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.
Thirty-eight miles east, in the upscale Dallas Arts District, Stephan Pyles is doing what he variously calls “New Millennium Southwestern Cuisine” and “New Texas Cuisine” in his namesake restaurant. (These classifications combine elements of Texas, Latin America, Spain, the Middle East, and the Mediterranean.) A local celebrity, the bearded chef gets the rock star treatment as he works the room.
Nary a longhorn in sight in the parking lot; think Lamborghinis and BMWs instead. It’s a gorgeous setting before you even enter. Texas live oaks and a bridgelike path lead to a black granite reflecting pool and a waterfall cascading over a sculpture. The place is equally dramatic inside. The centerpiece glassed-in kitchen holds a smoker, rotisserie, and wood-burning grill; the décor is geometric shapes in metal and wood, original art, stacked Texas flagstone walls, terra cotta brick, and desert and sunset colors. The lighting hues change as the evening progresses. Beyond a bar stocked with expensive tequilas, a striking see-through fire pit leads to an open-air patio.
Servers get your attention immediately with outstanding potato-bacon focaccia and little blue corn muffins, and wonderful appetizers keep the buzz going. My favorites include the big butter-poached prawn with apricot sauce, avocado-tomatillo relish, and platano relleno (mashed plantain stuffed with beef tenderloin), and a tamale tart filled with roast garlic custard and a mound of peekytoe crab on smoked tomato sauce.
We feel compelled to order Stephan Pyles’s spice-marinated, beautifully grilled and charred bone-in cowboy rib eye with pinto–wild mushroom ragoût and an imposing pile of red chili–dusted onion rings. Serious Texas chow. But across the table, two companions claim that the coriander-cured rack of lamb, served with a delicious cranberry mojo sauce and an Ecuadorian potato cake, is even better. Then my third guest says her seared red snapper with a sauce of aji and creamed corn purée and crab seviche is the best snapper she’s ever eaten. I can’t disagree with any of them.
Dessert: Wow. The signature heaven and hell cake—devil’s food chocolate cake and angel food cake layered with peanut butter–cream cheese mousse and finished with milk chocolate icing—is brilliant. Stephan Pyles lives up to Bon Appétit‘s claim that he “almost single-handedly changed the cooking scene in Texas.” Of course, in Texas they don’t say, “Bon appétit“; they say, “Come and git it,” but that wouldn’t look as good on a magazine cover.
Taken together, these restaurants reminded me of Frontera Grill—winner of the 2007 James Beard Award for best restaurant in the country—and its white-tablecloth sister, Topolobampo. The first is rustic like Lonesome Dove; the second, refined and upscale like Stephan Pyles. The flavors are similar, especially where chilies, beans, corn, and grilling are involved.
Frontera Grill and Topolobampo have separate kitchens and menus, though they share drink lists and a Mexican raw bar packed with sustainably raised or caught seafood. Frontera’s waiter mentions quickly that there are still two orders of the limited nightly quota of chiles rellenos left. I’ve had them so many times that, painful as it is, I skip it to focus on other things. I want to try the classic banana leaf–steamed square tamal filled with slow-cooked pork and red Oaxacan mole colaradito. I should also taste the earthy enchiladas de huitlacoche, just-made corn tortillas rolled around inky corn mushrooms and roasted vegetables. They’ve been doused with tomatillo-corn sauce and topped with melted Samuel’s handcrafted Jack cheese, and they are terrific. As for the pork/mole tamal, it’s even better.
Frontera’s juicy grilled mahi-mahi would not be out of place at Topo, not with its seasoning of hoja santa (a sassafras-like herb) and sauce of almond-thickened roasted tomatillos and Anaheim chilies. The waiter warns me about the hot onion-marinated serrano chili garnish but, hey, this is Mexican food. A whole different flavor profile comes with the succulent flattened organic rock hen marinated in red chili, garlic, and spices, then grilled. This would slip right onto the menu at Lonesome Dove with its savory cowboy beans (frijoles charros) made of bacon, grilled chilies, and coriander, along with charcoaled green onions.
The homemade ice creams—maybe baby banana with chocolate chunks—are always a good bet, as is the chocolate pecan pie with a topping of browned meringue: It’s been on the menu since Frontera Grill opened. A taste of that pie confirmed my feeling that this restaurant, driven by honest, earthy flavors, is solid as a rock. I’d love to eat here once a week.
