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Secret menus of DFW: a clandes-dine investigation

The original secret menu item

The most legendary secret menu item in all of Texas has to be the Bob Armstrong dip, served on the QT for many years at Matt’s El Rancho restaurant in Austin. It’s really just a gussied-up queso, named after Texas politician and former land commissioner Robert “Bob” Armstrong. The story goes that Armstrong went into Matt’s and insisted on being served something unique. Restaurateur Matt Martinez took a basic queso and doctored it up with taco meat, guacamole and sour cream, which he added in layers for maximum visual impact. The dip remained an off-menu item for more than a decade until Martinez finally added it in the ’90s.


Posted 9:21am on Thursday, Jun. 20, 2013

Every diner dreams of being a VIP, on the inside track, in the know. During our idyllic dinner, we get recognized by the maitre d’, ushered past the velvet rope and escorted to the best table in the house.

Once seated for our little fantasy dinner, we’re handed not only the regular menu but also a secret one, reserved for insiders and regulars. We open it, confident that the items are spun from impossibly precious ingredients — unicorn horns and angel wings — crafted with utmost care by the top chef in the kitchen.

This is no mere consumption of calories. It’s about feeling catered-to and special — ideally, more special than the diners at the next table.

Understanding our elitist desires, some restaurants have devised insider specials. It could be a table set up inside the kitchen with a bird’s-eye view. It could be a separate menu, reserved only for those diners savvy enough to ask. It could be dishes so secret, they’re not even on the menu — dishes with their own lore that you simply have to know about.

This is smart marketing. Restaurants satisfy our desire to feel important, and they get extra cachet — and customers — without having to spend a cent on advertising.

For some of these experiences, especially those that include personal attention from the chef, you pay a premium. Dinner at a chef’s table could run from $50 to $200, depending on how many courses you get (and how deluxe those courses are). There’s usually a limited number of seats, so you’ll need to make a reservation.

But this elite world isn’t limited to the realm of fine dining. It extends from five-star restaurants down to the humblest fast-food joints. We’ve begun an investigation of the DFW food scene to expose these culinary finds. Consider this our ongoing top secret (and not-so secret) dossier. Know of some more foodie secrets? Let us know in the comments on DFW.com.

Off-menu items

Fearing’s at the Ritz-Carlton: lobster taco

When chef Dean Fearing left the Rosewood Mansion on Turtle Creek in 2006, he said goodbye to the famed lobster taco. True, he’d been ahead of the curve with this high-low combination of extravagant filling inside a humble taco. And yes, chunks of lobster enclosed in a tortilla, dressed with a perky yellow-tomato salsa, made for an opulent dish. But after 21 years serving lobster tacos, he needed a break. To stave off requests, he put a shrimp taco on Fearing’s menu. Still they asked. Time heals all wounds, and Dean likes to please diners. So if you ask real nice, a lobster taco you will get. 2121 McKinney Ave., Dallas. 214-922-4848.

Babe’s in Roanoke: wild plum jelly

The menu at the Roanoke Babe’s is smaller than at some of the other Babe’s: just fried chicken and chicken-fried steak. But Roanoke has a quirky little something the other Babe’s do not: wild plum jelly. It’s a no-label brand procured by one of the owners from a grandma in Comanche. She makes it in small quantities, and the Roanoke restaurant only gets about a dozen jars at a time, so it’s highly prized. If you know the manager or seem like a good egg, you’ll get a spoonful to spread on one of Babe’s signature biscuits. 104 N. Oak St., Roanoke. 817-491-2900.

Grace: poached oyster

This dish started out as a real-life treat for a VIP, when one of Grace’s investors begged chef Blaine Staniford to make him something special that nobody else could have. Staniford came up with an oyster so lavish that it has developed a lore of its own. He poaches the oyster, puts it back in the shell, then adds king crab, creme fraiche and American sturgeon caviar. “It’s a one-bite thing,” Staniford says. “It never made it onto the menu but it has become something I do for a surprise, or for people who know to ask for it.” 777 Main St., Fort Worth. 817-877-3388.

Fireside Pies Fort Worth: Wagyu beef calzone

One night, a chef at the Fort Worth Fireside Pies decided to experiment with a calzone, filling it with some serious stuff: meatballs made with Wagyu beef. The staff handed out free samples, and a few fans were born. Ultimately it wasn’t added to the menu, says manager Mark Daverio, but one customer told another, who told another, and the calzone has become an in-the-know, underground favorite. 2949 Crockett St. 817-769-3590.

