BEST OF: Thursday, September 19, 2002
A D V E R T I S E M E N T
A D V E R T I S E M E N T
Eating & Drinking

Wait Staff

Readers’ choice: Del Frisco’s, 812 Main St, FW

Staff choice: Los Alamos Restaurant, 1446 N Main St, FW

If you like waiters who come to your table with fake smiles, breathlessly announce their names — Chip, maybe, or Bubbles — then squat beside you to get slightly below your eye level (research shows this results in higher tips), well, that’s your business. Los Alamos waiters don’t do any of that, and that’s why they’re tops. They favor quiet, simple, efficient service, with a personal touch for those who want it. Eat at Los Alamos more than a couple of times and the waitresses — Norma, Patricia, and Karla — are likely to remember your face, name and culinary preferences. They’ll offer small talk if necessary, but they’re just as happy to remain unobtrusive for customers reading newspapers, daydreaming, or chatting with companions. They dish out some of the tastiest Mexican food on the North Side; keep customers’ chip bowls, salsa cups, and drink glasses full; and don’t feel a need to smile you to death to ensure a weighty tip.

Restaurant

Readers’ choice: Del Frisco’s, 812 Main St, FW

Staff choice: Bonnell’s Fine Texas Cuisine, 4259 Bryant Irvin Rd, FW

When Bonnell’s set up camp in Cityview last year, it immediately changed the definition of “ranch food.” The menu stars top-quality game meats from the Texas Hill country, with a supporting cast of Southwestern and Creole dishes. Homemade ice cream, like the bursting-with-flavor cinnamon-vanilla, is the perfect finish. Attention to detail infuses everything from the mango salsa to the Texana touches in the soothing, upscale décor. A true winner.

New Restaurant

Readers’ choice: Big Bowl, 4701 W Fwy, FW

Staff choice: Blowfish Sushi & Grill, 851 NE Green Oaks Blvd, Arlington

Take two cute sushi chefs, one lovely space, maki sushi rolls that sparkle with originality, and what do you get? Our Best New Restaurant of the year, that’s what. Yeah, Blowfish is trendy — but not annoyingly so. The main attraction — innovative rolls — are created by chefs Tommy Le and Kenzo Tran and do not look or taste like anything other sushi bars offer. Try the Vietnamese summer roll with salmon, shrimp, chives, and asparagus in a rice paper wrapper. Or a Mexican roll with shrimp tempura served inside-out (avocado on the outside). We love everything about the sushi, maki, tempura, and udon noodle soups here.

Deli

Readers’ choice: Jason’s Deli, multiple locations

Staff choice: Carshon’s Delicatessen, 3133 Cleburne Rd, FW

Fort Worth’s “original delicatessen,” Carshon’s has been satisfying the kosher and non-kosher desires of locals since 1928. They’ve got the best Reuben — with corned beef or pastrami — this side of NY, NY, with a side of homemade potato salad and a big crispy dill pickle bursting with garlic. Then there’s roast beef, salami, peppered beef, smoked turkey, all with melted Swiss, chopped liver, egg salad, tuna, on pumpernickel, rye, or egg bread, and, of course, bagels with lox and cream cheese, and made-fresh-each-morning chicken noodle soup. With a nod to its Texas origins, there’s Carshon’s chili. For dessert try its “very own strawberry delight.”

Greasy Spoon

Readers’ choice: Fred’s (by a mile), 915 Currie St, FW

Staff choice: Montgomery Street Café, 2000 Montgomery St, FW

Some people think “greasy spoon” has a negative connotation, but there are good and bad greasy spoons, and Montgomery Street Café is a good’un. The little café is perched on the cultural district’s southwestern edge, offering nostalgia, down-home flavor, service, and value that mesh nicely with the cultural district’s uptown sophistication. Lunch specials, such as chicken-fried steak or catfish, come with three vegetables and bread for about $5. For breakfast, a plate of bacon, eggs, hash browns, biscuits and gravy cost only $3.50. But here’s the kicker that puts this café on lofty greasy spoon status: Order a glass of tea, and the waitress brings a glass and a full pitcher of tea for only 75 cents.

Continental/French

Readers’ choice: La Madeleine French Bakery and Café, multiple locations

Staff choice: Escargot, 3427 W 7th St, FW

Except for its total lack of snobbery, Escargot is very French: Chef Frederic Angevin has the most charming accent, he serves snails three different ways, and the menu, of course, is in a funny language. The food is magically delicious, mostly in the French-countryside genre of tender meat or fish that’s braised or roasted or steamed, topped with truffle cream sauce or raspberry-peppercorn sauce or demi-glace, served with a mound of mashed potatoes and artfully arranged crisp vegetables. Plus, there’s paté. Baked brie. Crème brûlée. Tournedo de saumon á la duxcelle d’aspérges. We just like saying that one.

Bakery

Readers’ choice: Harper’s Blue Bonnet Bakery, 3905 Camp Bowie Blvd, FW

Staff choice: Esperanza’s Mexican Bakery and Café, 2140 N Main St and 1109 Hemphill St, FW

From the cinnamon rolls to the sugar-dusted donuts to the Mexican sweetbreads to the almond-topped cookies, the delicacies from Esperanza’s kitchens are about twice as big and twice as sweet as anything you’ll find in other bakeries around here. One cinnamon roll is big enough for two non-gluttons to share over coffee. You can’t get fresh-baked loaves of bread at Esperanza’s, but you can get hot, fresh-made tortillas — even better.

Brunch

Readers’ choice: Blue Mesa Grill, 1600 S University Dr, FW

Staff choice: Coffee House Gallery, 609 S Jennings Av, FW

Weekend brunch starts at 10am with everything made fresh when you order — no scrambled eggs turning to rubber or gravy congealing into school paste under hot lights. In fact, don’t expect any gravy at all. But do expect perfect renditions of eggs Benedict, French toast, bowls of fresh fruit, and a delightfully different selection of breakfast tacos such as Her Majesty’s with asparagus and brie. For traditionalists, there are the usual suspects, and — of course — plenty of hot, fresh coffee in all of its Starbuck variations. This delightful combination coffee house/art gallery/café opens at 7, seven days a week with light breakfasts of fresh-baked cinnamon rolls or bagels and cream cheese. But for long, lazy weekend mornings, the hearty brunch can’t be beat.

