signature burgers (like the Diablo Burger); just so long as Fred himself is there and I get the pleasure of meeting him.  I’m sure Fred is the kind of guy who would make sure we left happy.  Stay tuned.

We had a great time visiting with our old friends, and said our goodbyes.  We then got in the car and drove back towards Dallas, all the way through Dallas and out the other end to Afrha; the Mediterranean place that specializes in Shawarma.

If you missed this episode, Shawarma is a seasoned and roasted meat on a vertical spit.  We ordered ours as sandwiches, one each of beef and chicken.  It was a good wait and the place was packed.  We were lucky to get a parking spot, and by the time we left, it seemed every table was filled.

Shawarma

Shawarma Gyros at Afrah

We were expecting more of an open gyro type of sandwich, but they actually come rolled up like a burrito.  You can’t see much from the picture, but the roasted meat is cut into small pieces and accompanied with onions, pickles, tomatoes, parsley, and Tahini sauce.  They were hot and we liked them.  We preferred the beef over the chicken, but it was an interesting meal and we like the opportunity to try new foods and different ethnic styles of cooking and flavors.

We spent a few hours taking in some of the local entertainment, and then made our last stop for the day at Maple and Motor Burgers.  It was nearly closing time and the owner, Jack, was not there.  The manager was real friendly and we decided to order their best seller, the bacon cheeseburger with a side of tater tots.  We weren’t hungry enough to get two of the burgers, but I wish I would have remembered the burger Jack made on the show.  It’s his signature patty, topped with chili, cheese and onions on Texas Toast and the kicker is a fried egg.  I’ll try that one next time.

Maple and Motor

Bacon Cheeseburger at
Maple & Motor Burgers

We settled in for the long wait.  Time drags by ever so slowly when you’re waiting for a burger or a Philly cheese steak (or a woman).  It must be some kind of anomaly in the space/time continuum.  I didn’t remember what Jack made on the show, but I remembered that he is a serious burger dude, and I was hoping this would be the best burger I ever had.

It wasn’t.

 

I’m going to take this opportunity to discuss some burger theory; because maybe I don’t know it all.  I just watched the Maple and Motor segment and it seems that Jack is breaking some of my hamburger rules.  He didn’t appear to season the meat, the cheese wasn’t melted, and the bottom bun wasn’t dressed.

First point of debate:  Mayonnaise.  Yes or No?  I’m in the yes camp.  Some people (way too many for my taste) don’t put mayonnaise on their buns, and some people think it’s a sacrilege to put mayo on a burger.  I don’t know about Guy Fieri, but I know that Alton Brown and Mike Hardin (HoDaddy) agree with me that the bottom bun should have mayonnaise.  It’s a pet peeve of mine.  On the episode, Jack said the lettuce protects the bun; and Guy ate it that way.  The burger is juicy, but the bread is dry.  Who likes dry bread, especially if it hasn’t been toasted or grilled?  Not me.  That’s how they were putting the burgers out at Casino El Camino, which is why I didn’t order one there.  I can understand that people can and should put their own condiments on their burgers to their taste, but that should apply more to ketchup which is sweet and mustard which is tangy.  To me, with rare exceptions, all burgers should get a little smear of mayonnaise on the bottom bun, which forms a barrier to protect the bread from the juiciness of the burger (plus it tastes good).  In the alternative to mayonnaise, some people use a little smear of butter (such as Alex Guarnaschelli) which serves the same purpose.

Second point of debate:  Salt/seasoning.  Yes or No?  I thought, and still do, that all burgers should get a little salt/seasoning as they are being cooked.  Jack did not appear to season his burgers on the episode, and I was already told they don’t do that at The Cove. Nor did they season their burgers in El Reno, Oklahoma.  Marty (Sid’s Diner) seasoned our burger for us (but not until we asked about it).  The point is there are many people who feel that burgers shouldn’t be salted/seasoned.  Some people say it’s for health reasons, and others say it’s because they don’t want to mask the flavor of the beef.  Personally, I love the flavor of beef; but it is always better with a little salt.  I agree with the universally recognized cooking principle that salt makes everything taste more like itself.  As Tyler Florence says, “Salt early and often.” If I wanted the flavor of pure beef, I would have Steak, or Steak Tartare (both of which are seasoned), but a burger patty should always be salted/seasoned.

