On a recent Saturday night, people were guzzling beer and downing Diablos. Servers sat side by side with their customers, in booths and on bar stools, taking orders and shooting the breeze. Red dirt music blared, and friends drunkenly yelled at each other across the room. Yep, another night at Fred's Texas Cafe.
Only this was the new Fred's, the one that opened in April in a strip mall in north Fort Worth. The big one, the one that has seating for nearly 200 people. The one that has clean menus and a new-car smell and stain-free tables that don't wobble. The one that has six TVs and two video games -- all working -- in a spiffy separate bar area. (And, as of last week, the full bar is now open.) The one that, depending on how you look at it, is either a welcome addition to an area of town that really could use a good burger-and-beer joint, or is just blasphemous.
Those disheartened by yet another facsimile of yet another Fort Worth icon, please note: There is no re-creating the original Fred's -- the 30-plus-year-old diamond of a dive in the West 7th area whose burgers, rib-eyes and quail dishes attract lawyers and poets and musicians and jocks and Guy Fieri. There's no reproducing its frenzied, friendly energy; its roadside-shack atmosphere; or its cowboy-hatted ringmaster, "Outlaw Chef" Terry Chandler.
Points must be given for effort, though. Chandler and longtime friend Quincy Wallace, who have partnered on Fred's North, as it's known, have plastered the new walls with old stuff -- rustic signage, beer slogans, taxidermy. Servers treat you like friends. The kitchen is staffed with Fred's vets, and even though Chandler is not cooking, most of his menu made the jump, except for plate lunches, special dinners and brunch (although, at some point down the road, Wallace says that one or all of those things may turn up).
That still leaves most of the Fred's trademark dishes, including 11 burgers (including the Diablo Burger, which won our 2009 DFW Burger Battle), sourdough-battered chicken-fried steak and portabella mushroom tacos. Also, Fred's North serves the original's other trademark: "coldass beer." Just like at Fred's Sr.'s, beer goblets are stored in an ice cream cooler, at a temperature of minus-38 degrees.
A lot of effort, in other words, has gone into reproducing certain must-have nuances of Fred's. That goes for the food, too.
Nachos were worth every cent of their seemingly high $11 price; they were very much a meal. A generous mound of hand-cut crisp corn tortilla chips came piled with melted mozzarella and cheddar cheese, chipotle ground beef, diced tomatoes, and a plop of house-made, rich guacamole. These were not messily prepared nachos; toppings seemed to be placed carefully, allowing you to appreciate the character of each.
The Chicken Fred ($9.95 with fries) -- chicken-fried steak on a bun -- was great, too, and was so big it required a fork. The steak's flaky sourdough batter had a nice peppery flavor to it, and the meat itself was neither too tender nor too tough. The sandwich came with lettuce and tomato, and the thick, lightly toasted white bun was lightly drizzled with mayo.
Upon every table sits a bottle of hot Sriracha sauce, which we streaked across Fred's trademark thick-cut fries, just like we do at the original Fred's.
Finally, our Diablo burger ($11.25 with fries) was near perfect, a well-cooked half-pound patty topped with chopped chipotles, grilled onions, Swiss cheese, crisp lettuce, tomatoes and mustard.
Was it as good as the Diablo at the original Fred's? Certainly. But it was missing a certain little element: that taste that comes only from grease and time. Thirty years oughtta do it.
Note: The DFW.com Burger Battle of 2011 is heating up. Fred's is in the running; find out who else made the bracket, and how you can help complete the 32-burger bracket.