Kids’ Dining Venue

Readers’ choice: McDonald’s, multiple locations

Staff choice: Buckaroo’s Soda Shoppe, 140 E Exchange Av, FW

When it comes to eating out, keeping kids content and adults sane is tricky business. But the folks at Riscky’s have found the formula. Yet another of their Stockyards venues, Buckaroo’s offers a little bit for everybody: Texas-sized meals for adults, an eclectic décor (replete with saddles as barstools) for the young’uns. While their elders talk adult stuff in the dining area, kids can sip sarsaparillas and play video games in the back room. If all else fails, there’s a hee-larious rodeo blooper reel playing on tv. Even the stuffed moose head looks like a happy camper.

Romantic Dining

Readers’ choice: Sardines Ristorante Italiano, 509 University Dr, FW

Staff choice: Ruffino’s, 2455 Forest Park Blvd, FW

First off, there’s just good food vibes in this little zone of Forest Park at Park Hill — from nearby Pegasus and Greek House to the ghosts of great meals and cozy atmo left from Chardonnay, Sapristi, and City Park Café. The Albanese brothers settled into this spot 10 years ago and immediately won the hearts of those looking for love in Italian places. The service, the food, the space itself — all are quietly impressive, invitingly intimate. There are no views here, no railing to lean on while watching a wine-dark sea. Nonetheless, it’s a great place to propose a new marriage, celebrate a successful one, or just gaze longingly into your lover’s eyes over the top of your ever-refilled wine glass, while plates of dreamy Northern Italian specialties arrive, brimming, like your heart, and leave, emptied, like — whew, we have to go fan ourselves. You take it from there.

Late-Night Dining

Readers’ choice: Snookie’s, 2755 S. Hulen St, FW

Staff choice: Coffee House Gallery, 609 S Jennings Av, FW

The newest addition to the teensy field of late-night Fort Worth restaurants is Coffee House Gallery, which spreads its wings until 3am on weekends (but only until 10pm Mon-Thu). Burgers, sandwiches, blue-plate specials, and vegetarian dishes are fresh, delicious, and reasonably priced. Enjoy cappuccino and cheesecake on the patio and watch South Fort Worth revitalize before your very eyes.

Breakfast

Readers’ choice: IHOP, multiple locations

Staff choice: Day Break Café & Grill, 2720 White Settlement Rd, FW

Up at 4am and hungry as a horse? No problem. The Day Break Café’s door is open; the coffee’s hot, biscuits are in the oven, and the bacon and eggs are ready to be slapped on the grill. This tiny, brightly painted diner serves consistently good down-home breakfasts Monday through Saturday, offering such heavy-lifter choices as two quarter-pound pork chops, a slab of sirloin, or a country-fried steak, all with three eggs, hash browns, gravy, biscuits or toast, or a side of hot cakes. South-of-the border favorites include pepper-hot huevos rancheros, machacado (shredded beef scrambled with eggs and jalapeños), and a variety of breakfast tacos and burritos. Whether you’re a nightowl nursing a hangover or a blue-collar stiff facing a long, sweaty day, the Day Break can fill your order.

Indian

Readers’ choice: Maharaja Indian Restaurant, 6308 Hulen Bend Blvd, FW

Staff choice: Tandoor, 532 Fielder North Plaza, Arlington

The foods that come from a tandoor oven don’t even scratch the surface of delights available at Tandoor. Although going to a buffet is about as close to dining well as hitting a fast-food drive-through, a trip to the Tandoor buffet is an experience in good eats. The deep-fried pakoras (like fritters) are crisp, not oily, and the creamy chicken korma, beef in curry, and saag paneer (spinach and cheese curry) are heavenly spiced and taste freshly made. A new coat of paint, a tropical mural, and stenciled designs have freshened the look of this South Arlington favorite.

Home Cooking

Readers’ choice: Trellis Rose Café, 6511 E Lancaster Av, FW

Staff choice: West Side Café, 7950 Camp Bowie Blvd West, FW

The words that this down-home place brings to mind are the same ones that Southerners have been calling their loved ones for years: Dumplin’. Puddin’. No wait, we don’t think “chicken-fried” or “catfish” are terms of endearment. At any rate, if homey surroundings, great cooking, and nice waitresses are your glass of iced tea, try out this spot on Camp Bowie West. Don’t let the large proportion of gray- and white-haired patrons scare you off. Why should old people get all the good food?

Chinese

Readers’ choice: Szechuan Chinese Restaurant, multiple locations

Staff choice: Blue Bamboo, 480 W Southlake Blvd, Southlake

Blue Bamboo is a restaurant. It doesn’t have buffets, but it does offer tablecloths, soft lighting, and faux-stone deep yellow walls. The interior resembles a chic bistro, not the neighborhood jumbo eatery. There are many things to like about Blue Bamboo. Take-out items are packaged in folded, white, waxed-board boxes (not Styrofoam), and the food is sumptuous. We love the sesame noodles, the spring rolls, and anything stir-fried.

Greek

Readers’ choice: Greek House, 2426 Forest Park Blvd, FW

Staff choice: Parthenon, 401 N Henderson St, FW

The mystery of the Parthenon is why it isn’t packed wall-to-wall. Parthenon bills itself as a hybrid of Greek and Mediterranean cuisine with “a touch of New Orleans.’’ Frankly, the Greek and Mediteranean offerings are so good we’ve never gotten around to sampling anything even vaguely Cajun. The Greek standards — from spanakopita to moussaka — are excellent. One or two seafood dishes are also offered as daily specials. Service is prompt. What’s not to like?

