Dallas-Fort Worth has five-star restaurants, legendary chefs and wine lists that have won awards. We're enthusiastic foodies, ready and willing to try new things. We've lapped up fro-yo, canoodled with cupcakes and saddled up for the "better burger" wave.
We've lined up at food trucks, embraced gourmet tacos, chowed banh mi sandwiches and plunked down $3 for gourmet popsicles. We are fully behind craft beer.
But we still have our traditions, the dishes we've loved. They're not always the most upscale; in fact, they're often the opposite: the chocolate bag at Gershwin's, Snuffer's cheese fries, the chili at Tolbert's, the Palm Beach at Highland Park Pharmacy. These are the dishes we've recited to each other through the decades that form our collective culinary history.
For this list, we offer our 2014 update on the quintessential dishes of Dallas. Some have shown staying power, while others have emerged in the past few years as instant classics.
Cowboy ribeye at Stephan Pyles
Southwest cuisine pioneer Stephan Pyles first created this dish for the gone-but-not-forgotten Star Canyon in 1994. "I wanted to create something unabashedly Texan, so I took a bone-in ribeye steak, marinated it in three dried chiles for 24 hours, then grilled it over hickory," he says. The steak comes piled high with fried onion rings dusted with red chile; the accompanying pinto bean and corn stew is "reminiscent of the late 19th-century cattle drives," Pyles says. The cowboy ribeye is as popular as ever, and when Stephan Pyles moves his namesake restaurant down the road, Stampede 66 will inherit it and other Star Canyon favorites.
Tortilla soup at Rosewood Mansion on Turtle Creek
Frenchman Bruno Davaillon is running the kitchen these days, but the Mansion will always be famous for its tortilla soup. The recipe was devised by former top toque Dean Fearing, at the behest of owner Caroline Rose Hunt, who had a version in San Antonio and urged Fearing to re-create it. His rendition has tomato puree as well as chicken stock, spiced with cumin, chili powder and a hint of cayenne, plus the requisite chicken, avocado, cheese and crisped tortilla strips. Contrary to popular belief, there is no mandate to keep the soup on the menu. People still like it, so it stays, and it's served at lunch and dinner.
Lobster shooters at Abacus
Kent Rathbun is the leader of a mini-restaurant empire that includes several concepts, but Abacus is his flagship, and the lobster shooters, which have been on his menu since it opened in 1999, have become his most famous dish. They are just fried mini dumplings filled with lobster scented with lemon grass and ginger, served in sake cups filled with a red curry-coconut broth. But the gimmick worked, and they are now quintessentially Dallas.
Mushroom soup at The Grape
The ownership of Dallas' oldest wine bar has changed, but one thing remains the same: the mushroom soup. Chefs have tried to change it up, and every time guests ask, "What happened to the soup?" (If you want the recipe, they'll gladly give it to you.) Current chef-owner Brian Luscher — who likes this creamy, comforting elixir with a bit of Sriracha, extra black pepper and lots of crackers — holds no grudges against the soup, even though it's not his. "I embrace the soup," he says. "I wouldn't change a thing." Neither would we.
Brisket at Pecan Lodge
Diane and Justin Fourton just wanted to open a catering business when they left the corporate world. But the barbecue took off, the Food Network and nearly every national food publication took notice, and now Pecan Lodge is one of the most famous restaurants in Dallas. People first lined up at Dallas Farmers Market, and they continue the tradition in Deep Ellum, just to get a taste of that brisket, with its magical mix of bark and fat. Dallas may not be known for barbecue, but it's known for this.
Burger at Maple & Motor
The debate over the best burger in Dallas will never be settled. But it's hard to argue Maple & Motor's national status, thanks to an episode of Diners, Drive-ins & Dives and a showdown on the Steve Harvey show, as well as mentions in local and national pubs. The burgers are a 75-25 chuck-to-brisket ratio, and the buns are buttered and toasted on the same flat top. Get the burger topped with cheese, thick Wright-brand bacon, griddled fresh jalapeños and a side of crisp tater tots. And don't try to sit down before you order. How many times do you have to be warned?
Popovers at The Zodiac
Neiman Marcus has more than 40 stores across the country, but there is only one original, in downtown Dallas. Presiding on the sixth floor since 1953 is The Zodiac, its very fine restaurant and the city's ultimate ladies-who-lunch spot. Graceful and refined, it preserves a kind of hushed, elegant civility that's personified in the complimentary popovers, freshly baked. Crack open the crisp, brown shell, watch the steam rise, add a pat of the accompanying strawberry butter, and all's right with the world.
Italian Stallion at Jimmy's Food Store
Jimmy's brings a slice of New York-style deli authenticity that is otherwise hard to find in Dallas. The Italian Stallion is a classic East Coast-style sub sandwich stacked high with Jimmy's excellent mortadella, capicola, soppressata, pepperoni, porchetta, coppa, prosciutto, mozzarella and provolone, offered in six inches or 12. The fact that the latter is too big for a single sitting only adds to the lore. Eat it there, at a table on the sidewalk, chased with an espresso, just like they do in New York.
The Mitch at Spiral Diner
The stereotype about Texas is that it's all meat all the time. But vegans around the world know they can find a beachhead at Spiral Diner, with branches in both Dallas and Fort Worth. With its Formica-topped booths, Spiral is exactly like a diner, right down to the milkshakes and patty melts. The only difference: no animals at all. The classic dish is The Mitch, a club sandwich with "bak'n," lettuce, tomato and a meaty slice of tofu, served with a side of creamy potato salad.
Soba noodles at Tei-An
One Arts Plaza hasn't been a friendly location for restaurants, but Tei-An has overcome the odds, thanks to the artful creations of chef-owner Teiichi "Teach" Sakurai. His tempura is lacy; his pressed sushi is plump. But it's the soba noodles that stand out. They're made onsite by hand, unique not just in Dallas, but in the country. You can get them many ways, cold or hot, but the prototypical dish is the sampler, with chilled noodles and a quartet of sauces for dipping, ranging from pristine soy to rich, nutty walnut.