Sitting down to eat with a prolific restaurateur like Larry Lavine is a high-pressure situation. He’s continuously checking in, watching every facial expression to judge if what you tell him about the food is what you actually think. He quickly offers answers to every question, seemingly utterly confident in his choices — but that need to check in is his tell, in poker parlance. It gives away how much he cares that everyone likes his food.
Sure, Lavine is best known as one of the founders of Chili’s, arguably the most successful chain to spawn out of Dallas. If you know the story at all, you know he grew it slowly, betting on the neighborhood restaurant idea rather than jumping at the first offer to sell. Then it was Tia’s Mexican Grill, and Lavine has started a few other restaurants in Dallas since but hasn’t quite replicated that success. Until he threw his lot in with Ten 50 Barbecue in Richardson. It earned solid reviews and a following as a Central Texas-inspired spot that didn’t overtly aspire to be a chain.
Now, Lavine is barbecue obsessed. He throws out opinions as we tour Loop 9, his new venture in EpicCentral, which is Grand Prairie’s answer to The Grandscape and aimed at being a destination for locals and nearby city-dwellers with entertainment, shopping, and food. Loop 9 is among the first places to open in its restaurant row. He shows off its smokers, sourced from Mesquite, Texas, and says with authority that using hickory, which is easier to get in this part of the world, is the way to go — and tastes better than pecan. He reminisces over the lean brisket older Texans grew up eating and heralds the prime beef fatty brisket Loop 9, and most other barbecue joints, now serve. For meat lovers, Loop 9 specializes in prime brisket, pork ribs, pulled pork, and Meyer’s Elgin sausage.
The pork ribs are particularly memorable. Lavine delights in a compliment about the crust on them. He recounts the story of visiting Country Tavern in Kilgore, Texas, and finding out that its famous ribs used a Coca-Cola based rub. He uses the same trick at Loop 9’s. “I offered them $100 for the recipe,” he says with a sly smile, then recants, saying he was joking and that never happened. I almost believe him.
We sample the usual assortment of barbecue sides — potato salad with dill and liquidy with mayo, elotes developed by a guy from Velvet Taco that is just like Velvet Taco’s, pinto beans, and coleslaw with a vinegar based dressing. The signature app, queso with burnt ends, is cheesy. But the desserts — when his wife Anne sets the plates of key lime pie and banana cream pudding, both made from recipes developed by her, in front of me, they don’t look like they’re going to be mind-blowing. But they are slap-your-mama good.
The design of the joint is no-frills and capable of serving multitudes, which is why it looks positioned to be a chain, as long as this restaurant incubator experience in EpicCentral goes well. It offers a built-in customer base from the endless retail shopping but also a nearby waterpark, a hotel still under construction that’s mere feet away, and a bubble that he tells me is a wall climbing facility that’s visible just over the man-made lake with daily water shows that Loop 9’s sprawling outdoor seating faces.
“This place is poised to do $5 to $6 million a year,” Lavine says. All he has to do is wait for the customers to show up.