Restaurant critics take a blood oath to vilify chain restaurants at every turn, calling them cookie-cutter, hackneyed, soulless and all other form of hyperbolic adjectives plucked from Webster's or an old Frank Bruni review. I am certainly not going to defend the homogenizing of America's restaurants, or what seems like a diabolical plan to feed the world bloomin' onions and baby-back, baby-back ribs.
But there's gotta be some wiggle room. Like when a local restaurant, beloved by its patrons, becomes so popular that it simply cannot be contained (see Fuzzy's). So they open another location, and then another. And before you know it, we've got a mini-chain reaction.
That scenario is playing out all over DFW, where homegrown restaurants like Gloria's, Jakes and Mi Cocina have been steadily expanding.
With each new iteration, though, you hear the grumbles. People start using the C-word and -- gasp! -- the F-word: franchise.
But I believe there is a gastronomic middle ground, where six Kincaid's and eight Babe's can live in harmony while retaining their integrity and local flavor.
The Flying Saucer, which has opened 14 locations in its 15 years, explains the conundrum best on its website: "Duplication is the boldest form of flattery, but we do not franchise. We believe in slow growth and sometimes think the franchising racket may be the crack cocaine of responsible expansion.
"Owning the world is not our dream."
With that in mind, we salute 10 of our favorite DFW mini-chains that are busy filling our bellies but don't seem bent on world domination. Yet.
Locations: 15 throughout DFW
Where it all began: Dallas, 1991
Where it's headed: The MCrowd restaurant group owns Mi Cocina and Taco Diner, the popular fast-casual concept that has five locations and two more on the way.
Why we love it: Mi Cocina delivers refined and flavorful Mexican dishes, with sleek modern interiors and moderate prices. The formula works. And everything tastes awesome after one of those Mambo Taxi frozen cocktails. www.mcrowd.com
Locations: 13 (10 in DFW, one in Houston, one in Round Rock and one in North Carolina)
Where it all began: Richardson in the early '90s; the downtown Fort Worth location opened soon after.
Where it's headed: Expansion has slowed since 2008, when Razzoo's settled a sex-discrimination lawsuit from male employees who alleged the chain regularly failed to hire and promote men as bartenders.
Why we love it: Bobby Boucher ( The Waterboy) and his momma would love Razzoo's, with its down-and-dirty bayou feel and menu: Rat Toes and Gator Tail are two favorites, and I'm partial to the blackened chicken breast, a butter-basted guilty pleasure. razzoos.com
Where it all began: 25 years ago in Dallas. The Uptown location on McKinney Avenue was the first and until 2002 was counter service and drive-thru only.
Where it's headed: Brothers Greg and Marty Garvey bought Jakes in 2002 and brought one of Dallas' favorite burgers to Cowtown in 2009, with a location on Main Street and later on Camp Bowie Boulevard. A seventh Jakes is slated to open in spring 2011 in the Knox-Henderson area of Dallas.
Why we love it: The big, messy burgers (oh, those plentiful poppy seeds) just keep calling us back. Especially the Burgers of the Month. We're still pining for the blue cheese bacon burger. C'mon, Jake, give us a break, and put it on the permanent menu. jakesburgers.net
Where it all began: Roanoke, 1993
Where it's headed: After expanding successfully into Garland in 1994, Babe's has been on a tear with locations in Burleson, Granbury, Frisco, Carrollton and beyond. In late fall, Arlington gets its own Babe's (just in time to feed all those hungry Super Bowl fans).
Why we love it: Um, the chicken, the catfish, the ribs. Need we go on? www.babeschicken.com
Locations: 11 in DFW, one in Austin
Where it all began: Oak Cliff neighborhood of Dallas, 1986
Where it's headed: The newest Gloria's opened in Fairview (near Allen) on Aug. 21 to big crowds. The owners of the popular mini-chain, Gloria Rubio and ex-husband Jose Fuentes, are embroiled in a lawsuit against a former employee whom they say stole recipes and started his own restaurant in Dallas. (Ooh, talk about kitchen confidential!)
Why we love it: The menu is a delicious mix of Salvadoran and Tex-Mex specialties, and the vibe is part restaurant, part trendy nightclub. Plus, the black-bean dip is awesome. www.gloriasrestaurants.com
The Flying Saucer
Where it all began: Sundance Square, 1995. The Saucer celebrated its 15th anniversary June 5.
Where it's headed: The Saucer believes in "slow growth," remember, and has opened only one or two new locations a year. But it hasn't limited itself to DFW (only six of the 14 are in Texas). Beer Knurds can be found in Raleigh, N.C., and Kansas City, Mo. The latest location is here, though, and called Saucer on the Lake, as in Lake Ray Hubbard.
Why we love it: Lots and lots of beer. Not to mention all the souvenir-glass nights and the bratwurst, and the rooftop patio in Sundance Square. www.beerknurd.com
Where it all began: Fort Worth, 1946. O. R. Gentry, the meat cutter at Kincaid's grocery for 20 years, began cooking hamburgers in 1966 to use up excess beef. In 1967, Gentry purchased Kincaid's, and the rest is history.
Where it's headed: Kincaid's has opened outposts in Southlake and Arlington Highlands, among other places, usually in brand spankin' new shopping centers. The new locations can't capture the authentic feel of the original, but the burgers still taste good.
Why we love it: Big, no-nonsense, juicy half-pound burgers on a Mrs Baird's bun. Let the debate rage about whether Kincaid's is king of the Cowtown burgers, but its success and accolades speak for themselves. www.kincaidshamburgers.com
Dixie House Cafe
Where it all began: East Belknap Street in Fort Worth, 1983
Where it's headed: Most of the expansion has occurred in the past six or seven years. In 2009, downtown Fort Worth welcomed the sixth Dixie House, but a strange odor in the building caused the restaurant to move out.
Why we love it: From the chicken-fried steak and meatloaf to the big buns and big breakfasts, Dixie House dishes up some of the most satisfying comfort food in DFW. And the pies are to die for. dixiehousecafe.com
Where it all began: Dallas, 1985. Dale Wamstad, known as Del Frisco, and Dee Lincoln opened the original Del Frisco's Double Eagle Steak House. (Wamstad actually opened the first Del Frisco's in Louisville, Ky., and then opened one in a New Orleans suburb, but those closed and he relaunched Del Frisco's with Lincoln in Dallas. Lincoln left Del Frisco's last year and opened a wine-tasting room and now a restaurant in Lewisville.)
Where it's headed: Del Frisco's is the highest-grossing restaurant group in the country, and its Manhattan location, overlooking the Avenue of the Americas, is the country's most successful steakhouse. It's also made a splash in Philadelphia.
Why we love it: When we can afford a $40 or $50 steak, Del Frisco's is the first place that pops into our heads. We only wish we could afford it more often. www.delfriscos.com
Locations: 4, one on the way
Where it all began: Dallas, 1981
Where it's headed: The popular rotisserie-chicken spot is starting to franchise, and recently expanded into Allen and is planning another location in Longview. When we spoke with the owner, he said it was probably only a matter of time before Cowboy Chicken came to Fort Worth.
Why we love it: The wood-fired chicken is always plump and moist, and sides (sweet potatoes, green beans, etc.) are a meal unto themselves. Don't skip the peach cobbler. www.cowboychicken.com