Saturday, November 29, 2008

2008 DFW Roundup Pt. 1: Fish City Grill, El Fenix, Mi Cocina, La Playa Maya, Bosses Pizza

There are many restaurants that Mrs. RJG and I dine at that do not grace these pages. Many times they represent a lackluster visit, or even if the food is quite good, it does not inspire me to write down my thoughts. Sometimes a restaurant is perfectly fine, but what can I say really, other than "good food - nice place". And as far as the mediocre places go, I'm always hesitant to write a few discouraging words - except for those places that go out of their way to deserve my wrath. At the same time, it does help paint a picture of our own peculiar tastes, and even if you the reader disagree, at least I'm providing you the data from which can choose whether to follow the RJG advice or not.

With that preface out of the way, I think the best way to handle this situation is with a "roundup" of sorts. Not detailed reviews of our experience, but rather short capsules, that may inspire a decision one way or the other.

Fish City Grill, Seafood - Southlake. We'll start out with a positive one. For those of us in NE Tarrant, finding a good piece of fish is quite a challenge. Sadly, Clear Creek Seafood of Keller closed down earlier in the year, which pretty much left us with the National or Corporate chains such as Red Lobster, Copeland's or Trulucks. Fish City Grill is a locally based chain with Corporate ambitions, and have started to open around the country. But the concept is a good one - a neighborhood fish joint. Lunch portions and prices are not too bad, and I recommend the blackened fish dishes. You can find the Southlake location on Southlake Blvd, just west of TX-114 in a new strip mall, anchored by Michael Anthony's Steakhouse. Regular RJG readers will know the area, as Johnny B's is right across the parking lot.

El Fenix, Mexican - Grapevine. El Fenix is a Dallas institution and is arguably the place where Tex-Mex can trace its beginning. Growing up in Northwest Dallas, we occasionally went to the location on Webb Chapel and Forest throughout the 1970s and 80s. That location, fortunately, is still open and we'll still take my Mom over for dinner. Unfortunately for us in NE Tarrant, we get stuck with the Grapevine location, which isn't up to the standard of their Dallas brethren. It feels more like a Dennys than the Old Mexico of the original downtown Dallas location. Everything is served quickly, not cooked to order, and quality is uneven. It services the DFW airport crowd, and it doesn't appear the denizens care much what they're eating. Bottom line, we heartily recommend El Fenix when in Dallas, but avoid the Grapevine locale. Ironic note: The classic oval neon sign was missing the "e" and "n" in Fenix, leaving "El Fix". Indeed it does need that.

Mi Cocina, Mexican - Irving (Las Colinas) or Southlake. Corporate chain from the "M Crowd". Just the name M Crowd alone reeks of insufferable yuppiedom. Like most corporate chains, the quality from visit to visit is uneven, but if pressed to take business clients to a place, this is a safer bet than having them gulp the "extra hot" from Fernandez Cafe, while they look over their collective shoulders for fear of their life. Straight down the middle, boring Tex-Mex, that tourists seem to enjoy. Perfect for the Southlake Town Square that it resides in. The Las Colinas location is on MacArthur, just south of I-635. Be prepared for a long wait at either location, especially on weekend evenings.

La Playa Maya, Mexican - Ft. Worth (South Side). As mentioned in the El Rancho Grande entry, we had first ventured to this Ft. Worth local chain's North Side location, known simply as La Playa, as far back as 2003. It didn't inspire a repeat visit, but after writing the El Rancho Grande review, we felt compelled to try it again. So we ventured down to south Ft. Worth for a visit. The decor of the place is nothing short of awesome. And we were escorted to the small upstairs dining room, which is very quaint. Unfortunately the food just doesn't do it for us. The Mrs. says the seafood/shrimp soup is tasteless. I went with a traditional Tex-Mex combo of enchiladas and tacos. All bland. We both liked the salsa, but it's heavy on the Valentina Salsa Picante. This place has loyal fans, and I have no intention of trying to talk someone out of that. It just isn't our place. Too bad, we really wanted to like it.

Bosses Pizza, Pizza - Keller. This is another legendary place, for those that live in the Lake Worth area. Bosses recently opened in the former spot of Bellisimo's, their failed attempt at a second location. The general scuttlebutt is Bosses makes a pizza very similar to the original Mama's Pizza. Not being a true Ft. Worth guy, I can't say, since I've never been to Mama's (well.... I haven't!). If this is indeed what it's all about, then that's OK, I'll pass. We both enjoyed the ingredients, heavy on the cheese, and the toppings all were well done, tough nothing extraordinary (for example, I doubt they make their own sausage). But for the thick, chewy pizza dough - nope, that's not for us. Bosses did a nice job with the building, as they converted it into a traditional pizza parlor, giving it the character that the Bellisimo location sorely lacked. One other note - Bosses is the rare pizza place that doesn't serve any kind of pasta. Despite not being a huge fan of this style of pizza, I do hope Bosses makes it - it's the right kind of place for the area. Old Town Keller needs all the help it can get. You can find Bosses on US-377, just north of Keller Pkwy.

