Where To Eat Now

Want to know the Indian restaurant all of Houston is talking about? The Dallas dining room with “crackling chicken” that’s to die for? The Austin cafe where the elite meet to eat? Just ask me.

February 2002By Comments

I have a recurring dream. In it, I am trapped in a corner while inquisitors with burning eyes bombard me with questions: “Where’s the best chicken-fried steak in Texas?” “Where should I take my wife for our anniversary?” “What’s fun?” “What’s new?” “What’s hot?”

Come to think of it, that’s my real life. Day in and day out, I answer questions like this for somebody, somewhere. This year I decided to write down the answers. What follows is a highly subjective roundup of places I would tell you about if you called me on the phone today—what’s new and fresh,the places people are talking about. But because even I recognize that man cannot live by Chilean sea bass alone, I’ve also included the kinds of homey, traditional spots that we Texans love.

I know I’m going to catch flak for certain choices and omissions, so let me do a little preemptive self-defense. This is not a “bests” list, although some of the restaurants mentioned are terrific (for the crème de la crème, turn to page 150 and check out the starred establishments in our Restaurant Guide). And it’s not a “favorites” list, although you’ll find me eating at many of the featured places. Rather, it is a roll call of restaurants that are on my radar screen at this particular moment in time.

But enough about methodology—you must be hungry. Here’s where you should be eating right now.

Of last year’s newly hatched restaurants, which ones stand out?

The clear winner in Houston is Indika, the love child of chef-owner Anita Jaisinghani. In her imaginative hands, Indian food breaks out of its tired tikka masala-vindaloo box, despite her protest that she’s just doing dishes from her childhood. Try her cashew-cardamom lamb curry or mustard-oil-sautéed potatoes, the latter a minor miracle. First Houston runner-up: Le Mistral, where French-born chef David Denis seldom strays from the classic Gallic repertoire. He’s not exactly breaking new ground here, but there are worse things in life than a masterful French onion soup or satiny scallops in lime beurre blanc. Second Houston runner-up: Bistro Le Cep, yet another gift to Francophiles. Comfy classics like sea bass in velouté sauce and a lightly saffroned bouillabaisse marseillaise populate chef Alfredo Aviles’ menu, while pine paneling, cafe curtains, and several splendidly feathered ceramic roosters create instant country character. The much-anticipated opening of Quattro, the new incarnation of DeVille in the Four Seasons Hotel, had not happened at press time.

In Dallas tiny York Street sparkles with silver and candlelight, reflected in strategically placed mirrors hung on dove-gray walls. Who wouldn’t feel cosseted when the gratis amenities include bowls of almonds and a small glass of fino sherry? The philosophy of Sharon Hage, the multitalented chef who bought the restaurant last year, might well be “Do nothing mundane or predictable.” Sweet-onion ravioli in a dark consommé makes a delicious appetizer. Scallops arrive on brandade, the Provençal dish of salt cod blended with whipped potatoes and garlic. A frittatalike Spanish omelet is enriched with a duck egg. (Where else in Dallas—or Texas, for that matter—will you find anything made with duck eggs?) The new Mercury, in Plano, reminds me of a deluxe cruise ship, all stainless steel and white and chrome, with soaring spaces and portholes at the mezzanine level. Artwork and flowers add splashes of color. Chef Chris Ward has made only a few changes from the menu of the original Mercury in North Dallas (now renamed the Mercury Grill), so expect to find the likes of his classic fried “crackling chicken” on whipped potatoes with picholine olives, asparagus, and bits of preserved Moroccan lemon—pure (if pricey) comfort food. His glazed black cod with fresh mango and hot mustard sauce is a spicy-sweet triumph. Other worthwhile newcomers on the Dallas restaurant merry-go-round include Ferré, with its modern, caramel-colored room and snappy productions like cappuccino al pomodoro, not a coffee drink but chef Kevin Ascolese’s tomato soup with a foamy milk cap. As for La Duni, I could bask all day in the light that pours into the welcoming little room with its sunrise colors and vases of long-stemmed roses. The pan-Latin food from chef-owners Espartaco and Dunia Borga—including entrées like half a chicken in champagne-and-citrus pan juices as well as various tortas (sandwiches) made with fabulous sliced popovers—is simple but cleverly done.

