Eating out in North Texas is all about the three B's: barbecue, beef and burritos.
Or, at least, that's what people think.
When residents and visitors alike are hungry for off-the-beaten-path ethnic cuisines, they often dismiss North Texas as being about as exotic as a Whataburger drive-through. Instead, they pine for San Francisco's Chinatown, D.C.'s Little Ethiopia or Miami's Little Havana, not even realizing there's an explosion of global cooking going on right under their turned-up noses.
Landing here eight years ago after living in Southern California (a bric-a-brac of ethnic enclaves like Thai Town, Little Armenia, Little India, Little Phnom Penh and Little Tokyo) and South Florida (where there's great food from all over Latin America and, long before the vampire craze, there was even a Transylvanian restaurant!), I initially clung to those outdated stereotypes about Dallas dining. My fear of flyover country was in full effect.
But then I began to get recommendations for a Chinese place here, a Vietnamese place there. Like many others living in the central parts of Dallas or Fort Worth, I may have been late to this culinary party because -- unlike such places as New York, L.A. and Toronto with their established immigrant neighborhoods -- most of the ethnic cooking here is happening in the 'burbs.
Dallas' version of Chinatown is in Richardson. And Garland, Haltom City, Irving, Arlington, Carrollton, Plano and far north Dallas are the places to go for Vietnamese, Indian, Russian and South American food, not Uptown. (Unlike L.A., or even Houston, the cities around here also tend not to put up signs telling you that you have stumbled into Little Saigon or Chinatown, so the areas remain hard-to-find.
Depending on where you live in the sprawl that is the Mess-troplex, getting to them might take some time. But it's still cheaper than a plane ticket.
"[The food scene] is changing dramatically because of the changes in the area where you have about 44 percent of the population who are first- or second-generation immigrants," says Jorge Herrera, chairman of the marketing and public relations committee for DFW International, an organization that tracks and provides information about immigrant groups in the region. "It has changed the face of North Texas."
Irma Kusuma can attest to that. She moved here from Indonesia 18 years ago to study at the University of Texas at Arlington and has seen the food culture evolve with the shifting demographics.
"Dallas is one of the places that receives a lot of refugees," says Kusuma, who works in marketing for the Greater Dallas Asian Chamber of Commerce, a group that promotes Asian culture and business. "For example, since 2008 we have a lot of Bhutanese and Nepalese, about 4,000 of them. We're getting people from Burma; we didn't have people from Burma 20 years ago.
"Also, with the economy slowing down, people are moving here from the East and West Coast, where they're used to very good ethnic food."
Because of the mushrooming culinary choices, nearly two years ago Kusuma launched Dallas Ethnic Restaurants through Meetup.com, a group for like-minded souls who go out to try new foods throughout the Metroplex. Today, the group has more than 1,200 members -- including me.
So, if you want to explore some of these new tastes but you don't know your doro wat from a dumpling, we have put together a mini-tour of our gastronomic wonderland. Consider this the first in an occasional series -- one that we're calling Around the World in 80 Meals. We're not going to hit every country/culture the first time out -- and we've avoided more popular cuisines like Chinese or Mexican this time around -- but this gives you an introductory intercontinental tour to treat the taste buds.
(Lake Highlands/Northeast Dallas)
Wipe that barbecue sauce off your chin because, yes, you can get African food in North Texas. Sometimes it can be difficult to track down (I went hunting for a South Sudanese restaurant in Garland only to find it had been shuttered), and West African cuisine isn't well represented (though African Villages in Irving flies that flag). But, for Ethiopian, there are quite a few choices scattered throughout the Metroplex.
A good place to start, especially for those unfamiliar with any African cuisines, is a relatively short stretch of Greenville Avenue with two Ethiopian restaurants within walking distance of each other. The newest entry, Desta, is slightly more upscale than the older Ibex Ethiopian Cuisine and Bar, but both are comfortable and welcoming.