Spiral Diner: “Bro-chos”

Fort Worth’s vegan palace accommodates all kinds of substitutions. Don’t like tofu? It will give you quinoa instead. But Spiral Diner owners Amy McNutt and James Johnston are most proud of their “bro-chos”: Basically, it’s nachos supremo — an extreme concoction loaded with olives, jalapeños, vegan cheese and seitan — but instead of tortilla chips, for an extra dollar or two, get it over a bed of steamed broccoli. “It’s a loophole to make nachos seem healthier even though they’re not really healthy at all,” McNutt says. 1314 W. Magnolia Ave. 817-332-8834.

Brewed: The Magnolia

The baristas at Brewed gastropub are like mixologists, making cocktails with coffee instead of booze. One of their most creative concoctions celebrates the neighborhood: the Magnolia. Served in a pint glass, it has vanilla syrup, sparkling Pellegrino, ice, cream and espresso. The result is a symphony of smoky, sweet, creamy and fizzy. “We posted a photo on Instagram and it blew up so big that we’ve never had to put it on the menu,” says barista Blake Sager. 810 W. Magnolia Ave. 817-945-1545.



Kincaid’s: “Cowtown style”

In 2010, Fort Worth burger chain Kincaid’s took what had been a so-called secret menu item and made it official. “Cowtown-style” now appears on the menu and refers to the addition of grilled jalapeños and onions. You can add them to pretty much anything on the menu. Multiple locations

Joe T. Garcia’s: Secret dinner menu

This Tex-Mex institution officially serves two options for dinner: fajitas or the family dinner, take it or leave it. But Joe T.’s veterans know there’s a set of unofficial items, too: chicken enchiladas, fajita nachos and chile con queso. Push your luck and see if there are any chile rellenos or flautas in the kitchen. And instead of the rather average margaritas everyone else gets, try ordering the “Martin,” a top-shelf version that’ll tip off your friends to your insider status. 2201 N. Commerce St., Fort Worth. 817-626-4356.

Special orders

Del Frisco’s Steakhouse: Burger

Del Frisco’s in downtown Fort Worth is a serious steakhouse with the requisite shrimp cocktail, wedge salad and bone-in rib-eye. And yet, there are times when only a burger will do. Del Frisco’s has a burger, but — big sigh — it’s only on the menu in the bar. The 8-ounce patty comes with lettuce, tomato, onion and pickles, with house-made barbecue-flavored potato chips, all for $9.95. “It’s a well-kept secret that you can order the burger in the main dining room, but you’d just have to know about it,” says manager Chad Sessom. Consider yourself informed. 812 Main St. 817-877-3999.

Lockhart Smokehouse: Burnt ends

Burnt ends are a signature of Kansas City barbecue wherein brisket ends are cooked and cooked until they turn crusty and almost sweet. Locally, they were first introduced by Pecan Lodge, the renowned barbecue joint at the Dallas Farmers Market, which served them on a whim. Local demand became so great that Lockhart Smokehouse, in Dallas’ Bishop Arts district, stepped in to fill the breach. It serves them every Thursday, beginning at 11 a.m. “But they go pretty quickly, so I’d definitely call ahead,” says a Lockhart staffer. 400 W. Davis St., Dallas. 214-944-5521.

Woodshed Smokehouse: The Sandwich

More than a few off-menu items begin life as a staff-only item, such as the breakfast treat at Woodshed succinctly referred to as “the Sandwich.” Lacking a breakfast item, the staff improvised by cooking a hamburger patty, topping it with pork green chili from Lonesome Dove, plus lamb bacon, an egg, jack cheese and tomatillo salsa, wrapped in a flour tortilla. It’s a distant cousin to the Amore Caliente burger on the menu at Love Shack. Friends of chef Tim Love got wind. Then, their neighbors spied it. Woodshed finally put it on the menu for $11. 3201 Riverfront Drive, Fort Worth. 817-877-4545.

Smyth: no menu

This hipster speakeasy staffed by some of Dallas’ most high-profile bartenders is the insider epitome. Smyth is a cocktail lounge without an actual menu. You tell the bartender what you like, and he creates a customized drink. It’s also reservations-only, so you can’t just drop in and be guaranteed you’ll get one of those made-to-order drinks. Could it be any harder? If this appeals, you’ll want to follow Smyth’s Facebook page and wait for an open table or two to be announced. 4513 Travis St., Dallas. 214-520-0900.

Secret menus

In-N-Out: Secret menu

Chains are the epitome of consistency and sameness. Maybe that’s why people find the idea of secret menu items at these places so captivating. California-based burger chain In-N-Out was the first to trumpet an off-menu list, and it ranks as one of the worst-kept secrets in the world. It is actually listed on the website. It has no special ingredients; it’s just a list of gluttonous combinations in which three and four burger patties are stacked atop each other and given nicknames like “3X3.” But going in and ordering your burger “Protein Style” (burger wrapped in lettuce instead of a bun) or “Animal Style” (a mustard-grilled patty with pickles, grilled onions and extra Thousand Island sauce) is still supposed to give you some cachet. Investigate these and other options at www.in-n-out.com/ menu/not-so-secret- menu.aspx

Torchy’s: ‘Sacred Menu’

Torchy’s is from Austin, so of course it has a secret menu of tacos; it calls it the “Sacred Menu.” Like Torchy’s regular menu, these tacos have whimsical names, such as the Hipster, with panko-breaded tuna, bacon and black beans; the Mad Cow, with skirt steak, black beans and corn; or Trailer Park Hillbilly Style with fried chicken, chorizo and bacon. Torchy’s doesn’t bring in any special ingredients for this secret list. It’s the arrangement that makes them so special — well, that and the fact that you have to know about them.