All of my favorite hamburger wizards are seasoning their burgers, including: Ted & Mike at The Nook; Matthew at Virgil’s Cafe; Mike “Boss Man!” at Hodad’s; Jane at Picabu Bistro; Eydie at Lankford Grocery; Jeff at Blue Plate Lunch Counter; all the good people at Twisted Root Burger Company and Waddell’s Pub & Grill; Guy Fieri himself; as well as Bobby Flay, Alex Guarnaschelli, Anne Burrell, Alton Brown and so on….

Back to Maple and Motor.  It was a good burger, but it wasn’t great.  Something happens to a burger when you have to turn it upside down and take it apart to get to the bottom bun (to put mayonnaise on it).  By the time you get it put back together, it’s lost its integrity.  You could eat it, but it’s not the way it was made or served.

So, here’s what I propose:  Everyone in America who makes hamburgers should put mayonnaise on the bottom bun, unless the person ordering it says they don’t want any.

Our next day began with an inauspicious start at Taste of Europe.  We arrived early and there was only one other table sat.  Everything just seemed awkward from the moment we walked in the door.  The place is part dining room, part deli, part gift shop and part grocery store.  We were tended to by a polite young man who was either a busboy or a waiter.

I knew I wanted to try the Beef Stroganoff, but I was also interested in sampling the Hungarian Goulash.  The owner came over to take our order and I explained that we were on a tasting tour and that we couldn’t both eat full meals.  I asked him if we could get a plate of half stroganoff and half goulash so that we could try both.  Much to our chagrin, he didn’t even have to think about it.  A prompt “No” is all we got for our trouble.  We ordered the stroganoff.

We waited and waited.  No music.  No chatter of other people enjoying their lunch.  This was late Sunday morning, a time when all good restaurants are slammed.  By the time I figured our food should be arriving, I asked the young man if our meal came with anything like salad or bread? (It was 13.95)  Of course he didn’t seem to know anything, or didn’t understand what I was asking.

Taste of Europe

Beef Stroganoff at Taste of Europe

Our food finally came and instead of getting a nice plate of beef stroganoff, we got a bowl of penne regate pasta.  No vegetables or anything else to go with it.  I wanted to send it back or just walk out, but we were hungry and ready to eat.  Although it did taste like beef stroganoff, it was a poor showing.  The meat was dry and tough, and the sauce wasn’t very rich.  I was really put off by the pasta.  Their menu clearly states that it is their “Old Russian Recipe”.  Poppycock.  I’m not a food historian, but to me, penne is a decidedly Italian pasta.  Italy might be in the same hemisphere as Russia, but that’s about all they have in common.

If this dish was representative of the rest of their cooking, I can see why we were the only people in the whole place.

I talked to the owner (wife) afterwards and she said she understood that beef stroganoff is classically served with egg noodles in America.  She said they went through several options to see what their customers preferred the most, and it ended up being the penne.  I can’t argue with that.  But I can tell you that we won’t be going back for any other of their so-called Old Russian Recipes.

We left Europe and set sail for the Caribbean, mon.  Actually it was close enough to walk to Jamaica Gates (and my friend’s house).  We pulled into the parking lot and saw that they were busy.  No surprise there.  I was looking forward to trying the Jerk Shrimp and maybe something fruity for Anna.  We walked in and the whole place was tuned in to a football game on a large screen in the middle of the dining room.  So much for Jamaica.  We turned around and walked right back out.  No shrimp for us.