In Austin Wink is wowing most of the diners who manage to crowd into its small, natty terra-cotta-and-black space. Chef and co-owner Stewart Scruggs (formerly of Brio Vista) is turning out such dishes as soufflé-light Alaskan halibut with a pistachio crust and crisp-skinned duck breast with mashed purple Okinawa sweet potatoes (I only wish the duck had been more tender). Wink’s cloudlike chèvre cheesecake, the inspired creation of pastry chef and co-owner Mark Paul, is my personal nomination for dessert of the year. The abundance of attitude at Kenichi, the Aspen-born sushi bar in Austin’s warehouse district, has put some people off, but I’ve felt comfortable and well provided for by local chef Shane Stark, with all the usual sushi suspects to choose from plus twenty kinds of sake and entrées like squab in a gossamer ginger-miso broth. In Kenichi’s soothing black-and-parchment interior, a feathery branch of faux cherry blossoms stands out like a pink petticoat at a cocktail party.

The antithesis of Fort Worth’s Cowtown image, the intimate and suave Ashton Hotel has given the city’s downtown a touch of class. This boutique hostelry’s restaurant, Café Ashton—all blond wood and walls of honey and vanilla—is tucked away in a corner of the lobby, where at night a pianist plays soft, jazzy pop tunes. Although such culinary details as an assertive tomato- orange chutney show imagination, I got the feeling that chef Diarmuid Murphy hasn’t quite hit his stride; both a filet of Chilean sea bass (with whole-grain-mustard sauce) and a harissa-seasoned chicken breast (with Rösti potato cakes and good wilted spinach) were undercooked (and I like medium-rare fish and slightly underdone fowl). Even so, Café Ashton is worth your time.

What about the newest of the new: What intriguing places have popped up in the past four months?

The most sizzling hot spot in Houston is Ling and Javier (see “Where’s the Scene?” below). Also new and quite promising, Papillon Bistro Français has set up camp in a downtown Houston space whose industrial look is offset by contemporary art and a glitzy brass chandelier. I loved chef Dominic Juarez’s seared tuna on a fricassee of wild mushrooms. By the way, the Bistro gets my nomination for the year’s most nonsensical menu description: “corn foraged mushroom sauce.” Adorning a veal strip loin, the concoction was in fact a perfectly straightforward peppery cream sauce with chanterelles and roasted corn.

In Dallas the eagerly awaited Thirty-Six Degrees—expected to be the next seafood sensation from fish maestro Chris Svalesen—has opened, but an early visit left me cold. Svalesen’s monkfish with pan-seared foie gras lacked the heft to balance an overpowering plum-port wine demi-glace, and the ceviche was dry. But most of my fellow diners looked happy (even though about half of the restaurant was still under construction), and I can’t imagine that the kitchen won’t get its sea legs soon.

In Austin I do rather like Roy’s, the first Texas edition of the upscale Hawaii-based chain founded by Roy Yamaguchi. The kitchen’s style is pan- Pacific, like the people of the islands themselves, with basic French techniques applied to Hawaiian, Thai, and Japanese ingredients. This fusion produces local chef Michael Powers’ miso-and-sake-marinated butterfish (mild, like cod) in three sauces: ginger-wasabi, mustard, and butter. The soaring dining room is, thankfully, kitsch-free, with the light fixtures’ bamboo screens the only hints of a tropical theme.

