Celebrity chefs seem compelled to keep building their empires. The slogan for Kent Rathbun's current campaign might be "Power to the people!"
The Dallas Iron Chef America winner's newest restaurant, Hickory, is his most populist venture to date. You'll find an array of burgers and a couple of taco offerings, but at heart Hickory is a barbecue joint. A cheffy barbecue joint.
Hickory looks more like a sports bar thana rib shack. Big TV screens hang everywhere, and high tables surround the free-standing bar — though more customers seem to sit at the banquettes or regular tables. Weathered wood trimming tries to make the place feel more down-home. The dining room opens onto a covered patio with a majestic view of the ramps connecting the Dallas North and Sam Rayburn tollways.
Many menu items will look familiar to Rathbun fans. Our inexperienced — but intelligent and personable — server started right off bragging that Hickory's waffle fries resemble the Maytag blue cheese potato chips at the chef's higher-end Jasper's. He also upsold burnt ends of brisket added to the bacon and scallions that regularly adorn the dish.
Sadly, the waffle fries are flabby under all those toppings rather than crisp or crunchy. But that is almost the only disappointment among the many appetizers and side dishes. Those burnt ends are much better as the basis of deeply flavored Shiner Bock chili — no beans, not at all sweet, crowned with a thin layer of melted cheese and drizzled with jalapeño cream.
Chunky, rather than sliced, fried green tomatoes have a great cornmeal crunch. Crispy Brussels sprouts, like much else here, are almost overly rich with bacon. Blackstrap molasses baked beans remind me of the version by another local celebrity, Dean Fearing — the church social gone glamorous.
Salads can verge on the spectacular. It's worth having to fool with a knife to cut through the big leaves of baby Bibb in the local goat cheese baby beet salad to find little wedges of gold and maroon beets and the big quenelle-shaped ovals of herbed cheese. Perfectly tart lemon-buttermilk dressing ties all the elements together. Green apple-chayote slaw is equally startling and refreshing.
If the sides are the most arresting things on Hickory's menu, the main dishes include some treasures, as well — most hickory-smoked in the "little red smokehouse" tucked away in the kitchen. Four meat selections come by the half-pound or sandwich, or in a combo for $14. You can order smoked pepper-crusted Wagyu brisket three ways: yummy, lean or chef's choice. Some might find the "yummy" brisket overly fatty. Not me. The flavor of the thick-cut slices is umami bliss, the texture silken. Hickory-smoked turkey breast basted with rosemary-garlic butter is also moist, and fine-grained. The mustard-brown sugar glaze on the roti pork puts it on the sweet side, though not over the line for my taste. Sauce, served on the side, is subtly balanced; you may not even need it.
Also an option on the combo is the smoked house-made sausage of the day — the kielbasa on our visits was like what my South Texas uncles made when they slaughtered a hog. We ordered it as an appetizer "fondue," links cut into short rounds and stabbed with a toothpick alongside a ring of jalapeño. For dipping, a small container holds what might have been called queso elsewhere.
You can get a single St. Louis-style pork spare rib, flavored with ancho chile, on the combo or order by the rack or half-rack. Though meaty and tender, they aren't quite as lush as those at the state's top smokehouses. More interesting is the smoked pork loin chop — hefty, with a perfect dark-mahogany edge all around and flesh the color and texture of the most luxurious ham.
"Simply wood grilled fish" changes periodically. Opah looks like an oversized serving of seared tuna, darkish pink ringedwith cream and umber, nicely complemented by a pico of pineapple, ginger and serrano chile.
I'd order any of these rather than a burger. The one called 44 Farms Burger (made with beef from 44 Farms) came with a supposedly sunny-side-up egg whose yolk had broken and dried out, and watery scallion hollandaise. All three burgers we sampled came to the table less rare than ordered. The brioche buns, cottony and a bit too sweet, overpowered the fillings.
Two taco choices are also on offer daily: trompo pork and a special. The grilled shrimp version had good flavor, but pedestrian corn tortillas. Not a starter amid the crowded field of dedicated taquerias these days.
Desserts are iffy as well. Maw Maw's buttermilk pie has a beguilingly tart filling, but we'd bet Maw Maw's crust wasn't this soggy. Skillet cobbler was way better the second time we tried it, when blackberries added to the peaches lit them up like sparklers at a picnic.
Iced tea is a dreadful ginger-peach concoction, but there's good news for craf-beer lovers: eight on tap, mostly Texan. Only a couple of Texas wines, though. If you prefer spirits, the bar offers a whole section of Texas bottlings, craft cocktails concocted from Texas ingredients and whiskey flights.
All these choices are strictly a la carte. If you want fries (sweet potato only) with your burger, you pay an extra $4. Although Hickory appears to be Rathbun's attempt to connect with a mass audience, a meal can get quite pricey. That opah costs $27 with no side included. Once you start ordering a whole meal, the bill adds up quickly.
Hickory still comes in at a lower price point than its nearest analog, Tim Byres' Smoke — which has also opened a Plano location. Smoke supplements its basic barbecue items with things like quail, foie gras and smoked pheasant and treats them more elaborately. At Hickory, Rathbun seems intent on offering folks the regular stuff they know and love — but cooked with a flair and imagination they might not get elsewhere.
Lawson Taitte has been writing about Texas restaurants since 1977.
Hickory by Kent Rathbun (2 stars)
Price: $$ (starters and salads $5 to $15; main dishes mostly $8 to $15; sides $4 to $7; desserts $7)
Service: Mostly young and learning, but working hard to please
Ambience: Sports-bar slickness with some rustic camouflage. The large covered patio offers three kinds of seating and a fireplace for when it gets cooler.
Noise level: Manageable if the crowds aren't too large
Location: 8100 Dallas Parkway at State Highway 121, Plano; 972-712-7077; hickoryplano.com
Hours: Lunch Monday-Friday 11 a.m. to 4p.m.; dinner Sunday through Thursday 4 to 9 p.m., Friday-Saturday 4 to 10 p.m.
Reservations: Not accepted
Credit cards: All major
Wheelchair accessible: Yes
Alcohol: Full bar. The wine list offers mainly West Coast bottles costing less than $50. Craft brews on tap are mostly Texan, many of them from the Dallas-Fort Worth area.
5 stars: Extraordinary
4 stars: Excellent
3 stars: Very good
2 stars: Good
1 star: Fair
No stars: Poor