McKINNEY -- Having OD'd on pork belly six or seven years ago, I can't say I was exactly chomping at the bit to get to Sugarbacon Proper Kitchen, where the perpetually trendy ingredient gets a starring role.
Add to that the sucrose in the restaurant's name, a less-than-alluring, vaguely Modern Texan menu and a 35-mile drive from downtown Dallas, and I couldn't help but drop the 4-month-old spot in this charming North Texas towna few notches down my must-visit list.
The moment I walked into the laid-back, stylish dining room in a former service station just off the historic town square, sipped a dusky-flavored Maple Whiskey Smash and sliced into a gorgeously cooked Wagyu tri-tip from Local Yocal -- the renowned butcher-owned purveyor of locally raised meats around the corner -- I knew I was wrong.
Slowly but deliciously, a vibrant home-grown dining scene has been developing around McKinney's square in recent years. Square Burger serves juicy handheld creations starring grass-fed beef from Local Yocal. A few doors down is Rick's Chophouse, the dining room at the splendid old Grand Hotel, with sister restaurant Harvest, home of chef Andrea Shackelford's Modern Texan cooking, just around the corner.
On the square's east side you'll find Patina Green Home and Market, where Kaci Lyford and her chef-husband Robert offer Wagyu bologna sandwiches, ham-and-okra soup, a casual five-course tasting menu on Friday and Saturday nights, a cool collection of antique wooden cutting boards, rustic-chic tableware and more. Cadillac Pizza Pub is the place for craveworthy, crackly edged, wood-fired pies and live blues.
You'll know Sugarbacon by the pair of vintage Texaco gas pumps out front. When I stopped in for lunch on a lazy Saturday, co-owner Johnny Carros, a former general manager at Jasper's in Plano, told me the McKinney High School class of 1965 would be holding a party to celebrate its 50th reunion there soon; one of the members of the class brought him a black-and-white photo of the place from back in the day, which he plans to frame and display on one of the original exposed-brick walls. How cool is that?
And how refreshing not to be grilled about whether we'd ever dined there before, nor subjected to a lesson on how to read the menu: The service is relaxed, yet confident and (usually) polished.
So is the cooking -- which should come as no surprise, as the chef and co-owner is Jon Thompson, who headed the kitchen at two of Stephan Pyles' four-star restaurants in Dallas: Samar, which closed in 2014, and more recently Stampede 66.
Sugarbacon takes its name from the signature ingredient Thompson concocted for the place: Berkshire pork belly that's been brined, cold-smoked, confited, pressed, cubed then fried. (Yes, there's some sugar in the brine, but it's not overly sweet.) Bathed in ancho-chile barbecue sauce and set, with a slice of bread- and-butter pickle, on a thin, round crouton, it makes a luscious -- if unwieldy -- appetizer, four to an order. Too big for one bite, they fall apart if you try to halve them. It's a problem worth tackling, as they're pretty good.
House-made potato tots are fun, too; they dance in a circle around a mound of pulled pork, decorated with dabs of pimento cheese and squiggles of mayo zinged with barbecue sauce.
Whether meat and potatoes are an ideal way into dinner is another question. Seeking something lighter one night, my friends and I shared a straight-ahead Mexican shrimp cocktail and poked around a farm salad -- baby greens tossed in a green goddess-like dressing and garnished with a few croutons, slices of radish and cucumber, a halved grape tomato. Both were fine; neither had much personality. I liked the enormous "baby" wedge salad swathed in good blue cheese dressing and topped with bits of fried pancetta, candied walnuts and halved heirloom cherry tomatoes.
Slightly more interesting were a rich (but not too) spinach-artichoke dip topped with browned bread crumbs and served with grilled sourdough toasts, and a blue crab cake set atop what the menu called "warm grape tomato salsa" but was more like a tomato-and-corn salad perfumed with cilantro leaves -- nice.
Among the main courses, that superb Wagyu tri-tip was a special -- served on a vibrantly herbal chimichurri alongside warm potato salad. Next time I'll try the chile-rubbed Delmonico steak, also sourced from Local Yocal. Meanwhile, a thick-cut, smoked Berkshire pork chop came to the table beautifully cooked, set on hominy streaked with green chile and topped with a smart little green apple salad.
Seafood dishes were successful, too, such as well-seared sea scallops on creamed corn whose fresh kernels tasted just right in Indian summer, dressed up with a lovely little tomato-arugula salad. And it's nice to find a thoughtful vegetarian dish: fresh linguine tossed in a likable mushroom "bolognese."
A couple of other dishes were clunkers, sauced so heavily they seemed to come from a different kitchen: a chicken breast served with roasted-garlic smashed potatoes, and tough short ribs given too quick a braise in red wine, coated in a sauce over-thickened with roux. I loved the long-braised green beans that came with the chicken, though; they're also offered as a side dish.
While the best dishes may not be unusual enough to warrant a long drive there on its own merits, Sugarbacon is certainly worth a detour (say if you're shopping at the outlet mall in Allen) -- and definitely a great choice if you happen to be in town.
And if nothing on the menu is crying out to be ordered? (Do we really need another take on shrimp and grits?) Go for a burger. Thick and juicy on its good, shiny bun, the Wagyu patty arrived spot-on medium rare, slap-happy with bread-and-butter pickles and handsomely dressed with melted cheddar and hey -- sliced sugarbacon! It's one of the best burgers around.
One final happy surprise: butterscotch banana pudding, a gooey, slightly boozy parfait that involves a buried treasure of bananas Foster. Peach crisp? Nice enough. But the banana number has pizzazz.
Sugarbacon Proper Kitchen (3 stars)
Price: $$$ (appetizers and salads $6 to $15; lunch sandwiches $11 to $15; lunch main courses $15 to $21; dinner sandwiches $14 to $19; dinner main courses $17 to $36; desserts $7)
Service: Generally polished, professional and thoughtful, though one night wine was overpoured, then another bottle aggressively pushed.
Ambience: The spacious, attractive dining rooms (formerly a garage) have exposed-brick walls, high ceilings, lots of reclaimed wood, an open kitchen, an inviting bar and patio, and comfortable booths.
Noise level: Music plays at a gentle enough volume that conversation is easy.
Location: 216 W. Virginia St., McKinney; 469-952-5150; sugarbacon.com
Hours: Monday-Thursday 11 a.m. to 10 p.m., Friday-Saturday 11 a.m. to 11 p.m., Sunday brunch 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.
Reservations: Accepted for parties of five or more
Credit cards: All major
Wheelchair accessible: Yes
Alcohol: Full bar, with a small selection of excellent cocktails created by well-known bartender Sean Conner and eight local craft beers on tap. Johnny Carros' one-page global wine list features well-selected (if not particularly adventurous) choices -- including about 20 by the glass. Particularly nice: Order a $9 glass of Charles de Fère Cuvée Jean-Louis Blanc de Blancs Champagne, and you get a 175-milliliter bottle, enough for nearly two flutes' worth.
5 stars: Extraordinary
4 stars: Excellent
3 stars: Very good
2 stars: Good
1 star: Fair
No stars: Poor