When I’m traveling I seek out what the locals are feeding the locals, says Jon Bonnell, executive chef and owner of two of Fort Worth’s hottest restaurants, Bonnell’s Fine Texas Cuisine and the new Waters: Bonnell’s Coastal Cuisine. He and Dena Peterson, executive chef of Fort Worth’s Café Modern, the light-infused restaurant at The Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, have just served up a special seven-course dinner designed to showcase the Fort Worth culinary scene to a group from all over the United States, including me, from New York City. It has been an evening full of appetizing surprises.
Not so long ago, I recall from previous visits, Fort Worth dining meant choosing steak or Tex-Mex or, maybe, Southern soul food—all full-flavored and in fill-’er-up-size portions. But Jon and Dena, two local chefs who have developed national profiles, crafted this meal without those traditional boundaries. Among the dishes we sampled were a meaty antelope carpaccio, a light yet full-flavored goat-cheese soufflé, a sumptuous venison with a cabernet reduction sauce, and divine whiskey-vanilla milkshakes. The chefs have taken a fresh approach—with ingredients, methods, thinking, menu planning, and wine pairings—and their food pops with flavors and textures at once familiar and satisfying but also adventuresome, intriguingly new, and inviting. I crave seconds, maybe thirds.
So I decide to seek—and taste—more of what they and others in Fort Worth are feeding the locals these days.
Dena assures me, when we talk later, that tradition hasn’t exactly been supplanted. “We have deep roots in Southern food, the cattle industry, and also Tex-Mex,” she says. And she still loooooves tamales. “But now we have influences from Vietnam, Japan, Italy, and all over, so food here has become eclectic.” These days, her favorite tamales (from Hot Damn, Tamales!—a restaurant and mail-order business on trendy Magnolia Avenue) might be stuffed with goat cheese and spinach or wild mushrooms. “I consider my own cuisine global,” Dena adds. “But I use as many local ingredients as possible.” In her kitchen at Café Modern, she makes Middle Eastern-style preserved lemons to brighten her Moroccan Chicken Salad, the café’s most popular dish. “But I find inspiration in my grandmother’s Sunday-dinner menu—fresh vegetables, cornbread, meat—too.” That explains why green tomato fritters with buttermilk dressing turn up on the summer menu. And why you might find classic chicken-fried steak getting a stylish remake as a Chicken-fried Benedict—a tender slice of lightly battered beef atop a buttermilk biscuit with black-pepper hollandaise sauce.
If you were to trail after Dena or Jon on a typical Saturday morning, you—and they—would likely end up at Cowtown Farmers Market, an 87-year-old venture frequented by many of the city’s most popular chefs. It’s also a regular stop for Molly McCook, executive chef and co-owner of Ellerbe Fine Foods. This is the not-so-secret source for ingredients that end up on many local plates, all of it grown or produced by the 400 or so vendors. “What the farmers’ market brings to the table is immense,” says Molly, whose dirty rice, shrimp po’ boys, and andouille sausage speak to her native Louisiana. Of course, she counts on bushels of seasonal produce, “but also cheese, grits, breads, fresh-roasted coffee, and lots more.”
Often, chefs identify local provider brands on their menus, such as Latte Da Dairy goat cheeses from Flower Mound and cow’s milk products from Eagle Mountain Farmhouse Cheese Company in Granbury (whose Saint David’s raclette makes a memorable grilled cheese sandwich with a slather of fig preserves). “This is the fun part of what we do, going to the market ourselves and picking out what we want,” adds Dena, sorting through some baby salad greens. “We have all forged relationships with these farmers.”
Farm-to-table dinners, popular nationwide, have come to Fort Worth along with the locavore movement, which challenges devotees to eat food produced within a small geographical radius. Noting the abundance of squash, tomatoes, melons, beans, cheese, and meat coming from local suppliers these days, Jon Bonnell reckons, “Now a 100-mile dinner wouldn’t be a stretch.” In practice, though, the local larder relies on all of Texas: citrus from South Texas, seafood from the Gulf Coast, olive oil from groves near Victoria, and game meat (boar, several types of venison, and antelope) from sources such as Broken Arrow Ranch in Ingram. It is an inspiring paintbox for food artists, full of colorful, textural choices.
