The king of State Fair of Texas fried food is going Italian. Abel Gonzales, known internationally for his creative State Fair concoctions, such as fried butter, has opened a new Italian restaurant in northwest Dallas called Cocina Italiano that he dubs his spin on a New York-style Italian joint.
The restaurant is located at 7101 Harry Hines Blvd., just north of Mockingbird Lane, and is open Monday-Saturday, 10 am to 4 pm, for take-out, counter service, and delivery.
Gonzales, a longtime State Fair vendor and repeat winner, rose to fame in 2010 with his fried butter, which won the prize for most creative. But he's also a hospitality industry veteran with a catering business who grew up in the restaurant industry, working in the kitchen of his father's restaurant, A.J. Gonzales' Mexican Oven, in the West End.
He previously opened a restaurant on Ross Avenue called Republic Ranch, which he left in 2018. Opening another wasn't necessarily on his plate.
"I found this space with a kitchen that also had room for a storefront restaurant," he says. "I'd always had it in the back of my mind to do an Italian concept, and decided it was time."
Gonzales' previous cuisine specialty was barbecue and Texan food.
"I worked for so long doing smoked meat, but I wanted to take a break from it," he says. "Every time I'm in New York or Boston, I find myself seeking out those storefront Italian places where they have pinwheels in the case and pizza by the slice. I found myself gravitating towards that idea."
For now he's foregoing pizza and sticking with pastas, sandwiches, and salads. Pretty much everything will be under $10.
"I have a good red sauce, a good alfredo sauce, and I can do a pretty mean sandwich," he says. "Jimmy's, the Italian food store in East Dallas, was my inspiration. We're doing sandwiches with all the Italian deli meats, salami, the best we can find."
His menu includes a chef's salad, Caesar, and an Italian salad with mixed greens, mortadella, soppressata, capacollo, and provolone. The pasta category is customizable: You pick your choice of noodle from spaghetti, penne, fettuccine, or bow tie; choice of sauce from marinara, alfredo, butter garlic, or rose (marinara and alfredo combined); and your choice of topper, such as meat sauce, sausage, meatball, chicken parmesan, and more.
Sandwiches include sausage & pepper, Caprese with tomato & mozzarella, and a "pizza" sandwich with pepperoni, Italian sausage, and mozzarella cheese.
With his dual focus on catering, Gonzales is doing lunch only for now. The neighborhood is transitioning, with most of his neighbors being auto repair shops and the like.
"There's the big medical complex down the street, and there's all the development taking place on Mockingbird," he says. "In a year or two, this neighborhood will be very different."
He'll be conjuring some State Fair magic in the kitchen as well.
"I have not been involved in competing in the last few years, by choice," he says. "I was proud to win with entries like fried butter and fried Coke, but I've more drawn to the idea of serving better food. That's what I tried to do with my fried lobster entry, to mix the two worlds of the State Fair with better ingredients. That's what's motivating me to come back."
"I do have a concept in the back of my head — we'll see if I can make it work," he says.