Our dining team ate their way across the Metroplex this year, digging into everything from quail and brisket to fried cactus and squid-ink pasta. Whether it was an ingenious culinary knockout, an elegant take on a classic or just a great burger, we tasted many delightful surprises this year. Here are our 20 favorite bites of 2013. (Also check out Teresa Gubbins’ look back at the year in DFW dining, and say farewell to eateries we lost in 2013.)
Quail at Red Door Bistro
Strewn with chains, southwest Fort Worth was in need of a spot like Red Door Bistro, opened by the same family that brought us Piola and Ruffino’s. Red Door is quaint and quiet, with an across-the-board menu that encompasses nearly every genre of food, all but guaranteeing that even the worldliest of diners will find something they’ll like. A good suggestion is the quail, coated in a sweet-heat marinade of honey, chipotle and a touch of tequila. The bird is neatly cut into six pieces, then placed on a soft bed of rich poblano risotto and bright green and slightly spicy poblano sauce. It’s so attractively presented, you won’t want to eat it. But you will. 4938 Overton Ridge Blvd., Fort Worth. 817-292-0000 ; www.facebook.com/RedDoorBistroFortWorth .
Pumpkin pappardelle at Max’s Wine Dive
The trademark of this cosmopolitan mini-chain from Houston is its unlikely pairing of fried chicken and champagne. The chicken is unquestionably good, with a crunchy, salty crust that contrasts with the sweet heat of its chipotle-honey glaze. But Max’s chef Stefon Rishel gets to improvise with seasonal dishes and specials, and those aren’t to be missed. Still on the menu and still unforgettable: pumpkin pappardelle, with tawny ribbons of pasta dusted generously with Parmesan cheese and sprinkled with toasted pepitos. 2421 W. Seventh St., Suite 109, Fort Worth. 817-870-1100 ; www.maxswinedive.com.
Sliced brisket at BBQ on the Brazos
It was a good year for barbecue lovers on this side of the Trinity, and this little spot in Cresson is one of the reasons why. Everything here is worth the drive — the snappy sausage, the large and meaty ribs, the supple banana pudding. And then there’s the brisket: sliced thick, trimmed in fat and black crust, and sprinkled with a secret, paprika-like seasoning. Doesn’t get much better than this. 9001 U.S. 377 E., Cresson. 817-396-4758 ; www.bbqonthebrazos.com.
Squid-ink fideo pasta at Sera
Sera Dining & Wine took the spot vacated by the beloved Sapristi!, and it was a relief to find that it’s not only carrying on the joie de vivre legacy of that restaurant, but also improving upon it night after night. Our favorite among many lovely dishes at Sera (pronounced seh-RAH) was the gorgeously wrought squid-ink fideo pasta. Small snippets of black-as-night toasted fideo were offset by a mound of snowy calamari, four beautiful scallops, and a side of snap peas and roasted bell peppers. If you can see past the temporary staining of your lips and teeth, this is a dish that you will be dreaming of, days later. The pasta was just a bit salty and buttery, buoyed by the creamy, rich squid ink; the seafood was pure perfection and the veggies added surprising crunch and clarity. 2418 Forest Park Blvd., Fort Worth. 817-927-7372 ; www.facebook.com/SeraFW.
Banh mi at Mot Hai Ba
Chefs Colleen O’Hare and Jeana Johnson nabbed the old York Street spot for their authentic North Vietnamese canteen that’s one of the area’s most exciting openings of 2013. The menu’s juxtaposition of familiar and new makes each dish a discovery. Consider their rendition of the trendy banh mi sandwich: They offer it in more options than anyone else, from classic liver paté, to roasted pork, pork belly, beef, egg omelet and tofu, and elevate it with a chef’s attention to detail. In a single bite, you get the crackle of a crisp baguette, subtle crunch from the carrots, tart heat of their vinaigrette and the richness of house-made spicy mayo. 6047 Lewis St., Dallas. 972-638-7468 ; www.mothaibadallas.com.
Enmoladas at Enchiladas Olé
In a town with no shortage of Mexican restaurants, it’s funny that good enmoladas are so hard to find. Our favorite is at Enchiladas Olé, a small, cheery restaurant opened this year by local Mary Perez. Her mole sauce, made from chocolate and poblanos, strikes a perfect balance between sweet and savory, and the shredded chicken has a hearty, smoky flavor that comes only from actually smoking the chicken. 901 N. Sylvania Ave., Fort Worth. 817-984-1360; www.enchiladasole.com .
