The first thing you notice about Dallas is that Big D is big. A car is a necessity and seeing things requires driving. So does eating. Restaurants are spread out over a vast territory and residents compute distances by driving times.
And because it is surrounded by a parking lot, the natural place to start is Sonny Bryan's Smokehouse.
Trying to find the best barbecue place in the nation is a bit like searching for the Holy Grail. But Sonny's place must rank near the top. It is easy to find Sonny's--just follow the aroma of oak smoke drifting from the pit.
By 11 a.m. the crowds start arriving to order barbecued ribs, beef and pork. They are bankers, executives, truck drivers, oil field workers, anyone who loves barbecued food.
And they eat in the cramped confines of Bryan's or out in the lot, using the hoods of the cars for tables.
Sonny is there every day, overseeing things, and chopping up some of the 800 pounds of barbecued beef he serves each day.
"I am following in the family business," he says. "My grandfather started here in 1910, and I have been here for 29 years."
Each day a melting pot of people stop by to devour ribs, beef and ham in sandwiches ($3.75), on plates ($5.50) and with dinners ($4.75).
The dinners come with french fries or what may be the best onion rings in Texas, certainly the biggest. There are beer and soft drinks. Sonny opens every day at 10 and he closes "when the meat runs out," usually mid-afternoon. This is barbecue at its best.
We love breakfast, and judging from the crowds that drive to another Dallas institution, we are not alone. Folks flock to breakfast at the Mecca Cafe, a small roadside diner where Rolls-Royces edge up next to pickup trucks.
It seems that everyone stops here on the way to work to eat huge breakfasts of ham and eggs, grits, biscuits and white gravy. The breakfasts, served to hay balers, cowboys and oil field workers, brokers and real estate developers, cost less than $10 for two.
At the other end of the spectrum, in price and ambiance, are several other Dallas restaurants. Two should not be missed--the dining room of the Mansion on Turtle Creek and the Routh Street Cafe.
Dean Fearing, executive chef at the Mansion, was a pioneer in developing Southwestern cuisine, a blend of California and French nouvelle, combined with the spices and cooking influences of Mexico and the Southwest.
It is one of the most accepted of the new trends and is a genuinely American type of cooking. Southwestern dishes have provided inspiration for chefs around the world. On a recent visit to a two-star restaurant in Paris, we found several dishes heavily influenced by the use of chilies and cornmeal.
Fearing is responsible for establishing the Mansion on Turtle Creek as one of the top three or four restaurants featuring Southwestern cuisine in this city.
The other top restaurants include Stephan Pyles' Routh Street Cafe, opened a few years ago, and Richard Chamberlain's stunning San Simeon, opened last year. Chamberlain worked with Fearing at the Mansion.
"We have a friendly rivalry," says Fearing of the other chefs. "We all try to use indigenous concepts of cooking and lots of local products. When I came to town in 1979 everything was French nouvelle cooking. When I began at Agnews in 1982 we tried to make people aware of the strength of their own local cooking."
Agnews closed in 1984, and Fearing thinks it was partly because he was a little ahead of his time. "We were the first American restaurant in Dallas, and people had to be educated to new things," he says. "Today Dallas is a leader in this type of cooking because we have very well-traveled residents who know and demand different dishes of very high quality."
Spicy, Not Fiery
Although many Southwestern dishes do have chilies and are spicy, they are generally not fiery, and even those who don't enjoy hot dishes find that they like this cooking.
Even a down-home dish like fried chicken takes on new meaning with Fearing. He bakes it with a maple pecan crust and serves it with roasted garlic potatoes and a freshly made cranberry-orange relish, ($19). A turbot with chili pecan crust came to us hot and crisp on the outside and tender on the inside.
The chili crust was only slightly hot, and the three sauces of green tomatillo, black bean and smoked red pepper provided a colorful accompaniment ($23). A pan-fried gulf red snapper was placed on a bed of chopped mango, cucumber, melon and lime reduced with cream ($24).
We tried side dishes of Southern creamed corn with smoked bacon fritters and jalapeno maple syrup and gorditas, a type of sandwich made of grilled cornmeal, or masa, and filled with a variety of Mexican vegetables, including peppers and jicama. Both were $3.25.
Dessert included an old-fashioned coconut cake topped with candied violets and a creme brulee made in a pastry shell and studded with fresh raspberries.
San Simeon is on the ground floor of a modern building near downtown. It is sleek, yet has an ambiance that creates a feeling of welcome. The food reflects the creativity of chef Richard Chamberlain.
The menu has a slight Oriental quality in both ingredients and cooking techniques. Sesame seed fettuccine comes with grilled prawns, black mushrooms and Chinese broccoli ($7.50), and red salmon and gulf shrimp are steamed with red onion and tomatillo relish ($8).
