DALLAS — The first thing you notice about Dallas is that Big D is big. A car is a necessity and seeing things requires driving. So does eating. Restaurants are spread out over a vast territory and residents compute distances by driving times.
And because it is surrounded by a parking lot, the natural place to start is Sonny Bryan's Smokehouse.
Trying to find the best barbecue place in the nation is a bit like searching for the Holy Grail. But Sonny's place must rank near the top. It is easy to find Sonny's--just follow the aroma of oak smoke drifting from the pit.
By 11 a.m. the crowds start arriving to order barbecued ribs, beef and pork. They are bankers, executives, truck drivers, oil field workers, anyone who loves barbecued food.
And they eat in the cramped confines of Bryan's or out in the lot, using the hoods of the cars for tables.
Sonny is there every day, overseeing things, and chopping up some of the 800 pounds of barbecued beef he serves each day.
"I am following in the family business," he says. "My grandfather started here in 1910, and I have been here for 29 years."
Each day a melting pot of people stop by to devour ribs, beef and ham in sandwiches ($3.75), on plates ($5.50) and with dinners ($4.75).
The dinners come with french fries or what may be the best onion rings in Texas, certainly the biggest. There are beer and soft drinks. Sonny opens every day at 10 and he closes "when the meat runs out," usually mid-afternoon. This is barbecue at its best.
We love breakfast, and judging from the crowds that drive to another Dallas institution, we are not alone. Folks flock to breakfast at the Mecca Cafe, a small roadside diner where Rolls-Royces edge up next to pickup trucks.
It seems that everyone stops here on the way to work to eat huge breakfasts of ham and eggs, grits, biscuits and white gravy. The breakfasts, served to hay balers, cowboys and oil field workers, brokers and real estate developers, cost less than $10 for two.
At the other end of the spectrum, in price and ambiance, are several other Dallas restaurants. Two should not be missed--the dining room of the Mansion on Turtle Creek and the Routh Street Cafe.
Dean Fearing, executive chef at the Mansion, was a pioneer in developing Southwestern cuisine, a blend of California and French nouvelle, combined with the spices and cooking influences of Mexico and the Southwest.
It is one of the most accepted of the new trends and is a genuinely American type of cooking. Southwestern dishes have provided inspiration for chefs around the world. On a recent visit to a two-star restaurant in Paris, we found several dishes heavily influenced by the use of chilies and cornmeal.
Fearing is responsible for establishing the Mansion on Turtle Creek as one of the top three or four restaurants featuring Southwestern cuisine in this city.
The other top restaurants include Stephan Pyles' Routh Street Cafe, opened a few years ago, and Richard Chamberlain's stunning San Simeon, opened last year. Chamberlain worked with Fearing at the Mansion.
"We have a friendly rivalry," says Fearing of the other chefs. "We all try to use indigenous concepts of cooking and lots of local products. When I came to town in 1979 everything was French nouvelle cooking. When I began at Agnews in 1982 we tried to make people aware of the strength of their own local cooking."
Agnews closed in 1984, and Fearing thinks it was partly because he was a little ahead of his time. "We were the first American restaurant in Dallas, and people had to be educated to new things," he says. "Today Dallas is a leader in this type of cooking because we have very well-traveled residents who know and demand different dishes of very high quality."
Spicy, Not Fiery
Although many Southwestern dishes do have chilies and are spicy, they are generally not fiery, and even those who don't enjoy hot dishes find that they like this cooking.
Even a down-home dish like fried chicken takes on new meaning with Fearing. He bakes it with a maple pecan crust and serves it with roasted garlic potatoes and a freshly made cranberry-orange relish, ($19). A turbot with chili pecan crust came to us hot and crisp on the outside and tender on the inside.
The chili crust was only slightly hot, and the three sauces of green tomatillo, black bean and smoked red pepper provided a colorful accompaniment ($23). A pan-fried gulf red snapper was placed on a bed of chopped mango, cucumber, melon and lime reduced with cream ($24).
We tried side dishes of Southern creamed corn with smoked bacon fritters and jalapeno maple syrup and gorditas, a type of sandwich made of grilled cornmeal, or masa, and filled with a variety of Mexican vegetables, including peppers and jicama. Both were $3.25.
Dessert included an old-fashioned coconut cake topped with candied violets and a creme brulee made in a pastry shell and studded with fresh raspberries.