Mexican

Readers’ choice: Joe T. Garcia’s, 2201 N Commerce St, FW

Staff choice: La Playa Maya, 1540 N Main St, FW

A salivating selection of seafood caldos, cocktails, and platters make La Playa our pick for best Mexican. Vuelve a la vida, the “return to life’’ cocktail of shrimp, oyster, and octopus, is a traditional cure for overindulgence. Or make a light meal of ceviche tostados and a bowl of fish soup. La Playa also offers a variety of Tex-Mex dishes if you’re craving a beans and rice platter. The salsa is top-rate and the airy, well-lit interior is a comfortable place to pass a leisurely lunch hour.

Tex-Mex

Readers’ choice: Mexican Inn, multiple locations

Staff choice: Benito’s, 1450 W Magnolia Av, FW

Benito’s has recently opened other locations, but the one in the hospital district is the original. This place is a little closer to “real” Mexican than your average garden-variety Tex-Mex joint. Shredded, not ground, beef tacos, tasty pork tostadas and tamales, the world’s best chicken soup, and ceviche are among the favorites. Portions are generous, but not excessive. Prices are reasonable. Service is attentive and friendly.

Italian

Readers’ choice: Milano’s, multiple locations

Staff choice: Mike Salerno’s Italian Restaurant, 6651 Camp Bowie Blvd, FW

It’s all about the food. Mike Salerno’s (not to be confused with Salerno’s in Flower Mound) bears the scars of its location. It’s attached to the minimally functional Western Hills Motel, the interior is tattered and worn, and the pink fluorescent lighting doesn’t help. But the important stuff happens when you get to the table. Fettuccine Alfredo fortified with real butter and Parmesan cheese is so good it’ll make you pant. The cannelloni in pink sauce (creamy tomato sauce) is so smooth it dissolves on your tastebuds, and the eggplant Parmesan is a perfect balance of tomato sauce, fried slices of eggplant, and cheese.

Thai

Readers’ choice: Big Bowl, 4701 W Fwy, FW

Staff choice: Sukhothai, 423 Fielder North Plaza, Arlington

We like Sukhothai, because we like hot food. The wait staff assumes that you know how spicy you like your food, so if you order it “Thai hot” you know you’re going to get fire; regular hot is oven-ous, and regular is kicky-hot. Red chili beef, on a mound of crisp green beans, has pungent kaffir lime leaf undertones. Cashew dishes feature large, freshly roasted nuts, and the pad Thai with shrimp has large (two-bite), fresh, plump shrimp and moist slices of chicken breast.

Vegetarian

Readers’ choice: Big Bowl, 4701 W Fwy, FW

Staff choice: Spiral Diner and Bakery, Fort Worth Rail Market, 1401 Jones St, FW

Touted as the first “pure vegetarian restaurant in Tarrant County,” the Spiral Diner and Bakery is veggie heaven. The food is a delight with dozens of surprising combos of flavors and ingredients, from the spinach-flat-bread wrap filled with hummus, cucumber, avocado, walnuts, and mashed sweet potato all doused with tahini sauce to the scrambled tofu, black beans, and roasted corn topped with “fiery” roasted poblano sauce. Even carnivores won’t be asking “where’s the beef?” Certified by the Green Restaurant Assoc., everything in it, from the food to the menus, is made from natural or recycled ingredients. Our cheerful server said, “Why, you could even eat the paint on our walls.” Thanks, but just pass the soy meatballs instead.

Vietnamese

Readers’ choice: My Lan, 4015 E Belknap St, FW

Staff choice: Pho Nam, 4045 E Belknap St, Haltom City

Every year, the same tough decision: Best Vietnamese — Pho Nam or Tu Hai? Same neighborhood. Similar prices (low). Same number of shrimp in the mint-stuffed spring rolls. Similarly enormous bowls of pho, steaming broth with thin noodles and tender beef. Once again, we’re tempted by Tu Hai’s wider menu; once again, we’ll choose Pho Nam for its slightly friendlier service, brighter and larger dining area, and “Advanced Pho” section of the menu, which offers tendon and tripe to experienced slurpers.

Middle Eastern

Readers’ choice: King Tut, 1512 W Magnolia St, FW

Staff choice: Byblos, 1406 N Main St, FW

Belly dancers, a hookah bar, heavily flavored food, and a super lunch buffet. What more could you ask of a restaurant? The buffet is packed with winners like chicken kebabs, falafel, fresh fruit, grilled chicken, and tiny slices of pizza topped with a heady spice blend that includes oregano, sumac, and sesame seeds. The dinner menu has traditional dishes like a shwarma platter of thinly cut chicken or beef as well as surprises like faruje mahshe, a game hen stuffed with beef, rice, and pine nuts. The décor is Middle Eastern funky, and the stage features numerous belly-dancing props like long, pointed Gandalf the Magician hats in pastel colors.

Bread

Readers’ choice: Central Market, 4651 W Fwy, FW

Staff choice: Reata, 310 Houston St, FW

The old nonsense song said to “just plant a watermelon on my grave and let the juice (sluuurp) seep through.” We’d rather somebody toss a bag of the Reata’s pecan biscuits into the coffin with us, to comfort us on the journey to the sweet hereafter. A kind Reata manager once gave a whole box of the luscious things to a customer who was trying to pay good money for them — because they were for a wedding shower. The marriage didn’t last, but the shower hostess’ jones for these rolls did.

Barbecue

Readers’ choice: Railhead Smokehouse, 2900 Montgomery St, FW

Staff choice: Shady Oak Barbecue, 6364 Sandshell Dr, FW

Shady Oak proves two things. One: Good barbecue is no less authentic if it is eaten in a nice, clean restaurant. Two: A relaxing space can be created on a crowded, suburban restaurant row if the designer takes advantage of natural surroundings. The surroundings are nice, and the owners (Becky and Chris Carroll of Spring Creek Barbecue fame) know their stuff, but Shady Oak succeeds primarily because of the food. Moist pulled pork, lean brisket, and freshly made potato salad are Shady Oak’s old standbys. But killer salads and innovative appetizers take this eatery to the next level.