Potato-crusted snapper at
Little Red Wasp
LRW is the casual sibling of fine-dining restaurant Grace, with a more relaxed atmosphere and lower prices. The menu focuses mostly on familiar dishes: entrée salads, spaghetti and meatballs, a cheeseburger, and the signature Reuben. But the potato-crusted snapper is immensely satisfying. A coating of crunched-up potato chips makes a thick, crunchy, salty shell, enclosing a flaky tender-firm fillet, with deep green steamed spinach. 808 Main St., Fort Worth. 817-877-3111 ; www.littleredwasp.com.
Lobster salad at
Putting a steakhouse in Denton was a clever move on the part of Fort Worth chef Tim Love. Most restaurants in this college town vie for students, but few are aimed at the grown-ups. The menu lets you order your steak by the ounce, but Love loves his lobster, too, with dishes such as lobster cakes and a crazy chicken-fried whole lobster for $50. Our pick: the spicy lobster salad, with its chunks of soft lobster, tomato and red onion kicked up by fiery Scotch bonnet chiles. 115 E. Hickory St., Denton. 940-442-6834 ; http://queeniessteakhouse.com.
Ma-la stir fry at Howard Wang’s
Southlake was the perfect location for a branch of this upscale local chain, with its fresh take on Chinese-American food, attentive service and ritzy atmosphere. A massive menu combining traditional favorites such as orange chicken with high-end signature dishes like grilled salmon and soft-shell crab make it hard not to find something you’ll like. For real heat, the must-get is the Ma-la, a sizzling stir-fry with nicely cooked veggies and thick slices of jalapeño in a crave-able Sichuan peppercorn sauce. 1471 E. Southlake Blvd., Southlake. 817-488-6667 ; www.hwrestaurants.com/southlake.
Barbacoa molca bowl at Salsa Limón Museo
For its first stand-alone restaurant, opened this year in the historic streamline modern building in the Cultural District, Salsa Limón introduced a few new menu items. Among them is a molca bowl. Similar to layered dip, it consists of layers of refried beans, Mexican rice, crunchy cabbage and your choice of meat. Our fave is the barbocoa — steamed cow cheek meat that’s heavy on rich, beefy flavor but that has a light and tender texture, like pot roast. Also: best horchata in town. 929 University Drove, Fort Worth. 817-820-0680 ; www.salsalimon.com.
Miso salmon at
This warm, chic spot from chef Felipe Armenta (The Tavern) proves Fort Worth is up for seafood, be it sushi rolls, scallop salad or oysters on the half shell. There’s prime rib, chicken and other non-fishy dishes, but with a fine catch like miso salmon, how could you resist? A thick fillet, firm on the outside and soft within, comes topped with a glossy miso glaze that oozes down onto the accompanying sticky white rice and broccolini, topped with a sprinkling of chopped peanuts. 1600 S. University Drive, Fort Worth. 817-887-9995 ; www.pacifictableftworth.com.
Fried cactus at Waters
The high-end seafood temple opened by Fort Worth chef Jon Bonnell this year offers classic dishes such as the showpiece seafood tower with crab and shrimp and mac and cheese spiked with chunks of lobster. There are tuna tacos and even his signature take on oysters Rockefeller with bits of ham. But dang if the fried cactus doesn’t steal the show. Thick strips of cactus, coated with a batter and fried, they’re as salty and crunchy as your best french fries, and they come with an ancho chile sauce that’s the equivalent of a spicy ketchup. 2901 Crockett St., Fort Worth. 817-984-1110 ; waterstexas.com .
Mini desserts at Savor
The restaurant overlooking Dallas’ Klyde Warren Park is like a glass jewelbox, with a glittering magical vibe. The menu has a broad, generic appeal, and there is not only beer but also wine on tap. But who are we kidding: You’ll want to head straight for the desserts. They’re mini and cost $3 each, begging you to get a sampler to mix and match. With 10 options, running from creme brulee to salted caramel pudding to the decadent chocolate-peanut butter pretzel bite, you’ll have a hard time choosing. Oh, heck, get ’em all. 2000 Woodall Rodgers Freeway, Dallas. 214-306-5597 ; savor-relish.com.
Pepperjack tamales at Del Frisco’s Grille
Part of the allure of the new Del Frisco’s Grille in Fort Worth is its sparkling setting, on the inside edge of the brand new Sundance Square Plaza. Our delightful meal’s scene-stealer came at the beginning, with the pepperjack tamale appetizer. Gorgeously presented in a bamboo steamer, they were were topped with chorizo, queso fresco, diced tomato and matchsticked tortilla crisps. Luscious and velvety, these tamales nearly melted in your mouth. Heck, they nearly made us sing to the heavens. The chorizo and pepperjack gave them just the right kick. 154 E. Third St., Fort Worth. 817-887-9900 ; delfriscosgrille.com/fort-worth .