Perhaps no one has experimented with more culinary brushstrokes and broadened the local culinary landscape more than Lanny Lancarte II, chef-owner of Lanny’s Alta Cocina Mexicana. Lanny has colored outside traditional Tex-Mex borders and borrowed boldly from cuisines across the ocean to fashion something you might think of as “Mex-Med.” At least that’s how I’ve come to think of what he does with foie gras (a compote, combined with Mexican piloncillo sugar), corn soup (with a dash of saffron and huitlacoche agnolotti, a pasta similar to ravioli), salmon (pan-fried in a crust of pumpkin seeds), and steak frites (served with spicy chipotle aioli). Lanny, born into the business as the great-grandson of Fort Worth restaurateur Joe T. Garcia, founder of the Tex-Mex classic Joe T. Garcia’s, wasn’t convinced he would stay in the business or how he might fit in. Not until the James Beard Foundation recognized Joe T.’s as one of its 1998 America’s Classics—and Lanny, at the awards gala, rubbed shoulders with star chefs from New York, Chicago, California, and elsewhere—did he start to think about developing his own culinary talents.
Lanny soon immersed himself in culinary travels with the great Mexican food expert Diana Kennedy, absorbing her knowledge of regional cuisines in Oaxaca, Jalisco, and other Mexican states. Then, after studying at the Culinary Institute of America, he interned with Rick Bayless, owner of Frontera Grill and Topolobampo in Chicago, whom Lanny calls “the authority in the States on Mexican regional cooking.” Even-tually, he returned to Fort Worth, where his family at Joe T.’s loaned him a kitchen and a dining room where he and a few chef friends could “bang ideas off each other.” Those ideas matured into the menu offered at Lanny’s Alta Cocina Mexicana today.
As I order sweetbreads with truffles and raisins from the tapas list at Alta Cocina Mexicana, I wonder what I should be drinking. Red or white wine? Bubbles? Wines from Texas? It turns out that the drink selections are diverse too. Lanny offers a tasting menu option that includes a different wine chosen for each course. His guidelines for spicy foods are young, fruit-forward wines; for super-spicy, off-dry rieslings. Ceviches, which are usually acidic thanks to lime juice, pair well with Spanish cava or other sparklers. Of course, it’s a good bet to go with the cabernet or whatever wine the chef has stirred into the sauce—or you can simply ask the staff about their favorites.
Dena Peterson mentions Llano Estacado Winery in Lubbock as one of her favorite Texas producers. “I was a judge at a blind tasting, and it was amazing how high we rated those wines,” she says.
Jon Bonnell, who especially likes the wines produced by Messina Hof, Fall Creek Vineyards, and Becker Vineyards, agrees. “I’m proud of how the Texas wine scene has grown and improved. There are some good niche wines.” He points out tempranillo (great with some of the game meats he features) and viognier as two varietals that grow well in some parts of the state, where viticulturalists have figured out how to match Texas’ challenging soil and climate with specific grapes. Richard King, Ellerbe co-owner and general manager, tells me, “Texas is making some good viogniers. One I really love is from Brennan Vineyards in Comanche. It has a great balance of acidity and weight and it’s very aromatic, so it pairs well with a lot of our salads and some of our seafood dishes.”
This still-young generation of chefs has already emerged into the national arena. North Texas native Tim Love first made a name for himself more than a decade ago when he opened the Lonesome Dove Western Bistro in Fort Worth’s Stockyards District, grilling kangaroo, rattlesnake, elk, rabbit, boar and, yes, beef. He called his style Western urban, keeping the atmosphere casual and the fires stoked—literally and figuratively—which propelled him into guest appearances on some of television’s hottest cooking shows. Soon, he branched out into other restaurant ventures, including a burger joint called The Love Shack and the Woodshed Smokehouse, the latter nestled in a nook along the banks of the Trinity River.
As I hop around enjoying all the local food, I appreciate the spirit of revitalization these chefs bring to their neighborhoods. It spreads: A string of worthy restaurants along Magnolia Avenue enlivens the historic Fairmount neighborhood, where Molly and Richard repurposed a 1920s gas station to house Ellerbe. Yet another string of eateries grows along West 7th, linking the Cultural District to downtown, where Lanny Lancarte turned a sun-splashed house into his restaurant’s new home. I like discovering that Dena’s sous chef Alan Huang, who makes a memorable white mole sauce to accompany ropa vieja (a traditional Mexican shredded-beef dish that resembles a jumble of old clothes, hence the name), came to her from the kitchen of Dallas überchef Dean Fearing. And I feel especially reassured when—despite all the innovation they bring to their menus—Jon, Lanny, and Dena collectively whittle down their kitchen essentials to pecans, tomatoes, and chile peppers. “Any chef in Fort Worth must be able to use a jalapeño five ways,” jokes Jon. “The guacamole recipe comes on the back of your birth certificate.”
But then he gets serious for a moment. “Fort Worth food is not cutting-edge stuff that will go away next year,” says Jon. “I feel like it is timeless. And I don’t want to put anything on my menu that won’t be there in three years.”
I’m counting on that.