We were hoping to have a day off from making the drive into Dallas, but we had to change our plans.  We drove into town and settled in for a lunch at Avila’s Mexican Restaurant.  It’s a charming little place which is a converted house. The dining room sported tasteful muted colors, a slate floor, comfortable tables and great aromas wafting out from the kitchen.

We were tended to by Trent, the grandson of the owner, who was very polite and attentive.  He brought us a basket of fresh hot tortilla chips and a habanero salsa.  We dove right into those, but the salsa was too hot for Anna.  Poor thing.  I asked if they had a milder salsa.  They didn’t, but they offered to make some for Anna from scratch.  Wow.  We declined, but that sure was nice of them to offer.

Brisket Gorditas

Brisket Gorditas at Avila’s

We had a hard time trying to figure out what to order.  We eventually settled in on an old family recipe of braised brisket gorditas.  As you can see from the picture, they were prepared impeccably and they tasted even better than they look.  I loved the gorditas and the beef was rich and succulent.  It didn’t take us long to polish off all the food and lick the plate.  I was so impressed with the place that I wanted to learn more about it.

One of the owners, Paula Avila, happened to be there and she sat down with us to share the history of her restaurant.

The place was originally opened 27 years ago by her long-time husband, Octavio, and his mother, Anita (who is now 90 years old, and apparently a real kick in the pants).  Before they opened the restaurant together 27 years ago, Anita worked for 30 years as a hairdresser!  I’d love to meet her, and she worked at Avila’s until just recently.  During all those many years, their whole family would return home to Monterrey, Mexico every year and have all the authentic food and old family recipes.  Paula, our narrator, married into the family.  She is a recently retired school teacher, but she has always helped out with the restaurant.  If I remember correctly, she said that her or her husband are there whenever the restaurant is open.

Octavio’s brother, Ricardo, is the man who filmed the episode with Guy, but he is no longer there.  As they covered on the show, everything is made from scratch, by hand, according to the old family recipes.

Tamale at Avila's

Pork Tamale at Avila’s

I confessed to Paula that I couldn’t remember what they made on the show.  She said they made the pork tamale, and asked if we’d like to sample one.  We happily accepted and off she went.  She brought out the tamale and I unwrapped it like a jewel.  It was likely the best tamale I’ve ever had.  The chile flavor was deeply developed, but balanced with the flavors of the pork and the masa.  It had a generous filling ratio as well.

I mentioned that in modern interpretations of the brisket gordita, they would put on some kind of a poblano cream sauce.  She said they have a poblano sauce and went to the back to bring us out a taste.  She came back with a plate full of all their sauces in little metal cups, and sent her son,Trent, to get us a fresh basket of chips.  I told her we still had plenty of chips left, and she said, “Yeah, but they’re not hot anymore.”  That’s what you call feeling the love.  There was a fantastic mole sauce that we both enjoyed, as well as a salsa verde, the poblano cream sauce and a queso sauce.

We just couldn’t thank her enough and she posed for a picture with Anna (which sadly didn’t turn out very well).  I loved the opportunity to have the authentic Mexican food, and dining at Avila’s was the highlight of our day.  The question now as to how the story will end is if Trent will one day assume the reins and continue the family legacy.  He is thinking about it, but too young to decide for now.  I can tell you two things, I will be going back to Avila’s the next time I get to Dallas, and it gets our highest recommendation.  If we make it back in the spring, I want to meet the rest of the family, especially the matriarch, Anita.  I’ll bet she’s got a ton of great stories to tell.

Our last stop for the day was Louie’s, a popular watering hole and sports bar.  The place was crowded and decorated to look like a basement with lots of brick and exposed beams.  We managed to get a table and drew a friendly waitress named Kelly, a six year veteran.  In hind sight, we should have ordered a pizza.  My mistake.  I didn’t care for the menu set up or the high prices.  A “large” 14 inch pizza with just pepperoni would have been 16 bucks.  That’s probably exactly what we should have ordered.  But, there are few things in this world worse than expecting a great pizza and then not getting one.