Hamburger

Readers’ choice: Tommy’s Hamburgers, multiple locations

Staff choice: Fred’s Café, 915 Currie St, FW

Yes, the big, juicy Fredburger is better than the Tommyburger, the Kincaidburger, the Charleyburger. But that’s not the point. The point is that the best place to eat a great burger is in a great dive, and they don’t come divier than Fred’s — tears in the vinyl booths, grit on the floor, nicotine beads on the walls. Owner Terry Chandler treats regulars like family — with practical jokes, pigtail-pulls, and other annoying/endearing big-brother antics that help make Fred’s a dysfunctional home away from home. Fries with that?

Steak

Readers’ choice: Del Frisco’s, 812 Main St, FW

Staff choice: Sardines Ristorante Italiano, 509 University Dr, FW

This category drives us nuts every year. How do you pick one steak in a county full of excellent steakhouses? Then a junior staffer brightly said, “Let’s think outside the box!” After emotionally abusing her for a week, because we really hate that phrase, we remembered the filetto alla David at Sardines. The best non-ribeye steak in town, the David is a fist-sized hunk of super-tender tenderloin, marinated in garlic and olive oil, and seared to a crispy edge and warm red center. Recommended side dishes: Chianti and jazz.

Dessert

Readers’ choice: Del Frisco’s, 812 Main St, FW

Staff choice: Paris Coffee Shop, 700 W Magnolia St, FW

Pies here are to die for. With meringue that stands twice as tall as the filling and crusts that are flaky as only homemade ones can be. But the fillings are what pie lovers come for: rich, dark, and creamy chocolate; lemon, tart and sweet all in the same bite; coconut cream and banana cream, both loaded with fruit swimming in smooth vanilla pudding. The cooks in this kitchen know when to stop measuring the sugar — their pies will not make your teeth ache. But they’ll make your taste buds ache for one more slice. What the hell, buy the whole pie.

Ice cream

Readers’ choice: Marble Slab, multiple locations

Staff choice: Curly’s Frozen Custard, 4017 Camp Bowie Blvd, FW

Dairy Queen’s blizzards do it cheaper. But if you want nostalgia with your order, take a frosty trip to yesteryear at Curly’s Frozen Custard. The spotless dessert destination harkens back to simpler times of warm summer nights. Basic flavors are vanilla and chocolate, spiced up with a long list of toppings.

Bagels

Readers’ choice: Yogi’s, 2710 Hulen St, FW

Staff choice: Boopa’s Bagel Deli, 6513 N Beach St, FW

The handmade bagels here are as cool and eclectic as the owners themselves — great characters who take enormous amounts of pride in their shop and service. Bagel flavors range from cinnamon raisin to jalapeno cheddar. Each is a mouthful of chewy center wrapped by a crisp outer layer. There’s also cream cheese aplenty, including the flavored kinds like honey walnut. The shop’s named after co-owner Lisa Underwood’s son, Jayden, who himself was given a colorful nickname.

Seafood

Readers’ choice: Pappadeaux Seafood Kitchen, multiple locations

Staff choice: J&J Oyster Bar, 612 N University Dr, FW

Sure, everyone has been to J&J’s, but familiarity does not necessarily breed contempt, in this case — it breeds contentment. You know exactly what you’ll get here: excellent oysters, perfectly fried catfish, fresh french fries, scrumptious seasonal crawfish, and delicious boiled shrimp. The catfish is some of the best this side of the Big Easy. Savoring a bowl of gumbo on a winter night as the wind rakes the debris on University is one of our favorite J&J memories.

Sushi

Readers’ choice: Tokyo Café, 5121 Pershing Av, FW

Staff choice: Sushi Zone, 915 E. Road to Six Flags, Arlington

There are lots of competitors, but we keep coming back to Sushi Zone. Don’t be put off by the pedestrian location in a strip retail center next to a Souper! Salad! Freshness is the key to enjoyable raw fish, and the Zone’s offerings bristle figuratively with the briny smell of the sea. There are always interesting daily specials. When the toro tuna is available, only a raw-fish-fearing fool wouldn’t fang it. Our suggestion for the newcomer: Rekindle a romance with the peanutty Honeymoon in Bangkok roll, and follow it up with a reasonably priced sushi dinner, such as the Pine combo, which features the Zone’s killer presentation of a shrimp tempura roll. Hot green tea, easy to foul up, is just right. And the Kirin beer is always very cold.

Pizza

Readers’ choice: Mama’s, mulitple locations

Staff choice: Prima Pasta & Pizza, 6108 S Hulen St, FW

Family-oriented place lays on the Italian décor a little thick (flags in the windows, walls decorated with press clippings from Italian newspapers and magazines) but serves up fresh, flavorful ingredients on a crispy crust.

Salsa

Readers’ choice: LaFamilia, 2720 W 7th St, FW

Staff choice: Blue Mesa Grill, 1600 S University Dr, FW

Salsa is a soupy delicacy forever secondary to any impending feast. But at Blue Mesa Grill, it’s serious stuff. Two days are invested in preparing the quemeda (a smoky smooth concoction of tomatoes, onions, cilantro, and serrano peppers) through a complicated process requiring smokers and mesquite grills. After being chilled overnight, the flavorific stuff is mixed, then served with three flavors of chips.

Fried Chicken

Readers’ choice: Tie: Babe’s Chicken Dinner House, 104 N. Oak St, FW; Kentucky Fried Chicken, multiple locations

Staff choice: Helen’s Diner, 1409 Evans Av, FW

Reasonably priced and done just right. Not too greasy, crispy on the outside, and the breast meat isn’t too dry.

Sandwich

Readers’ choice: Jason’s Deli, multiple locations

Staff choice: Smoked salmon, Central Market, 4651 W Fwy, FW

Forget tuna, bologna, and even brisket — our nod to the best sandwich in the county is the smoked salmon at Central Market. They pile so many slivers of luscious pink salmon on the bread that you’ll wonder how they make any money (well, you don’t wonder long, when you look around). Red onions and capers are heaped atop the fish, which is dressed with horseradish cream sauce and served on thick, airy Italian bread. This sandwich is large enough for two to share. But after one bite, you won’t want to.

