Category Archives: Review

Meals on Wheels: The Original Door Dash

Meals awaiting delivery

In August 2019, People Newspapers published my story about Meals on Wheels.  I have the honor of serving on the VNA/Meals on Wheels Board of Directors and wanted a way to promote our Drive Away Hunger campaign. My idea was to “review” the meals eaten by more than 4,500 Dallas residents who receive Meals on Wheels (MOW) daily.  The reaction I got from folks when I told them I was going to eat MOW for a week was pity, curiosity and, in some cases, borderline disgust.  I was undeterred.

In August of this year, I learned that my article on Meals on Wheels earned third place in the National Association of Newspapers Buster Awards for Best Feature.  I’m delighted to share this article and you can also follow this link to read the version that ran in People Newspapers.  

“Hello, my name is Elaine*. I just want to let you know that my mother really enjoyed it her meal Friday.  It was the Honey-glazed Turkey with Au Gratin Potatoes and Brussels Sprouts and she told me over and over how delicious it was and to be sure and tell the chef how much she appreciated it. Though we didn’t know it at the time, that was mom’s last Meals on Wheels delivery. She succumbed to cancer two days later. I wanted to be sure to pass along her ‘compliments to the chef’ and to say thanks to Meals on Wheels for being my mom’s lifeline for so long.”

Between Pinterest boards filled with edible works of art to “instagramworthy” meals to “food porn,” thanks to technology, food has been objectified to the point in which many of us have practically forgotten its value. I get it – my “phone eats first” and I can spend 10 minutes trying to get the perfect Instapic of shards of Maldon Sea Salt artfully arranged on a juicy red tomato. I have a healthy preoccupation with food and feel lucky to be able to write about it for this paper. This month, I’m not going to feature a new restaurant, I’m going to feature an old one: Meals on Wheels Dallas County which is about 40 years old.

Meals on Wheels is the original Door Dash with employees and volunteers canvassing the Dallas area Monday through Friday to deliver meals to 4,500 clients for whom their daily delivery of food, a friendly face and a kind word is a lifeline. Many MOW clients have health issues so providing nutritious, balanced meals on such a large scale and tight budget is challenging. If you’re reading this in a newspaper that was delivered to your home, chances are you live in an affluent area and are unlikely to be food insecure.  But have you ever wondered about what kind of food is prepared and delivered on such a large scale five days a week?  Maybe not but I hope you do, if just this once.

With the help of Dr. Ashley Lind, the VP of Meals on Wheels and Population Health, I ate four meals to gain insight into the value of Meals on Wheels to homebound seniors. It was an eye-opening experience, not because the food was especially good or especially bad, but because it allowed me to appreciate food in a way I haven’t in years.

Monday: Swiss Steak with Whipped Potatoes and Italian Green Beans

I approached the first meal as a novelty. The ground beef patty was juicy and flavored well with hint of sautéed onion. All meals must be low sodium, so the whipped potatoes and green beans tasted like not much until I added salt. Everything had good texture.

Tuesday: King Ranch Chicken with Steamed Broccoli and Carrots

The King Ranch Chicken was really tasty! It was a little spicy, in fact, and had big chunks of white-meat chicken in a cheesy sauce. The broccoli and carrots were cooked but not mushy and needed salt.  Without realizing it, I ate the entire meal in four minutes. As I walked out of the VNA Haggarty Center, it occurred to me that I inhaled that meal as if I was just checking a box and not feeding my body and soul. I started to cry as I walked to my car.

Wednesday: Turkey Tetrazzini with Brussels Sprouts and Vegetable Medley

My favorite meal so far, the pasta with chunks of tender turkey meat was full of flavor with a hint of spice. I wondered how they can make 4,500 plates of pasta and have it not become mush. Honestly, I didn’t eat the Brussels Sprouts. I’m sorry mom, I never liked them.

Thursday: Homestyle Meatloaf with Garlic Mashed Potatoes and

Herbed Green Beans

I think the Meatloaf is about the same as the Swiss Steak but with more tomato and seasoning. The meatloaf was tender but not mushy, the green beans were cooked just right with a little snap left in them and more flavorful than previous vegetable offerings. The mashed potatoes only had a hint of garlic and when I finished the trapezoid-shaped mound, I realized I hadn’t eaten mashed potatoes since last Thanksgiving, and I’d eaten them twice this week.  “How ironic, I thought.”

