When we think about the culinary pride and joy of Fort Worth, we often look to the Near Southside, where award-winning restaurants line Magnolia Avenue. Or our thoughts race west, to where some of the city’s finest restaurants call home, Le Cep and Piola among them.
Some of us think north, where packed Tex-Mex spots run up and down the spine of North Main; others think of downtown.
As Fort Worth’s reputation as a restaurant destination continues to grow, more thought should be given to the east side, an area of Fort Worth whose humble nature masks the remarkable breadth of its cuisine.
Most large cities are dotted with small mom-and-pop restaurants, but Fort Worth’s east side is unique in that these restaurants are wildly varied in the type of food they serve, and they are near each other. Himalayan cuisine can be found mere feet from a Burmese cafe, which, in turn, is a street over from a barbecue joint.
Such a blend of restaurant cultures doesn’t exist anywhere else in our city.
With roughly 200 restaurants spanning the area (including a pocket of Haltom City that rubs against the Fort Worth border), we offer you this: a list of quintessential east-side dishes that, admittedly, barely skims the area’s surface but hopefully symbolizes its depth and greatness.
1. Banh xeo at Tu Hai Restaurant: The east side of Fort Worth and the west side of Haltom City come together in the middle of a community of Vietnamese restaurants, many of them standing for years. Among them is 25-year-old Tu Hai, a tiny spot best known for a Vietnamese dish called banh xeo, or shrimp and pork crepes.
When you think crepes, you may think soft and sweet. These, however, are not only crispy but savory. A pair of crunchy, golden-brown crepes are folded like tacos and filled with thin slices of pork, grilled bean sprouts and bite-size shrimp. A cup of citrusy fish sauce comes on the side for dunking. 3909 E. Belknap St., Haltom City. 817-834-6473; Tu Hai Restaurant on Facebook.
2. Sliced brisket at Smokeys Barbeque: Brisket is the calling card of any good barbecue joint, and this landmark serves some of the city’s best. The east side’s general disposition toward brisket is to serve it lean and clean — that is, trimmed of fat and crust — but Smokeys lets you decide.
Usually behind the knife is Rene “Rosco” Carrasco, who doesn’t cut until you say so (no chafing-dish-stored ’cue here), and he’ll ask you how you prefer it. Choose “moist,” and clinging to your thick slices of juicy, hickory-smoked meat will be tufts of fat, melting away at the touch of your tongue, offering blasts of rich, buttery flavor.
3. Chow mein at My Lan: For 20 years, the Bui family has been serving pho, vermicelli, broken rice and other staples of Vietnamese cuisine in this busy, tight squeeze of a restaurant where diners sit in booths or side by side at long, shared tables.
A highlight of the 100-item-plus menu is the combo chow mein, a nest of pan-fried egg noodles that gradually turns from crunchy to soft, thanks to a habit-forming ginger soy sauce upon which the noodles rest. Especially with chopsticks, the noodles are a fun challenge; the more you eat them, the more you learn how to eat them. The noodles come topped with meat, chicken or veggies, or combinations. 4015 E. Belknap St., Haltom City. 817-222-1471; www.mylan-restaurant.com.
4. Catfish at Ronnie’s Catfish and More: Forget the “More” and go straight for the catfish at this pindot-size restaurant, part of a 32-year-old mini chain based in Dallas. Visit during off-peak hours, and you might stand a chance of snagging one of the restaurant’s four tables. Gospel music plays in the background while Duane “Ronnie” Williams’ crew fries up your catfish, and you question which sounds more heavenly — the music or the deep fryers.
The farm-raised catfish is silky and smooth, not stringy, and comes sheathed in a perfect cornmeal batter, crisp and well-seasoned with light Cajun flavorings. The restaurant makes its own tartar sauce, but save it for the accompanying fries and toast; this catfish doesn’t need any help. 4158 E. Rosedale St., Fort Worth. 817-534-6038.
5. Breakfast tacos at Tacos Cantu: As any taco-lover knows, the quality of a taco hinges greatly on the quality of the tortillas. Hidden away in a Shell gas station off Interstate 30, this small taqueria offers marvelous specimens of corn tortillas, which are made in-house. They’re soft and chewy but strong enough to carry the weight of various fillings.
Best time to enjoy them is during breakfast hours, when they come filled with scrambled eggs, salsa, bacon, cheese and chorizo. 1401 Cooks Lane, Fort Worth. 469-835-1880; http://tacoscantufortworth.com.