Coffee

Readers’ choice: Starbucks, multiple locations

Staff choice: Coffee Haus, Fort Worth Rail Market, 1401 Jones St, FW

The stuff they pour here is a coffeeholic’s dream. Rich, strong, bursting with Juan Valdez flavor, the Colombian house blend at this locally owned coffee bar — one of three in Tarrant County — is roasted and ground fresh the day before it’s poured into your cup. They’ll add a zinger of espresso to that first cup o’ the day and you’ll be wired ’til dark —a walk down memory lane for those who grew up on boiled coffee that sat on the back of the stove all morning and could walk across the room on its own two legs.

Gourmet Food

Readers’ choice: Central Market, 4651 W Fwy, FW

Staff choice: Central Market & Town Talk Foods, 121 N Beach St, FW

If you have legal access to a Bass family checking account, this is an easy pick. Where else but Central Market could a person find close to a dozen varieties of potatoes, mushrooms, tomatoes, onions, a great wall of greens, 50 breads, 100 olive oils, and several hundred cheeses? Who else but someone with the riches of Midas, however, can afford to shop here but for an occasional splurge or special occasion? A middle-class family forced to consume Central Market fare exclusively would find themselves exquisitely well fed before they wound up in a queue at bankruptcy court. If you live in the real world where a key component to many meals is a budget, you might try the gourmet aisle at Town Talk Foods. For a salvage operation, you can find, hit-or-miss, a good selection of heavily discounted olive oils, exotic mustards, salsas, etc. and still have enough money to pay the gas bill.

Place to Buy Ethnic Food

Readers’ choice: Central Market, 4651 W Fwy, FW

Dining Al Fresco

Readers’ choice: Joe T. Garcia’s, 2201 N Commerce St, FW

Staff choice: The Pegasus, 2443 Forest Park Blvd, FW

West Nile virus notwithstanding, the best place to dine outdoors is The Pegasus. The tidy patio behind the restaurant has only five tables but each one is a winner, providing views of a peeling fresco (oh, how Florentine), a fountain, and verdant greenery. Willow trees, crepe myrtle, and green, green grass make this a terrific place to contemplate the restaurant’s menu of Asian, Middle Eastern, and Spanish tapas and entrées.

Wine List

Readers’ choice: Del Frisco’s, 812 Main St, FW

Staff choice: Bistro Louise. 2900 S Hulen St, FW

Chef/owner Louise Lamensdorf has been pairing good wine and good food at cooking and demonstration classes for years. We will always remember a leisurely dinner with outstanding food and service that fell apart between the entrées and dessert.The server placed entrées on the table and vanished. About 15 minutes later, he reappeared with a loopy smile on his face to inquire about our satisfaction with the entrées (they were perfect). Another 15 minutes later he reappeared, even more giggly, to deliver the check. Sacre bleu, we cried. We want dessert! And an explanation. It seems that Louise had received a new batch of white wines, and the servers were sampling it. Sensing our chagrin, the server brought us full glasses of the four wines they were tasting to accompany the lovely cheese course that finished our meal.

Margarita

Readers’ choice: Joe T. Garcia’s, 2201 N Commerce St, FW

Staff choice: Moctezuma’s, 6209 Sunset Dr off Camp Bowie Blvd, FW

Drinking multiple margaritas in public is something some of us no longer do. If you’re still in that phase — and have a designated driver — hey, knock yourself out. Go to Mi Cocina or almost any restaurant on the North Side. Order them the size of the kitchen sink and puke in the alley afterward. Wheeee. OK, have all those folks left the building? Margarita connoisseurs, listen up: The best margarita in town is made at Moctezuma’s, but not with their top-of-the-line tequila. Would you put 100-year-old single-malt whiskey in a mixed drink? Of course not. The best tequila, the gran reservas, are as smooth and fiery as that, without the nasty aftertaste of cheap tequila shots, and cost up to $35 a shot — another reason not to waste them. For the best margarita, go no higher on the price list than a tequila called Cazadores Reposado ($7 as a straight shot). It makes a beautiful mixed drug — we mean, drink. Is it true that tequila is the only liquor that attacks the central nervous system? That would explain why we don’t do lots of it in public anymore.

Martini

Readers’ choice: Sol y Luna, 900 Houston St, FW

Staff choice: The Chop House, 301 Main St, FW

It doesn’t get much better than this. White tablecloths, soft candlelight flickering against dark-paneled wood, a perfectly chilled, extra-dry martini made with — what else? — gin, a whiff of vermouth and three lusciously fat olives. And, of course there’s Nick and Nora Charles dressed to the nines, entertaining the room with their clever banter at the next table. Okay, that last part was made up. But whether it’s the ambience or the bartender, the martini at the Chop House would have made old Nick proud — except for all those fat olives displacing so much gin.

Cocktail Lounge

Readers’ choice: Tie: Charleston’s, 3020 S Hulen St, FW; Magnolia Station, 600 W Magnolia Av, FW

Staff choice: J&J’s Hideaway, 3305 W 7th St, FW

Stepping foot into J&J’s Hideaway is like walking into a ’70s-era Gino Vannelli song: One moment, you’re an over-the-hill train wreck, and the next, you’re a young, cosmopolitan swinger — all because you’ve let “JJ’s” into your life. The space itself is intimate, the lighting dim, the ceiling high, the carpet dark, and the look is Frank Lloyd Wright on the slopes (the place could be a ski chalet). The deep-brown woodwork all around screams “macramé generation.” There’s typically nothing going on inside except strong martinis, good conversation, and — on great nights — “Memories 96.7” on the radio. Simply, “JJ’s” is cocktail culture the way it should be: swanky, decadent, and oh-so cheesy.

Bar Bar

Readers’ choice: 7th Haven, 2308 W 7th St, FW

Staff choice: Black Dog Tavern, 903 Throckmorton St, FW

While it has the rep as something of a meat market on “good” nights and is best known for its Sunday night jazz jams, in the afternoon to early evening, the Black Dog has the ambience we like in a bar: a cool (when Tad turns on the air conditioning, at least), quiet place where one can take refuge, shoot a round of pool, or disconnect from reality by watching the big-screen tv. Having a hip, eclectic jukebox doesn’t hurt, of course, nor does the fact that Andrea behind the bar will treat you right.