The most exciting restaurant to open in San Antonio recently is Gladys, an old-fashioned name for a thoroughly modern milieu where decorative art-glass vessels and vases full of white spider mums glow against wine-dark walls. I’m dazzled by ethereal (yes, ethereal) roast chicken in a reduced soy glaze with fermented black beans. And hurrahs all around for chef-owner Thomas Benninger’s crisp grilled lemongrass shrimp atop a timbale of sprightly cucumber-mint couscous and creamy hummus.

Chef and owner Jon Bonnell of Bonnell’s, in Fort Worth, has his audience figured out. The tastes are bold and, he says, “There’s nothing on the menu you can’t pronounce.” At this rather corporate-looking place, you don’t dine, you eat. On any given day you might find a hefty mixed grill (good quail and sausage, unevenly cooked venison and antelope), exceedingly rich ginger-carrot soup, heavy chile-cheese grits, and a salad in a balsamic dressing that has been kicked up more than a notch. The crowds obviously like the hybrid Texas-Creole-Mediterranean menu.

Where’s the scene?

Which gods have I so displeased that they have time-warped me back to the hellish days of New York’s celebrity-ridden monument to self-indulgence, Studio 54? At Houston’s brand new Ling and Javier, you can eat amid the din of weekend revelers in fur-trimmed sweaters and leather pants. Although chef Alena Pyles has promising family connections (she’s the little sister of big-time Dallas chef Stephan Pyles), I’m withholding judgment on the kitchen for now. True, the panfried grouper in almond- butter sauce (from the Cuban side of the menu) was sublime, but the stir-fried lamb (from the Chinese side) proved lackluster. At hip, bustling Ibiza, where the smart black-and-tan decor glows in the candlelight, chef Charles Clark updates dishes from his Louisiana past, such as rambunctious grilled shrimp with crabmeat cornbread and smoked-jalapeño sauce. A different kind of scene prevails at Taco Milagro, chef-owner Robert Del Grande’s relaxed, tropical taquería. This is the place where tout le Houston convenes on Sunday afternoons. The setting is replete with River Oaks dukes and Tootsies babes (and sometimes their real babes, toddling around the outdoor fountain, weather permitting). Food? Oh, yes—the bacon-wrapped-shrimp tacos are to die for. And let us not forget the legendary gay night (Sunday) at the original Ninfa’s, more like a family reunion than a bar scene. Is Ninfa’s decor dated and tatty? Yes. Are the enchiladas in green sauce still fabulous? Yes again.

In Dallas my favorite digs for practicing urban anthropology include the hot new Buddha Bar. Before ten-thirty you can dine in relative peace on moderately priced, better-than-they-have-to-be veal chops, rack of lamb, and such. After ten-thirty you have to pass muster with the doorman (jeans okay, T-shirts not) to gain admittance to the lounge area, where waitresses in clinging black dispense bellinis and apple martinis to patrons happily packed five-deep around the bar. A world apart, the marble-and-brass bar at Beau Nash reverberates with talk, music, and the occasional shriek of laughter from assorted well-dressed denizens. Me, I’ll have my pan-roasted pork chop and sweet-potato purée in the quieter, conservatorylike side dining room, thank you very much. For sushi and a younger, local-celebrity-enhanced crowd, hie yourself to Steel, a piece of work with a sweeping glass front, a granite sushi bar, and at the back, a sake bar graced by two enormous silver candelabra that look as if they came from an estate sale at Dracula’s castle. The Samba Room’s high-decibel Cuban music, fan palms, gauzy floor-to-ceiling curtains, and serpentine bar still lure the young and the restless, who refuel in the adjacent dining room on accomplished tropical-fusion fare like cumin-accented roast pork tenderloin with black beans and sweet-potato hash.

