Top 10 tables

North Texas’ best new restaurants of 2011 provided a lesson in substance over style

MEXICAN, REINVENTED  |  The Mayan calendar may end in 2012, but that’s no reason not to enjoy the cuisine from MesoMaya, the top table of 2011.

MEXICAN, REINVENTED | The Mayan calendar may end in 2012, but that’s no reason not to enjoy the cuisine from MesoMaya, the top table of 2011.

ARNOLD WAYNE JONES  | Life+Style Editor
jones@dallasvoice.com

2011 was the year great dining found a way to avoid being fine dining.

There are all kinds of restaurants for all tastes and pocketbooks. Truth is, fancy usually takes you further because when you evaluate an overall dining experience, atmosphere and service come into play; standing in line to eat a burger out of a napkin while standing at a counter costs some points.

Or rather, it used to.

It’s probably a combination of things — the economy, the rise of the food truck, an emphasis on the taste of food above the flash of atmosphere — that led to an emphasis of substance over style in 2011. In 2010, we happily tagged Nosh as our top eatery: Elegant and pretty, but also an easy, sociable dining experience. Still, back then, there were slim pickin’s overall: I went with a Top 5 instead of 10, because that’s all that felt warranted.

Not so this year. At least 17 restos were legitimately in play as I was whittling it down to a Top 10, and several more — Campo, Chesterfield, Texas Spice, Oak — opened too late in the season for me to give full shrift. They’ll be up for consideration next time.

Some others almost made the list. Il Cane Rosso gave Deep Ellum another great, authentic eatery — this time, a Neapolitan pizzeria that’s no fuss, all must-have. Meddlesome Moth has some strong points (terrific hummus, the best dessert — chess pie — in town) but couldn’t consistently impress me.

Oddly, many of the restaurants that impressed me most had quirky things in common that helped define them as the anti-fine-dining Class of ’11: Brushed concrete floors (at least three of them), prosaic strip-mall locations (most of them), TV celebrichefs-done-good (Nos. 7 and 8).

Also, by and large, the restaurants that stood out also tended to group around themes: Sophisticated Tex-Mex, Eastern fusion, classy retro-joints and ravenously good tacos. I’m gonna keep with those trends as well, so here are the Top Tables of 2011. (Look for reviews of some of them in the coming weeks.)

The Top 3 —Mexivention: MesoMaya, Mesa, Komali

Never tell a German how to drink beer, a New Yorker how to eat pizza or a Texan how to do anything.

But especially don’t tell him about Tex-Mex. (Or tacos, though that’ll come later.)

We Texans know what we like when it comes to Southwestern-style cuisine, and Dallasites are especially arrogant about it. After all, we claim Stephan Pyles and Dean Fearing and Avner Samuel, who basically invented it for gourmet palates.

But even we can be surprised. The menu at MesoMaya Comida y Copas has a lot of familiar elements (posole, enchiladas, tacos), but this isn’t Tex-Mex: It’s central Mexican cuisine, resplendent with Mayan influence — Latin-Mesoamerican fusion par example. (1190 Preston Road, MesoMaya.com)

If MesoMaya is fiercely flavorful peasant food, then Mesa in Oak Cliff and Komali in Uptown are its sophisticated cousins. Komali, the companion restaurant to Mex-born chef Abraham Salum’s eponymous eatery, exudes an easy polish with soft features that don’t distract from the modern, urban-Mexican dishes, full of moles and wonderful salsas. (4152 Cole Ave., KomaliRestaurant.com)
Mesa, south of the Trinity, is less slick-looking that Komali (the exterior looks like a wig shop) but the food boasts soaring flavors from the Veracruzana region, with deft technique. And both have bar programs worthy of a cocktail hour. (118 W. Jefferson Ave., MesaDallas.com)

4 through 6 — Eastern artistry: Baboush, Malai Kitchen, Pho Colonial (Downtown)
Whether you’re talking the Far East or the Middle East, exotic cuisine gained a foothold in Dallas. Baboush claims the closest inspiration — a North African-influenced restaurant that brings a touch of the Mediterranean to the West Village. Forward flavors dominate even though the lush, genie-in-a-bottle atmosphere has its appeal. (3636 McKinney Ave., BaboushDallas.com)

Go to the Far East for two inventive restos. Across the street from Baboush is Malai Kitchen, one of the few eateries on this year’s list that takes décor seriously, but not as seriously as its food (especially its curries and a fantastic brunch). (3699 McKinney Ave., MalaiKitchen. com). Downtown’s Pho Colonial (there’s another in Far North Dallas) takes counter-service that should feel like Vietnamese comfort food and turns it into haute cuisine with expertly cooked meats, big portions and a wallop on the tongue. (164 N. Ervay St., PhoColonial.com)

7 and 8 — Traditional Fine-Dine: Private | Social, Marquee Grill
Two Dallas chefs who gained national fame as fan favorites on Top Chef — Tiffany Derry and Tre Wilcox — ventured out on their own with favorable results. Derry’s Private | Social, with its seafood-heavy menu, interesting concept and sparkly interior, has the edge over Wilcox’s old-school eclectic New American cuisine at Marquee Grill, but both harken to event restaurants that were common before the New Casual took over. 3232 McKinney Ave., PrivateSocial.com; 32 Highland Park Village, MarqueeGrill.com)

