STARCHEFS: JUDGE FROM OUTSIDE -- GET IT WRONG
Updated: Feb 2
by Andrew Chalk
If you judge restaurants in your hometown you risk getting it wrong, including omitting restaurants that deserve inclusion. If you are judging some other citizen’s city, the risk is a multitude greater. Knowing this, the most perilous thing is to claim that you have the ability to recognise “Rising Stars” from someone else’s city.
Such obvious warnings are oblivious to Starchefs, a pretentious New York organization that you should not trust to give you directions to the Empire State Building. They have been anointing the rising stars in cities around America and recently covered Dallas Rising Stars. It appears they handed the job over to their B-Team.
Most problematic is their category of “Concepts”. Here they have listed Heim Barbecue. Now, I love Heim and was particularly pleased when they jumped, if not the shark, the Trinity River, to open on Mockingbird in Dallas (and I hope that fire-damaged location reopens soon). However, great traditional Texas barbecue is what Heim is, without apology. It is a success exactly because it is not a new “concept”. Small wonder that the B-team at Starchefs does not have a word explaining its concept or justifying its choice as a rising star concept.
The error is doubly bad because staring them in the face, just up the road, was the most revolutionary barbecue concept in years. Oak’d is what hundreds of barbecue places are going to look like in the next few years. It’s large, clean, modern, but absolutely observant to the commandments of Texas barbecue. Call it New Barbecue Shack.
Outside, tens of thousands of dollars in Oyler wood-fired smokers are assiduously tended by pit boss Nathan Morison, one of head-chef/owner Michael Lane’s longest-term employees. The brisket is prime beef or Rosewood wagyu (Oak’d is their largest customer, and they are increasing their herd over a five-year period to serve Oak’d’ and others with expanded sales). The oak is Texas barbecue’s signature post oak.
Inside, the side dishes are first class menu selections, not the usual predictable steam tray timeservers. So the coleslaw is apple cider infused, the Brussels sprouts ‘enameled’ with balsamic such that they glint in the patio light. More divertingly, Quinoa (which I still pronounce wrong) makes a regular appearance. Of course, you can’t get your Sales Tax Certificate from the State of Texas as a barbecue joint if you don’t have mac-n-cheese but, even with this staple, Lane cannot leave well enough alone and finishes it (the mac-n-cheese, not the Sales Tax Certificate) with a smoked poblano-panko crust. The heretical sub-concept here is that there are enough people out there who want their traditional favorites subjected to the Skunk Works of Culinary Transmogrification and will come back for more.
And if you are a denizen of the banana cream pie (or similar) ubiquitous at barbecue joints across the state, then marvel at the white table cloth mastery behind the half dozen homemade desserts at Oak’d. Another category promotion to first class menu status.
Finally, the really-good-bar rounds out the New Barbecue Shack concept: Local beer, Texas wine, stiff mixed drinks from national brands or Texas brands like Garrison and Balcones.
All of these tweaks are astonishingly packaged into reasonable prices that ordinary city folks can afford for lunch or dinner. They like it so much that Oak’d is opening a second site (COVID permitting).
Note that the New Barbecue concept won’t replace places like Zavala’s, which justifyingly got a Rising Star award for its barbecue, but will stand beside them because the big trend, which seems to have escaped Starchefs, is that you increasingly don’t have to go to Texas for Texas barbecue any more. Texans smoke meat in London (and maybe New York) now. And in North Texas (places like Dallas-Fort Worth) you don’t have to go down to Central Texas for good Texas barbecue any more. Good Texas barbecue, probably starting a decade ago with Pecan Lodge, has popped up in the north (and south - Houston).
Other concepts get rubbished over in these awards as well. Where is influential Graham Dodds, who brought farm-to-table to Dallas at Bolsa (RIP) 20 years ago and still, rightly, gets all the media attention with his crazy ideas today? In this case, the vegetarian charcuterie board at Elm & Good. He should have been a Game Changer Chef.
Think of Starchefs as farchefs. Distant observers from a different, and higher-taxed, galaxy, looking down the wrong end of a telescope at a tapestry and seeing the label with the cleaning instructions.