In Austin the SRO crowd in the chummy bar at Vespaio has hardly abated in the three years it has been open, for the simple reason that many people think chef-owner Alan Lazarus’ ristorante is the best eating place in the city. Instead of waiting for a table in the dining room, eat at the bar (well, provided you can get a seat there and don’t choke on the smoke). An order from the gorgeous antipasto selection or something simple like the sensational lasagne will get you served with dispatch. Nowhere is the laid-back Austin of yore on better display than at Güero’s Taco Bar, especially in the front room, where, on Sunday afternoons, you can listen to the Texana Dames belting out their Latin sounds while you eat excellent caldo de pollo chased with a margarita. The perfect Austin non-scene scene prevails at breakfast and lunch at Las Manitas, where the whole point is to disappear into a ripped-vinyl booth and inhale an order of the Mexican cafe’s superlative enchiladas de Michoacán. But pay attention and you might see former governor Ann Richards or (if he happens to be in town) presidential adviser Karl Rove, not to mention Lyle Lovett.

San Antonio’s twenty- and thirtysomethings keep Reggiano’s rocking from Thursday (bocce night) right through the weekend. The big bar-in-the-round is the place to be, with a Mexican martini in your hand. Thank goodness the noise doesn’t intrude into the spacious dining room, with its blond wood pillars and cork ceiling (smart idea, that). Chef Miguel Ardid’s Mediterranean menu sounds wonderful but sometimes the kitchen misses the mark (goat-cheese-stuffed quail was tender on a recent visit, but pork chops with pancetta and sage were tough). The breads, from restaurant owners Paul and Solomon Abdo’s in-house bakery, are consistently irresistible.

Sapristi! is where Fort Worth’s social set hangs out, nibbling tapas and rosemary-dusted fries (the best things on the menu, in my opinion). The wide-ranging selection of wines is well priced (many bottles under $30), and the place, with its dark wood floors, Tiffany-style stained-glass lights, and bentwood chairs, doesn’t have a self-conscious bone in its body.

My boyfriend eats only red meat. Where should I take him?

In Houston have him sink his incisors into the prime beef, dry-aged for at least 28 days, at Pappas Bros., the city’s most elite, and frequently mobbed, steakhouse. The working phones on each table recall the glamorous speakeasies of the Prohibition era. At the Palm, Houston’s edition of the nationwide chain, a pure power scene prevails, with guys in pressed jeans and custom boots at the bar and equally well-heeled folks (including whole families) at the tables.

In Dallas many people refuse to go anywhere but Bob’s Steak and Chop House, a clubby, centrally located beef-eater’s emporium that attracts both the expense-account and the more-dressed-down trade. Of course, Del Frisco’s still gets the cigar-and-designer-perfume crowd, if you want to drive that far north to join the riotous pack around the hand-carved bar. The Dallas outpost of Pappas Bros. falls somewhere in between, as luxurious as Del Frisco’s but slightly less intense. Early adopters of trends, though, will want to check out the newest steak-and-seafood house in the city, Perry’s, with classy appointments and a simple but sumptuous menu.

Plenty of Austin carnivores still swear by Ruth’s Chris (for the predictable men’s-club look, fantastic prime beef, and sides like creamed spinach) and Sullivan’s (slightly less expensive Certified Angus Beef, a forties look, and a name that pays homage to bare-knuckle boxer John L. Sullivan). But the raves these days are going to Fleming’s, barely eight months old, where chandeliers, varnished woods, and deep, burgundy-colored booths create a seductive atmosphere where you can pop the question or cinch a deal.

Fort Worth also has a Del Frisco’s, and late last year, when other restaurants were hurting, the Bimmers and Jaguars were still pulling up at the corner here. This is a city that takes prime tenderloin seriously.

I want to impress the boss.

If God were an interior designer, heaven might well look like Mark’s, the luminous but chic converted Houston church where chef-owner Mark Cox regularly performs good works (transcendent snapper over mushroom risotto) but also commits the occasional transgression (way-too-salty lobster bisque). My other current choice is tawny, tony Pesce, the de rigueur hangout for actual and wannabe CEOs (get chef Mark Holley’s divine lump-crab cakes or meltingly delicious Moroccan lamb stew).