I’m so fortunate, most of us are, to afford high-quality food and spent time and money dining out with our friends. We can order what we want; throw out what we don’t. We have so many choices, too many sometimes, on what and where to eat. We can celebrate food with photos and hashtags and beautiful creations made from watermelon and a paring knife  – and we should! I hope, too, that we will be aware of those who are food insecure, lonely and rely on that daily delivery of Meals on Wheels as one of their few remaining connections to socialization, sensorial pleasure and nourishment for their bodies.

I say I’m not a critic, I’m a storyteller but I’ll summarize the meals this way: They’re better than airplane food, WAY better than the Frank Crowley Courts Building Cafeteria you’re stuck with for jury duty and better than starving, which is the alternative to Meals on Wheels delivery.

DIVE INTO THE LIGHT: FRANCHESCA NOR

Song Pairing: In the Light by Led Zepplin

When she was 30 years old, Franchesca Nor had her first baby, an aqua, navy and seafoam progeny she named Dive Coastal Cuisine. In 2016 she delivered something even more special, her son Archer James. Today, they have each matured and evolved; provided food for the body, soul and heart; and given back.

Cauliflower pizza

Dive continues to be a Park Cities restaurant phenom, serving fresh, sustainable, non-GMO, organic salads, seafood and sandwiches to families, locals and notable chefs alike. Chef/Owner Franchesca has beaten the odds as a restauranteur a few years before her 40th birthday. Though she is well educated and trained, she graduated top of her class at Johnson & Wales culinary school and has worked in virtually every position in a restaurant, she doesn’t directly attribute her blessings to those things. Rather, she says she is where she is today because she’s always believed in her passion and vision, she’s taken a non-traditional path, and allowed herself to make mistakes and learn from them. She’s loyal and believes in taking care of those who take care of you.

Franchesca and her business partner, Victor

Dive has more than 25 employees, many of whom have been there since Day 1, an almost unheard-of feat in the high-turnover restaurant business. The high quality, well-prepared food guests have enjoyed year after year is largely due to consistency in the kitchen. Franchesca’s exacting standards in food quality and preparation are understood by every member of her team and she credits them for Dive’s loyal customer base. In fact, when I asked her what her what she loves most about this business, she paused and got a little choked up. “I’m feeding 25 families,” she said referring to her employees and their families. “That’s the most fulfilling thing about this.”

“You are a leader if your actions create a legacy that inspires others to dream, learn and become more.” This was the daily affirmation that happened to pop up on my phone the day I interviewed Franchesca at Dive, where I devoured her new Grilled Peach and Prosciutto Pizza on cauliflower crust, and she inhaled her Tuna Melt. When she told me about the work she does with Youth With Faces, a Dallas-based organization that provides practical life and work skills to youth in the juvenile justice system, the quote immediately came to mind. By any definition, Franchesca is a leader. She and others help the teens discover a passion, purpose and a view of their potential far bigger than what their environments have offered so far. She introduces new foods, like the time she served a group of uneasy teens quinoa and calamari (they loved it) and has written and cataloged recipes for the program. She recently was invited to join the Dallas chapter of Les Dames d’Escoffier, an international philanthropic group for women in the culinary arts.

Franchesca and me at her Les Dames d’Escoffier Induction

Throughout our lunch, Franchesca was full of optimism, passion and light, appropriate since her surname means ‘light” in Arabic. She exudes gratitude and stokes a dream that will go beyond Dive’s current footprint. Her priority today, of course, is Archer; a little boy who, she humblebrags, prefers to chew leaves from his mama’s backyard chocolate peppermint plant rather than bubblegum.

This article originally appeared in the July 2019 edition of People Newspapers.

