"I've never seen, to date, this many restaurants in Dallas -- ever."
Dean Fearing knows what it's like to be all dressed up and have no idea where to go. Dallas is all but short on great dining options, which is a luxury for foodies who frequently feast, but means an impossible choice for those who go on an occasional night out. Rather than waste the evening trying to decide where to make reservations, choose from Fearing's shortlist of the best Big D has to offer.
For curry lovers (and those who have yet to try the "last frontier" of flavor) -- Mughlai Restaurant
Fearing wants you to try curry. Why? Without it, you're missing out on a world of flavor.
He first fell in love with bold, spice-laden dish during a trip to London in the early '80s. At the time, Fearing says Dallas' curry offerings were "dumbed down," he says. It wasn't until recently that he found Mughlai, a Dallas restaurant with dishes that stack up to those impactful first bites in London.
"It was as close to London as [I] could imagine," he says. "Knocked-out flavors."
Though curry can be as polarizing as it is pungent, Fearing recommends everyone at least try it -- especially because it can be made with a multitude of spices, resulting in a wide variety of flavors. His favorite dish also happens to be the one he recommends for first-timers: butter chicken, listed on Mughlai's menu as murgh tikka makhani.
"I'm addicted to it," he laughs. "Butter chicken, rice, and daal is a great combo to get started on. It gives you the flavor of curry without being so intense."
- 5301 Alpha Rd #14, Dallas. mughlaidallas.com.
For a unique family dining experience -- J.S. Chen's DimSum & BBQ
Fearing loves the atmosphere of dim sum restaurants -- the big tables, the conversations, and especially the slowed-down dining experience. Here, customers don't order from a traditional menu; waiters weave between tables with a cart full of food in bite-sized portions that anyone can order at any time.
"It's great with a large crowd [because] everybody can just pick and choose," Fearing says.
Have a picky family? J.S. Chen's is your spot. From BBQ ribs to shrimp dumplings, there's likely a dish for everyone to love. Plus, ordering from carts pre-filled with food means you'll never be subject to the torture of watching a waiter walk past with a meal that isn't yours.
- 3948 Legacy Dr, Plano. jschens.com.
The place to eat with your hands -- S&D Oyster Company
"I didn't know how much I liked [oysters] until I got to S&D," Fearing says. "I had my first dozen and made my own sauce. That's the killer part -- you make your own cocktail sauce."
That's right: In addition to a bag of saltine crackers, every table at S&D Oyster on McKinney Avenue in Dallas comes stocked with all the ingredients you'll need to make your own cocktail sauce -- ketchup, Worcestershire sauce, hot sauce, horseradish and lemon juice.
Mix the ingredients to your liking (or ask the server, if you'd prefer), then use it to top your oysters, Fearing-style: "Take a cracker, put a little spoonful of the coleslaw [which comes with an order of oysters] on top of the cracker. Then take your oyster and dip it through your sauce, and put that on top of the coleslaw," he instructs. "Pop that in your mouth and tell me if that isn't a taste sensation."
- 2701 McKinney Ave, Dallas. sdoyster.com.
For old-world Italian food and service -- Bugatti Ristorante
Bugatti has "some of the best service in town," Fearing says.
The restaurant, which sits in the Shops at Bluffview on Northwest Highway, makes the chef's list of favorite eateries in large part due to a man known as Zee -- Bugatti's maître d' and co-owner.
"The guy knows every name that walks in the place. He never forgets a name," Fearing says. "He is polished, he's funny, he's professional, and he takes care of business."
Co-owners Zee and Michael have a special menu for Fearing and "the boys" -- that is, his two sons Jaxon and Campbell. The oft-famished Fearings eat their way through a massive meal, including shrimp in a spicy tomato sauce, cheese ravioli in a basil cream sauce, meatballs, "unbelievable" cream of mushroom soup, and Bugatti's Classic Caesar Salad. But those are only their starters.
If you can make it through the appetizers, Fearing insists you save room for the "best garlic bread in Dallas."
- 3802 W Northwest Hwy, Dallas. bugattis.net.
Fearing's favorite chicken tacos -- Pollo Regio
When Fearing is tasked with bringing home dinner for his girlfriend, Wanda, and two sons, he heads to Pollo Regio to pick up a whole grilled chicken.
The restaurant, which has a number of locations in D-FW, marinates its chickens in a mixture made from garlic, orange, chilis and achiote paste. Next they grill it, cut it into smaller pieces, wrap in it tin foil, and stuff a whole cooked onion in the middle. Everything else needed for tacos -- namely, tortillas and sauces -- comes on the side.
"Get home, open it up, and start to pick off the chicken with some of the onion and [add] the salsas," Fearing instructs. "Roll that up into these corn tortillas, and it is the best chicken tacos -- ever."
- Various locations. elpolloregio.net.
The place with seafood and social status -- Montlake Cut
Fearing didn't need to dine at former protégé, Nick Badovinus', new restaurant to know the seafood would be the freshest on the market: Montlake Cut shares a fish purveyor with his own restaurant, Fearing's.
The seasoned chef suggests ordering fresh fish from the list of specials, though he notes menu offerings such as Ling Cod & Chips and King Crab Fried Rice as two "unbelievable, knockout" dishes.
If you're more interested in the social aspect of dining out, Montlake Cut may be the place for you for all the more reason. "[Montlake Cut] is what Dallas loves nowadays," Fearing says warmly.
"You walk in, it's crowded, [and] you know you've arrived."
- 8220 Westchester Dr, Dallas. mlcdallas.com.
For grilled steak cooked on a grill, not in an oven -- Hibiscus
"It is truly one of my favorite steakhouses, because it's more than a steakhouse," Fearing says of Hibiscus. "You can get a great steak there, but there are other great dishes -- scallops, salmon, duck."
The chef has a point, but Dallas is rife with restaurants that try to be "more than." So, why pick Hibiscus from Dallas' sea of steakhouses?
"For their grilled strip steak," Fearing answers.
The beef is particularly mouthwatering at Hibiscus because the restaurant cooks on a grill as opposed to a char convection oven, which is often used in restaurants and impacts the flavor profile of the meat.
"If I'm going to go for a steak, I want a steak that [tastes] like it's been cooked outside," Fearing says.
- 2927 N Henderson Ave, Dallas. hibiscusdallas.com.
For grandma's fried chicken -- Babe's
Growing up, Fearing was heavily influenced by his grandmothers' cooking. As is the case for many families in his home state of Kentucky, fried chicken was a cornerstone of home cooking in the Fearing home.
The first time he ate fried chicken at Babe's (which now has restaurants all over D-FW), he felt like he was reliving a childhood memory.
"They brought out the platter of fried chicken, that took me back to Ashland, Kentucky, 1959," he reminisces. "I was like 4 years old but I could still remember sitting at the big table and granny bringing out the big platter of fried chicken."
It's no coincidence that Babe's reminds Fearing of his grandmothers' cooking, or that it may remind you of yours. Babe's was founded by the same couple who founded Bubba's in Park Cities: Paul and Mary Beth Vinyard. Mary Beth was "Babe," and since making her nickname synonymous with family-style dining and delicious fried chicken, she became something of a grandmother to everyone who has eaten at her namesake restaurant -- Fearing included.
- Various locations. babeschicken.com.
Love to hear about chefs' favorite restaurants?
Check out the top picks from chef Stephan Pyles (Stephan Pyles, Stampede 66); Lisa Garza-Selcer (of Sissy's Southern Kitchen); Matt McCallister (of FT33 and Filament); Samir Dhurandhar (Nick & Sam's); John Tesar (Knife); and Brian Luscher (Luscher's, The Grape).