Once upon a time everyone’s personal hero — noted world traveler, bon vivant, and snarky hard-drinking bon-mot machine Anthony Bourdain — had a show on the Travel Channel called The Layover. The premise of the show was thus: during a simulated flight layover — between 24 and 48 hours — at a particular locale, Bourdain showed viewers all the essential shit to do. It was a good show. I liked it.
Recently I’ve been preparing to move away from Dallas, and in me, this move has prompted a Layover-style analysis of the Dallas dining scene: Since I have but a few fleeting days left, what should I do? What must I eat?
So here it is: a layover in Dallas, from Friday night to Sunday afternoon.
FRIDAY NIGHT: DINNER AND DRINKS
I am of course flying in from Dallas Love Field, the only reasonable option because it is antithetical to DFW Airport. Intuitive, efficient, sleek, modern, Dallas Love also delivers this knockout blow: It has a Whataburger. After scarfing a #4 while waiting for my luggage (and smuggling in it some spicy ketchup for the flight back), I take a short cab ride — only two and a half miles — to a no-brainer dinner destination: Avila’s on Oak Lawn. You’re damn right: my first stop after being out of Texas is some down-and-dirty and damn tasty Tex-Mex. To order: a couple Pacificos, a margarita (or two), queso, carafes — plural — of that piquant salsa, and the crowning achievement, a chili relleno covered in crests of poblano sour cream sauce. That’s Tex-Mex, distilled.
Having thoroughly worked up a thirst, I take an Uber less than two miles: to a place once named the best bar in the world: the Meddlesome Moth in the Design District. It is here at this craft beer oasis that I get my bearings. At the bar I sit, drinking something sour, and staring at the back wall's stained-glass Elvis. Then I order something malty, and snipe some chicken skins off an unsuspecting stranger’s plate. I feel renewed. The Moth’s magic elixirs have relit my life force. As the clock ticks toward midnight I require a change of scenery — something a bit more sinister.
Back into the night I wander, with one place in mind: the promise of something wonderful out east at Strangeways. One glass of Texas whiskey turns into two or three, maybe, as it tends to do, and the patrons, equal parts yuppie and hipster, a melange of Aggie rings and face piercings, intermingle to varying degrees of civility. The dogs on the patio bark and mug and preen for attention, and they get it, because they are dogs, and the bartenders are salty and busy and the soundtrack is the Smiths and the world starts to spin.
Strangeways remains a great place to drink, the preeminent place in Dallas to drink, and is also the ideal place to end up after 2 a.m. because of the startling and walkable proximity to ZaLat — open till 4 a.m., and where I will go with haste to eat with impunity the very greasy pizza I need to soak up all that poison.
SATURDAY: BREAKFAST AND LUNCH
There are only two acceptable breakfast choices: coffee, natch, and tacos. I choose the best of both worlds: East Dallas's Good 2 Go Taco, where I can both scarf a taco literally called the Hangover Helper (it's stuffed with mashed potatoes, chorizo, and cotija cheese for a serious one-two carb punch) and guzzle the top-quality coffee roasted on-site by Cultivar Coffee. A zesty and revitalizing Topo Chico completes this ritual trifecta.
Next, I head down Buckner Blvd. to Expo Park and Craft & Growler. The open floor plan, rustic and reclaimed and wood-paneled, the chalk tap list, the bustling and effervescent chatter of large and good-looking groups of happy and boozy people, all sipping on and dishing about the flavors and textures and nuances of their beers — this is what we talk about when we talk about bars as agents of community. Craft & Growler is just a great and fun place to be. After a couple pints and some good conversation and much-needed sitting-around time, it’s time for a late lunch.
I decide to take the short trek to Deep Ellum and resolve to wait in line at, you guessed it, Pecan Lodge. Pecan Lodge is the definition of a must-visit: it, as has been written ad nauseam here and elsewhere, alone transformed Dallas barbecue into a big deal. Smoky and heavenly brisket, the Flintstone-ian beef rib, the loaded sweet potato known as the Hot Mess, the epic Pitmaster sandwich, the handmade jalapeño sausage, fried chicken, green chile mac, collards, fried okra, yeast rolls and bread pudding — all of it is you-have-to-order-it good. It’s as good as barbecue gets. Having said that, there will be a line, and, if one gets started late in the day, many items may be long gone.
