As Super Bowl Week fast approaches, we just keep hearing the stories about how the restaurants in Dallas and Fort Worth are booked solid with reservations. But what about the city where the Super Bowl (and World Series!) will actually be played? Why no love for the eateries of Arlington?
With that in mind, we headed out Tuesday night to the annual Taste of Arlington at the Arlington Convention Center. The event featured more than 50 local vendors that would allow us to gorge on all the free samples we might desire. Yeah, yeah, we know what you're thinking: What kind of restaurants are you going to find at Taste of Arlington -- Chili's and The Olive Garden? Well, as a matter of fact, both of them did have booths, along with Genghis Grill, Tom Thumb and -- wait for it -- Walmart. (It was handing out samples of its cheesecake.)
Say this much for our fair middle city: It's nothing if not unpretentious.
We arrived a little after 7 p.m., and already the exhibit rooms were packed. If you've never attended one of these "all-you-can-sample" events, know that they're a recipe for a stomachache and a nervous condition: You try to taste everything, but around every corner, there's something new to try.
But taste we did, just about everything, and here's our survey of the hits, misses and mysteries. The lesson learned here: If you find yourself without a restaurant come Super Bowl Eve, you'll have plenty of worthwhile back-up plans in Ag-town.
1. Houlihan's: A national chain with three Metroplex locations, Houlihan's is trying to gussy up its bar-and-grill reputation with a series of fussy-sounding "small plates." Based on the Thai-flavored chicken wing and the rare tuna wonton it was serving, the rebranding is successful. (401 E. Interstate 20, Arlington; also Dallas and Garland).
2. Splitsville: You probably weren't thinking of eating Super Bowl Week dinner at a bowling alley. But the pepper-crushed seared tuna was a perfectly spicy, silky bite. We went back for thirds. (401 Curtis Mathes Way, Arlington)
3. Texas Land and Cattle: A number of local steakhouses were handing out prime rib or tenderloin sliders, with mixed results: The Del Frisco's version was solid, if unmemorable; The Keg's was on the chewy side. But Texas Land and Cattle delivered a nicely seasoned piece of meat on a buttery brioche bun. Yeah, another chain, but a tasty one! (2009 E. Copeland Road, Arlington; additional locations throughout the Metroplex).
4. Buck n' Loons: This is perhaps not going to be your snobbiest Super Bowl dining option. But who can deny the fresh-fried potato chips slathered in queso or the "Loon Juice," a curiously bubblegum-flavored frozen concoction with a dangerous kick. (3517 S. Cooper St., Arlington)
5. DH Homemade Pastries: The best of the desserts came from this straightforward, but perfectly executed bakery, which offered up pound cakes and an oatmeal raisin pecan cookie, among other considerable delights. Then we found out that it's an online and phone-order outlet actually based in Fort Worth, and we felt a little sad for Arlington. (www.dhchews.com; 817-500-2169)
1. Cacharel: It's supposed to be Arlington's classiest joint, so why wasn't it giving us a taste of any of its savory items? Instead, the chocolate soufflé it did serve up fell (literally and figuratively) flat. (2221 E. Lamar Blvd., Arlington)
2. Mi Tierra: Give this "Latin-fusion" restaurant points for ambition: Who else would think of serving octopus salad at a mainstream event like this? Unfortunately, to quote the lady in front of me: "I spit it out is what I did. That was a little fishy." (603 W. Abram St., Arlington)
3. Birraporetti's: We're normally fans of this "Italian Restaurant and Irish Bar" in Arlington, but with its bland tortellini and Italian enchilada dishes, it definitely did not put its best food forward. (668 Lincoln Square, Arlington)