Beer Selection

Readers’ choice: Flying Saucer, 111 E 4th St, FW

Staff choice: The Arlington Bottle Shop, 3000 Meadowbrook Blvd, Arlington

Hang a left at Big Daddy’s in Arlington and drive the extra mile to beer heaven. The beer inventory is so huge it could give brew journalist Michael Jackson (“The Beer Hunter”) wet dreams. They have Russian beer, three Chimay Trappist ales, Australian cider — and Tecaté tallboys. Still not satisfied? Try Starpramen ale from Prague or one of the six beers made by San Antonio’s Yellow Rose brewery. For folks who think that paying more than a buck-a-beer for something that’ll be passed in a hour is ludicrous, Bottle Shop also has the big three: Miller, Budweiser, and Coors.

Fresh Fruit and Veggies

Readers’ choice: Central Market, 4651 W Fwy, FW

Staff choice: Fort Worth Rail Market, 1401 Jones Street, FW

The market boasts not one but two fresh produce peddlers. Jones Street Farmers Market sells mostly fruits and vegetables grown on the family’s farm in Santo. Sante Fe Produce, conveniently located right next door, plies fresh veggies acquired through a co-op. A choice location for folks working downtown, an easy stop at lunch or on the way home at day’s end. Fresh veggies are good; fresh veggies sold in such a competitive arena are better.

Organic Produce

Readers’ choice: Central Market, 4651 W Fwy, FW

Staff choice: Central Market

When it opened this year, Central Market, the all-gourmet grocery concept store by HEB, knocked foodies and eating-out-types on their asses with a mind-numbing array of all things edible. Selecting it as the store with the best selection of organic produce requires no brains whatsoever. Walk through the vegetable aisle and see fresh versions of items we always thought grew in cans, like white asparagus, water chestnuts, and baby corn. Then, be dazzled by the selection of radishes — some six varieties at last count.

Pub

Readers’ choice: Blarney Stone, 904 Houston St, FW

Staff choice: University Pub, 3019 S University Dr, FW

There is nothing extravagant about the University Pub — no extra-loud dance music, no $1 drink nights, not even a scantily clad waitress. Instead, the Pub boasts one of the best jukeboxes in town (everything from Def Leppard to the Old 97’s), cold beer at a fair price (pitchers for $5 or $6 depending on the day), and last year’s Best Bartender, Dave Mitchell, who always offers quick service with a welcoming grin. Despite the sometimes-large crowds during the school year, Dave, as he is known to just about everyone, somehow manages to keep the Pub clean, the service great, and — perhaps more importantly — the beer mugs full.

Bartender

Readers’ choice: Stacey Fayko, 7th Haven, 2308 W 7th St, FW

Staff choice: Jimmy Rodriguez

It’s so hard picking just one. On principle, we gotta give props to the hotties — Stacey at 7th Haven, Angela at the Cellar, Kelly at The Torch. And no best-bartender prize should even be discussed without considering Carl Pack at the Wreck Room. But when we look at who pours the strongest and tastiest drinks, who as far as we know screws up the fewest orders, and who, well, is the best at making you, the drinker, feel “special,” we have to go with Jimmy Rodriguez. Splitting time among Ridglea Theater, The Torch, and the Black Dog Tavern, Rodriguez can serve up libations while carrying on a conversation about his days working in advertising without even messing his, um, hair.

Happy Hour

Readers’ choice: Snookie’s, 2755 S Hulen St, FW

Staff choice: Blue Mesa Grill, 1600 S University Dr, FW

In the West-o-Plex, happy hours are a dime a dozen. Just about every restaurant, hot dog stand, and even a few family barbecue joints seem to have their own little version of after-work celebration. The problem is that most places underestimate the importance of free food. That’s where Blue Mesa Grill is different. With unlimited free quesadillas, nachos, and a host of other delectables (which during any time other than happy hour would cost you a bundle), Blue Mesa is the needle in a haystack of mediocre happy hours. While you are chowing down, pile on top some extra-strong margaritas and a few really cold beers, and you have the best happy hour in Cowtown. Oh, did I mention the food was free? If not, Blue Mesa has free food during happy hour. FREE FOOD.

Coldest Beer

Readers’ choice: Railhead, 2900 Montgomery St, FW

Staff choice: Tanstaafl Pub, 409 N Bowen Rd, Arlington

Large, chilled mugs become encrusted in an outer layer of ice once bartenders Mary Ann, Debbie, and Chester fill them with 16 ounces of tap beer. Several years ago, thermometer tests at a smattering of Tarrant County bars proved what we always suspected — Tanstaafl’s beer is about as cold as it can get without freezing and puts most other bars to shame. And the price is right, with tap domestic beers at $1.75 and imports ranging from $2.75 to $3.50. The great jukebox, live music on weekends, acoustic jam sessions on Thursday nights, and colorful characters at the bar provide interesting atmosphere while washing down the chilly suds.

Cheap Beer

Readers’ choice: 7th Haven, 2308 W 7th, FW

Staff choice: Black Dog Tavern, 903 Throckmorton St, FW

If you want really cheap beer, visit one of the little discount convenience stores around town that sells 18-packs of various near-water brands, such as Keystone Light, for less than $10. At 55 cents a beer, you can drink the whole 18-pack and not hurt the pocketbook, although you’ll be lucky to catch a buzz and you’ll pee more often than a beagle at a tree farm. Black Dog Tavern’s large, frosty mugs of $2 Lone Star allow cheapskates to guzzle all night in a hip downtown Fort Worth club offering excellent live music (and a decent chance at scoring with the opposite sex) for not a lot of money. It’s getting difficult to find Lone Star Beer, even in the state where it’s characterized as the national beer of Texas. We don’t want Lone Star to become extinct, and every mug ordered is kind of like saving a dodo bird. That’s money well spent.

