What's the right moment to go to a new restaurant -- soon after it opens, while it's hot? Or a few months later, once the staff has had time to smooth out the kinks and the kitchen hits its stride?
I think it depends on the restaurant, and it's hard to predict.
But I will tell you that if you're interested in checking out Whistle Britches -- the chicken-centric modern Southern place chef Omar Flores opened a couple of months ago in Far North Dallas -- I would go now.
Go only if you love fried chicken: It's Whistle Britches' singular focus. In the course of three visits, all the main courses and sandwiches I sampled were terrific, except the two that didn't involve chicken. These were not so good.
But you won't order those things. You'll order fried-chickeny things, and if you do, you'll probably eat very well.
Flores and co-owner Alec Marshi took over the space -- a converted Sonic Drive-In that until recently was Spork -- and gave it a bright, fresh, whitewashed feel, with banquettes on one wall, an uncluttered bar facing them, a long communal table in the center and a large patio off to one side. Sure, the parking-lot view out the floor-to-ceiling windows from the comfortable booths on the opposite side could be more picturesque, but the light is nice at lunchtime and the place is warmly appealing.
The staff is in the habit of telling newcomers (as part of the "have you dined with us before?" speech) that Flores is a James Beard nominee. Not quite; as executive chef of Casa Rubia, his modern Spanish restaurant in Trinity Groves, he was a semifinalist for both the 2015 and 2016 awards, but didn't snag a nomination. Still, that's pretty impressive.
What comes to the tables is also impressive, including (but not limited to) the fried chicken. Flores and his chef de cuisine, Natalie Mathis, give it a pickling-spice brine, then fry it up deep golden-brown. It's some of the dreamiest fried chicken in town, its crisp, crunchy and well-seasoned coating giving way to juicy, flavorful meat. Both dark meat and white meat are superb. You can get it by the 10-piece bucket (with potato salad, coleslaw and two splendid, humongous biscuits and honey butter), or two or three pieces (depending on whether it's lunch or dinner time) on a plate with a side and one biscuit.
As for the sides, the sour-creamy potato salad is very good; the slaw -- at once creamy and tangy and made with Savoy cabbage and lots of fresh herbs -- is even better.
So, what to start with? Do consider a cocktail. Roger Rangel, whose excellent drinks I remember from the short-lived Knox-Henderson hot spot the Establishment, mixes with balance and good taste. His aptly named (and yay! not overly sweet) Pineapple Express -- fresh juice with rye, Velvet Falernum and lemon bitters -- disappeared from my glass all too quickly.
One of my favorite dishes, "pepitos summer salad," looks more like a starter at one of the chichi spots on Henderson Avenue than a salad. It's a slab of compressed watermelon with a creamy dill-flecked sauce spooned over one side, topped with charred corn kernels, crumbled queso fresco, toasted pepitas, sliced jalapeño and a small handful of spicy upland cress. I often have a hard time telling compressed watermelon from the unadulterated kind, but with this version -- which has a happy tang, deep sweetness and lovely texture -- I get it. It works surprisingly well with the dill-ranch dressing and all the rest.
I liked but didn't love "deviled" farm eggs: nice garnish of excellent shaved country ham, but deconstructing the filling (hard-boiled yolk topped with a dab of mayo and some pickled mustard seeds) makes it less compelling than the classic.
I did love the chargrilled chicken wings doused in spicy Korean gochujang sauce and sesame seeds, another starter, messy and piquant. Its jaunty garnish of spiralized cucumber tasted raw rather than spicy and quick-pickled as the menu describes, but it worked anyway. Ordering a chicken starter before a fried-chicken main event or chicken sandwich strikes me as odd, but you could begin with a salad (maybe the "wedgie," nicer than most, with soft butter lettuce) and get the spicy wings as a main course.
Don't be tempted to order a non-chicken main course, though. A barbecue-spiced double-cut pork chop was cooked until it was hard all the way through; a thick fillet of Bay of Fundy salmon was perfectly cooked but oversalted, then set on an even more salty purple-hull-pea succotash and a pool of sweet corn purée. Its unfortunate garnish, a large quenelle of thick strained yogurt topped with scallion greens, tasted like it belonged on a bagel. A side order of barbecue-spiced okra, roasted but not long enough to lose its sliminess, disappointed, too.
Do go for one of the sandwiches, if you're so inclined. They're huge and well-proportioned, each starring a plump and gorgeously fried boneless chicken breast. You might choose the signature Whistle Britches: the fried bird nestled between halves of one of those outsized biscuits slathered with honey butter and just the right touch of pepper jelly. I loved the open-faced Auntie Louann even more: the combination of fried chicken, pimento cheese, dill pickles, ripe tomato slices and a lot of Thousand Island dressing is crazy-good.
The desserts -- like blueberry pie, or a frozen custard parfait with peanut butter, house-made concord grape jelly and crumbled Heath bars -- were OK, though too sweet for my taste. A coconut cream pie had an uncommonly tough crust.
In the course of fact-checking, when I asked Flores by email if he's still chef-owner of Casa Rubia, he answered yes, that Casa Rubia is "still my baby," and that with Whistle Britches, "we wanted to create a simple concept to replicate." That's why I suggest dining there sooner rather than later. Sure, it's entirely possible the quality at Whistle Britches will remain high, but when a chef turns his attention back to his signature restaurant -- or replicating a new one -- anything can happen.
To be honest, I had a sticky time assigning a star rating to this review, as can often be the case when a restaurant focuses on one thing and does it well. The non-chicken main courses and a few other things (the brief wine list has little to recommend it) disappointed. But as a snazzy-yet-casual fried chicken, biscuits and beer palace -- what the restaurant purports to be -- Whistle Britches does a smashing job. Three stars it is.
Whistle Britches (3 stars)
Price: $$-$$$ (lunch starters and salads $6 to 12, main courses $10 to $14; dinner starters and salads $6 to $10, main courses $14 to $26; sandwiches $9 to $13; fried-chicken bucket with sides and biscuits $32 at lunch and $34 at dinner; desserts $6)
Service: Attentive and enthusiastic
Ambience: A casual, light and airy dining room with comfortable booths and a spacious patio
Noise level: It seems to depend on who's in charge of the music volume. When the music is relatively low, it's easy to talk here. When it's turned up, people start yelling to be heard across the table.
Location: Whistle Britches, 6110 Frankford Road (at Preston Road), Dallas; 972-590-8991
Hours: Monday-Thursday 11 a.m. to 9 p.m., Friday-Saturday 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.
Reservations: Not accepted, but the restaurant accepts requests for large parties.
Credit cards: All major
Wheelchair accessible: Yes
Alcohol: Full bar, with a good selection of local craft beers on tap and a cursory wine list that reads like an afterthought.
5 stars: Extraordinary
4 stars: Excellent
3 stars: Very good
2 stars: Good
1 star: Fair
No stars: Poor
Average dinner per person
$ -- $14 and under
$$ -- $15 to $30
$$$ -- $31 to $50
$$$$ -- More than $50