LET’S GATHER TOGETHER AT GATHER KITCHEN

Song Pairing: Pretty Woman, the Roy Orbison version

In mid-bite of a fried green tomato slathered with creamy chipotle mayo, it hit me: Soraya Spencer is Julia Robert’s twin. Soraya’s gigantic smile, sparkly brown eyes, vivid with passion, and her animated speech conveys the eager, kind and hopeful Vivian Ward in Pretty Woman; the sweet but gritty girl seeking a better life and taking care of others seeking the same along the way. That is Soraya Spencer and her Gather Kitchen business model.

Soraya Spencer
Photo courtesy of Gather Kitchen

Soraya’s story has been told before but I only read them before meeting her in the bright, communal feeling Gather Kitchen in Preston Center. She’s originally from Algeria and lilts a lovely accent which sounds French-ish, she’s well-traveled, well-educated and lives the American Dream with her husband, son and Gather Kitchen family in Dallas. I visited her space on Luther Lane that’s been open since August, though word of its presence just reached me in April.

EAT

New menu items for Gather Kitchen launched in early May and include the Crepe Taco, a nod to her French culinary education, and the Gather Burger, a grass-fed beef burger spiced with Ras El Hanout among other things, that’s stuffed with sweet potato fries. Also new are the aforementioned Fried Green Tomatoes, coated in gluten-free panko crumbs, tapioca flour and spices. They are served with a chipotle mayo that was perfected after more than 30 attempts. Soraya had never tasted chipotle before coming to Dallas, but she whipped them together with boiled cashews, almond milk and other ingredients to come up with this condiment masterpiece that I will order as a side for sweet potato fries on my next visit.

Poke Bowl
Photo courtesy of Gather Kitchen

My favorite item on the menu is the poké bowl. I normally avoid doing the hokey poké because its ubiquity makes me really wonder how fresh the tuna is at all these places, but I acquiesced here, fortunately. Gather Kitchen’s take demonstrates Soraya’s brilliant ability to combine flavors and textures. Her travels and training combined with an innate talent for taste were summarized for me in this dish. The combination of the spicy wasabi, kiwi, oily rich tuna punctuated with crunchy nori and togarashi and ginger, cooled by cucumbers and smoothed by avocados was refreshing, exciting and comforting all at once.

DRINK

In keeping with her approach to serving clean, healthy food, there is no soda or alcohol on the menu. Rather, “Wellness” concoctions such as the Immune Boost with lemon, ginger, honey and cayenne and Cacao Baby with raw cacao, raw maple syrup, almond milk, vanilla and Himalayan salt are served hot or cold. An assortment of waters, kombucha and lemonade are also available, as is coffee. Alcohol is served at the Boozy Brunch every Saturday morning.

BE

The vibe at Gather Kitchen Preston Center is very down-to-earth. Warm but sparse décor, exposed brick and woody tables make it feel a little a little Magnolia Market-y, feminine but not girly, strong but not harsh. Like Soraya, I suppose. She’s gathered a team of underdogs to run her restaurants, folks who are enjoying second chances and third acts. Men and women with scars inside and out, with tough breaks and heart breaks in various stages of healing. She requires survival for herself, also a victim of abuse, and her team. She coaches, trains, mentors and leads. She believes and loves and is loved back. As we were wrapping up our meeting, a former employee came in to pick up some food for take away. I can’t tell how old she was, sometimes life makes you look and feel older than you are. She stopped to speak with Soraya, and they gave each other words of encouragement and advice. Then the older woman kissed Soraya on the top of her head, a motherly, tender gesture that almost made me cry with its sweetness.

Gather Kitchen is a place to nourish your body and soul. Clean, healthy food with flavor combined with a positive mission should be a winning combination. Her space on Luther Lane has turned over a few times, which is why I am asking you to try this restaurant. Give it a chance, check it out and support this local gem of a restaurant and the pretty woman who owns it.

UPDATE: Gather Kitchen closed the Preston Center location. The Downtown location remains open and thriving.

