Central Texas cuisine raises the steaks
Texas chef Tim Byres in the kitchen at his Dallas restaurant Smoke. (Luke Waterson)
Dallas Fort Worth? Do not let the shared airport fool you. These two Texan cities, separated by just 30 miles of suburbia in the central north of the state, are as different as chalk and cheese. But Dallas and Fort Worth do have one thing in common: a mushrooming culinary pedigree that is garnering a following far beyond state lines.
Times are a-changing. The era of tasteless Tex-Mex – think soggy tacos overflowing with lacklustre cheese – never really flourished here. If it did exist, far from defining regional cuisine, Tex-Mex was a propagation of the fast food outlets and not at all true to local tradition. But over the last decade – and particularly the last few years – a bunch of brilliant young chefs have finally banished those unfortunate Tex-Mex associations and are pioneering a brand of cuisine that takes such Texas clichés as fast food and barbeque and is breathing new life into them.
Modern Texas cuisine
While a cursory glance would not reveal North America’s sixth-largest metropolitan area to be a hunting ground for fine foods – Dallas, the state’s third most populous city, is known to be an oil-rich business centre, while Fort Worth seems like a stuck-in-time cowboy town – in many ways the culinary reinvention should come as no surprise.
Dallas is home to Texas’ most renowned chef, Stephan Pyles, a founder of the 1980s Southwestern Cuisine movement, which started shaking up state cuisine into something stylish. Spanning from California to Texas, and focusing, thanks to Pyles, on the latter, it the movement was motivated by using local ingredients and drawing on the region's diverse culinary influences to showcase what true local tucker involves.
Pyles’ latest restaurant venture, Stampede 66, opened after much fanfare in November 2012 in Dallas. The window advertisement during construction claimed it as “A Modern Texas Restaurant”, daring passers-by to imagine what that could entail. The menu offers oysters from the fruitful waters of Galveston Bay on the state's southeast coast, identified by their individual cove of origin; pork barbacoa (meat wrapped in maguey leaves and slow cooked); and straight-out-of-Mexico treats like Veracruz snapper with Mexican black beans baked with bananas to add a deliciously soft sweet note.
But Stampede 66 also focuses on stylish ambience. Pyles prides himself on restaurant concept, and with a tree at centre-stage, cowboy-shirted cocktail maestros, lighting like a starry night on the Texas plains, it seems that the idea of “Texan roots” transcends even to the design.
Similar things are happening elsewhere in Dallas. Tim Byres, Pyles’ former colleague, opened Chicken Scratch (and adjoining bar The Foundry in March 2012, just down the road from his stylish motel restaurant Smoke on Fort Worth Avenue. The premise is again startlingly simple: Texan fast food served with panache in an original setting. Fried chicken and fries are the culinary focus. But this is pecan-smoked rotisserie chicken and there are hand-made sauces to accompany the fries. And when the dish is accompanied by a quinoa salad, eaten either in the industrial-chic interior or on packing-case seating in one of the open-fronted shipping containers that form the shady garden, the experience is far from typical.
The Bishop Arts District’s renegade eateries
Atypical is becoming the norm in Dallas, however. About 5km southwest from the towering central high-rises is the Oak Cliff neighbourhood's aesthetically pleasing Bishop Arts District, ensconced in a few blocks of sleepy wooden bungalows. Once a decidedly alternative area, its eateries are now household names.
Oddfellows looks from outside like a white picket-fenced house from an old-fashioned Western movie. Yet through the door, a $15,000 La Marzocco coffee maker, one of only a handful nationwide, glints a promise of what lies within: a sensationally good coffee bar (and restaurant) with the ability to fine-tune its espresso beyond most baristas’ wildest dreams.
Two blocks away, Dude Sweet Chocolate is doing for sweets what Oddfellows is for java. From chocolates audaciously flavoured with the likes of Louisiana tobacco to Colorado vodka or hickory-smoked cocoa, the offerings are so popular that chocolatier Katherine Clapner has just branched out to two new locations in the Dallas-Fort Worth area.
Fort Worth’s smoking hot new barbecue spot
On a summer’s day, the meaty smell of barbeque is everywhere in Texas, and it is Fort Worth that steals the griddle show, showcasing a mix of Texas grilling techniques.