Chamberlain uses the wonderful mozzarella made in Dallas in a tomato salad with Moroccan olive pesto. The dressing is a roasted shallot vinaigrette ($5.75). Entrees include a Sichuan peppered beef tenderloin with shiitake mushroom and scallion cake, served with a black bean garlic sauce ($20), and roast bobwhite quail with red bell pepper polenta served with a Chianti sage sauce ($19). The service is expert, and everything is watched over by manager Patrick Columbo who gets high marks for friendly efficiency.
Stephen Pyles' Routh Street Cafe has achieved prominence as one of the best restaurants in the nation. Dinner entrees change daily. They are offered on a $42 fixed-price dinner. The room is modern and relaxed. Service is outgoing and friendly.
We began with a roasted corn soup decorated with a red pepper cream and an avocado cream. A lobster-filled enchilada with a red pepper sauce was elegant in its flavors, and the lobster was comparable to any we've had in Boston.
We tried a mango-serrano chili ice and a ruby grapefruit ice for our second course. Improbable as the combinations were, they worked.
Chicken came sliced in a fan with black bean sauce and a tomatillo- avocado relish. Local Sika Venison was served with a wonderful smoked vegetable tamale and a sweet onion sauce. This was $7 additional. Salads of mixed greens were served crisp but at room temperature instead of chilled, a technique that enhanced the flavors.
Dessert was a warm apple-walnut spice cake with caramel sauce and vanilla ice cream. It was perfect. A blackberry buckle with cinnamon ice cream was equally good.
A few blocks away, Baby Routh welcomes you from the street. A pink and white house with the name in neon, it waits to be discovered. Stephen Pyles' and John Dayton's spinoff of the Routh Street Cafe, Baby Routh is chic and relatively inexpensive.
It serves blue corn pancakes with black beans, Dallas goat cheese and a great salsa ($5), and a wild game tamale with cranberries and chili chipotles ($5). There is a salad of wilted Southern greens with apple-smoked bacon and pomegranate vinegar ($4), a selection of meats from the barbecue and spicy, honey-fried chicken with whipped sweet potatoes and buttermilk biscuits ($12.50).
The menu is varied, and there are adventurous as well as familiar dishes to choose from. A tree-shaded patio makes a perfect setting for brunch.
In the same neighborhood, the Crescent Court Hotel is hard to miss. The imposing, formal structure was designed by architect Philip Johnson, who has referred to its style as Early Texan. In contrast to the formal design, its restaurant, Beau Nash, is all fun.
Chefs in white baseball caps work in an open kitchen to produce good food that ranges from such appetizers as steamed mussels with garlic risotto and grappa sauce ($7.75) to Chianina beef carpaccio , an Italian breed of cattle being raised in Texas that has less fat than others ($6.75), and a grilled corn soup made with smoked chicken and avocado ($3.75).
The pizzas are lovely, with thin, crisp crusts ($7.95 to $10.95), and we especially enjoyed the grilled free-range chicken with a creamy Texas goat cheese ($18) and the wild mushroom ravioli with pancetta butter ($8.95).
The Jack Daniels Chocolate Mousse Cake for dessert is a must ($3.95). For those who can't make up their minds, the chef will serve miniatures of all the desserts ($4.25). The place is always crowded; ambiance and food are sophisticated.
Another of the innovative young chefs who have worked with Southwestern cuisine is Avner Samuel, chef of the Pyramid restaurant in the Fairmont Hotel.
Also not to be missed is the wealth of restaurants in the Loews Anatole Hotel. The hotel is huge, with several atrium lobbies, 1,620 rooms and several restaurants. Brunch is very good; serving stations are set up in one of the atrium lobbies, and tables are scattered everywhere.
Then there are the Mexican restaurants. Most are inexpensive and several offer good authentic Tex-Mex fare. You might try one of the El Chico's, or Herreras, Mia's and On the Border. On the Border has what Dean Fearing considers the best fajitas in Texas. So if you want to try the best, order them there.
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Routh Street Cafe, 3005 Routh, (214) 871-7161. The Mansion on Turtle Creek, 2821 Turtle Creek, 526-2121. San Simeon, 2515 McKinney Ave. at Fairmont, 871-7373. Baby Routh, 2708 Routh, 871-2345. Mia's restaurant, 4418 Lemmon, 526-1020 (no reservations and cash only). El Chico--several locations throughout Dallas. Herrera Cafe, 3902 Maple Ave., 526-9427. On the Border, 3302 Knox, 528-5900. Loews Anatole Hotel, 2201 Stemmons Freeway, 748-1200. Sonny Bryan Smokehouse, 2202 Inwood Road, 357-7120. Beau Nash Crescent Court Hotel, 400 Crescent Court, 871-3200. Fairmont Hotel Pyramid Room, Ross and Akard streets, 748-5454.