We ordered a signature sandwich called “The Don” which is a patty melt with melted Swiss, mayo, bacon and jalapenos.  The sandwich was 12 bucks including the tax and comes with your choice of potato salad or potato chips.  Kelly recommended the salad.  That wouldn’t be a bad price if it was a great patty melt.

No sooner did we order when the four people sitting at the next table had two big pizzas brought out.  They looked great, and I was already kicking myself for not ordering one.  We had just had a fabulous pizza at Cane Rosso and I was happy to quit while we were ahead and leave it at that.  I had high hopes that a spectacular patty melt would save the day.

Louie's

“The Don” Patty Melt at Louie’s

Kelly brought it out and it was pathetic looking.  Really small, and not even grilled, just toasted.  I honestly can’t remember why we didn’t send it back.  I guess we thought it would taste better than it looked.  Maybe we just wanted to eat and go.  We’re not sports bar people.  The whole time we were sitting there I was thinking that the locals will pay higher prices for the food because they’re there for the drinking and sports bar.  I would be willing to grant that they can charge high prices if the quality of the food is there to back it up, but it wasn’t in our case.  Maybe these guys think they’re in Chicago or Manhattan.  It wasn’t even a good neighborhood and we were panhandled just walking across the street to get in.  They don’t even have a parking lot.

I’ll give them some constructive criticism though.  They need to whip up at least two or three signature pizzas and put the prices on them.  It’s nice to have the option to order a pizza precisely the way you want it, but that should be on option and not the only way to get it.  My feeling on that is, “If I have to tell you what to put on it, do I have to go in the back and make it too?”

Taste of Europe, Jamaica Gates, Louie’s.  Not our best day in Flavortown.  Fortunately for us, the time we spent at Avila’s was good enough to carry the weight of all the other things that didn’t go so well for us.

Lunch Combo at Pepe's

Ken’s Lunch Combo
at Pepe’s & Mito’s

On our next day, we met a friend for lunch at Pepe’s & Mito’s, which is a great Mexican restaurant in the downtown area (Deep Ellum).  We grabbed a table near the front and settled in for a great meal.  Our waiter took excellent care of us and I joined my friend (Johnny Silver Bear of the Silver Bear Cafe) for ice cold beers to go with our lunch.  Anna and I each ordered a combo plate and hers featured enchiladas in a scratch made chili sauce and topped with chipotle cream sauce.  My combo featured two beef enchiladas and a crispy taco.  All the food was excellent as was the service.

Lunch Combo Two

Anna’s Lunch Combo
at Pepe’s & Mito’s

Pepe’s has a great atmosphere that is casual and comfortable.  They also feature a large outdoor patio, and a bar.  The menu is chock full of tempting scratch made classics.  I was tempted to order a platter of four tacos in either al pastor or beef fajita steak tips.  I was still a little trigger shy after the fiasco at Fred’s Texas Cafe and didn’t want four of the tacos if I didn’t like them.  I asked our waiter if I could get two of each, and he said they don’t allow that.  Darn.  I was happy with what I got, but I hate to miss out on some killer tacos.

After lunch I stopped a woman who looked to be in charge.  Her name is Sandy and it turns out that she is the owner.  I told her how much we enjoyed the food, the service and the atmosphere.  She was very gracious and we chatted for several minutes about everything they make from scratch.  Love it.  I mentioned my sadness about the tacos and she said that had she known about it, she would have allowed the substitution.  We had just polished off two large plates of great food, as well as a big basket of chips with fresh salsa. Sandy offered to make a taco each of the al pastor and the beef tips for me to take and eat later.  I really appreciated her generosity, but I hate to put people out so I declined.  She was lovely to talk to and I have the highest regard for her love of great Mexican food prepared from scratch.