6. Alma’s Paleteria: Local chefs, in-the-know foodies and, of course, kiddos have been flocking to the Ponce family’s ode to cold treats since it opened in a shoebox-size space seven years ago. Here, they do things the hard way, making their own ice cream and popsicles (or paletas) in gourmet flavors both sweet and savory, decadent and simple, often studded with fresh fruit, candy or other seasonal ingredients.
7. Oxtails at Stormie Monday’s: This soul-food spot on East Berry is truly a family affair. Owner/chef Stoney Johnson mans the kitchen, while his kids — three sons and two daughters — take turns doing everything else, from waiting tables to seating guests to helping Pop cook.
In this quaint, modest space, Johnson serves classic soul food, including meatloaf, chicken-fried steak, smothered pork chops, and beef tips and rice. He’s most proud of his unique take on oxtails. While most restaurants braise the tails, he oven-bakes them, which he says results in a more tender texture. They go great with a side of yams and collard greens. 3509 E. Berry St., Fort Worth. 817-413-0036.
8. Mohinga at Papa Wadys Asian Market: You’ll find a nice surprise tucked inside this Asian market on East Seminary: a tiny counter-service restaurant serving Burmese food, not exactly a common cuisine in Fort Worth. Regulars fill the half-dozen cafe-style tables for generous servings of gongura fried rice, shan noodle soup and the restaurant’s specialty, mohinga, a noodle soup sold by street vendors in Burma, where it’s considered a national dish.
Papa Wadys’ rendition is both spicy and sour, its complex flavors derived from fish sauce, lemongrass, ginger, onions and other ingredients. It’s comfort food for more adventurous palates. 1161 E. Seminary Drive, Fort Worth. 817-924-0860.
9. Pork ribs at Robinson’s Bar-B-Que: For fans of Kansas City-style barbecue, 30-year-old-Robinson’s is a godsend, a place where barbecue snobs won’t judge you for saucing your meat, a KC-style tradition.
Another KC tradition honored here: You can order short-end or long-end pork spare ribs (on spare ribs, the bones on one end are longer than the other). Short-end ribs are meatier and generally more tender. Here, they’re slow-smoked, over hickory, then splashed with an irresistibly sweet sauce, like just about everything else here. 1028 E. Berry St., Fort Worth. 817-924-1009; Robinsons BBQ on Facebook.
10. Sukuti at Namaste: New restaurants continue to flourish on the east side, breathing new life into the area’s culinary scene. Opened six months ago, Namaste offers authentic Indian and Himalayan dishes in a former Sonic Drive-In — odd, yes, but only until you walk in and find an actual dining room and, more important, outstanding food.
Particularly good is the lamb sukuti, dried, bite-size pieces of lamb meat flash-fried in a mix of herbs and spices, each a snap, crackle, pop of textures and otherworldly flavors. Served as an entrée, it comes with sides of potato salad, borugulu (puffy rice) and a delicious spicy soybean salsa called bhatmas sadeko. 923 E. Seminary Drive, Fort Worth. 817-349-9350; Namaste Restaurant on Facebook.
11. Beef pho at Pho Hop: Dating back to 1979, Pho Hop is one of the oldest pho restaurants in the Haltom City area. And it looks like 1979 was the last time anyone decorated it. Among the half-dozen variations of the popular Vietnamese soup available here is the outstanding beef pho, populated with thinly sliced beef and tender meatballs. It’s delivered to your table — by employees who shuffle more than walk — boiling hot, steam still rising, with sides of sprouts, limes and herbs to balance out the meaty flavors.
Two warnings: Cash only, and smoking is allowed. 5022 E. Belknap St., Haltom City. 817-834-0233.
12. Sweet-potato enchiladas at Enchiladas Ole: The namesake dish at Mary Perez’s upbeat cafe comes in many forms that go against the grain of typical enchiladas: Chicken enchiladas are seasoned with curry and cumin, beef enchiladas feature barbecue brisket from Billy’s Oak Acres BBQ, and there are veggie ’chiladas lined with zucchini and squash.
Perez’s most recent addition could be her best: sweet-potato enchiladas, stuffed with roasted and mashed sweet-potato filling, then topped with a warm avocado cream sauce that, like all of her sauces, is made in-house. 901 N. Sylvania Ave., Fort Worth. 817-984-1360; https://enchiladasole.com.
13. 7 Seas Soup at Fort Worth Seafood Restaurant & Fish Market: This long-running fish market (which shares a building with Ronnie’s Catfish and More) features a separate dining area, where you can try to remain calm when the 7 Seas Soup is placed in front of you, a crab claw poking out from the ginormous bowl.
