It was a few months ago when we first spotted Ana's Restaurant, a gritty yellow storefront on Maple Avenue with a sign that made us want to slam on the brakes: Barbacoa de Borrego Estilo Hidalgo. Not the beef barbacoa you mostly find at Mexican restaurants in Texas, but the labor-intensive, pit-roasted lamb extravaganza from the Hidalgo region of Mexico.
We quickly made a lunch date with friends and, on a whim, I grabbed a bottle of Muga Rioja and some plastic tumblers.
The barbacoa was incredible — how has Ana's been overlooked for nearly three years? — the shredded, slightly smoky meat served on a singed maguey leaf, ready to be piled onto freshly pressed tortillas and adorned with chopped onions, cilantro and lime, and a spoonful of the soothing, savory lamb consommé that completes the dish. It was as good as the best barbacoa I've eaten in Mexico, and no wonder: Ana's, I later learned, is owned by a family of former ranchers from Hidalgo, who grew up making barbacoa from the animals they raised.
And the Rioja — what a happy accident. The richness of the lamb nudged up snugly against the soft fruitiness of the wine, no matter how unconventional the pairing. A happy little party broke out around our table. Not only is Ana's a wonderful spot for barbacoa, it is an ideal BYOB restaurant.
BYOB can be a tricky business in a restaurant, where there are liquor laws to contend with and owners who are not too pleased to have you skip their wine list. But it's one of the most convivial ways to dine out when the elements fall into place.
I'm always on the lookout for restaurants that are serious about their cooking but don't serve wine or beer and are cool with you bringing your own. They tend to be small mom-and-pop spots. And among wine lovers, the best of them become under-the-radar clubhouses: the places where you're likely to find industry veterans popping something new and exciting, or old and rare, over the kind of delicious, casual food that makes good wine shine.
There are two restaurants in the Dallas area where I love doing exactly that. Both specialize in a monumental, celebratory dish that's meant for the whole table to share: At Ana's, it's barbacoa de borrego. And at First Chinese BBQ in Richardson, it's Peking duck, the crackling, succulent whole bird that arrives carved into lacquered bites and served with bao and all the trimmings, along with a duck stir-fry and a rich duck soup.
On the surface, the dishes are literally two different animals, and neither is traditionally served with wine. But both have a profound spectrum of flavors that makes you stop and think about what you'll be eating and the exponential possibilities of what you might drink with it. This is the time to experiment with offbeat pairings or unfamiliar wines, or crack open a bottle you simply love, without paying a fortune to do it.
And that's another thing these restaurants have in common. At First Chinese, Peking duck "three ways," a meal with an imperial history that easily serves four, is $36.95. At Ana's, a barbacoa feast with a direct lineage to ranch traditions offers a pound of tender, juicy lamb with all of the accompaniments — far more than four of us could eat — for $19. Neither restaurant charges a cent for corkage.
Don't forget the corkscrew. Be sure to bring your own glasses, even basic plastic ones. Otherwise you'll be drinking your favorite adult beverage out of thimble-size teacups at First Chinese or Big Gulp-size tumblers at Ana's. Offer your servers a taste, and tip well. You are likely to linger over a meal as celebratory as these.
Perhaps being across the street from Ojeda's — a beloved Tex-Mex institution — has kept Ana's out of the spotlight. The little place is owned by Andrés Soto and wife Gabriela Rosales, who cook barbacoa while their children, cousins and siblings staff the kitchen and take your orders (Ana's is named for their 8-year-old daughter).
As at other barbacoa de borrego spots, the dish is a weekend special. Every Friday, Soto explained, he and Rosales fill a pit with mesquite and oak and burn it down to embers. They place a big pot on top, lined with maguey leaves and filled with water, chickpeas and aromatics such as chiles and epazote. A grate goes on top of the pot, and hunks of lamb wrapped in maguey leaves are set on the grate. The whole thing is covered with a steel plate then buried under earth and more embers, where it cooks for 10 hours.
