2017 was a good year for eating. Of course, most years are good years for eating when you’re a food critic. But 2017 offered some truly delicious memories, and best of all, the fondest of taste memories are diverse. One of them was on a $150 tasting menu, but another costs just $1.29 at nearby gas stations. Culinarily, this year in Dallas had something for everyone.
Some of these memorable meals were for Observer reviews, but many were for fun, and all are in the Dallas area. (If this was a pure “best things our critic ate,” list, we might have to acknowledge that Houston exists.) These meals might not be the “best,” technically speaking, and this is not a best restaurants list. Instead, it is the 10 things in metro Dallas that I most loved eating in 2017 and that I’m most excited to eat again next year.
I’ve had a wonderful time doing the research needed to assemble this list. I hope you have an equally good time testing the results for yourself.
10. Tacos de cachete at La Salsa Verde
Here it is: quite possibly the best $1.29 food in Dallas. Cachete, or beef cheek, is a rich, fatty cut of meat perfect for gluttons, and the chain La Salsa Verde gets it perfect. I tried the cachete at three locations across Dallas and always received fall-apart tender, not-too-greasy meat bursting with flavor. A taco with corn tortilla and onions is all you need, but the cachete is good in a flour tortilla quesadilla, too ($4.95).
9. Lunch at Cattleack BBQ
Including Cattleack on this list feels like cheating. For one thing, the brisket, beef ribs, pastrami burnt ends, beans and cole slaw here are earth-movingly great. On my visit this summer, I tackled the peppery burnt ends last because their over-the-top spice rub risks overshadowing the fork-tender smoke of a slab of fatty brisket. But what makes Cattleack a real cheat on a list like this is that any meal there is a special occasion. It’s only open for two or three meals a week, all lunches, so you have to plan well to visit. I brought guests from Michigan who requested a full barbecue experience. The only thing as good as Cattleack’s meats is watching a Yankee tourist stare at the giant Toddfather sandwich with the pure awe of a kid on Christmas morning.
8. Cheese Island at Ddong Ggo
I promise there are vegetables later on this list. But for now, we have to talk about Cheese Island, a meal so shamelessly indulgent it makes Dallas steakhouses look like temples of self-restraint. Cheese Island is a skillet filled with molten cheese and topped with a Jenga-style tower of fried chicken wings and fried potatoes. Dunk your chicken in the cheese and enjoy. What makes it great is that Ddong Ggo (Korean for “butthole”) doesn’t stint on quality. It serves legitimately excellent fried chicken, in cheese or not, and the wings are juicy, crisply battered and not too salty. Ddong Ggo was probably the most sheer fun I had reviewing a restaurant in 2017.
7. Mutton kottu at SpicyZest
When I was a kid, I looked at a globe to find the exact opposite place on Earth, the farthest-away point in the world. The answer was deep in the Indian Ocean, halfway between Africa and Australia, due south of the small island nation of Sri Lanka. How strange it is to say that in 2017, one of my favorite comfort foods comes from Sri Lanka, from as far away as could possibly be. But SpicyZest, the Farmers Branch restaurant that introduced metro Dallas to foods like egg hoppers, kottu and lamprais, serves some of the region’s most exciting foods. Somehow, almost every time my friends and I go back, I find myself ordering mutton kottu, a mix of thin flatbread strips, carrots, greens, onions and cubes of tender mutton, all rendered a vivid yellow by curry spices and plated with elegance. It’s savory, spicy, meaty and perfect.
6. A private dinner at Revolver Taco Lounge
The backroom at Revolver, protected when I visited by a life-size cutout of Princess Leia, is a space like no other room in Dallas restaurants. It teleports the diner to Mexico as chefs Regino Rojas and Hugo Galván re-create the intimate family meals they remember from home. Mexican vinyl classics spin on the record player, the lights are turned low and mezcal bottles beckon. And the food is equally transporting: bright guacamole with a dusting of chapulines, superb ceviches, the freshest possible corn tortilla wrapped around a soft morsel of lobster, two moles made from scratch by Rojas’ mother. The backroom, called Purépecha, is available by reservation and seats only a small handful of guests. When I visited, there were just two of us, and we felt like family.
