On September 1, Arlington, Texas hosts the day’s (the year’s?) biggest football game at Cowboys Stadium (so called because the Dallas Cowboys play there, and Jerry Jones has been completely unsuccessful at selling the naming rights). Yes, Arlington. Not Dallas. Not Fort Worth. Little old Arlington, population, 360,000. Between these high-profile matchups, the Cotton Bowl, and various other relocated games (there is an annual Lone Star Conference football festival weekend with multiple games), Arlington is becoming quite the college football hub.
I don’t know the expected attendance of the season's opening tilt, nor how many fans are coming from out of town. Let’s assume there will be quite a few new to Arlington coming to the game. What can they (or you, fellow college football fan) expect to find in dining amenities, eating out and/or taking out for tailgating? Let me, as a long time and quite proud (great quote from ex mayor Richard Greene at the All-Star game many years ago, "We're nobody's ****ed) suburb." resident, help out.
Note- this is the point where the perceptive reader realizes this post is not about the University of Texas, nor about football. It’s about eating and drinking. If neither interests you, …oh, well. For those that are interested, either because they are visiting for the first time, or just have opinions about Texas cuisine, please read on.
On September 1, 2012, Arlington hosts a huge college football game. What's for lunch?
First off, I’m pretty much going to ignore national chains, unless they’re mentioned in passing as a point of comparison. This post is not a promotional message from the Arlington Chamber of Commerce. It’s more of a guideline on where the locals eat, written for people who care about such things. I will mention local and regional chains. I’m going to emphasize regional cuisines, too. You’re from Dearborn and want to know where to find good Greek food? Ain't in Arlington. There are some great options for Mexican and barbecue, though.
Let’s just jump in on the barbecue. Texas barbecue really distinguishes itself with the things it does with beef. It takes the tough, difficult to salvage cuts of beef (ribs, brisket) and slow cooks it for hours until it is tender enough to eat easily, and is incredibly flavorful. BBQ sauce is strictly optional (I encourage you to use none or just a little while starting out). Sure, you can get pork ribs, chicken, turkey breasts and sausage here, too, but I’m not going to tell you we do anything special with those meats that can’t be found anywhere else. If you like barbecue, you really do need to eat beef here. Note- most barbecue places don’t do beef ribs. Why? I think it’s too hard to get a good product consistently, with so much gristle and connective tissue to break down.
In Arlington the best bbq is probably David’s Barbecue on Park Row. It’s in a strip center a couple of miles from the stadium. Another independent local place folks like is Coker’s. Spring Creek is a local chain that does a good job consistently. If I were tailgating the game, I’d be tempted to go to the local (Lamar and Collins) Whole Foods meat counter. They smoke ribs, brisket, sausage and wings (they also have pulled pork, but frankly, I can’t imagine why you would come to Texas to eat pulled pork instead of brisket. That would be like ordering a Michelada in Dothan or Detroit.
The Whole Foods will have a bunch of other food and drink options, and is a handy place to load up on all you need (i.e., good beer selection). Yeah, their chips are hippie-brand multi-grains you never heard of. That’s fine. There’s a Mobil station on the corner where you can get your Ruffles. Whole Foods does a good job on the barbecue and they’re good guys (they give my daughter and me sample cuts whenever we ask). Note that these places mentioned here make good barbecue. It’s not life-changing barbecue (Not a joke. Life-changing barbecue does actually exist. It’s just not in Arlington ).
Another thing to consider is the effect that the barbecuing process (several hours long cooking cycles) has on quality. Ideally, you want barbecue that has been slow-smoked for several hours, and finished not too terribly long before it is cut and put on your plate. The small, independent places cook it in the wee hours, and have a hard time anticipating demand for the evening (that’s why the famed central Texas places cook a batch, and close for the day in early afternoon when they run out). Quality can get rough in the evening. If I were you, I would strongly consider a chain restaurant like Spring Creek for night time barbecue, and go for the smaller places earlier in the day. Now, if you do go to Spring Creek, don’t order pork ribs and complain that Texas barbecue isn’t anything special. Pork ribs cooked on industrial restaurant machines in Arlington taste exactly the same as pork ribs cooked on industrial machines in Ann Arbor or Tuscaloosa. Go for the brisket instead.