In Dallas dinner in the swank, minimalist environs of Salve!, whose pale gray interior and wall of windows put one in mind of an upscale aquarium, will definitely garner points with the boss for good taste. Your culinary acumen will shine if you recommend chef Steven Kelley’s extraordinary brodo con funghi, a deep-flavored mushroom broth swirled with truffle oil.

If Ripley’s Believe It or Not had a category for restaurants where it’s actually possible to talk without having to shout, the Driskill Grill, in Austin’s sedate and proper, almost Victorian Driskill Hotel, would qualify. From chef David Bull’s kitchen emerge boss-pleasing triumphs like Chilean sea bass in a gingery orange-wasabi broth accented with darling little crab-stuffed egg rolls.

In San Antonio Le Rêve is so exceptional that I’m breaking my own rule about not including places that have stars in our Restaurant Guide. There was a night here that I almost swooned, the food was so fantastic. Chef Andrew Weissman’s barely seared Hudson Valley foie gras redefined “decadence,” and his Chilean sea bass on braised leeks was ambrosial. The small, chic room and deferential servers strike a proper but not haughty note.

Are there places you’re dying to go back to?

Although not everything I’ve eaten there has been perfect, I now count myself among those who are raving about Aries, located in a simple, remodeled two-story Houston house with burgundy walls and filmy curtains. Chef Scott Tycer’s pink Sonoma lamb chop with lamb crépinette (a spunky homemade sausage) won me over. And I’m in love with the sophisticated cottage setting of Da Marco, where chef Marco Wiles does intriguing things with disparate ingredients to create new Italian classics (beets, celery, and Parmesan merge into an amazingly delicious salad; the lemony flash-fried young artichoke is eye-rolling good).

In Fort Worth I’m hot for Fizzi, a bubbly newcomer where champagne flows and also appears in many dishes. The multilevel setting, with light taupe walls and navy-blue light fixtures, showcases Mediterranean cuisine like chef Bobby Albanese’s exceptional seafood lasagne with smoked shrimp, kalamata olives, and fontina cheese atop a snazzy yellow-bell-pepper sauce.

By now the pierced and tattooed night crawlers of Deep Ellum have grown accustomed to middle-class diners pulling up to the valet parking stand and scurrying into the Green Room. The quirky, scruffy restaurant, with angel sculptures and electric guitars on the walls, is one of my Dallas favorites. Not only does it tweak the city’s stuffy image, but it also pushes the culinary envelope. Chef Marc Cassel’s savory espresso-rubbed carpaccio with spicy cress, shaved pecorino, and horseradish cream was sliced so thin it had to be scooped up with a spoon, while lamb T-bones with chickpeas, sun-dried tomatoes, and a preserved-lemon demi-glace came off like a cassoulet. Located in a shopping-center site that has delivered the coup de grce to several eating places, Citizen—part sushi bar, part retro-chic dining room—has been struggling a bit of late. Hang in there, Citizen. Any kitchen that can deliver a filet of black cod with the texture of satin in a shimmering, ginger-sparked miso sauce does not deserve to go gently into restaurant oblivion. But my real love in Dallas is Suze, where chef Gilbert Garza straddles several cuisines with aplomb. Not a destination restaurant but a simple neighborhood bistro, Suze is intimate and welcoming, with dusty-rose walls, royal blue tablecloths, and French doors. Give me the sprightly tandoori shrimp (in a red-bell-pepper-and-coconut sauce) and the harissa-flavored couscous (with a frisky touch of chile and cumin) and you won’t hear a word from me for at least ten minutes.

Even though I know my hearing is endangered by the noise bouncing off the old limestone walls in La Traviata’s stylish downtown Austin space, I am longing for chef Marion Gillcrist’s arugula salad with chicken and Gorgonzola dressing, not to mention her silken scallops on cannellini beans, a special that can’t be offered too often for me. My other flirtation du jour is Starlite, which seems to have abandoned its practice of serving portions so small you needed reading glasses to find them. Most of the rooms in the old house have been stripped of their wallpaper and outfitted with tables bearing crisp white linen. Chef Chris Howard’s successes include hearts of romaine in a honey-cashew dressing with Stilton and an entrée of (almost underdone) scallops on a tomato fondue with a salad of microgreens and lemongrass.