5. Venison at Abacus
The best meat dish I had this year was a venison tenderloin at Abacus, the almost 20-year-old mainstay at the north end of McKinney Avenue. Chef Chris Patrick and his team don’t do anything fancy with the meat, just cook it to blushing red medium-rare perfection. But that perfect cook and the superb flavor of the top-notch Texas venison stick in my mind. The kitchen shows its respect for the greatness of the meat. Abacus is going through a rough year as its owners battle a lawsuit from founding chef Kent Rathbun and its kitchen faces an uncertain future for the business. It is reassuring and a little inspiring that in such a tough climate, the team can still do such good, honest work.
4. Almost all the desserts at FT33
Is FT33 pastry chef Maggie Huff the most underrated chef in Dallas? Her desserts are almost always spectacular, and the weirder they sound on paper, the better they get. Like Eat Your Vegetables the scoldingly named trio of veggie-based sorbets that brought a scrumptious sense of fun to summertime, or the rice porridge that turned out to be a glamorous rice pudding with brown butter drizzle and fresh Texas peaches. Now, the restaurant’s website says she’s serving warm gingerbread with eggnog ice cream. There will now be a short break in the article as I drive over and beg for some.
3. Elotes at Las Almas Rotas
Fair Park’s new mezcal bar is a special place to drink, living up to its slogan, “a shrine to the spirits of Mexico.” There is no better place in town to sample four or five hard-to-find tequilas while learning about their stories, or to hear a visiting mezcalero talk about sustainable practices. But chef Jose Luis Benitez is also using the bar’s small kitchen to turn out excellent tacos and quesadillas, banana-leaf tamales, more adventurous nightly specials and some killer elotes. Everything here is made in house, but my favorite memory so far of my nights at this excellent bar was an evening during the State Fair, when regulars were trolling co-owner Shad Kvetko by installing garish stuffed animal prizes all over the premises and Benitez was serving superb elotes en vaso. They weren’t complicated: fresh summer corn, crema, queso fresco, some Takis (think Mexican spicy Cheetos). But they were superb, and my dining companion and I began fighting over the last bites, debating whether to order seconds and thirds.
2. A dinner with the Nameless Chefs
The Nameless Chefs pop-up series is taking Dallas-Fort Worth by storm, bringing coffee-themed dinners to Flower Mound and July 4 hot-dog events to local bars while showcasing the work of some of the most talented young culinary minds in the city. This summer, they served a meal I’ll never forget in the Fairmont Hotel’s new artist-in-residence studio, where sculptor Dan Lam showcases (and makes) her colorful, spiky creations. Lam encourages people to touch her work and even pass around the smaller pieces. Led by Jeremy Hess and Joshua Gianni Ferrell, the Nameless Chefs matched that playfulness with foods that were not what they seemed: Caesar salad in soup form, the most upscale rendition of Salisbury steak any of us had ever heard of and, maybe most memorable of all, “lasagna.” That was actually a combo of veal sweetbreads, ravioli, mushrooms, chorizo-tomato sauce and a sauce made by deliberately burning cheese to evoke the burnt, bubbly edges of a real lasagna. The result was a delightful culinary magic trick. I felt like a little kid again, except with a salary and permission to drink booze.
1. Black sesame mousse at Tei-An
Attention, restaurateurs: If you want to butter up the Observer‘s food critic, serve him a black sesame seed dessert. The Nameless Chefs concluded their collaboration dinner with a black sesame ice cream that had me swooning. Indeed, just about the only food I loved more this year was another black sesame seed dessert: the mousse at Tei-An. This ingredient (also known as nigella seed) elicits a Ratatouille-style reaction from me because my Turkish family has always sprinkled it liberally over breads and pastries. Even the smell — a little like thyme, a little like anise, a little like fresh-baked bread — sends my imagination back home. In a spice blend, black sesame is the perfect extra touch, but in a dessert, it’s inspired. The black sesame mousse at Tei-An is not especially sweet, but it is creamy, feather-light and blessed with a savory undercurrent almost like peanut butter. I could eat a bowl twice a week forever.