The meat juices drip into the consommé, while the lamb is bathed in the aromatic steam of the soup. It is a dish the families made for parties back in Hidalgo, and Soto tries to reproduce it as precisely as possible here.
Tortillas are made with organic white corn, using a green metal press that belonged to Soto's mother-in-law. There are two good salsas on the table, one made with roasted chile de arbol and morita chile, the other with tomatillo.
Over the course of several visits, lighter reds such as Proemio Malbec from Argentina and L'Envoyé Two Messengers Pinot Noir from Willamette Valley made the best pairings. But a classic bottle of cold beer would have been terrific, too.
If you'd like to round out your meal, look to the specials board, where thicker, rustic organic blue corn quesadillas and tlacoyos are made by hand and filled with squash blossoms, mushrooms or huitlacoche, along with Monterey Jack and sautéed squash, onion and epazote.
Servers assume you'll order from the regular menu, but the dishes that I've tried are not at the level of the barbacoa and the specials board. For dessert, there is a sturdy, lightly sweet flan and cinnamon and guava jam cookies, all made by Soto's sister (and not on the menu).
Ana's is the third restaurant on Maple that the family has opened. (The other two, El Mesquite and Ana's Taqueria, are still open nearby but have no connection.) Perhaps the third time is the charm. The Sotos have also begun selling their magnificent barbacoa at on Sundays at the Seagoville flea market's El Tricolor stand.
First Chinese BBQ
I am still searching Dallas for the perfect Peking duck, but so far, First Chinese is at the top of my list. It isn't carved at the table or served with thin pancakes — it only comes with bao, and the buns are doughier than the delicate duck deserves. Now and then, the skin can be a touch flabby, the soup as watered down as hospital broth.
But when First Chinese is on, it's really on: A platter of mahogany skin — some pieces crackling and nearly transparent, some attached to a sliver of juicy duck meat — is arrayed around legs and wings on the bone. Pluck a morsel or two into the bao, dab on hoisin sauce and tuck in a few strands of green onion, and you're in something close to duck heaven. If there were thin pancakes, which don't mask the way the skin shatters and melts in your mouth, you would be all the way there.
The second duck dish — a simple stir-fry of bean sprouts and duck meat — is savory and umami-filled, a distinct contrast with the roasted bird. And the third preparation, duck soup with squares of tofu, vegetables, mushrooms and duck bones, is, at its best, complex and delicious.
The chef, who is from Canton, has been with the restaurant for more than 10 of its 37 years (a spokeswoman would not provide his name). He makes 30 ducks a day, she says, in the traditional way: inflating the whole duck to separate the skin from the flesh, blanching it in boiling water and brushing it with a marinade, then air-drying overnight. The ducks are roasted in batches the next day, suspended in a 400- to 500-degree gas oven for almost an hour.
Though it is a specialty of the restaurant, Peking duck is not on the printed menu (but roast duck is; don't make the rookie mistake of ordering it). I was told everything on the specials board, written in Chinese, was also on the printed menu. But it isn't. I also asked for water spinach, a tender seasonal green that was not on the printed menu but turned out be a special.
The courses are served as they are ready, which means more or less all at the same time. If you want additional dishes — say, the terrific crispy shrimp, split and deveined but left in the shell — consider ordering them separately before or after the duck, to pace the meal.
But wine pairing requires no strategy at all. The duck plays with everything from bright New Zealand Pinot Noir to French cider and 20-year-old Grand Cru Gewurztraminer (it helps to know a collector). And the revelation was a Texas wine: 2017 Basics of Life, an $18 red blend from Southold that evolves to a marriage of earthiness and fresh cherries.
Rating: One and a half stars
Price: $ (Barbacoa de borrego, the traditional pit-roasted lamb with salsa and garnishes, house-made tortillas and lamb consommé, $19 for a pound and $10.99 for a half-pound. Blue-corn quesadillas and tlacoyos $6. Burritos, tacos and tortas $1.49 to $6.49. Combination plates $7.50 to $12.99.)