It’s one of the east side’s most unusual dishes, a startling and startlingly good soup filled with crab claws and legs, octopus, oysters, shrimp, and catfish fillets, all submerged in a thin, slightly spicy broth whose web of flavors is unlike anything else. 4158 E. Rosedale St., Fort Worth. 817-413-0582; Fort Worth Seafood Restaurant And Fish Market on Facebook
14. Tortas at Los Pastores: The Los Pastores empire includes a meat market, a bakery and a restaurant, all stand-alone businesses, all located next door to one another. Because source material is within walking distance, most of what is served in the festive restaurant is either fresh or freshly made, including corn tortillas, masa shells for gorditas and house-made salsas.
This extends also to the bread for tortas, large sandwiches that resemble submarine sandwiches. Fillings include pork, chicken and beef fajitas, but the real star is the bread — long and thick with a dense texture that makes Los Pastores’ rendition of this traditional Mexican dish hearty enough to share. 3812 E. Rosedale St., Fort Worth. 817-531-1220; www.lospastoresfoods.com.
15. Gumbo at Destiny’s Cajun: Recently uprooted from Arlington to East Lancaster, Destiny’s Cajun Express offers Cajun favorites such as fried alligator, po-boy sandwiches and catfish atchafalaya.
Especially good is the gumbo, studded with white rice, boudin sausage and pulled chicken, all submerged in a dark roux loaded with spice and personality. 3633 E. Lancaster Ave., Fort Worth. 817-274-9800; Destiny’s Cajun Chicken & Seafood on Facebook.
16. Sweet mix at Gypsy Scoops: Gypsy Scoops is an old-fashioned ice-cream parlor in an old-fashioned house, built in 1918. Here, Julie Markley makes her own ice cream, offering flavors such as banana pudding and white chocolate-raspberry, some spiked with bits of candy and cookies.
17. No. 1 at Griff’s Hamburgers: The first Fort Worth location of Griff’s Hamburgers, opened in 1964, remains a bastion for those who crave simple burgers prepared in a flash. The No. 1 is still No. 1: The double cheeseburger/fries/drink combo remains the most popular order.
Thin patties come straight off the grill, dripping in glorious grease. Fresh, colorful veggies are piled on top, then all is sandwiched between lightly grilled buns.
Interestingly, this location of Griff’s remains in its original A-frame building, while others in the area have been completely remodeled. 4224 E. Lancaster Ave., Fort Worth. 817-534-8222; www.griffshamburgers.com.
18. Elote at Antojitos Luna food cart: Elote, or Mexican street corn, isn’t hard to find on the east side, but this food cart, permanently parked in front of a convenience store, does a superb old-school version that makes it worth seeking out.
Corn is cut off the cob and into a Styrofoam cup, as you watch, then layered like a sundae with mayonnaise, melted butter, cotija cheese, ancho chile powder and, finally, a coupla squeezes of Valentina hot sauce.
What makes the elote here so good is the quality of the corn — it has a terrific, toothy crunch, even under the landslide of toppings. 2611 N.E. 28th St., Fort Worth.
19. Chopped barbecue beef sandwich at McKinzie Cut Rate Liquors & BBQ: Nothing else in Fort Worth is quite like Jerry McKinzie’s unusual barbecue restaurant, tucked inside a liquor store. Next to bottles of Jack Daniel’s and cheap tequila, you can have what has to be the city’s best barbecue deal: a chopped beef sandwich, piled high with hickory-smoked meat, sandwiched between two thick pieces of bread, buttered and toasted, with pickles, chopped onions and a good sweet sauce.
It costs less than $4, leaving you plenty of money for booze. 154 N. Riverside Drive, Fort Worth. 817-838-0005.
20. Lobster and shrimp ravioli at Mamma Mia Italian Grill & Pizza: Italian restaurant Mamma Mia landed a prized location seven years ago when it moved into the historic McAdams Building, just east of downtown Fort Worth. Chandeliers, stucco walls and exposed brick set the perfect tone for cozy meals with red wine and affordable Italian-American fare such as pizza, lasagna, chicken piccata and spaghetti with meatballs.
When you’re feeling luxe, go for the lobster and shrimp ravioli, with plump pasta pockets filled with lobster meat, topped with a rich cream sauce and a quintet of nicely grilled shrimp. 3124 E. Belknap St., Fort Worth. 817-759-0100; www.mammamiabelknap.com.