What to know: For those who've not tried Ethiopian, the first thing to realize is that -- in place of knives and forks -- it is customary to eat your meal with injera, an almost clothlike flatbread used to scoop up your meal from plates placed in the center of the table. This is representative of Ethiopian cuisine and culture in general, where the emphasis is on sharing food from a common table.
At both Desta and Ibex, they bring you several rolls of injera -- though they'll bring you silverware if you request it. Also, service doesn't always seem to be a top priority. We waited a long time for our orders at Desta, and there was a language barrier with our server at Ibex. So, be prepared to be patient.
What to get: At Desta, we started with a sambusa ($3.50), a samosa or empanada-style meat-filled appetizer, and it's an accessible entry into the world of Ethiopian cooking.
Although injera is far from my favorite bread -- it's rather tasteless on its own -- it's certainly appropriate for consuming main meals like doro wat ($15.99), a chicken stew in red pepper paste that is known as Ethiopia's national dish. With enough spice to be flavorful without being overwhelming, the doro wat was by far the best thing we tried. The only complaint: more chicken, please.
Another feature of Ethiopian cuisine are tibs, meat or vegetables sauteed ($12.99). The lamb had a nice balance of flavors but was a little on the chewy side. We also tried the tuna kitfo ($14.99), in which the fish is ground and marinated in chili powder. The combination of fishy and spicy flavors didn't quite work for us; it must be an acquired taste.
When our server realized that we didn't like it, she offered to replace it. We opted for the desserts instead of another dinner, trying the Italian lemon cake and the tiramisu (the two things on the menu that remind you that Ethiopia and Italy have a long and often contentious relationship). While the cake was office-party ordinary, the tiramisu was richly delicious.
At Ibex, the doro wat ($11.99) is not quite as flavorful, but it's a bit cheaper. Overall, Ethiopian cuisine is certainly worth trying if you've never tried it. The combinations of meats, vegetables and spices are unique and different from other regions. And your options aren't limited to these two places. There are other African restaurants in the area including Ghion Ethiopian Restaurant, 9203 Skillman St., Dallas, 214 221-0036; ; and Lalibela, 9191 Forest Lane, Dallas; 972 792-8442.
Desta, 12101 Greenville Ave., Dallas. 214-575-9004; destadallas.com
Ibex Ethiopian Cuisine and Bar, 12255 Greenville Ave., Dallas. 972-234-4239; ibexcuisine.com
Little Saigon (Haltom City, Garland)
In North Texas, if you say you want to go to Little Saigon, the proper response is, "Uh, which one?" You've got your choice of at least three: one each in Haltom City, Arlington and Garland. In Haltom City, the area extends up a not particularly picturesque stretch of Belknap Avenue but don't let that deter you from trying one of the restaurants around here.
A good place to start -- right across from The Dude Motel -- is Pho 95. Situated in a Vietnamese shopping mall that also includes the large Nguyen Loi Vietnamese supermarket, Pho 95 is in an unassuming space that attracts a cross section of Vietnamese and non-Asian diners.
What to know: As the name suggests, the specialty of the place is pho (pronounced "fuh"), a light yet hearty traditional noodle soup that can be made with beef or seafood (though there is a vegetarian variety). Pho is now the most popular Vietnamese culinary export as the soup is becoming mainstream.
What to get: Here, you can get the pho with such choices as brisket and eye-of-round, but I went with the vegetarian ($4.95), which was a rich broth filled with noodles, red and green onions and lemongrass.
That was followed by the vermicelli with grilled chicken ($6.50) and the noodles with charbroiled shrimp ($6.95). While the mound of pasta proved a bit daunting after the noodles in the soup, the chicken and shrimp were both flavorful. On a second visit, I tried the pho with shrimp ($5.95), and it was packed with large shrimp, and the five-spice chicken with orange sauce ($8.45) proved a solid choice even though the chicken is a bit on the small side.