So, for those of us who regard a wait in line as anathema, I offer a Deep Ellum alternative: Luscher’s Red Hots. If this is the chosen adventure, there will be many delicious options from which to order — the eponymous Post Oak Red Hot, the combo, the smoky Meat Fight sausage — but the Uncle Herky burger with peppered bacon has to be the choice. It is a burger made of dreams, whose every ingredient, from bun to bacon, works in seamless and meaty harmony, and whose last bite is as flavorful and decadent and eye-poppingly, maddeningly mouth-watering as the first. This is the best burger in town, I promise.
After that — burgers or barbecue — it is, more than it has ever been, time for a lengthy nap: maybe at Klyde Warren Park, as long as I have sunscreen. Wherever I choose to nap, I hope the sleep is good, because, when I awaken, it will be time again to eat.
SATURDAY NIGHT: DINNER AND DRINKS
I have showered, and I have changed into my long pants and my least wrinkly and most gingham-y shirt, and I have combed my hair and sobered up and now: now it is time to eat at, for my money, the best and most interesting and most spending-this-kind-of-money-is-actually-worth-it joint in town: the swank Casa Rubia at Trinity Groves. Eating at Casa Rubia, a Spanish tapas-style establishment, is best done with a group, so many dishes can be ordered and reordered and shared, and so when the bill comes everyone feels equally complicit.
But, in this case, if I am alone, or with only another, there are some definite guidelines: the boquerones. And the bunuelos. And the mushrooms, and the milk-poached chicken, and for certain, without hesitation, the pulpo a la plancha, an octopus dish so savory, acidic, crunchy, creamy and masterful that I almost don’t even want to eat it, because I know doing so means it will be gone. I have dessert, the pan calatrava — seemingly named for that architectural beaut of a bridge that brought you here to Trinity Groves —and now, after having spent a large amount of money on one hell of a meal, I want to go to the kind of place that represents the common man.
From West Dallas, I make my way to Ten Bells Tavern on the edge of Oak Cliff's Bishop Arts District. There I swill drinks made with gin and count the beards on the inviting patio and dance and sing loudly and badly with the hordes of regulars to the funky sounds emanating from the musical machinery of KNON’s Charlie Don’t Park, a frequent Ten Bells DJ. From Black Joe Lewis’s modern blues to George Hamilton’s rockabilly of yore to Sly and the Family Stone’s timeless funk, his playlist is a microcosm of the Ten Bells experience: raucous, rapturous, unpredictable, and hell-raising.
After Ten Bells it’s well after midnight, and I need a place to crash, and so I wind up at the boutique Belmont Hotel, in North Oak Cliff, on the patio, drinking a strong drink made with rye whiskey and maraschino liqueur. I stare at what’s left of the Dallas skyline view — what hasn't been obscured by the new Sylvan Thirty development, which, P.S. is home to some killer ramen — before I fall soundly asleep and I think, man, my time here’s almost up.
SUNDAY MORNING: BRUNCH
For my final meal before the flight back I stay in Oak Cliff and brave the boisterous brunch crowds at Jonathon’s. Sometimes it takes a while for a table at tiny Jonathon's, but after 10 a.m. they make their wait extremely palatable with a build-your-own bloody mary bar. I build my own mary, and maybe another, and maybe another, and I order a cup of the revitalizing chicken enchilada soup and a massive, heaping portion of the best-in-the-city chicken fried steak, complemented by two runny-as-hell fried eggs, and I douse the whole unholy concoction in gravy and Cholula and mix it all up and inhale it and doing so sops up all the pain in my booze-addled soul.
And then I sigh. Because, from here, it is back to regular life, back to somewhere else that isn’t overflowing with chicken-fried steak and bloody marys on a sun-drenched patio. If, like me, you’re leaving Dallas, or, conversely, if you’re wondering why you’d ever visit in the first place, I posit that world-class barbecue, booze, and bars are three reasons as good as any. A poet once said — not about Dallas, but I’ll be damned if it doesn’t apply — you ain’t a beauty, but hey, you're all right.