In the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex, three service stations reinvent themselves as fine restaurants
By Tracy Begland
I recently became aware of three repurposed service stations in the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex that have raised the bar on roadside dining, boasting accolades from Food Network stars Paula Deen and Guy Fieri, winning awards from D Magazine and Bon Appétit, and generally amazing diners with cuisine more often found at restaurants whose decor doesn’t include self-serve pumping bays. Too good to be true? My husband, Mike, and I hit the highway to investigate.
The exterior of the Chef Point Cafe, north of Fort Worth in Watauga, offers a mere hint of the gourmet gem within: Next to the pumping bays, a Conoco sign lures in motorists with “Regular, Diesel, and the Best Bread Pudding.” But inside the bustling dining room, the evening’s specials—whole red snapper and New York strip stuffed with Canadian bacon and smoked cheese—stop us in our tracks. Though it’s early on a Wednesday night, diners fill every table.
Chef Franson Nwaeze is checking on customers, and he stops by to visit. A former chef trainer for Macaroni Grill, Nwaeze tells us that he had dreamed of opening his own restaurant for years, and when a partially constructed gas station came up for sale, he jumped at the chance to roll the dice. With a million-dollar loan, he opened his gas-station-restaurant with only one modification—a kitchen. “I had four tables,” Nwaeze says. “Then I got a small newspaper write-up. The next day, I had a line that wrapped around the building. We ran out and bought some plastic tables and chairs. That was the creation of Chef Point Cafe.” Wood has replaced the plastic, but there’s not a white tablecloth to be found.
Leftovers in hand, we accept reluctantly that we can’t sample the other twenty entrées on the menu.
For the café’s appearance on Guy Fieri’s show Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives, Nwaeze served his time-intensive duck à l’orange, and so Mike—who orders this rich dish every chance he gets—is intrigued. A delicious crisp skin encases the boneless duck breast and thigh, which are topped with a tangy sauce of citrus, tomatoes, and fresh basil. My husband grins his approval. “It’s the last thing you’d expect at a gas station,” Mike says.
I order the popular pork chop stuffed with crab. Chef Nwaeze created the entrée after chatting with a customer about her favorite dish. When he added his own twist, a creamy asiago sauce, Nwaeze says “she went crazy.” I can see why. The juicy chop, seasoned with Cajun spices and stuffed with a rich crab mixture and pepper-jack cheese, is served on a bed of angel hair pasta—a delicious combo. Stomachs full and leftovers in hand, we accept reluctantly that we can’t sample the other 20 entrées on the menu.
Next, we travel south of downtown Dallas to the Bishop Arts District, home of Bolsa, which won D Magazine’s restaurant-of-the-year award in 2009. This hip neighborhood hangout occupies a former garage opened in 1946 by World War II machinist Bill Settles, who literally built the business cinderblock by cinderblock. The Settles Garage sat on the Dixie Overland Highway (parts of which are now US 80), which once carried drivers from Georgia to California. Today, US 80 terminates east of Dallas, but the three original red garage doors still welcome customers.
The heart of Bolsa beats outside on its patio. A slatted wooden roof shades picnic tables with comfy orange-cushioned benches. Three large windows connect the patio to the bar inside and the world of craft cocktails. Bartender Jonathan Kencht is happy to talk as he mixes up a bourbon-based Kentucky Colonel for Mike and a saffron- and pineapple-infused vodka cocktail known as the Golden Child for me.
Bolsa recalls a time when creating cocktails was an art. Though the bartenders incorporate new ingredients like pink peppercorns and rhubarb bitters, cocktails are built upon the foundation of the classics. “These days, bartenders have to know how to make pre-Prohibition cocktails with ingredients like absinthe and mescal and egg whites,” Kencht tells me.
Happy hour is even more crea-tive on Wednesdays. Facebook fans submit cocktail ingredients, the crazier the better. “We’ve made drinks with salmon, watermelon, and even pistachios,” Kencht says. “The challenge is to create a drink the whole restaurant will enjoy.” Recently, Kencht blended chocolate-chip-cookie dough with vodka to create a popular cocktail called Milk and Cookies.
The cuisine is as fresh as the cocktails. My roasted asparagus salad arrives with horseradish cream, arugula, and candied hazelnuts. Mike’s roasted pork tenderloin, tender and pink, rests next to a salad of fingerling potatoes and a side of whole roasted okra. We enthusiastically split Bolsa’s signature dessert, a white chocolate rum tart topped with brûléed bananas.
Our final stop finds us at Fort Worth’s Ellerbe Fine Foods, one of Bon Appétit’s best new restaurants for 2010.
The patio—once a portico to shelter gas pumps and full-serve attendants— now holds tables surrounded by herbs growing in galvanized troughs. Though inviting, we step into the comfortable yet elegant dining room. Fresh-cut flowers and rosemary share a vase centered on our table, covered by both butcher paper and a white tablecloth. We sit below the original skylight that once provided natural light for hardworking mechanics.
Co-owners Richard King and Chef Molly McCook moved into the 1920s building several years ago and began an extensive renovation. “There was no roof, but the building had great bones and great heart,” says King. McCook explains the concept of their farm-to-table restaurant. “I wanted to serve fresh, innovative food using local Texas ingredients whenever possible. I didn’t want to focus on how high I could stack a salad or how many crazy ways I could cook a chicken. My idea was to let the food shine and speak for itself.”
The Farmer’s Market Salad includes tomatoes from the Scott farm in Cisco, green bell peppers from Bowie’s Carter Farms, and arugula from Cox’s Farms in Azle. My poached-pear popover features fruit grown in Poolville. As my fork slices the house-made puff pastry, the aroma of Swiss raclette fills the air.
Now we face a difficult decision: the main course. McCook describes the seafood entrée. “Right now, black-eyed peas are in season. We quickly sauté them with cabbage, onion, and bacon to make a warm salad. Paired with a cornmeal-crusted redfish topped with crawfish etouffée, it’s my play on the summer fish fry.” I’m sold.
Before I can reply, my husband nabs the redfish but fortunately agrees to share. I select the Chef’s Choice Steak, recently awarded the city’s best steak by Fort Worth Weekly. Simply seasoned with salt, pepper, and a tart spice mix called za’atar, the sirloin is worthy of its accolades. I enjoy the deconstructed baked potato—a combination of new potatoes, cheddar cheese, pancetta, and green onion crème fraîche—just as much.
We celebrate journey’s end with homemade mint ice cream. The fresh mint flavor comes from five varieties of mint growing in the troughs bordering the patio. Its companion, a scoop of Schoki-nag dark chocolate ice cream, is moussey with an intense, rich flavor.
Some Ellerbe customers still remember the original Texaco station and its owner. “He’s been in here,” King says. “He’s not a big foodie, but he was thankful someone took the building and made it another good business.”
As for me, I’ll never look at a roadside service station the same way again.
Chef Point Cafe is at 5901 Watauga Rd. in Watauga. Call 817/656-0080.
Bolsa is at 614 W. Davis St. in Dallas. Call 214/367-9367.
Ellerbe Fine Foods is at 1501 W. Magnolia Ave. in Fort Worth. Call 817/926-3663.