Investigate: www.reddit.com/r/ Austin/ comments/198mdi/torchys_tacos_ sacred_secret_menu

Panera: secret menu

Panera is the latest chain to try and capture the secret-menu mystique. But a better way of describing its campaign is to say the company doesn’t want to spend money on advertising and is calling it a secret menu instead. Basically, it’s ordering whatever Panera has minus the bread. In the real world, it’s called “gluten-free.” But customers have to ask for the special menu card. It’s a secret, see.

Investigate: mypanera.panerabread. com/articlestips/article/ access-into-paneras- hidden-menu

Yao Fuzi: secret menu

This highly-rated Chinese restaurant in Plano starring chef-owner Alex Yao is not the only Asian restaurant in town to have a separate menu of dishes, such as the braised pork belly, which are either more authentic or spicy. But it is the best known. It’s also written entirely in Chinese. Fortunately, the servers will help translate. 4757 W. Park Blvd., Plano. 214-473-9267.

Investigate: www.yaofuzi.com

Chef’s tables

FT33: chef’s table

Chef tables, which require a reservation, can be tucked into a private room or wedged into the kitchen, but FT33 goes commando: Its chef table sits front and center in the dining room; it’s a rectangular table that stands higher than the others, with elevated stools that put diners on a throne. The menu is no different from any other table; it has the same avant-garde gels and foraged mushrooms as everyone else’s. But what the rest don’t get is a direct line-of-sight to chef Matt McCallister. As you gaze into the kitchen from your perch, you can assert your status as the foodiest foodie of them all. 1617 Hi Line Drive, Dallas. 214-741-2629.

The Wild Mushroom Restaurant: chef’s table

Chef Jerrett Joslin isn’t fooling around. The chef’s table at The Wild Mushroom, his fine-dining restaurant in Weatherford, is a booth in the kitchen, against a wall of gleaming subway tile, affording a full view of the chefs. It seats four, but you can squeeze in six. Joslin makes it a real foodie experience, showcasing a separate menu with gastronomy tricks — think sous vide duck or an edible “plate” made of potato — to make it fun. The standard experience runs about $50 a head. Give him some advance notice and he’ll even roll out a cheesecake made from a recipe culled from his days at Randall’s. 1917 Martin Drive, Weatherford. 817-599-4935.

Michaels Cuisine: Feed Me

Michael S. Thomson, the Michael in Michaels, first started doing the “feed me” concept 18 years ago. You say “Feed me,” then watch the dishes arrive. It runs from four to eight courses, depending on the group, and features “the best of the kitchen at that moment,” Thomson says. If you’re a first-timer, you’ll get all of Michaels signature dishes, such as the pecan-crusted goat cheese salad. If you’re a returning customer, you can tip off the waiter that you’re ready for culinary adventures like soft-shell crab, cold-water oysters and more. 3413 W. Seventh St., Fort Worth. 817-877-3413.

Omakase at Nobu, Little Lilly Sushi, Tei-An, Five Sixty, Keiichi

Omakase, or “trust the chef,” is the Japanese version of “feed me.” It’s available at most of the top sushi spots around town including Tei-An, Nobu, Keiichi in Denton and Wolfgang Puck’s Five Sixty. You get a series of small courses, anywhere from three to 10 items, that reflect the chef’s whim. At Little Lilly Sushi in Fort Worth, head chef Jesus Garcia says sometimes a customer will give him a budget ($35 a person, $50 a person, etc.), and he’ll create something just for them; call him ahead of time and he’ll forage for ingredients such as buffalo or lamb. Depending on the place, omakase can be the restaurant’s greatest hits. Sometimes it can have a theme, like tuna, or “whatever’s freshest.” Given the innate artistry of Japanese cuisine, it’s practically guaranteed to be beautiful. Nobu, 400 Crescent Court, Dallas, 214-252-7000; Little Lilly Sushi, 6100 Camp Bowie Blvd., Fort Worth, 817-989-8886; Tei-An, 1722 Routh St., No. 110, Dallas, 214-220-2828; Five Sixty, 300 Reunion Blvd. E, Dallas, 214-741-5560; and Keiichi, 500 N. Elm St., Denton, 940-230-3410.

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