My grandmother and grandfather had their first date at a Mexican restaurant in Oak Cliff, just south of downtown Dallas, after the end of World War II. These days, there are still plenty of Mexican restaurants to be found in this rapidly gentrifying part of town, but it's now also home to an eclectic mix of restaurants and stores known as the Bishop Arts District. Bolsa ("bag" in Spanish) is one of those restaurants, housed in a converted auto body shop that feels as much a holistic part of the neighborhood now as the former garage must have once been.
After a lackluster lunch at Little Sichuan Cuisine earlier that day and a dinner at new Henderson hotspot Sissy's on Friday night that I'd describe as oddly underwhelming, I honestly didn't hold out much hope for Bolsa -- despite the fact that the Dallas Observer has given it a slew of awards in its own yearly Best Of issue, awards such as Best Patio, Best Place to Take a Date, Best Pizza by Another Name, Best Coffee, et cetera.
I do love being proved wrong, though. Bolsa blew me away. Mostly because it's the antithesis of everything I dislike about Dallas.
It's long been said that while Dallas is the pretty sister with the ugly personality, Houston is the homely sister with the fun personality.
These days, with its fancy new suspension bridge and nightly light show at the Omni Hotel downtown and seemingly endless corridors of hip restaurants and cocktail bars, Dallas feels like that sister is trying ever harder even as her limited personality wears thinner. (See the infamous Dallas Observer cover story from now-departed food critic Hanna Raskin, "How Dallas Became a Dining Nowhereville," for more on this worrisome trend.) She's covered in layers of makeup, jangly jewelry and loud clothes -- and even though she's still exceptionally pretty, it's all just a bit much.
That's how I felt dining at Sissy's on Friday night -- as with Down House in Houston, everything about the place seemed forced, from the attire of the servers to the twee antique plates. And, honestly, it's hard to get me worked up about expensive buckets of fried chicken when I've got Frenchy's back home.
But Bolsa -- far removed from the hustle of the Henderson bar scene, from Deep Ellum or Lower Greenville, from Uptown or Oak Lawn -- is just comfortable, relaxed and at ease with itself. Its menu under Chef Jeff Harris is short and simple, mostly focusing on seasonal ingredients (whether they're seasonal here or not, it should be noted. See: ramps) and local products like Veldhuizen cheese, quail from Diamond H Ranch and craft brews from Deep Ellum Brewing Company.
I indulged in all three of these things with my father over dinner at Bolsa on Sunday night, with some of those ramps alongside baby carrots and succulent pork cheeks and a flatbread topped with salty, creamy goat cheese, peppery arugula and roasted grapes. Those roasted grapes popped with a mature sweetness that blended seamlessly with the scant other ingredients, an exercise in the way restraint can lead to gloriously grown-up flavors.
In addition to simply enjoying the dishes on their own merits -- the slightly crisped up skin of the roasted quail, the deep flavors of the Burgundy-accented pork cheeks -- it was refreshing to visit with ingredients that speak to their city. Where Dallas often falters is in trying to be too much like other cities: Los Angeles, New York, Miami -- any place but Dallas.
But at Bolsa, I got an authentic feel for Dallas in the citrusy hop of my Deep Ellum IPA and in the pork cheeks that reflect the hog hunting traditions of North Texas. I felt a connection with my own home state in that South Texas quail, in the cheeses that come from where West Texas begins to stretch out toward the mountains.
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And as I looked around the restaurant at the relaxed, happy faces, I got the sense that I was dining with people who cared equally and passionately about the cuisine. These were not scenesters; they were just -- in the immortal words of my favorite character in Ever After -- "here for the food." I felt a deep and sincere connection with Dallas that I'd been missing for many years.
And that's saying a lot for a native Houstonian. Such is the power of simple, honest food; such is the power of Bolsa.