Comfort me with meat loaf. Where do you go for good home cooking?

In Houston I’m a huge fan of the Triple AAA cafe (in the farmers’ market), the homiest place in town. I like its fresh-from-the-chicken eggs at breakfast and its smothered hamburger steak and greens at lunch. (The Triple AAA is also a great spot to take the kids.)

In Dallas home away from home is Mama’s Daughters’ Diner, practically an institution with six big, slightly utilitarian but inviting locations. At eleven-fifteen in the morning, folks are already lining up for lunch, knowing that their patience will be rewarded with the likes of tender chicken and dumplings, chicken-fried steak with good cream gravy, baked squash, awesome coconut pie, and stellar cornbread muffins.

In Austin Hoover’s has won my affections with its butcher-paper-covered tables, wooden booths, and such new and old takes on home cooking as chef-owner Hoover Alexander’s cornmeal-crusted fried catfish, portobello muffulettas, jalapeño creamed spinach, and Aus-Tex wings seasoned with chipotle and a touch of molasses.

I know an architect who refuses to eat at San Antonio’s Liberty Bar because he’s convinced that the cozy old two-story house, which leans like the Tower of Pisa, is going to crash to the ground someday with a load of satisfied diners on board. I’ll take my chances. Just give me a sandwich on the Bar’s homemade bread or Virginia Green’s dense, dark chocolate cake. The cool farmhouse vibe here obscures the fact that some of the dishes (fresh pear and Stilton salad, to name one) go beyond familiar homey fare. Even so, a less pretentious restaurant cannot be found in San Antonio.

Like a Norman Rockwell painting or a Russell Lee photograph of Depression-era Texas, the Paris Coffee Shop in Fort Worth has captured and preserved a simpler moment in American history, when “meat” meant beef, chicken was always fried, and the only sauces most people knew were ketchup and cream gravy. Diners reconnect with their roots over chicken-fried steak, meat loaf, and beef short ribs.

Is there such a thing as good barbecue in a big city?

Despite the inevitable crush of customers, Goode Company Barbeque’s two outposts still have a lock on Houston (the mesquite-grilled beef and the jalapeño-cheese bread rule). In Dallas my first choice is Sonny Bryan’s original location, where I wedge myself into an old, smoke-saturated school chair to eat the city’s top beef, pork ribs, and onion rings. Of late, though, I’m drawn to Holy Smokes!, whose pork ribs give Sonny’s a run for the money. Purely for the meat, I cast my Austin vote for newbie John Mueller’s B-B-Q, which is doing quite creditable brisket and all the rest at a basic location with cafeteria tables on the city’s east side (its young owner is a scion of the family that owns famed Louie Mueller’s in Taylor). For atmosphere, I take out-of-towners to the Iron Works’ breezy creekside balcony. At the Railhead in Fort Worth, everybody’s having a good time: Men—beers and sliced-brisket sandwiches in hand—are gathered around a big table watching a ball game; kids in line with their moms are whining for pork ribs; and the servers are all wearing T-shirts that proclaim “Life is too short to live in Dallas.” The best barbecue in Fort Worth is here, period.

Sometimes nothing will do but a plate of enchiladas.