Later that day, I headed over to Garland's Walnut Street, the eastern Metroplex's version of Haltom City's Belknap Avenue, with its lineup of Asian, mostly Vietnamese, eateries. We chose one that seemed to have good Yelp reviews and a cool name: Pho Bang. As my pho fix had been sated at Pho 95, we opted for some other dishes, such as the spring rolls with shrimp and pork (four for $4.50), which were stuffed with meat and satisfying, if not the best around. The crushed rice with beef ($7.50) was solid but the crushed rice with ginger chicken ($6) was bland. And the three-color ice dessert ($2.50), a blend of coconut milk, red and white beans, and ice was just puzzling.
Don't be surprised if you smell cigarette smoke here. Despite Garland's no-smoking ordinance, diners have been known to light up, and we smelled cigarette smoke during our visit.
But the great thing about any of the Little Saigons is that if you don't like one place, there's another one to try right next door.
Etc.: If you're interested in cooking food from the Far East, venture to Super H Mart, an Asian-themed mega-supermarket in Carrollton. It's a national chain with only two Texas locations (the other is in Houston) and you can find lots of items here that might be hard to find elsewhere, from dried persimmons to black raspberry vinegar. It has a food court.
Pho 95, 5302 E. Belknap St., Haltom City. 817-222-3395
Pho Bang, 3565 W. Walnut St., Garland. 972-487-6666
Super H Mart, 2625 Old Denton Road, Carrollton. 972-323-9700
Koreatown (North Dallas, Irving)
Arguably the most complete cross-cultural experience in DFW is to be had in Koreatown, aka K-Town. You can hop on the cultural Seoul train near the intersection of Interstate 35E and Royal Lane, where Korean hangouts are strung along like so many cups of ginger tea. Here, you can enjoy a Korean meal at dozens of restaurants, a Korean-style massage/acupressure/sauna at King Spa & Sauna (a 24-hour facility with a movie theater and food court), go shopping for hard-to-find Asian foods at Komart (a Korean grocery) or sing karaoke at Family Karaoke.
What to know: The best-known Korean dish is kimchi (pickled vegetables), and it plays an important role in Korean food history. Koreans traditionally preserved foods to last through the harsh winters. Although you might want to taste kimchi (it comes as a side dish), it can be overpowering. What you really want is Korean barbecue (or gogi gui as the Koreans call it) that is more aligned with American tastes. Because, really, who doesn't like barbecue? Though, in Korean cooking, the thin strips of meat cooked at your table are very different from the big slabs of meat on the outdoor grill that symbolizes Texas 'cue.
My favorite stop is Chosun Kalbi, though by the time you read this, it should've changed its name to Koryo, and is hidden in a rather drab mini-mall where the food is anything but. The first thing you will notice is that each table has a coal-fired barbecue at its center, and this is not the last time you will realize you are not in Chili's anymore. (Also, as with many ethnic restaurants, service and language barriers can present some challenges.)
What to get: Depending on which protein is chosen, the server will barbecue it in front of you at the table. We got the beef bul go gi (marinated beef slices, $17.95), prepared at the table, and the spicy chicken ($17.95), prepared in the kitchen. The beef was full of flavor and tender as parfait and although the chicken proved too spicy for some, it also had an excellent bite.
As good as the meats were, it was one of the appetizers -- the crispy seafood pancake ($13.95) -- that was the star of the night. The fried rice-flour pancake was stuffed with various types of seafood like shrimp. What's not to like? A soft tofu and seafood soup ($8.95) was less remarkable.
Accompanying the orders is a variety of side dishes, including kimchi. For dessert and a drink, head down the street to Bar A, where you can share the massive fruit plate ($19) -- overflowing with artfully cut pineapple, apple, banana, kiwi, tomatoes and grapes -- and knock back a bottle of Yogurt Soju ($15), a Korean cocktail of soju (a rice-based distilled liquor), lemon-lime soda and yogurt. Good stuff.