Baked eggplant parmigiana at Macaluso’s
Sure, you’ll find all your Italian old-school friends at Macaluso’s, the upstart Forest Park Boulevard entry that opened in the former Grady’s space in January 2013. But one taste of the baked eggplant parmigiana will make it feel more like a pleasant surprise party than a high school reunion. The eggplant — the standout of our trip there — was a creative take on the tired fried-veg-and-cheese territory. That’s a credit to chef Zeke Jusufi, who was the original chef at Marco’s Italian Ristorante, the Watauga favorite that changed hands a few years ago. He’s now working his magic in the kitchen at Macaluso’s. He smartly renders flavor from the eggplant by not breading it. The result is a tender, almost creamy-sweet eggplant enveloped in cheese and sauce. And that sauce — that sauce! — is simple and, thankfully, not the tangy variety that is frequently found at neighborhood joints. 2443 Forest Park Blvd., Fort Worth. 817-921-2200 ; macalusosrestaurant.org.
Crispy yam appetizer at
Ume Sushi & Korean BBQ
It was owner Min Han’s idea to include menu items such as Korean barbecue and bulgogi, to go along with a sushi bar and full menu of raw and cooked-fish delights at Ume, his Cityview establishment. The dish that proved most irresistible falls on the Korean side of the menu: the crispy yam appetizer, a pile of flash-fried shoestring potatoes with chile sauce. A small handful dipped in the sweet sauce is a palate-primer, offering sweet and slightly spicy notes. If Ume seems to present a food quandary — sushi or Korean? — don’t fret. It’s best to dig in and go for both. 4750 Bryant Irvin Road, Fort Worth. www.facebook.com/Umesushiandkoreanbbq.
Trailer Park taco at Torchy’s
A year after opening, the lines haven’t gotten shorter at the first Fort Worth location of Torchy’s Tacos, an Austin-based chain known for tacos filled with fried avocado, seared ahi tuna and unique sauces. Don’t wait in line for 20 minutes without trying the Trailer Park, though — the crunch of fried chicken, the heat of green chiles, the zest of poblano sauce make for perfect bites. You can also get it “trashy” and nix the greens in favor of queso; the trashier, the better. 928 Northton St., Fort Worth. 817-289-8226 ; www.torchystacos.com .
Chevre cheesecake at
Magnolia Cheese Co.
Opened this year on Magnolia Avenue, the colorful near-south-side cafe features local and regional cheeses in sandwiches and cheeseboards, but we can’t resist its killer cheesecake, prepared by executive chef Jen Williams in muffin pans, crust side up. Those who cringe at the thought of goat cheese, fear not: You can barely taste the cheese’s tartness. Instead, you get a subtly milky flavor, and a punch of sweetness from candied sage and maple-pecan syrup. You’ll never go back to boring old cheesecake. 1251 W. Magnolia Ave., Fort Worth. 817-945-2221 ; www.magnoliacheese.com.
Avocado chicken arepa at
Sol de Luna
In an area dominated by pizza, burgers and other foods by which students study and party, Sol de Luna is doing something radically different — a fusion of Venezuelan and Mexican — and doing it well. Among the better dishes are the crisp tostones, topped with queso fresco and cilantro, and monster-size pepito sandwiches, big enough to stuff even the beefiest TCU linebacker. Tough to beat is the avocado chicken arepa — shredded chicken, onions and mashed avocado sandwiched into a warm flatbread, similar to a wrap or taco. Get it with a side of the slightly sweet house-made corn sauce. 3005 S. University Drive, Fort Worth. 817-996-9492 ; www.facebook.com/soldelunarest.
Gourmet burgers at Rodeo Goat and Hopdoddy
Rodeo Goat won our 2013 title of Best Burger in DFW, but the Fort Worth icehouse faced a searing challenge in the Final Four from Hopdoddy, the Dallas gourmet burger joint with Austin roots. Our judges nearly came to fisticuffs when deciding this matchup, so we decided to honor both burgers when looking back on a delectable year. Hopdoddy’s Magic Shroom grass-fed patty was delicious enough on its own, but it took us aback with the way its melange of toppings worked together: succulent grilled mushrooms, a nicely salty basil pesto and goat cheese, all on a house-made challah-style bun. And Rodeo Goat’s Caca Oaxaca, how we worshiped at your altar — again and again. The beef and chorizo mixed patty comes topped with a generous portion of fanned-out avocado slices, pico de gallo, queso fresco, Tabasco mayo and a fried egg. The flavor was rich, creamy, spicy and unforgettable. Rodeo Goat, 2836 Bledsoe St., Fort Worth (817-877-4628; www.rodeogoat.com); Hopdoddy, 6030 Luther Lane, Suite 100, Dallas (214-363-2337; www.hopdoddy.com).
Teresa Gubbins, Malcolm Mayhew, Anna Caplan, Special to DFW.com; Heather Svokos, DFW.com