In Houston I cannot stay away from Otilia’s humble little A-frame, with its awesome mole enchiladas, and Gorditas Aguascalientes, with its all-Spanish jukebox and simple but yummy chicken enchiladas, just like you get in Mexico. In Dallas I get my fix at two places: Nuevo Leon, for its pork enchiladas and its manchamanteles (“tablecloth stainer”), the traditional Mexican stew of meat and long-cooked fruit with a red chile sauce, and Luna de Noche, with a cool, modern look that sidesteps the usual Mexican-restaurant decorative themes—colonial or country. The menu embraces both homey (luxuriant cheese enchiladas) and hip (moist grilled salmon in a chilled poblano cream sauce). Whoever devised the color scheme at Evita’s Botanitas, in Austin, is in love with lavender—not to mention yellow, blue, and red. Me, I’m smitten with the little cafe’s five excellent table salsas and its chicken enchiladas swathed in great, not-too-sweet homemade mole sauce. A trip to San Antonio demands a stop at La Calesa, a simple little cottage with a warren of rooms painted in tropical-fruit colors. From its tiny kitchen come such gems as beef enchiladas in meat gravy, fluffy white-masa chicken tamales, and buttery, brothy corn soup.

We’d like to go someplace fun or special that the locals know but might not think to tell us about.

Houston’s hong kong city mall (way out west on Bellaire, where the street signs are in both Chinese and English) is one of the city’s best entertainment values. A friend and I wandered for an hour through this huge, spiffy shopping mall, stopping for dim sum at upscale Ocean Palace and somehow finding room for a rainbow of sweetened beans and other exotic treats over shaved ice at the Teahouse. About a zillion mysterious fresh sea creatures are for sale at the expansive grocery store, which we took to calling the Asian Central Market. Best buy: the $35 rayon robe with a dragon embroidered on the back that was hanging on a rack outside one of the clothing stores.Those crowds in Dallas next to the Restoration Hardware store on Knox are not, in fact, standing in line to buy knockoff Mission furniture. They’re queuing up at the tiny shop a couple of doors down, Wild About Harry’s, to order two things: hot dogs and frozen custard, both great. (I’m partial to the raspberry—custard, that is.)

In Austin Fonda San Miguel puts on the most extensive, most authentic Mexican brunch in the state every Sunday. Chef Miguel Ravago’s spread is gorgeous, as is the hip hacienda setting.

In San Antonio you can stand at the intersection of South Alamo and South St. Mary’s and be a biscuit’s throw away from the greatest concentration of breakfast possibilities in Texas: El Mirador (fantastic sopa azteca—Mexican chicken soup—in a bright, stuccoed cafe), MadHatters Tea House Cafe (“migas scram” with smoked Gouda in a crazy-quilt storefront), the Guenther House (fluffy buttermilk pancakes and great sausage gravy in a historic rock building), Espuma (espresso drinks and pastries in a house with a welcoming porch), Torres Taco Haven (an amazing choice of tacos made with homemade tortillas in a boisterous cafe), and BJ’s Tacos (más tacos in a former corner grocery store with colorful local art on the walls).

I can’t decide if it’s just the name, but I think Pedro’s Trailer Park in Fort Worth has definite franchise potential. Overflow crowds lounge around in the restaurant’s Airstream while awaiting admittance to the dining room (located in a separate building), a floral-wallpapered, wood-paneled, leopard-pillowed, sequin-sombrero’d tribute to kitsch. Given the decor, you’d expect fajitas and tacos (and you’d be correct). What you wouldn’t expect are chef-owner Paul Willis’ lobster Thermidor and tenderloin in cognac sauce. Never mind that the preparation and the service can be uneven. Most folks consider the gamble worth taking because it’s so much fun to go there.

Finally, this story would not be complete without at least one entry from El Paso: the inimitable H&H Carwash and Coffee Shop. A peerless twofer, the H&H is where blue- and white-collar wearers alike scrunch into seats at a tiny counter—frequently elbow to elbow with local movers and shakers—to eat fab red-chile enchiladas while waiting for their sedans and pickups to emerge from the suds. In recognition of its status as a beloved culinary and cultural landmark, last year New York’s prestigious James Beard Foundation named the H&H a winner of its America’s Classics Award. Only two other restaurants in Texas—Joe T. Garcia’s in Fort Worth and the original Sonny Bryan’s in Dallas—can claim that honor.

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