We later finished our long lunch with our new friend and headed back to the Twisted Root Burger Company which was just a few blocks away.  I decided that I wouldn’t be able to live with myself without trying their foot long chili dog.

Chili Dog at Twisted Root

A Work of Art Foot-Long Chili Dog
at Twisted Root Burger Company

As you can see from the picture, the foot long chili dog was killer and I’m so glad we had the opportunity to go back.  The crew, Sharon and Andrew, took great care of us and the chili dog was one of the best I’ve ever had.  It was exquisite.  The dog was dressed in a pillow-soft poppy seed bun and sporting house made chili, cheese, jalapenos and bacon.  It was so big, I had a hard time getting the whole thing into one shot.  We got our same pub table, and I helped myself to the dill pickle jar like a long time regular.  It would be super easy to become regulars at this place, and it makes my Top Ten list of favorite places in Texas. If you’re a Chuck Norris fan like me, you’ve got to see the bathrooms. Here’s a teaser:  First rule of Fight Club: Chuck Norris always wins. Chuck Norris can do a wheelie on a unicycle. Chuck Norris already knows Victoria’s Secret. 

Before we left downtown, I decided that I had a change of heart on the tacos that Sandy offered us at Pepe’s and Mito’s.  I knew they would be good, and started to wonder if they might be the best I ever had.  So I called back up and asked for Sandy to let her know that I wanted to get those tacos after all.  Much to my crushing disappointment, Sandy had already left.  Now that I’m home and watched the segment again, it turns out that the Tacos Nortenos were featured on the show, and so it’s obvious to me now that I will have to go all the way back to Dallas and treat myself to some great tacos at Pepe’s and Mito’s.  I can assure you that Johnny Silver Bear will be happy to meet us there again.  He loved the place too.  There’s so much crazy good food in the Dallas/Fort Worth metroplex, I’m tempted to move there.

One of the people we met in line at the Pecan Lodge told us about a great hamburger in Fort Worth at a little place called Salsa Fuego.  We wanted a place in Fort Worth to meet our host for lunch and so we all met at Salsa Fuego.  We were promptly greeted by the chef/owner, Carlos Rodriguez.  He took great care of us and treated us to an appetizer of nachos featuring carnitas and pickled chiles.

Big Tex

The Big Tex Burger at
Salsa Fuego in Fort Worth

Let me tell you, Salsa Fuego is a jewel.  Even though it’s a Mexican restaurant with a great selection of Mexican favorites, the burger menu is amazing.  We ordered three burgers and they were all crazy good.  I don’t know what kind of magic dust the chef is putting into his chipotle BBQ sauce, but he puts that on the Big Tex Burger along with double meat, double cheese, bacon, grilled onions and mustard for a total show stopper.  It was so good, I’d recommend it to all my favorite hamburger wizards.  Some of the other burgers feature brisket, fire roasted green chiles, a wide variety of cheeses and a little something called roasted jalapeno mayonnaise.  I was like a kid in a candy store.  As you can see from this picture, it had me at Hello.  This is what I aspire to when I make burgers at home.

Salsa Fuego might not be on DDD, yet, but I can tell you that Chef Carlos and his lovely wife Christie are doing it right.  Don’t take my word for it.  Featured in Texas Monthly magazine, Salsa Fuego was recently voted one of the top five Mexican restaurants in Texas (and it’s easy to see why).  If the burgers are any indication, I’m sure the rest of the menu rocks.  It’s an impressive menu featuring fresh seafood, steaks and fajitas, duck confit, signature tacos and burritos, classic Mexican favorites, ice cold beers and scrumptious desserts.  It would be hard to go back and only have the burgers again, but that’s exactly what I plan to do the next time I’m within a hundred miles of Fort Worth.  It won’t hurt my feelings if I have time to go back and try some of the Mexican dishes after I get my burger fix.

