From a culinary perspective, this had to be my most successful winter meetings since Las Vegas in 2008, which isn’t exactly a fair fight since Vegas is something of a food mecca. But Dallas had quite a bit to offer even with my restriction that no meal take place more than 15 minutes’ drive from the Hilton Anatole.
I’ll start with the one place I hit twice, Zaguan Bakery on Oak Lawn Drive, just under a mile and a half from our hotel and on my way back to Love Field to fly home. Zaguan is a South American bakery, featuring pastries, sandwiches, and other dishes from all over that continent, including one of my favorite foods on the planet, the arepa – a thin cornmeal pancake, here sliced lengthwise and stuffed with the fillings of of your choice for a deliciously sloppy sandwich. The slow-cooked beef was whole (I believe brisket) rather than ground, producing a much better texture, and while it comes with a mildly spicy red sauce it’s elevated by fresh guacamole. As good as the arepa was, it was topped by the cachapa, a thick pancake of cornmeal with fresh corn kernels mixed in for a crunchier, sweeter wrap around the same choice of fillings (like an omelet); I had the cachapa with chicken, white meat cooked in a similar sauce but without the depth of flavor from the beef. Both sandwiches are served with plantain chips that you can upgrade to maduros for $0.99 (do this). There’s also a big display case full of sweet pastries that merits a return trip – I only tried one, the alfajor de chocolate, a linzer tarte-like cookie with chocolate frosting between two shortbread cookies with a chocolate glaze on top, not too sweet with a perfect crumbly texture.
My editor Chris Sprow and I went for high-end Mexican on the first night of the meetings at La Duni, a very well-reviewed restaurant over on McKinney. The fresh guacamole appetizer was big and more chunky than smooth (I prefer this style, although I think it’s a matter of taste), with diced onions, cucumbers, and serrano peppers. For the meal, I went with the slow-roasted lomo sandwich, primarily because the restaurant has its own bakery and I can’t turn down fresh bread – in this case, Pan de Yema, a sort of South American brioche that, unfortunately, came out very dry, saved only by the avocado and Manchego in the middle along with the roasted pork. It came with yucca fries dusted in paprika and spritzed with lemon juice, perfectly fried (good thing, as undercooked yucca can kill you); but we also grabbed a side of maduros which were just as perfectly cooked, almost candied while maintaining some firmness inside. Sprow ordered enchiladas con pollo and cleaned his plate so fast I thought he’d eat the napkin too. I don’t care that much about ambience or décor but we both noticed how cool the place looked. One weird thing: They have valet parking … and the valet just pulled the car into the space right next to the front door. I’m pretty sure I could have done that myself.
Il Cane Rosso was the site of the first of our misfit-writers outings – I can’t tell you how much fun these dinners were, even beyond the food – over on the east side of Dallas, serving pizzas cooked in their wood-fired oven at 900 degrees. The house salad was fresh but overdressed; the Caesar, on the other hand, was one of the best I’ve had outside of the garlicky heaven you’ll find at Strip-T’s in Watertown, Massachusetts, although Il Cane Rosso does use anchovies in their Caesar dressing (which isn’t traditional). The pizzas had a great crust (they use imported 00 flour) with the correct amount of char on the outside and high-quality meats among the toppings, although their fresh mozzarella melted more like the low-moisture find you’d get in a grocery store. Of the pizzas we ordered, the prosciutto e rucola, with prosciutto crudo, arugula, and mozzarella, was my favorite. I only tried one of the three desserts we ordered, the zeppole, smaller than the kind I’m used to getting on Long Island but with the right crisp exterior and soft, yeasty interior. They had a solid selection of local beers, and the server (who also gets points for being an Arcade Fire fan) was knowledgeable about the beers and the pizzas. We ordered a substantial amount of food and everyone had at least one drink; with tip, the total ran just $35 a person.
The second group dinner was to Lockhart Smokehouse, in the Bishop Arts District. Lockhart brags “no forks needed,” although I’d call that a slight exaggeration; the brisket was insanely tender with the best outer bark I have ever had on any kind of smoked beef. The smoked sausage, from Kreuz Market in Lockhart (near San Antonio), was fair but didn’t have the same great smoke flavor as the brisket. They smoke food over local post oak, which is apparently common in Texas but isn’t a wood I’ve encountered anywhere else. My fellow writers gave positive reviews to the ribs, the jalapeno sausage, and the smoked chicken. I did try the baked beans but tasted all heat and very little smoke. Sprow’s contribution to the blog follows:
Back to solo dining: Tei-An is a Japanese soba house in the Arts District with a slightly peculiar menu mixing traditional Japanese dishes with plates more tailored to the American palate. I went with a soba dish, figuring I should go with something I couldn’t get just anywhere, short green soba noodles served hot with chicken in a mild curry-like sauce (too mild to really be curry, I think). The dish was solid, very filling thanks to the noodles but touching on bland, and the dish came with four mayo-heavy California rolls as a free side dish. The soba noodles were very well made, but just lacked flavor; maybe I ordered the wrong thing, but at a soba house, shouldn’t the soba dishes blow you away?
I ventured out for one breakfast, at Craft Dallas, another outpost in Tom Colicchio’s growing empire. The short rib hash with two eggs any style was a small disappointment, given Craft’s legendary 24-hour short rib dish; the short ribs themselves were fine, but the hash was sitting in a fancy bowl with a very salty sauce on the bottom, and the (perfectly) poached eggs ended up running into that sauce.