Friday, November 28, 2008

I Fratelli, Italian, Irving-TX

Last visit: October 2013

Rating: Strong Buy

This is their only restaurant location. They have numerous pizza outlets, which we featured later in the blog

October 2011 update: When I wrote the below review in 2008, that represented our first visit. Since then, I Fratelli has become my go to place for local business. Since all of my DFW co-workers are based in the Plano-Richardson-Garland area, while I'm here in NE Tarrant - we needed a meeting place that is halfway. I Fratelli is about 30 minutes away for each of us. As well, the DFW airport location makes it ideal when we meet with partners, vendors and clients. It's absolutely perfect for business: It's local; popular; has a nice bar; easy to get to; plenty of parking; and most importantly great food. Everyone from out of town asks if we can meet there again.

Not mentioned below, but I absolutely love their house salad and bolognese sauce.

Original review

Like many locals in the DFW area, we first discovered I Fratelli via one of their many pizza to-go portals throughout the area. I Fratelli makes what I'd call "Dallas styled Italian pizza". It's a cracker thin crust, cut in tiny bite sized pieces, and served via an oval plate. Closer to the St. Louis style of Imo's (though no provel cheese) than the thick gooey, but crispy, New York variety. In effect, I Fratelli is the equivalent of the Dallas based Campisi's, which we covered earlier in the RJG. And like Campisi's, the pizza outlets are an extension of the anchor store as it were. The I Fratelli restaurant on MacArthur is their Campisi's Egyptian.

In 1987 the Cole brothers opened up I Fratelli, in far n
orth Irving, on MacArthur just south of I-635. At that time, and even as it stands today, if you wanted Campisi's, one had to go to Dallas. Why not open a similar restaurant near the airport? It was a hit, and the restaurant is enormously popular throughout the area, as evidenced by the proliferation of pizza stores. We had never been to the landmark Italian restaurant, and recently on a return back from a business dinner at the Mexican restaurant Mi Cocina, I noticed they took over the old Jack Astor's location (a better than average Canadian chain that we visited twice prior, that unfortunately couldn't compete in the area).

On this visit, Mr. RJG's Mom joined us, as she lives reasonably close over in Northwest Dallas (ED: and has since moved to NE Tarrant herself). As you enter, it becomes apparent this is going to be a trip back to the 1960s and 70s. Open the door and you get a darkened waiting room (sans chairs) with a handful of plaques containing various newspaper writeups. Facing you is another door. Open it up and there's the hostess table. Looking around, the restaurant is dark, with candlelit tables, dark woods and the air of spirited conversation. A welcoming place to be sure, and besides, everyone looks good. The RJG has long complained about restaurants that look like supermarkets with bright overhead lights. Save that for the fast food takeout joints. When I'm dining, I want to focus on food, drink and conversation, rather than noticing scars, wrinkles and spider veins for the first time - my own, that is...

The menu, old and crinkly, also points to an earlier era. And they're quick to point out that everything is homemade. That's music to my ears. Homemade meatballs, sausage, sauces, salad dressing. No reheating what they bought off the Lisanti truck. They bring out a bowl of parmesan cheese, and actually leave it there. "Go ahead and dump the whole thing on your plate, that's fine". How many times does the RJG have to wait around and ask for cheese, and after they put one tiny teaspoon on, they seem irritated you might actually want more? Regular readers of the RJG know that I like my food spicy. At best, you might get the shaker with crushed red pepper (usually the wrong shaker, with holes meant for cheese, rather than the slat top for red pepper). And the kind of filtered, tame red pepper flakes you can buy at the grocery store. I Fratelli provides freshly ground red pepper, that will light you up. And they leave a bowl of that too. "Go ahead, dump the whole thing on your plate - we'll call 911 for you".

So, what about the food taste? Absolutely delicious. The red sauce is thick and smooth, with a unique recipe, that I'm not sure I've had before. The meatballs were delicious. Old school all the way, thick, meaty and spicy. I had the chicken parm, again superb, though not quite as crispy as I like (ED: On recent visits, the chicken parm is indeed crispy!) . They didn't separate the pasta either, but so few do anymore. Honestly, I want to try everything on the menu, minus perhaps the white sauce dishes (we'll say for diet reasons OK?).

That's two superior Italian restaurant discoveries in the same month. Earlier we discussed Siciliano's - A Taste of Italy in Garland - and now I Fratelli in Las Colinas. Nice to see that the Moni's empire hasn't completely taken over the Italian restaurant scene in DFW.