Seafood/Meat Market

Readers’ choice: Central Market, 4651 W Fwy, FW

Staff choice: Central Market

From sausage to shrimp, halibut to hamburger, lamb chops to lobster tails, there is, hands down, no better place to get fresh meat and seafood than Central Market. While some criticize Central Market as little more than an Albertson’s on steroids, those who actually visit the store have found it to be much more. Central Market has more than 100 types of seafood that at one time even included a live 10-lb lobster. But if fish is not your thing, turn 180 degrees from that section, and you will see the nearly 50-foot meat counter. Stocked with more than 30 types of handmade sausage, endless amounts of near-perfect steaks, and just about every other edible meat in the world (including boar, rattlesnake, and even kangaroo), the meat counter can make even the most skeptic Cowtown cattleman drop to his knees in amazement.

Staff Only:

Lunch Bargain

Lonesome Dove Western Bistro, 2406 N Main St, FW

The Stockyards Special is offered during lunch on Tuesday through Saturday — a mere $6 buys a plate of exotic western cuisine created from the imaginative mind of chef and owner Tim Love. The special changes daily, so patrons are never sure what to expect, other than a fresh lunch prepared in an untraditional style. Love was chef at Reata before opening Lonesome Dove in 2000, and his unique method of preparing tacos, chicken salads, roasts, and other entrées makes his lunches a pleasant revelation to the palate and a blessed relief to the wallet (after all, courses served on the lunch special might cost three or four times as much during dinner).

Fries

Fred’s Café, 915 Currie St, FW

Fred’s fries are thick and crispy, golden on the outside and just mealy enough on the inside to let you know that they were once part of an actual potato. Of course, set and setting are important, and funky Fred’s is one of our favorites, as is the estimable Fredburger that these fries usually accompany. They’re even better when dipped in Thai sriracha sauce (a.k.a. “the kickin’ chicken”). Enjoy.

Tamales

Hot Damn, Tamales!, 1401 Jones St, FW

Normally, we steer clear from repeats in the annual Best of the West. But owner Angele Stavron has reinvented this Fort Worth original in the Rail Market and expanded her menu with a changing array of daily specials for lunch. Hot Damn’s standby poblano chicken and its goat cheese and mushroom tamales remain strong favorites. We’re waiting for the holidays to try the seasonal cranberry, jalapeño and pecan combo. There’s no artery-clogging lard in these babies, so the health-conscious can feel a little better about eating a bellyful.

Salad

Kalamatas, 200 Main St, FW

Kalamatas is new — the French/Mediterranean restaurant opened this summer in the Renaissance Worthington — but its inventive salads have already made it a destination for downtown’s lunch crowd. The best of half a dozen charmers? The spinach salad — sharp, almost bitter Asiago cheese is formed into a bowl to cradle oven-dried tomatoes and tender baby spinach; a fresh lemon-basil vinaigrette adds tang. Not for wimpy taste buds.

Host

Brent Johnson, Rio Mambo Tex Mex Y Mas, 6125 Southwest Loop 820, FW

It’s a tough job, restaurant host. Frankly, we have no idea how tough it is; we just know we couldn’t be nice to people all day long, pretending that of course we remember them, and we’re soooo glad they came back to make more ridiculous requests about seating arrangements. For years now, though, we’ve watched Rio Mambo owner Brent Johnson — formerly an owner and front-of-the-house man at Ellington’s Chop House — warmly greet all kinds of wackos (ourselves included), check throughout the meal to make sure everyone’s happy, and solve all manner of problems in his spare time. Sure, any decent host can do that — but cucumber-cool Johnson makes it look easy.

Chef

Jon Bonnell, Bonnell’s, 4259 Bryant Irvin Rd, FW

We expect a lot, foodwise, from a classically trained chef who has slaved over stoves at Reata, Escargot, and New Orleans landmark Mr. B’s. Jon Bonnell delivers even more. At his namesake restaurant in Cityview, open just shy of a year, the Fort Worth native prepares marvelous Southwestern/Creole delicacies like pecan-crusted red snapper. But it’s his extraordinary touch with wild game that compels us to call him brilliant. If Reata wrote the book on ranch cuisine, Bonnell’s is drafting the sequel, with chapters entitled “Grilled South Texas Antelope Chop,” “Pan-Seared Buffalo Tenderloin,” and “Mixed Grill of Venison, Antelope, and Quail.” The restaurant, like the man, is elegant but not snooty. Wear nice clothes and bring the deed to the ranch: The finest in Texas dining doesn’t come cheap.

Non-Traditional Burger

Whole Foods, 801 E Lamar Blvd, Arlington

This one requires assembly and possible dealing with a cashier with multiple tattoos and piercings — and we’re going to make you cook it yourself — but trust us, it’s worth it. Go to Whole Foods’ seafood counter. Acquire fresh salmon patty (ingredients: fat chunks of salmon, red onion, red bell pepper, celery, bread crumbs held together with a honey-dijon dressing). In dairy section, purchase sprouted buns and choice of cheese. In produce, locate the fattest ripe tomato and greens of your choosing. Grill, allowing the cheese to melt as you finish the fish. Assemble. Dress with chipotle mayonnaise.

Wait Staffer

Pancho Gomez, El Paseo Mexican Restaurant, 100 W Main St, Azle

When El Paseo diners hear infectious joking, laughter, and whistling, they know that waiter extraordinaire Pancho Gomez is on the prowl. A career waiter, the 37-year-old Gomez likes nothing better than to provide exquisite service to people while making them feel a little better than they did when they sat down. “He’s happy-go-lucky Pancho; everybody asks for him,” a regular customer said recently. “I’ve never seen him in a bad mood.” Gomez said he loves his job, and it shows. “I’ve waited tables all my life because it’s what I like to do,” Gomez said. “I like meeting friendly people and taking care of them.”