Bar A, 2240 Royal Lane, Dallas. 972-484-7075
Family Karaoke, 11433 Goodnight Lane, Dallas. 469-522-0365; familydfw.com
King Spa & Sauna, 2154 Royal Lane, Dallas. 214-420-9070; kingspa.com
Komart, 2240 Royal Lane, Dallas. 214-256-9000; mykomart.com
Koryo (formerly Chosun Kalbi), 2560 Royal Lane, No. 105, Dallas. 972-406-0087; chosunbbq.com
Thailand (North Dallas)
Yeah, I know. These days, Thai food is nearly as ubiquitous as finding a McDonald's off I-35.
But if you want to know where a good percentage of the local Thai community is on Sunday afternoon, try the Buddhist Center of Dallas. And it's not necessarily to meditate. Known by foodies as simply "the Thai temple," the center turns into an open-air Thai food fair 11 a.m.-2 p.m. Sunday. A lineup of home cooks sets up stalls selling everything from papaya salad to fish cakes, Thai chicken to tofu and noodles. It draws quite a crowd and there are only a few benches for seating, so get there early. It's also cash only, but you can get a plate of food for as little as $6, so you don't have to break the bank.
Buddhist Center of Dallas, 8484 Stults Road, Dallas. 214-340-6187; watdallas.com
It's a dilemma we all find ourselves in occasionally: sauna or shish-kebab?
Well, you can have both at Russian Banya, a family-run spa and eatery in Carrollton where you have your choice of either a Russian- or Finnish-style sauna followed by a dip in the cold-plunge pool and perhaps a Venik massage. (That's the one where the masseuse wields a bundle of birch branches to stimulate the skin and circulation. Or, at least that's the excuse they have for beating you).
What to know: Though it looks more like a spa/gym when first entering, you can just skip all that, make a left and head to the cafe -- a large, plain area that has the charm of a Holiday Inn banquet room from the '70s. The Russian Euro-pop playing on the sound system adds to the sense of time warp. The food, as you might expect, is hearty. All the better to get you through a Moscow winter, or those few icy days in February when North Texans get to act like they live in a cold climate. (Also, there are two Polish restaurants in the North Dallas and Plano areas -- For You, Taste of Poland and European Market & Deli -- but I've yet to try them.)
What to get: The khachapuri, a pizzalike cheese-stuffed bread served as an appetizer ($9.99), is a meal in itself. Be warned: it's very cheesy, filling and not at all subtle. More intriguing are the vareniki, a soft pile of dumplings filled with either meat ($8.99) or potato ($6.99). But it's the well-spiced chicken kebab ($12.99) that was the star of the night. If you can handle more cheese after the khachapuri, try the cheese blintz ($6.99) as a dessert.
Russian Banya of Dallas, 2515 E. Rosemeade, Suite 401, Carrollton. 214-483-5050; russianbanyaofdallas.com
European Market & Deli, 11613 N. Central Expressway, Dallas. 214-696-5442
For You, Taste of Poland, 2301 N. Central Expressway, Plano. 972-423-3687; foryoucafe.net
There is no way you would ever mistake Belt Line Road in Irving for a Buenos Aires avenida -- even if you blur your eyes, cover your ears and sing Don't Cry for Me Argentina at the top of your lungs. But beyond the parking lots and beneath the utilitarian surface, there's a feast for global foodies here, everything from West African (African Villages) to Indian (Pasand) to Asian (the TNL Supermarket).
What to know : If you're craving Argentine empanadas -- those delicious small pies of fried or baked pastry stuffed with either savory meats or sweet fruits -- consider Belt Line your street of dreams. There are two places serving these pockets of pleasure, The Argentina Bakery and Empa Mundo. Both are good, but Empa Mundo gets my vote when craving an empanada -- and that happens a lot. I moved here from South Florida, where a good empanada is a birthright. Empa Mundo only does empanadas, so it has to do them right.
