Dallas cafe stumps would-be critic with chip on his shoulder

AllGood Cafe, located in Dallas' historic Deep Ellum district.

By STEPHEN J. O'BRIEN
Waco Tribune-Herald staff writer

There comes a time in every reporter's life when objectivity gets in the way of what they really think. I, for one, would have had trouble fairly reporting on pro-Nazi testimony during the Nuremberg trials. And so we fast-forward to a recent July afternoon in downtown Dallas. My job was simple: write a restaurant review about the "AllGood Cafe". Sounds easy enough. A quiet diner on Main Street in the middle of the city's historic Deep Ellum district. I'd walked past it before. Good location. Plenty of parking. Prices, from what I'd seen, were reasonable enough.

But this was personal. A week earlier, my editor had pointed out a newspaper ad for the "AllGood Cafe." While pitching its down-home cooking and relaxed atmosphere, the ad used an insulting phrase if you're from around here. "It's Like Goin' To Austin without having to pass thru Waco!" Yes, to top it off, that's an exclamation point. Gratuitous rudeness, one local called it. "You know goin’ and thru aren't really words?" I said to owner Mike Snider when I walked in that Sunday afternoon.

"We're just trying to have a little fun," he said.We'll see about having fun, I thought. Wait until I get THROUGH biting into an under-cooked burger, chomping on a stale chip or tasting a flat fountain drink. You, Mr. Snider, and your "AllGood Cafe" will pay.

"I like the interior," my girlfriend, Suzanne, said as we plopped ourselves down at a booth near the front window.

"I don't want to hear it," I said.

Our waitress, Jen, came to take our drink orders before we even had a chance to get comfortable. Sure, this might sound like a good thing if you're thirsty, but I thought it was too quick. I usually like five or ten minutes to think about what I'm going to drink. She brought back a glass of ice with a can of Dr Pepper — instead of a fountain-mixed drink. On any other occasion, this would have unquestionably been the preferable way to have a Dr Pepper (it ensures the syrup mixture is perfect). For the purposes of this story, though, I've decided it requires way too much work for the customer to pour the drink into the glass himself.

"Are y'all ready to order?" Jen said the next time she dropped by.

"Is any of this good?" I asked skeptically.

"Yeah. We're probably best known for our huevos rancheros, but the B.L.T. and the King Ranch Chicken are really popular, too," she said.

Suzanne ordered the huevos rancheros. (Incidentally, Jen told Suzanne she had pretty eyes, a comment I would tend to agree with but one I think was a little inappropriate for someone who was just supposed to be getting us food. Jen clearly was kissing up for a good tip.) Then I ordered. But don't worry, I went with something she hadn't mentioned: the grilled cheese with green chiles, roasted Roma tomato and chipotle mayonnaise. Served on sourdough bread, it sounded good, but you can only dress up melted cheese so much.

"Good choice. It's delicious," Jen said. "I think you'll like it."

When she walked away, Suzanne mentioned it's nice when a waiter or waitress says you've made a good choice. I tried to convince her it was all a ploy to get tip money out of us. No one's really that nice. And, most of all, the food couldn't be that good.

"I like good food," Snider said when we talked later. "So I figure if we make it like I like it, it'll be good. I'm just doing what I like and hoping everyone else likes it." Snider, who once managed and owned Pelican's in Waco, talked about his anti-Waco slur. It's an attempt at humor, he said. The main message he's trying to convey is that his diner, open six days a week with live entertainment on the weekends, is more Austin than Dallas. Big-D, as he describes it, gets caught up in the rat race a little too much. It's all about what kind of car you're driving, what kind of clothes you're wearing and what kind of watch you've got on, he said. That's why his cafe's motto is "Make Love Not Money."

"Don't get me wrong, we want to make money," he said. "But sometimes in Dallas it seems like that's all people think about." Snider reassured me the Waco comment was just to get a few laughs — and emphasize how far Dallasites have to go to enjoy a laid-back, Austin-style eatery. There's nothing wrong with Waco, he insisted. "I lived there for two years," he said. "I don't have anything against it."

The AllGood menu is a combination of old-style Southern cooking with a Southwestern flair. There's gravy-smothered pork chops, chicken-fried steak, herb-roasted chicken and traditional meatloaf. Dishes like the grilled cheese with green chiles, the huevos rancheros, and the sour-cream enchiladas give the menu its Austin-style, spicy kick.

Besides the "Make Love Not Money" saying, there are other oddly creative things about the restaurant. On the menu, the word "beast" is used for meat. So your three-egg omelette might include pepper jack cheese, mushrooms, tomatoes and your choice of any beast: pork sausage, peppered bacon or country ham. The diner refers to its chicken-fried steak as the "world's best." There was also the "savory" meatloaf, the "ultimate B-L-T" and "Baked Idahos."

"We're doing a lot to create a scene with the atmosphere," manager Belinda Biggerstaff said. "A lot of it has to do with being in Deep Ellum vs. being in Plano or North Dallas."

When our food came out (just a few minutes after we ordered) I hadn't even worked up an appetite. I would suggest the wait staff and managers slack off, quit being so nice and make customers wait. That way the "AllGood Cafe" will fit in with most other restaurants in Dallas.

Despite this overly attentive service, I have to admit something: the grilled cheese exploded with flavor. It seemed the "AllGood Cafe" had done the impossible by making melted cheese and bread exciting. Then I started thinking — once again, in light of the restaurant's anti-Waco ad — that the grilled cheese really is bad. It should be a boring, tasteless sandwich so customers won't be surprised.

Suzanne said her huevos rancheros dish was cooked to perfection, with the over-medium eggs at just the right consistency and served on a crisp, tasty tostado. The meal included black beans, pico de gallo and pappas (grilled potatoes).

I tried a bite and have to admit it wasn't bad at all. In fact, after I was done with my grilled cheese, which came with chips, cole slaw and a pickle, I devoured what was left on her plate.

With a healthy tip (I felt sorry for Jen), our bill was still under $20.

"I don't think that's very expensive at all," Suzanne said as we left. "And it was the perfect amount of food."

Perfect. Even though I hate to admit it.

Stephen O'Brien can be reached at sobrien@wacotrib.com or at 757-5722.