You can find I Fratelli on MacArthur between 161 and I-635, on the west side of the road. Technically this area is known as north Irving, but it's close enough to Las Colinas for me. As far as I'm concerned, the spiritual heart of Irving is south of TX-114 and all around TX-183.

Website

I Fratelli Italian Ristorante and Wine Bar on Urbanspoon

Friday, November 14, 2008

Peace Burger Dive Bar & Grill, Hamburgers, Sports Bar, Beer Tavern, Grapevine-TX

Last visit: January 2013

Rating: Buy

January 2013 update: The beer revolution continues here in DFW, and the whole Baja "chain" has gone all in for local craft brews. Hooray, hooray! Mr. Music and I visited Peace Burger this past weekend, and now I can say they really will be part of a "burger rotation". We each tried a local-to-Texas beer - I had the Peticolas Royal Scoundrel, while he had the Real Ale "Devil's Backbone" (which I've had in the bottle but not on tap). Like their Funky Baja's location in Keller, they feature gigantic $5 "Freaking" Burgers. Mr. Music had the Hell Burger and I tried their chili cheese dog, which is about the biggest one I've ever had. Sloppy goodness. This chain has evolved so much, I'm not even sure how much of the below is worthwhile to read. I've struck out items that are no longer true

October 2011 update: The below review represented the RJG's first visit. And now some 3 years later, we have gone back for only the second time (despite my false claim below of a mythical "burger rotation"). There have been significant changes since Mr. SS and I were last here (and, as mentioned in an earlier blog entry, Mr. SS is now munching his way through Manhattan). Perhaps most notably thay have moved into a new setting around the corner - but still in the same strip mall. And they went from a fast food burger joint to a full-scale sports bar with an expanded menu that includes tacos (since they're owned by Baja's, this makes sense), appetizers, sandwiches, and of course hamburgers. Gone are the album covers - in its place, sports memorabilia and flat screen TVs.

To start with, I was disappointed with the bar aspect. The draught beer selection was limited to strictly mainstream US and Mexican macro swills. At least throw in a couple of micros or a European import! So I settled on a frozen margarita, which was pretty good actually, though somewhat generic. As for the meal, I zeroed in on the "Hell Burger". You know Mr. RJG, always looking for some fiery spice. You all seen that show Heat Seekers? I could hang with those guys all day - they're a lot of fun, and I love their idea of a good meal. So the Hell Burger is pretty much a regular size patty with a habanero sauce, sliced jalapenos and Monterey Jack cheese. Was it hot? Sure, but not overly so. I didn't taste the habanero honestly - seemed more like a paprika/cayenne blend (and suspiciously looked that way too). The sliced jalapenos were mild, though that could be a seasonal situation. They also threw a fat roasted jalapeno on top. I'm not fond of "fat" peppers, but I got about half-way through it. It was pretty weak to be honest. So in the end, I loved the concept, but wasn't blown away by it. I'm saying thumbs up to Peace Burger, though personally I'm finding it hard to come up with a reason to be a repeat visitor. Maybe I'm just not getting what they're really good at. It could be another 3 years for me...

Original review

Drugs, sex and hamburgers? One could argue that hamburgers ARE narcotics, and based by the crowd we saw on our first visit, the sex will need to be Viagra fueled.

On this lunch visit, I was accompanied by my neighbor Mr. SS. Apparently we were with the Youth Group. That is, until a bunch of woolly looking characters came walking in, with oval patches saying "Billy" and "Fred". OK, we're in the right place.

Peace Burger is actually a side business for the good folks who run the Baja Mex Grill / El Taco H, which happen to be conveniently next door. They decided to occupy a former wings place, and since they already had a circle as a logo, in the name of efficiency they just painted in the peace sign. Good idea!

Their signature burger is the "The Peace Burger", loaded with Mexican ingredients they grabbed from the adjoining kitchen no doubt. Also "The Hippie Burger" which is, predictably I suppose, a vegetarian option made with a black bean patty. Hmm, might need to drag Mrs. RJG here.

We both stuck to traditional items like cheeseburgers, fries and onion rings. The cheeseburger is huge - and has a certain thickness that some find appealing, while others (like my wife) think it appalling. Many times with a burger this size, the ingredients don't penetrate, leaving the taste of plain ground beef. Not Peace Burger. A nice, salty ingredient mix tunneled it's way throughout. And the fries also included a delicious seasoning. The rings weren't to our liking, tasting like fried batter and little else. Still, Peace Burger will now be part of the NE Tarrant Burger Rotation, that includes Johnny B's, Kincaid's, Chapps Cafe, Five Guys, Clown Burger and a few others.

You can find Peace Burger on William D. Tate in Grapevine, just east of TX-114, right across the street from the Silver Fox steakhouse.