What to get: Empa Mundo serves eight varieties of savory ($2.50 each) and four types of sweet, $2.50 for camote (sweet potato), $1.50 for the others (pineapple, apple and guava with cheese), and while there doesn't seem to be a bad one in the bunch, the knockouts include the chicken (a hearty little pastry bundle stuffed with chicken, onions, olives, raisins and eggs) and tuna (given a spicy kick with red peppers, olives, onions and tomatoes).
The humita (corn, onions, cheese, white sauce) came highly recommended, but I found the sauce a bit rich and overwhelming and could only finish half of it. On the dessert side, the camote is like biting into heaven, assuming heaven is made of mashed sweet potato. The pineapple is less like an empanada and more like a cookie.
Argentina Bakery is more of a traditional bakery than a restaurant, although there are some tables, if you want to eat in. Plus, it offers more than empanadas, selling everything from ham-and-cheese sandwiches ($2.50) to mini-cakes ($6.50) and large cakes ($35).
Empa Mundo, 3977 N. Belt Line Road, Irving. 972-746-4516; empamundo.com
Argentine Bakery, 3401 W. Airport Freeway, Irving. 972-252-4809; argentinabakery.com
Middle East/South Asia
Afghanistan, Pakistan (North Dallas/Carrollton/Richardson)
The first images that come to mind when thinking of Afghanistan and Pakistan are surely more CNN than Food Network. But put those mental pictures of war and bloodshed aside, and you can discover that each country's style of cooking has its pleasures.
What to know: Don't be intimidated by the word "Afghan." At North Dallas' Afghan Grill, the food seems to embody the best elements of a wide region of Southern Europe and Western Asia with hints of Persian, Greek and Indian flavors, while Pakistani food bears more similarities to Indian.
If you prefer that, go a bit farther north into Carrollton where it seems every strip mall along Trinity Mills Road sports a restaurant specializing in "Indo-Pak" (Indian-Pakistani) specialties like curries and biryanis (rice with meat), including Al Markaz, a combo market and restaurant.
What to get: At Afghan Grill, start with the bulanee appetizer ($4.75), a samosalike savory pastry filled with either leek or potato. And then, whatever else you order, make sure to include the kadu buranee, a unique and utterly sublime dish of sauteed pumpkin with garlic yogurt and meat sauce ($14.95). Eating pumpkin, which we're more used to in sugary pies, as an entree might seem odd at first, but it works wonderfully and bears a similarity to sweet potato, which we're accustomed to eating in savory dishes. For the entree, it's served with rice but you can also order it as an appetizer ($5.25).
The qabili palao ($15.95), lamb (or chicken) with rice, sauteed carrots and raisins, is quite good but not as standout as the kadu buranee. Also on the menu are a variety of kebabs: beef ($13.50), chicken ($13.95), lamb ($16.25), salmon ($16.50) and shrimp ($16.50). Finish off with firnee ($4.50), a custard that's sort of the Middle Eastern version of flan.
At Al Markaz, you'll see that Pakistani cuisine has similarities to Indian, but there seems to be a bigger emphasis on meat. Here, you can even try "brain masala" (goat brains). Or, you can try something a bit more standard like chicken with rice (chicken biryani). It's a more casual place where you order at the counter and, if you like what you had, you can probably try making it from ingredients available in the adjoining market.
Also casual is the more broadly Mediterranean Afrah, which attracts a large crowd to its outdoor patio on nice evenings with a mix of shawarmas and kebabs. It's an especially nice place to finish off a night with some baklava (99 cents), warbat (phyllo dough stuffed with pudding and topped by pistachios, $2.49) and tea ($1.99) or coffee ($1.99-$3.99).
Afghan Grill, 17370 Preston Road, Dallas. 972-818-0300; afghangrilltx.com
Afrah, 314 E. Main St., Richardson. 972-234-9898; afrah.com
Al Markaz, 1205 W. Trinity Mills Road, Carrollton. 972-245-9525