9 and 10 — Street Food Goes Big: Taco Ocho, Good 2 Go Tacos
Food anthropologists 100 years from now will probably note a straight line from waist girth, the legitimization of food trucks and the indulgent taco stand in 2011. As gourmet taquerias proliferated, these two — Taco Ocho, a slick, likeable, well-lit suburban place and the woman-owned Good 2 Go Tacos, a glorified lunch counter in East Dallas — made the most significant impact on us, forever and finally making the Old El Paso paradigm on thing of the past. (930 E. Campbell Road, Richardson, TacoOcho.com; 1146 Peavy Road, Good2GoTaco.com)
For a review of Good to Go Tacos, see sidebar on Page 21.

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition January 6, 2012.

—  Michael Stephens

Why I will vote Republican in 2012

If LGBTs really want to win equality, we must back the candidates that will help our pocketbooks, even if they take anti-LGBT positions

Robert Schlein
Special Contributor

I always give a five-minute speech at our monthly Log Cabin Republicans of Dallas meetings, and I was recently reviewing some of my remarks from July, 2008, when I asked the question, “What political price would my critics pay to resolve all of their gay civil rights issues? Would they accept any political doctrine, if it was bundled with promises of improvement in gay civil liberties?”

I said to our group that I didn’t want an America that looks like Europe: one that can’t generate enough jobs for its younger workforce, whose immigration policies have created many social ills and whose government-controlled socialized medicine results in less availability of care for all, and with the best care for only those who can afford to travel to another country.

America answered that question in 2008 — and unfortunately got it wrong. While the LGBT community finally secured some victories, what we got in exchange was bigger government, bigger debt and a much-worsened economy.

ObamaCare is an impending disaster that threatens our quality and availability of health care. The economy is stagnating because Obama and his administration seem to know little about capitalism or how to inspire confidence among those with cash to invest.

So again I ponder my question from 2008, because we Republicans will likely have a GOP candidate for president that saber-rattles his or her threat for a federal marriage amendment, or the reinstatement of “don’t ask, don’t tell” to placate the social conservatives.

Let’s be realistic, we Republicans need SoCons to win elections.

However, despite this pressure, our next Republican president will more than likely follow through instead on fiscal efforts to repeal ObamaCare, neuter the EPA’s hard work to shut down power plants that will severely hamper our economy (many in Texas), allow us to explore for oil domestically, steer us to a more balanced budget and get rid of the Dodd-Frank Banking bill that has caused cash-for-title loan stores to spring up like Texas ragweed.

For those who are upset at Rick Perry’s decision to sign the National Organization of Marriage’s pledge to move forward on an amendment to the Constitution, I say I’m willing to pay that price — a danger, in my view, that is as exaggerated as the reported threat of Hurricane Irene — in exchange for fiscal conservatism that is more likely to win the day and return us to prosperity.

After all, the process for amending the Constitution of the United States is so burdensome and so difficult, it seems to me the pledge to NOM is as empty as most men’s promises to stay monogamous until “death do us part.”

That said, I don’t believe that Rick Perry is our party’s best hope to beat Obama.

In the swing states that really matter — Florida, Michigan, Ohio, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania — Mitt Romney, who has never been a great friend of Log Cabin’s, polls better. He’s one of them, and his dad was a very, very popular Michigan governor.

And if Jon Huntsman can organize some support he would be a brilliant choice, too.

But, we don’t get to decide in isolation who our nominee will be. By the time the candidates reach Texas, we will likely have our winner.

And, if that winner is Rick Perry, he can count on my vote and my vocal support.

We say in Log Cabin that “inclusion wins,” and we appreciate and welcome those with ideas that differ from our own.

All we can do is to try to elect people that can win who are most compatible with our views, and try to exert influence on those who differ, who do win.

For the LGBT community, economic power is the most liberating one. Paying your debts down, burning up your mortgage and having, pardon my language, some “screw  you” money in the bank — that stands the best chance to obtain the equality we seek.

For if it weren’t for a handful of very wealthy billionaires in New York who were with us, their Republican senate majority leader would have never passed gay marriage in that state.

Let me be clear on this: It wasn’t just Log Cabin. It wasn’t just the Human Rights Campaign.  It was former Republican National Committee Chair Ken Mehlmen, PayPal founder Peter Thiel and their very rich allies that really got this done!

Because, at the end of the day, money is power. And we need to vote on the party that will best give us a chance to prosper, to accumulate wealth and, hence, all the power we need to accomplish our goals.

Obama has shown that he does not stand with those who seek economic prosperity and to accumulate wealth, and for this reason I will vote Republican —  even if Rick Perry is our nominee. And I hope you will, too.

Rob Schlein is president of the LGBT Republican group Log Cabin Republicans of Dallas.

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition August 31, 2011.

—  Michael Stephens