Dining Out: Trailblazers

Our critic moseys into Texas to pit its two finest Southwestern restaurants against Rick Bayless’s legendary Frontera/Topolobampo one-two punch.

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We’re driving by a quintessential Texas strip mall: a taquería, a pistol-shooting range, a liquor store, a tobacco store, a tattoo parlor, and a doughnut shop. The joint across the street specializes in calf fries (that’s testicles to you, pardner)—if only I had more time. But I’m on a mission to try two of the top Southwestern restaurants in the Dallas–Fort Worth area, Stephan Pyles and Lonesome Dove Western Bistro, and compare them with Chicago’s legendary Mexican duo, Frontera Grill and Topolobampo. Both pairs share the same philosophy: taking their respective modest cuisines upscale.

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In the well-preserved 19th-century Fort Worth Stockyards District is Tim Love’s Lonesome Dove Western Bistro. Locals say the difference between Dallas and Fort Worth is that in Fort Worth the men wear high heels. (That means cowboy boots, city slickers.) They’re not kidding: Cowboys on horseback drive longhorn steers down the street twice a day. The restaurant looks like a Rawhide set: lots of rough wood, ten-gallon hats on racks, a mounted longhorn steer head, and other Western knickknacks. Behind the open kitchen there’s the ubiquitous Texas flag.

The waitress is very friendly—they all are in Texas—but she seems new and baffled when I ask her what “Urban Western” cuisine is. That’s what chef Tim Love calls his food, saying it’s an elevated version of the cooking of the folks of the Southwest and Western states: Mexican vaqueros, German settlers, French traders, Cajuns, American Indians, and Chinese workers. Love, of course, always wears a cowboy hat. He knows how to do publicity, like his 2004 trail drive from Fort Worth to New York to celebrate James Beard’s 100th birthday, which earned him air on The Today Show. Then there was his 2006 victory over the original “Iron Chef,” Masaharu Morimoto, on the Food Network series.

His food lives up to his hype. I know Love specializes in game preps, but I’m skeptical when I see the Boursin-stuffed kangaroo carpaccio nachos with guacamole-like avocado relish mixed with grilled corn and spicy, sweet habanero sauce on the menu. Love apparently believes Australia today is the closest thing to what the American West was a century ago. Whatever, the kangaroo and its accompaniments are terrific. I also loved the braised wild boar ribs with house barbecue sauce and pickles that tasted just like the bread-and-butter pickles my mom used to make. Naturally, Love adds a serious jalapeño kick.

My wife totally fell for the lunch offering of barbecue-sauced meat loaf with wonderful chipotle mashed purple potatoes. Meanwhile, I drooled over grilled New Zealand red deer chops with truffled mac and cheese and fried artichoke/lobster mushroom glace. The fried artichoke pieces are coated in polenta so they resemble hush puppies, and the truffled mac and cheese made with orzo pasta isn’t exactly what I ate while growing up in Texas, but it tastes fabulous.

I fear a fight over desserts. Serious glares are exchanged over the last bite of the cheesecake-like tart of homemade ricotta with Texas peaches and almond ice cream. The warm ancho chili chocolate cake with a wonderfully exotic tomatillo anglaise raised the ante higher. A friend who doesn’t even like chocolate cake was crazy about this; must have been the chili kick in the back of his throat. Move to Chicago, Tim Love. I’m begging you.

 

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