As for the rock and roll, Peace Burger could probably use a primer on 1960s music. Sorry guys, Guns N Roses, Rainbow and Mahogany Rush weren't residents at the corner of Haight and Ashbury. Nor a part of the sunshine pop psych of LA. Or any psych movement. Let's see, better we view posters and covers of The Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane, Quicksilver Messenger Service, Strawberry Alarm Clock, The Doors, Iron Butterfly. Or perhaps we should dig deeper with The Beat of the Earth, Wendy and Bonnie, Music Emporium, Dragonwyck, The Plastic Cloud, Fifty Foot Hose, The United States of America... OK, I'll stop. Did I just say all those bands out loud?

Website

Peace Burger Dive Bar & Grill on Urbanspoon

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Siciliano's A Taste of Italy, Italian, Garland-TX

First visit: November 2008

Mr. Music was over at the RJG headquarters about a month ago, and we were reminiscing over former restaurants we had gone to when the RJG lived in Addison, and later Carrollton, in the late 80s and early 90s. I asked "What about that one in Garland?" After much deliberation, Mr. Music said "Oh, I remember - Siciliano's!" In the database it went, with a code saying "revisit".

So it was one recent Saturday that me and the Mrs. decided to make the long journey over and visit this restaurant that I haven't been to in at least 16 years. Saturday is the ideal day to embark on "road games" as it were. We've tried to make a point to venture out of our comfort zone of NE Tarrant and visit the various regions of the DFW area. And Saturday is the only day where we can be pretty certain of less traffic - and that the restaurant is likely to be open (unlike Sunday or holidays).

In parallel news, one of my colleagues in the San Francisco Bay Area made the comment that Lebron James wouldn't play for a "small market team" like Dallas. "Small market?" I said exasperatingly. "Listen home boy, DFW is the 4th largest media market in the country, ahead of your precious little Bay Area." Typical left coast comment I say. Anyway, I bring out this story, only to underscore just how sprawling the DFW area is. We basically drove from the NE Ft. Worth suburbs to the NE Dallas suburbs. It takes 45 minutes without traffic, and we barely covered a fraction of the entire area.

Siciliano's sits roughly in dead center Garland, on Buckingham, just east of Shiloh. Garland is one of DFW's largest suburbs and is big enough to have it's own regions and cultures within. As we approached the restaurant, in the dark, I said "Nope, this isn't the place - way too big." After our meal, we spoke with the owner who clarified that it is indeed the place we were thinking of. They had previously been in a smaller restaurant inside a strip mall (which is what I remember) - and moved to this new construction about 8 years ago.

Old School. That's all I could think of while we enjoyed our meal at Siciliano's. Their pedigree is from the classic Italian restaurants that used to be throughout the Detroit area (and a few remain). About the only nod to modernity that I could see, were the garlic knots brought out prior to our meal. In the 1970s, having practically grown up eating Italian food in the restaurants on Lower Greenville and Mockingbird, you ate the Lisanti breadsticks that were in the basket, or you didn't eat anything prior to the appetizer.

The salad. Yes, that's it! That's the salad dressing of my youth. Before the late 1970s rage of "creamy Italian" and before anyone even knew what the word balsamic meant, we all ate salads with an oil based dressing, that had the right amount of vinegar and Italian seasonings. We make a mean Italian dressing at the RJG household - that's as close as we can get to the old days - and it still doesn't taste quite like this.

Homemade meatballs. Oh yes, my darling, that's why the RJG exists. To seek out places that some thought were extinct. How come nobody makes a homemade spicy meatball anymore? Siciliano's does! And they tell me their sausage is homemade too. Next visit.

Chicken Parm. You know, that's what they call it on the menu. Do you understand the significance of this? Anyone who has ever grown up in the East or the Midwest, refers to this dish as Chicken Parm. Not Parmesan. And certainly not Pollo Parmigiana (remember, that's $5 more just for the name). Ah, burnt gooey cheese. Crispy outside. Al Denta pasta on the side. If it were perfect, the Parm would cover the entire dish, and they'd serve the pasta in a bowl next to it. But hey, who's complaining?

They had my favorite dessert on the menu - Cappucino Pie. This is sort of a Dallas original, as you won't find it outside of the DFW area (or at least I haven't anyway). And it's usually made by one local supplier. Not Siciliano's. It's homemade (like everything here). Completely different taste - with a white cappucino ice cream, whip cream, chocolate syrup, graham cracker crust and sliced almonds. Mmmm-mmm-mmm.

They have a full bar, and their wines by the glass seem reasonable (for example $5.25 for a good Pinot Grigio).

Website: http://www.sicilianosgarland.com/

Siciliano's: a Taste of Italy on Urbanspoon