DFW.com food writers get around, and we eat a lot. Here are our favorite meals of 2016, some of which we encountered during the course of, um, “work” and others while we were out eating for the pure pleasure of it.
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Paella/palomilla skirt steak, Havana Bar & Grill Cuban Cuisine, Arlington
The morning after this meal, I awoke in a haze of garlic. If this isn’t an advertisement for Best Meal of the Year, I don’t know what is.
Pervasive fragrance (and facetiousness) aside, the food at Havana Bar & Grill, a several-weeks-old Arlington restaurant, is among the best you’ll find outside Cuba.
Executive chef and co-owner Miguel Mendez grew up there, and so did co-owner Juan Guevara and general manager Roberto Llama, and they pay homage and honor their country’s cuisine in the most ridiculously delicious way possible, with a Greatest hits menu that spans ropa vieja to yuca fries, moro rice to sweet plantains.
It takes about 50 minutes for the kitchen to make the paella ($60), tomato-ey rice studded with squid, lobster, mussels, shrimp and scallops, but it is worth every minute you wait.
A great way to pass time is with an order of yuca fries, thick-cut and fried to within an inch of their lives. One dip into the creamy garlic cilantro sauce, and you’ll never see french fries and ketchup the same way again.
The palomilla skirt steak ($17.95) is similarly mind-blowing, an insanely tender cut of meat, perfectly matched with slivers of sauteed onions, whose sweetness was only amplified when forked with a bite of crispy plantain. Or, you might do what I did: Make a big mess, dumping the rich black bean soup on top of it all.
Who cares how crazy my plate looked? It all quickly disappeared without a trace.
Havana Bar & Grill, 3701 S. Cooper St., Arlington, 682-323-5697
Spicy miso ramen, Ichiro Ramen Shop, Dallas
When I first heard about the new ramen restaurants popping up around Texas, I thought of the salty packaged ramen that college students fill in the cracks with. “No thanks,” I said when I was first invited to dine at one such place.
But I was wrong, of course.
My favorite meal of 2016 began with a plummet in temperature. A friend and I decided soup was the only possible way to cope, so we headed to Ichiro Ramen in Dallas. We shared an order of extreme-garlic edamame — our name for it, not the restaurant’s — which we found compulsively consumable.
Then came the two bowls of steaming goodness. A lake of broth that was earthy, spicy (and not the least bit salty), with floating islands of soft-boiled egg, corn, green onion, chicken and scads of those marvelous slurpy noodles. The broth was outstanding and the mass of noodles put me away.
Sizzling fried rice, BBBop Seoul Kitchen, Dallas
This small, smart Asian fusion chain — which specializes in bibimbap, the Korean rice dish —has three branches, all excellent. But their newest “R&D” location in Oak Cliff has a bigger menu, featuring dishes they rotate in and out that you can’t get at the other two.
Sizzling fried rice was a visual and culinary feast. It came on a stone platter, like an Asian version of fajitas or paella, and had spicy, chewy rice topped with kimchi, kale, eggs and your choice of pork belly or Spam. Great with one of their craft beers or a cool cocktail such as the one with vodka, lychee liqueur, lime and Thai basil.
Uncle Herky Burger, Luscher’s Red Hots, Dallas
The news of Luscher’s Red Hots closing its doors hit me harder than I expected. After a year filled with so much grim news, why should the hardy appetites of North Texans be forced to bear one more punch to the gut (theoretically and literally)? Nevertheless, in the waning days of fall, under blustery gray skies in early December, chef Brian Luscher presided over the end of one of Deep Ellum’s — and the region’s, frankly — best restaurants, serving up classics like his Post Oak Red Hots, warm onion rings and the one menu item that I, at least, will miss most intensely of all: the Uncle Herky burger.
It wasn’t much to look at, but this was one burger best not judged on visual appeal alone. The Uncle Herky would sneak up on you, delivering a flurry of flavorful blows to your palate: a burst of juicy, beefy flavor from its pair of locally sourced Wagyu patties, followed by the tangy flavor of applewood-smoked bacon, which was bound to the patties by creamy, melted American cheese, mustard, mayo and grilled onions.
All of the components, individually, were familiar burger-joint staples, but something in the way Luscher combined them on the Uncle Herky approached transcendence.
I enjoyed the Uncle Herky a few times during Luscher’s Red Hots’ too-brief two-year run, and it was remarkably consistent — every bite a gooey, delicious and meaty ode to the best realization of a cheeseburger I’ve tasted to this point in my life.
Perhaps, like so many other things that slipped away in 2016, the Uncle Herky was simply too beautiful to continue to exist in this world. I sincerely hope Luscher, who continues to preside over the Grape, will allow us mere burger-loving mortals another chance — somehow, somewhere — to visit Uncle Herky just one more time.
Blackened redfish, Dive Oyster Bar, Fort Worth
Opened in late 2015 by former Waters sous chef Josh Rangel, in the Benbrook Traffic Circle shoebox where Salsa Fuego used to be, The Dive specializes in fried seafood and oysters topped with cheffy ingredients.
