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
The Bishop Arts District’s renegade
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
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
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
The Woodshed Smokehouse, opened by celebrity chef, Tim Love
in February 2012 makes an art out of smoking. There is southwestern Texas’
succulently sweet mesquite wood-smoking and the barbacoa, common to far-south Mexican-influenced
barbecue. There is the spice-dowsed meat
intrinsic to the central Texas style and the slower-cooked,
falling-off-the-bone method east Texans often favour. Love's staff will even guide
aficionados through the best suited smoking methods. Oakwood might work for salmon,
but artichoke or beef brisket benefit from hickory smoking. Food can be
washed down with a draft of Love’s rainwater, collected fresh from the Texas
A hungry eye on the future
For something a little stronger than water, Fort Worth also manufactures its
very own “water of life”, and it might bring about Texas' most distinctive
taste yet. The bourbon whiskey created at Firestone and Robertson Distilling Company is made with a
unique yeast sourced from a pecan tree in the town of Glen Rose, Texas, about
50 miles southwest of Fort Worth, and possesses light fruity notes, the like of
which, almost certainly, have never found their way into a whiskey bottle
before. The first barrelling took place in June 2012 and the bottling is
scheduled for 2014. Central Texas’ first distillery faces challenges most of
the world’s distilleries do not − namely aging the whisky in searing summer
temperatures − with the taste sure to have a uniquely potent rub-off effect
from the white oak barrels being used.
Another renowned Texas chef, Jon Bonnell, will give Fort Worth a revolutionary
new approach to seafood when Waters,
Bonnell’s Fine Coastal Cuisine hits
the city at the beginning of March. The state’s varied, but rarely celebrated
seafood will prop up the menu, and there are already murmurings of Gulf
Coast-sourced oyster shooters, one of the chef’s signature cocktails.
For the moment, though, Dallas-Fort Worth restaurateurs are keeping it real.
Eating out here is not luxuriating in haute cuisine. It is more about delving
to the belly-rumbling roots of the food that makes Texans tick and being
carried on the journey by these chefs’ infectious enthusiasm. Now they just
need that Michelin reviewer to come to town.