Gustatory heaven and hell


Here in sizzling Big D, the Great Dallas Restaurants hunt continues. We’ve been so busy lately, with stuff like graduations, vacations and surgeries, that we haven’t been cooking much at home.

Oh, and there’s the little fact that it’s now been over 100 degrees for 24 straight days now. At night it’s much better, dropped to a positively bone-chilling 91 or so.

I’m beginning to seriously consider that we may have slid sideways off of Texas and straight into the Ninth Circle of Hell. Or that some giant is sitting way, way above us with a big magnifying glass, focusing an intergalactic sun ray onto the Dallas area until our edges curl and a wisp of smoke shimmies up from the city.

I mean, our electric bill we got Friday started with a “5.” Unfortunately, I don’t mean $50, either. So while I have some notes on some recent restaurants, I don’t expect to have many more for a while, because we’ll be splitting a cornflake or two for dinner throughout the month of August.

One place to definitely take off the list: Nate’s Seafood & Steakhouse, in Addison. What a huge bummer, too. We’d been saving it since the move, because we’d heard from a couple of people that it was good, authentic Cajun food. Let me just say, that is not the case. If you are unfamiliar with good Cajun food and have dined at Nate’s, you must get up right now, run to the phone, call them and demand an apology. And your money back. Then delete it from your GPS and block it from your iPhone maps app.

It’s pretty tough to screw up boiled crawfish. Really. You season the water with a lot of pungent spices, toss in the corn, potatoes and mudbugs, boil everything for a bit, then you dump it all out on a big pile of brown paper and commence eating.

Or you can do it Nate’s way, where you drop a few crawfish, corn and potatoes half-heartedly into plain water, then wave them languidly at a nearby can of Old Bay as you take them out of the pot.

While you’re waiting for them to grow stone-cold so they can be served, you can roll a few little odd-sized balls of cornmeal into the deep fryer, where they will immediately congeal into small greasy marbles that are somehow gummy on the inside, despite the extra-thick, over-browned shell. When these are served, sitting in a tin tray of melted butter, everyone at your table can laugh gaily, pretending to be eating hush puppies and wondering, “What the hell are these balls of ick on which I’m wasting my calories?”

Seriously, a good hush puppy is a thing of beauty — light and corny on the inside, with a thin brown crust just crunchy enough to parlez-vous perfectly with the hint of green onion and sweetness in the meal. They aren’t greasy, because if the oil’s just the right temperature, the hush puppy won’t absorb it. And who in their right mind would pop them into a standing pool of butter? It’s one thing to smear some butter onto a hot pup that you’ve just broken in half, but another thing entirely to drown one that way.

Nate’s hush puppies weren’t things of beauty. Neither were the broiled shrimp, five tiny little overcooked half-moons, again with dry seasoning dumped on top. And the red beans and rice…. ohhh, the red beans and rice. They really made me heartsick.

What a disappointment. For Cajun, I’ll take Fish City Grill any day, or even Dodie’s, with its overdependence on all things fried and its rather forced swamp bonhomie. For seafood, we’re going to stick with one of the others I’ve already raved about.

There are so many great restaurants here, I find myself getting ticked off when we waste a dinner slot on something that’s just not worth the time or money.

Just wait ’til I open my restaurant. Harrrummph.

Although we’ve sworn off chain restaurants because of those great local choices here, we did slip recently. We were both tired and not in the mood to explore, so we just said to hell with it, and stopped at Romano’s for a bowl of something pasta-y. Again, not so hard to do serviceably well.

They didn’t get the memo. Clumpy, hard pasta with tasteless sauce. The service would have had to improve to become half-hearted. Serves us right for eating at a chain, I guess. With that lackluster experience in hand, we set off one night to a new pizza place, Ciao’s. It promised to be real Chicago stuffed pizza, the kind we know and love from Giordano’s. We couldn’t wait! Our friends from Chicago were going to be so surprised next time they visited!

The first bad sign was that we were the only people in the place. We’d called ahead to get them started, since a real stuffed pizza takes 45 minutes or so to bake. The pizza came out right after we got there. For a second, it actually looked like a Chicago stuffed pizza. It was an inch or so thick, with lovely browned cheese on top.

Wait? Cheese on top? That should be sauce on top… Uh, oh.

It turns out they had to put cheese on top because it it was the only thing forming a seal to keep the pink-colored water — their idea of sauce — from running out of the pizza. The minute we cut a piece, it was as a levee had burst. The soupy sauce-like stuff poured right out of the pizza in a tidal wave.

The cheese on top used as spackling was a giveaway, but confirmation that this had been an ongoing problem came when we realized they had placed the pizza on top of a big, puffy piece of cardboard. Underneath. To sop up the pink-water flood, obviously. Of course, chemistry being what it is and all, these two elements quickly combined to create a thick, pasty, pink paper-dough mass on the plate. I swear it was alive.

Here’s a photo: 

It was horrible. The Supreme Court would step in if this “pizza” were served in prisons. It was so bad that D — not even me! — filled out the comment card. She did it sweetly, kindly, gently and good-heartededly, of course, because that’s how she’s wired. But she did say something about it being the worst pizza she’d ever had, and that she’d really recommend that they find another line of work.

I would have added some choice comments — and warned them that the wrath of my blog was about to be visited upon them — if I’d been able to stand up. But despite my eating only one “slice” of the concoction, I immediately got really, really sick. Like, I almost didn’t make it home before someone dropped an M80 into my stomach. I haven’t been that nauseated since chemo, no lie. It was B-A-D. I threw up my liver and a kidney, I think.

A week or so later, we drove by again, and I was quite happy to see that it was closed. Sayonaro to Ciao’s. Thank goodness. I still have nightmares about the end of that evening. Shudder.

I did find a lovely little spot called Alma, though, thanks to some old friends who I’d worked with back at the Dallas Times Herald. Maybe it was just seeing a couple of funny, smart and incredibly witty peeps again after many years, but it was a wonderful evening. Alma has a signature green frothy drink with creme de coconut and a serrano pepper. Yowza! Loved it. And there’s this creamed corn in little corn-husk bowls, made with crema and lime and cheese and chile powder. Mmmmmm.

So on it goes, the search for perfection among Dallas’ gazillion restaurants… Or at least it will go on after we re-mortgage the house and pay the light bill…

About wordsmith1313

Now: Somewhat retired, although I don't do it very well. Formerly senior director of Communications and Marketing for the Dallas Zoo. Journalist. EMT. Writer. Breast cancer survivor. I love to travel, and will always return from a trip with a new friend or two. Those fortuitous meetings bring velvet to the rough edges of life.
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