Later that afternoon we dropped in at the Prince Lebanese Grill to sample the falafel.  The place is nice and big, bright and clean.  We ordered the falafel as a gyro sandwich and proceeded to sit down for the wait.  The falafel is cooked to order and they even have to bring their oil up to temperature because the falafel is so delicate.  I didn’t mind waiting.  The gyro rolled out and we got a side of the hot sauce to go with it.  Oddly enough, this sandwich was rolled up tight, just like the Shawarma gyros we’d had a few days earlier.  It was nice and hot.  The falafel seemed to be more herbaceous than what we had at the Falafel Drive-In, but it was good and we polished it off.  I appreciated the attention to detail, and would have been happy to sample some of the other dishes if we didn’t already have other plans.

It wasn’t easy to work up an appetite for dinner, but it was our last night in Dallas and I had my heart set on trying Chop House Burgers before we left town.  I had planned to have dinner there right when we got to town, as it is close to my buddy’s place.  But, going back for the Frito Burger at Lankford Grocery threw our plans off that day.  (It was well worth it.)

Chop House Burgers is a casual little joint with seating in the front and the kitchen in the back.  The staff was real friendly and they have a great selection of kick-ass burgers.  Of course I wanted to try the 10 Pepper Burger that was featured on the show, but it looked like Anna and I were going to have to share a burger instead of getting one each.  What a shame.  In hindsight, we should have ordered two, even if we couldn’t finish them both.

If you haven’t seen this episode, prepare to be impressed.  The chef, Kenny Mills, has been everywhere and done it all.  He’s taken the better part of forty years of experience and focused it all on the venerable hamburger…Texas style I might add.  How about a mesquite-fired wood char-broiler?  How about starting with high quality Texas beef, and doing everything by hand, including making sauces and spicy chipotle mayonnaise?  How about doing up a big bowl of red (Texas chili that is)?

It couldn’t say enough good things about Chop House Burgers, but one of the things that impresses me is the quality control.  Every burger, every time.  It doesn’t do much good to have a an impressive burger menu if you can’t back it up with quality.  We didn’t get to meet Kenny Mills, but he and his staff are doing it right, and I just might go back and try every burger on the menu.  It would take a few days, but it sure would be fun.

Grilled Cheese Burger

The Grilled Cheese Burger
at Chop House Burgers

On this day, Anna and I shared a burger that we had seen on TV a few times but had never actually seen one in a restaurant.  As you may know, Anna loves grilled cheese sandwiches and Chop House has a burger on the menu that uses two grilled cheese sandwiches in place of the bun.  It was so big, you can’t even see the bottom sandwich.  I wouldn’t have ordered the burger with the on-board salad (had I realized it came that way), but it worked.  The sandwiches were nice and hot (gooey) and the flavor of the beef really shined through.  We thought it was a pretty crazy indulgence, but if you’re going to indulge, this is the place to do it.

We were in Dallas/Fort Worth for six days, and now that we know where to go for all of our favorite foods, I can’t wait to go back a hit them all again.  Pecan Lodge, Twisted Root Burger Company, Cane Rosso, Avila’s, Pepe’s and Mito’s, Salsa Fuego, Chop House Burgers, Angry Dog, Keller’s, and more.  I loved the time we got to spend meeting new people and making new friends.  I love the stories and the passion for food, cooking and entertaining.  We also had a great time visiting with our hosts when we weren’t busy running around.

It was not easy coming up with a Top Ten list for Texas, and there were a lot of places that I hated to leave out.  But I can tell you that of everyone who did make the list, it‘s because they are truly special.  Good people, great atmosphere, killer food, cold beer, and in many cases live music.  These places represent high quality, grand tradition and Texas pride.  I’ve always had a fondness for Texas, and now I’m beginning to suspect that I’m more of a Texan at heart than I realized, and maybe I’m just living in the wrong place.  Stay tuned.

Next DDD Destination: Oklahoma City   (DDD count: 251)

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