Best in a Field of One

Alex Garcia, Singing Prep Chef, Old Neighborhood Grill, 1633 Park Place Av, FW

Singing waiters are the stuff of nostalgia, but at the Grill, the tradition has been revived — in a delightfully different way. At a nod from owner Peter Schroder, Alex Garcia, the down-home diner’s sweet mannered Latino prep chef, will step out of the kitchen to delight customers with his booming baritone renditions of ballads from his native Mexico or a fractured English version of “Happy Birthday to You.” It’s all great fun, and if you want to be serenaded, or surprise your love, just tell Peter. Alex will appear on cue.

Menudo

Beto Hernandez Foods, 2611 Azle Av, FW

A big bowl of menudo is a popular hangover cure. However, menudo is not strictly for medicinal purposes. When cooked and seasoned correctly, it’s good anytime. Some of the best menudo can be found at Beto’s. A mere $4.50 buys a humongous bowl that only the most famished diners will reach the bottom of. The menudo’s reddish-orange color is inviting, the tripe meat isn’t too chewy or slimy, and there isn’t an overabundance of hominy in the recipe. Diners also get onion, lemon slices and peppers, pico di gallo, moist and tasty tortillas, and a bowl of delightful fresh green salsa.

Buffet

Kazusan Japanese Restaurant, 4932 Overton Ridge Blvd, FW

Ever wangle an invitation to some rich person’s house and then stand there, hungry as hell, and some caterer walks by with a food tray filled with exotic appetizers and asks if you’d like some sushi or shrimp, and the food looks so good that you just want to bonk the server on the head, steal his tray, go sit in a corner, and stuff every last appetizer down your throat? Yeah, us too. An equivalent gorge-fest can be found at this south Fort Worth restaurant. At Kazusan, you can eat all the fresh sushi, shrimp, crab, salmon, and other delicacies that your stomach can hold. Some diners might consider the noon buffet a bit pricey at $12.99, but a hungry person can easily eat $30 or $40 worth of sushi and other delicacies, so it’s a bargain. An added plus — the lunch buffet is available seven days a week.

View from Restaurant

Star Café, 111 W Exchange Av, FW

Numerous downtown Fort Worth restaurants offer their diners pleasant streetscape views, from outdoor patios or indoor tables near windows. Our favorite view, though, is found in the Stockyards at the Star Café, which has three picture windows at the front of the restaurant, each with a small table. These offer bird’s-eye views of passing revelers and tourists near the thriving corner of Main and Exchange. Diners can see patrons filing in and out of the clubs across the street and admire the vintage Leddy’s Boots building on the corner. The picture windows are lined in orange neon, and the windows are made of two-way glass, so passersby are just as likely to gawk at you stuffing a chiliburger down your gullet as you are to stare at them stumbling from too much beer in their bellies while wearing tacky western attire. But that’s part of the fun.

Soul Food

Hatch’s Corner, 6950 Forest Hill Dr, Forest Hill

Set between a dry creek and a car wash, this nondescript little diner has been serving up soul food to the good folks of Forest Hill and environs for 15 years. You have to leave your cholesterol worries at the doorstep when you step in here and smell those down-home odors coming from the kitchen: catfish frying, turnip greens and fat-back bubbling, pork chops, red beans and ham hocks, dirty rice, cornbread, fried chicken, peach cobbler, all ready to dish up. All those memories of a Southern mama’s supper table flood back.

Best-Kept Secret

Mijo’s, 2304 W Park Row Dr, Pantego

We’ve loved this little Tex-Mex restaurant since it opened several years ago, serving wonderfully fresh food, albeit in a dingy little dining room. Through the years, the food has remained as tasty as ever, and the décor has steadily improved. The restaurant lauds the freshness of their food, forbidding the use of animal fats, preservatives, or artificial colors or flavors. Fresh and delicious is Mijo’s mantra, and the restaurant consistently achieves its goal. Their free condiment island includes fresh-made, mouth-watering red and green salsas, along with finely chopped jalapeños and purple onions. For dessert, try the flan or sopapillas, and then maybe wander over to the adjoining coffee bar.

Chicken-Fried Steak

Chop House, 301 Main St, FW

When cravings for superior chicken-fried steak overpower budgetary concerns, few restaurants can match downtown’s Chop House. The steak is prepared fresh on the spot by chef Keith Hicks, who recognizes the heavenly nature of exquisite gravy. Chop House serves traditional sawmill gravy made the right way: Fry up some chicken, de-bone it, and add everything else — including the crust — to the gravy. They use USDA Prime beef, covered in flour, battered, and then rolled in flour again, giving the crust thickness and crunchiness, yet retaining a flavorful moistness underneath.

Mongolian Barbecue

Ton’s Mongolian Grill, 5904 S Cooper St, Arlington.

The closing of Lincoln Square’s Asian Grill has reduced the field in this area considerably. The Genghis Grill restaurants have more condiments and udon noodles, but we take the South Arlington locale for its homier atmosphere, friendly service, and better prices.

Soda Fountain

A Scoop In Time, 412 S Main St, Grapevine.

Per its name, A Scoop In Time — replete with confused teenage counter help still learning about the working world — will inspire heaps of nostalgia. But what this tiny shop lacks in service it more than makes up for in no-frills fountain fare. Sandwiches and burgers suffice, while phosphate sodas and ice cream dishes — particularly the classic hot fudge sundae — take the cake (made fresh by Henry’s in Plano). Just hop on a stool, slurp on a shake, and you might forgive your young server for fumbling for the bill.

Place to Nurse

a Hangover

Aguilera’s Café, 2005 N Grove St, FW

Nursing a hangover wouldn’t be so bad if you could go to your grandparents’ house and have them pamper you — brew coffee, cook up a mess of eggs, bacon, hash browns, and tortillas, and then allow you to sit in semi-silence and recuperate. A hung-over person can pretty much find these same amenities at Aguilera’s Café, where the family of that name has been serving home-cooking in a converted frame house for more than 40 years. In the summer, you can sit next to a window-unit air conditioner with the vent pointed in your direction, and in winter you can nestle close to a gas space heater. The lighting is low, the booths comfortable. Then, after the coffee and eggs relieve that morning-after ache, a little hair of the dog is waiting — cans of ice-cold Coors, Budweiser, and Miller for $1.25.



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