Four years ago, local chef Curtis James took over and turned around Vickery Cafe, revitalizing the long-running west Fort Worth breakfast and lunch diner with a menu that was more Carriage House than Waffle House.
You can still get bacon and eggs and chicken-fried steak but your eggs can come draped in hollandaise sauce, and chicken-fried steak with gravy plays second fiddle to herb-roasted strip steak with tomato chutney.
Now wanting to expand his refurbed cafe-food concept, James recently opened his second restaurant, Texan Diner (he relinquished chef duties at Vickery to newcomer Bradford Spradley).
Tucked into a strip mall in Haslet, about 30 minutes north of downtown, it’s a mirror reflection of Vickery, but with one dramatic change. In addition to breakfast and lunch, Texan Diner serves dinner, with many items you can’t find at Vickery — gourmet burgers, freshly baked bread and house-smoked barbecue among them.
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It’s worth the drive — if you can deal with the restaurant’s many idiosyncrasies.
You may have, for instance, as I did, an absolutely wonderful burger. I wonder, however, how much more I would have enjoyed it had it been the burger I ordered.
During my first visit to Texan Diner, I asked for the Lockhart burger ($11), which, as most Texas meat-eaters can guess, is named after Lockhart, home to the state’s most acclaimed barbecue joints. This particular burger, as its name would imply, was supposed to have been topped with barbecue brisket.
Instead, it was crowned with corned beef. Very good corned beef. Silk-tender, house-brined and deliciously robust, it’s one of the specialties at Vickery and I was happy to see it made the jump to Texan Diner.
Every other element of the burger was terrific, too, from the house-ground patty, a combo of brisket and chuck, to crisp veggies, to the buttered and grilled pretzel buns, baked in-house. Two huge onion rings sat on top of the patty, ensuring that I’d need a knife and fork.
Fries were of admirable quality as well. They were of the thick, hand-cut variety — crisp on the outside, soft inside, and dotted with good salt-and-pepper seasoning.
I’d put these burgers and fries on the same playing field as Rodeo Goat’s or Fred’s. It just wasn’t the burger I ordered — and, moreover, it illustrated the restaurant’s hit-and-miss service.
Smoked pork chops ($12) were very good, too, arriving in the form of two boneless medallions of well-cooked and flavorful pork loin, with slightly charred edges and moist interiors. Sitting atop each other, they came bathed in an apple-jalapeño glaze that struck a nice balance between spicy and tart. Two sides accompanied: a bland mac-and-cheese and a much better dollop of garlic mashed potatoes.
Artfully presented, on a large white plate, wiped clean of any drips or splatters, the dish exemplified the restaurant’s elevated-cafe-food credo.
The entree was supposed to come with soup and bread but neither showed up until we asked about their whereabouts, well into our meal, moments before we were going to send out a search party for our server.
Judging from the skin that had formed across its top, a basic but likable clam chowder had been resting under a heating lamp, while the bread, obviously, had not. Two pieces of torpedo-shaped jalapeño cornbread had considerably cooled off before they found their way to our table.
On my second visit, I ordered one of the restaurant’s specialties, Rapture Chicken ($13), which came in the form of a half-chicken, served whole, coated in a barbecue sauce made from Rabbit Hole beer. I loved the chicken’s skin, which remained crispy under the sauce, and the tender meat beneath. It took a sec to warm up to the dark brown sauce but I wound up appreciating its unusual, semisweet flavor; it wasn’t overly heavy, either, which you might expect from a beer-infused sauce.
For sides, I had the mashed yams, which were soft to the point of being whipped, and French green beans, which were slightly tough but enjoyable. Dessert consisted of a slice of creamy and rich buttermilk pie ($4), the best I’ve had in some time. It was one of several pies you could gawk at in the pie case near the front door.
I was glad I brought my pen, or else my server might not have been able to take my order, since she misplaced hers. Based on my first visit, I also knew to come well-equipped this time with empathy, which came in handy when I did not receive anything to drink for at least 20 minutes while a bored hostess and other servers looked on and did nothing.
The rocky service, I don’t think, was malicious; the staff just isn’t well-trained.
Decor was sparse. A few oversized images of Texas landmarks line the walls of the spacious, one-room dining area. If you sit at the bar, there’s something to look at: the action in the partially open kitchen.
Texan Diner’s food is worth the haul from Fort Worth. Just bring patience — and a pen.