SKINNY FATS: WORTH THE PRAISE

Song Pairing: Praise You by Fatboy Slim

Opposites attract, don’t they? At least they do at SkinnyFATS, a new fast-casual restaurant in the West Village that rolled in from Las Vegas last month. SkinnyFATS is the invention of Reed Slobusky, a Big Lebowski Dude-looking dude with a talent for developing a stand-out concept and an eye for design. Reed’s irreverence is on full display throughout the menu, with item names like “Stuff On Curry,” “Thai Knee Dancer,” and “More Cow Bowl” and in the décor, with the word MALONE written on an imposing structural post near the beverage bay. (If you don’t know what that reference means, ask your teen). 

Have you ever seen someone order a triple cheeseburger, large fries and a Diet Coke? Makes sense, right? Splurge on some things and go easy on others. SkinnyFATS gives you essentially the same choice – go healthy or go happy but with flavorful, innovative options on each side of the menu.

Sweet Cheese Us

The menu is divided into sections featuring Sharables, Soups, Bowls, Tacos, Sandwiches/Burgers and Sides. Breakfast is served all day and has sweet and savory items that sound complicated, such as Chickawaffadopolis (chicken and waffles), and Chiamisu, a coffee-flavored chia pudding with banana and cocoa nibs. Not so complicated.

On the Healthy Side, each menu item is 600 calories or less and everything I’ve tried, which is a lot, is packed with flavor, hardy and sizeable. You don’t just get a clover and a nut on your plate to make it come across healthy and low-cal here. SkinnyFATS loads you up. The Healthy dishes including the Caulifire, Tu-Nuts and Brussel Crowe shareables are robust in flavor and size and each well below the 600-calorie threshold. The Happy Fried Pickles and Pimp Shrimp are guilty pleasures, but they don’t feel fattening and heavy. The calorie counts are not on the Happy side so I assume Reed’s position is “if you have to ask, you can’t afford it.”

Bowls, burgers and sandwiches are compelling on both sides of the aisle. All bowls offer optional protein or vegetable supplements including filet mignon, portobello mushroom, ahi tuna, tofu and chicken. Different bowls have different greens or grains and, in the case of the Happy Buff Chix bowl, you get truffle fries which are crisp with not too much truffle. Really good. Burgers and sandwiches are huge, and each order includes one side, making the price range of $9.95 to $13.95, depending on the item, a good value for the high quality.

The side dishes are interesting. The aforementioned truffle fries on the Happy side are in good company with the Healthy sides, for instance the Cauliflower Rice with capers, golden raisins and almonds that really help the cauliflower not taste like cauliflower. The House Salad is vegan, as are many of the menu items and is sprinkled with hemp seasoning (don’t worry mama, it won’t get you high and it’s totally legal in this state).

The restaurant is spacious and well appointed, and the bar is really cool and inviting, with an expansive window making the space indoor-outdoor. And, yes, it will be hot in the summer. SkinnyFATS is familiar with heat, it originated in Nevada, remember? The wine list is a pleasant surprise considering the cheekiness of the menu. With the help of some of the Las Vegas team members, the wine list features wonderful and still not well-known wines, both red and white, from Sardinia and Sicily as well as cabs and cab blends from California and French and California Chardonnays. All are available by the glass or bottle. The beers are all thoughtfully sourced by Reed’s brother who is a beer nerd.

The cocktail menu includes classics like the Noble St. Old Fashioned (my favorite, I’m a whiskey girl, BTW), and the witty “99 Problems, But a Spritz Ain’t One” riff on an Aperol Sprtiz.

The lucky number seventh store, the first outside of Nevada, is located on the corner of McKinney Avenue and Noble Avenue and serves breakfast, lunch and dinner and a full bar. The menu offers gluten free, vegetarian and vegan items. The patio is pet friendly and waiting for you, with giant TVs in your sight-line so you can watch the Stanley Cup playoffs. I have to praise SKinnyFATS. It’s really good and I can’t wait to try breakfast.

This story originally ran in Park Cities People and Preston Hollow People. Read it here.

FB: SkinnyFATS (Uptown)
IG: eatskinnyfats

In my first post as food writer for People Newspapers, I should tell you that while many folks pair wine with food, I’ve always paired music with food. I have a vast appetite for both food and music, and they come together for me naturally and, sometimes, improbably. Many of the articles I write here will include a pairing, and I hope you’ll understand and enjoy the thought behind each.