But it’s the blackened redfish, served under a blanket of crawfish etouffee, that comes to mind when I think of this year’s end-all meals. It’s an unforgettable dish, completely unshakable, like the job you didn’t go for or the woman you didn’t marry.
I can’t think of a better roux anywhere in Fort Worth, its nutty flavor accentuated by Shiner Bock beer. Buttery, nearly sweet chunks of crawfish are the perfect balancing-act mate of the large redfish fillet, whose smoky interior and seared skin make for vivid bites.
Dos Moles, Paco’s Mexican Cuisine, Fort Worth
One of Fort Worth’s most welcome restaurant comebacks occurred in the fall when the former Paco & John Mexican Diner was reincarnated as Paco’s Mexican Cuisine, with a better interior — unlike its previous iteration, Paco’s looks like a nice restaurant and not the inside of a convenience store — and still-excellent food.
That includes the gustatory glories of Paco’s Dos Moles ($21.95). The red mole was the sublime shawl over a splayed baby quail, while its sibling green mole decorated a section of fat-ringed pork-loin slices.
The red mole’s depth of flavor, based on a three-hour process involving chocolate, dozens of dried herbs and pumpkin seeds, produced smoky, sweet richness, with ethereal grace notes. This one sauce encapsulated so much that is beguilingly sophisticated Mexican cooking.
Meanwhile, the green mole derived its structure from pine nuts, walnuts and almonds, while bringing a more peppery, though not searing, heat than its red brother — all sending a spicy jolt through each bite of juicy pork loin.
Mapu tofu/Chinese sausage with leek-fried rice, Cannon Chinese Kitchen, Fort Worth
In a year in which I went on a calf-fries quest and ate insects for the first time (intentionally, anyway), the idea of a “memorable meal” came close to taking on a new meaning. But sometimes it’s just a matter of going to a place that we tend to forget about it because a) we don’t live nearby and b) it’s not in one of Fort Worth’s restaurant strips.
My wife and I were on one of those strips, Magnolia Avenue, for Arts Goggle on a nice October night. We have many hangouts there — Nonna Tata, Lili’s Bistro, Cane Rosso, Fixture Kitchen + Social Lounge and more — and there was the kind of foot traffic I wish we’d see on Magnolia all the time. But while trying to decide which place to choose, I remembered a nearby, non-Magnolia spot: Cannon Chinese Kitchen.
Cannon is a short drive from Magnolia, but it’s not on a major street and if you approach it from the wrong direction, you might find yourself going through a maze of construction to get there. But it’s a little oasis — elegant decor and moderately priced food that transcends more typical Chinese-restaurant cuisine.
The dining room was full, so we sat at the cozy bar, chatting with the bartenders during their rare moments of spare time and watching well-presented dishes coming out of the kitchen. Our menu choices were actually fairly simple: My wife had the vegetarian version of the mapu tofu, its spicy bean-paste sauce elevating the delicately prepared tofu (the standard version comes with pork). I had the Chinese sausage and the leek-fried rice, highlighted by the mildly spicy, flavorful sausage.
The food was good, but what sticks in my mind is the experience. With so many restaurants coming and going in Fort Worth, we often find it too easy to stick to the places where the restaurants are concentrated — Magnolia Avenue, downtown Fort Worth, West Seventh, the sprawling shopping centers closer to home.
On this mellow evening — good food, great atmosphere, friendly service, with someone I love — I simply posted about Cannon on Facebook: “We don’t come here often enough.” We need to change that in 2017.
Revolver Oyster and baked avocado surprise, Revolver Taco Lounge, Fort Worth
Regino Rojas, owner of Revolver Taco Lounge, threw a cocktail party to celebrate the opening of his new location on Forest Park Boulevard in Fort Worth, where Revolver moved after years on West Seventh Street.
He had fellow Fort Worth chefs Kevin Martinez (Tokyo Cafe) and Victor Villarreal helping out, working the ceviche bar, serving up seafood concoctions like Japanese sweet shrimp (Amaebi), hamachi crudo, Hokkaido scallop and ceviche. (Yes, this is a taco lounge.)
The ceviche bar was crowded with other chefs and foodies sampling seafood from the bar, like Salsa Limon owner Ramiro Ramirez, chef Josh Rangel (formerly of The Dive Oyster Bar and now at La Perla) — and me.
One of my favorites coming from the bar was the Revolver Oyster, a freshly shucked oyster topped with smoked bacon, special spiced butter and serrano pepper, then broiled. It was perfection on a half shell. What doesn’t taste better with bacon and butter on it?
The ceviche bar had run out of oysters and I was getting ready to leave when Martinez asked, with a wink, if I wanted to stay. He piled high the remnants from the ceviche bar on top of a halved avocado and broiled it. I am not sure what all made it in, but I am sure there was some chopped up Hokkaido scallop along with bacon and spiced butter
Knowing Kevin, there were probably some sweet shrimp heads and leftover ceviche in there, too, all baked into a creamy avocado. It was a marriage of all the flavors of the evening topped with bacon and butter, and my totally unexpected best bite for 2016.