Service: Family-owned and family-run. Siblings and cousins take your order, help you sort through the specials (if you ask about them) and check up on you throughout the meal.
Ambience: If Quentin Tarantino designed a restaurant, it might look like this: bars on the windows, vinyl paneling indoors, a dimly lighted back room with a perpetual soccer match on the TV and a jukebox in the corner. But on weekends, this friendly little Mexican restaurant comes to life when it serves incredibly delicious barbacoa de borrego, the pit-roasted lamb from the Hidalgo region, made with meticulous care by owner Andrés Soto, along with handmade tortillas using organic masa, excellent salsas and savory lamb consommé.
Noise: Easy listening (68 decibels)
Drinks: BYOB at no charge (BYO glasses, too, or you'll be sipping from Big Gulp-size tumblers). Mexican Coke and soft drinks ($1.50-$2.50), aguas de frutas and horchata ($2.50).
GPS: Ambience isn't the point. You're here for the barbacoa.
Address: 4626 Maple Ave., Dallas; 214-526-1460; anas-restaurant.negocio.site
Hours: Saturday-Sunday from 8 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday-Friday from 9 a.m. to 10 p.m. Note: Barbacoa de borrego is served only on Saturdays and Sundays.
Reservations: Not accepted
Credit cards: All major
Health department score: B (84, April)
Access: Restaurant is all on one level.
Parking: Free parking in lots at the front and back of the restaurant (back lot accessed by a narrow driveway beside the restaurant)
First Chinese BBQ
Rating: Two stars
Price: $ (Peking duck $28.95; with stir-fried duck and bean sprouts, $32.95; with the stir-fry and duck soup, $36.95. Soups $6.25 to $8.25. Noodle and rice dishes $7.50 to $9.75. Mains $7.95 to $23.95.)
Service: Brusque and so swift that a 10-minute wait for Peking duck merits a warning about the time lag. Don't order everything at once unless you want it eat it all at once: The kitchen will not stagger orders once they are submitted.
Ambience: The interior has all the charm of a coffee shop at the Ramada Inn in Bismarck, but this strip-center Chinese restaurant, between Happy Foot massage and a boba tea joint, makes possibly the best Peking Duck in the city — though you won't find it on the menu and your waitress won't tell you about it.
Noise: Shouty (70 decibels)
Drinks: BYOB at no charge (unless you want to drink from a thimble-shaped teacup, bring some glasses, too). On the menu, there are soft drinks, tea and coffee ($1.25 to $3).
Recommended: Peking duck "three ways" (roasted, stir-fried and soup), water spinach with garlic, sautéed Chinese broccoli, crispy shrimp
GPS: Ask for one of the four large round tables. A regular booth or table isn't big enough for this feast.
Address: 111 S. Greenville Ave., Richardson; 972-680-8216; firstchinesebbq.com
Hours: Daily from 11 a.m. to 9:30 p.m.
Reservations: Not accepted (and that includes reserving a duck)
Credit cards: Not accepted (cash only)
Health department score: Good (83, February)
Access: Restaurant is all on one level.
Parking: Ample parking in the strip-center lot
4 stars: Extraordinary (First-rate on every level; a benchmark dining experience)
3 stars: Excellent (A destination restaurant and leader on the DFW food scene)
2 stars: Very Good (Strong concept and generally strong execution)
1 star: Good (Has merit, but limited ambition or spotty execution)
No stars: Poor (Not recommended)
Below 60: Quiet. Maybe too quiet.
60-69: Easy listening. Normal conversation, with a light background buzz.
70-79: Shouty. Conversation is possible, but only with raised voices.
80-85: Loud. Can you hear me now? Probably not.
Average dinner per person.
$ -- $19 and under
$$ -- $20 to $50
$$$ -- $50 to $99
$$$$ -- $100 and over