Topolobampo is more precious. Take the outstanding organic chicken liver terrine: As sophisticated as a proud French chef’s appetizer jewel, it’s filled with earthy huitlacoche and presented with roasted Mission fig and smoky morita chili salsa. As if that weren’t enough, it’s garnished with microgreens from Bayless’s garden and topped with toasted pepitas (squash seeds). Equally polished is the green chili–infused scallop and black cod sausage with salsa veracruzana (olives, capers, pickled vegetables) and bits of crunchy salmon bacon that moves it into cutting-edge cooking.
Chef Bayless plays with regional mole sauces the way a modern French chef might with béchamel; in fact, lately he has featured a mole tasting menu. An appetizer of mole de olla pairs an intensely concentrated red guajillo chili broth with braised grass-fed short rib meat, roasted chayote squash, Michigan apples, and xoconostle (sour prickly pear). And you can’t ignore the crispy-skinned duck breast entrée with Xico-style mole made with dark chilies and dried fruit, a fresh-ground masa tamal as satisfying as polenta, and a sherry-dressed salad of grilled frisée and wild chanterelles. Chanterelles? Yep. Some of the best I ever tasted were a bright blue mountain variety that Diana Kennedy—the Julia Child of interpreting Mexican cuisine for Americans—cooked in cream for me in her Michoacán home. But I also love the chorizo-crusted Alaskan black cod surrounded with littleneck clams, ancho-braised lentils, and lobster mushrooms.
The margaritas are topnotch, but so is sommelier Jill Gubesch’s guidance through unfamiliar wine territory. For our entrées, she recommends a 2001 Novaia Amarone Della Valpolicella Classico ($90), from a small winery near Verona that practices sustainable agriculture. Amarone is made from red grapes dried like raisins, and its initially sweet taste is entrancingly fruity like port, but then comes a bitterness and a dry finish. Amazing stuff, as if it had been fermented with Bayless’s duck in mind.
Topolobampo’s desserts incorporate true Mexican flavors, but they exceed anything you’re likely to find in Mexico. Pastelito de cherimoya criollo is a good example. It’s a warm, moist cake of Spence Farm pawpaw (an Illinois cousin of Mexican cherimoya) with broiled Mission figs and granita-like pawpaw ice infused by Domaine Carneros sparkling wine. Bayless pushes even further with his tartaleta de chocolate y tocino, a rich chocolate ganache tart holding melted Vosges “Mo’s Bacon Bar” milk chocolate and served with white chocolate ice cream swirled with salted caramel.
So it goes. Topolobampo and Stephan Pyles approach haute French in technique yet remain true to their cultures. But where Bayless incorporates the moles of central and southern Mexico, Pyles imports Mediterranean and Latin American flavors and merges them with Southwestern food’s amalgam of influences. Meanwhile, Frontera Grill sticks to regional Mexican with brilliant fidelity, and Lonesome Dove drives Texas/Western cooking into the 21st century—in a setting that makes those longhorns in Fort Worth seem like more than just a tourist attraction.
FRONTERA GRILL 445 N. Clark St.; 312-661-1434 A model meal Pork-filled tamal with Oaxacan mole colaradito, grilled chili-marinated rock hen, chocolate pecan pie Tip Reservations are limited; call well ahead. Hours Brunch Saturday; lunch Tuesday-Friday; dinner Tuesday-Saturday Tab (Dinner per person without wine, tax, or tip) $30 to $35
LONESOME DOVE WESTERN BISTRO 2406 N. Main St., Fort Worth, Texas; 817-740-8810 A model meal Braised wild boar ribs, grilled red deer chops, ancho chili chocolate cake Hours Lunch Tuesday-Saturday; dinner Tuesday-Sunday Tab $45 to $50
STEPHAN PYLES 1807 Ross Ave., Dallas, Texas; 214-580-7000 A model meal Garlic-custard tamale tart with peekytoe crab, rack of lamb with cranberry mojo, heaven and hell cake Hours Lunch Monday-Friday; dinner Monday-Saturday Tab $50 to $60
TOPOLOBAMPO 445 N. Clark St.; 312-661-1434 A model meal Chicken liver and huitlacoche terrine, chorizo-crusted black cod, pastelito de cherimoya criollo Tip If money is no object, order one of the tasting menus with matching wines. Hours Lunch Tuesday-Friday; dinner Tuesday-Saturday Tab $50 to $60