This is what the story editor gives you when you search for "Wolverine fan"
The other culinary mainstay is Mexican food. It’s hard to go wrong here, so I’m going to mention a couple of special places. The first is Marquez Bakery, and the good news is that it is just south of the stadium on Division Street.
It’s not just a bakery, but also a full service taqueria, with a full range of meats. Funny story. I got a family pack to go, once. I asked if barbacoa was beef, and was told, "Yes". I enjoyed it, but discovered later where exactly on the cow it comes from. It’s the face of the cow. As good as it was, I can’t bring myself to finish the leftover barbacoa I have in the freezer. There is nothing like fresh made tortillas, and they also have those great Mexican cookies (these cookies are made with vibrant food colorings, and so you’re very pleasantly surprised when they taste like awesome fresh-baked cookies and not like some pre-packaged grocery store crap) and a full complement of Mexican sodas (made with real sugar, so they’re extra good on a hot day). This is a great place to stop if you want to take breakfast tacos and/or fajitas to a tailgate, and may be closest to "authentic" (not to say there’s anything wrong with commercial Tex-Mex. There isn’t). My advice is to call ahead your large take out tailgate order a day or so in advance. Maybe you can talk them into making cookies in your school colors.
Another fun place is Fuzzy’s Tacos, a local chain that caters to the college student and young professional crowd in the area. This is where you would get tempura fish tacos with feta cheese. Fuzzy’s frozen margaritas aren’t the strongest per volume, but that doesn’t matter because they’re served in fish bowls on stems. Fuzzy’s is on Abrams, near Center Street, just north of UTA.
A compromise- not quite as authentic as Marquez, not quite as urban-trendy as Fuzzy’s, is Mijo’s on Park Row, near Bowen (about 3 miles from the stadium). This is a little place to hang out at, with an extremely casual atmosphere. The food is good, and the happy hour beer prices are too.
One more thing while we’re talking about Mexican food- the Michelada and the Chelada. The Michelada is something you order from a bar (or mix yourself). It’s basically a Bloody Mary made with a Mexican lager instead of Vodka (Caution- you are as likely to get a bad Michelada mixed as you are to get a bad Bloody Mary). A Chelada is a pre-mixed beer product that comes in a can (often 25 oz., to match the appetites of the roofers and brickers that drink it as a staple), mixing Clamato with Budweiser. If you like a Bloody Mary, I recommend you try one or the other of these. They’re very refreshing on hot days, and it will be hot as hell September 1.
How about traditional southern fare? I’d recommend Babe’s, a regional chain for fried chicken, grilled chicken, and chicken fried steak. It’s in "downtown" Arlington , in an area with a lot of neat casual dining. Babe’s offers fried chicken in huge portions, and side orders served family style. Nearby is another regional chain, "The Flying Fish", a fried and grilled fish restaurant that I mention mainly as an intro to an alternative- "Catfish Sam’s" on Division Street. "The Flying Fish" works very hard to present a décor that appears folksy, a trait that comes naturally to Catfish Sam’s (other traits- backwards, hick, and type 2 diabetes). "Catfish Sam’s" is an Arlington institution located on the town’s roughest major street, just a few doors down from various game rooms the city attorneys work so hard to close. They sell catfish, cole slaw and hush puppies. That’s it. No airs or pretensions.
For pizza there is Mama’s, a local chain that has a tie to college football. Some people (like me) really like the tangy cheese they use. Others aren’t as crazy about it. Ignore them and listen to me. It’s almost as good as what you get from the national chain "Mellow Mushroom" (located downtown), at a notably lower price.
Arlington has some really nice inexpensive ethnic places. Going off personal experience, for Chinese (made to order, not buffet), go to "Ho-Ho Kitchen" for great takeout food. It’s right off the railroad track on Bowen, detracting from the atmosphere of the place. Right next to Ho-Ho Kitchen is another restaurant building that has seen a Taco Bell, Church’s Chicken and three other independent restaraunts fail while Ho-Ho keeps trucking along with its loyal clientele. For Lebanese, "The Prince Lebanese Grill" is your source for grilled meats and hummus. It’s on Randol Mill just west of Center Street, in a building that very obviously was once a Sonic drive in. Note that neither of these places is very fancy. Neither is expensive, too, and the eating is terrific.
Want something a little nicer than a small ethnic dive? "Olenjacke’s" in Lincoln Square (across from the stadium is a very nice restaurant very much inspired from Fort Worth’s famed "Reata". It’s upscale Texas food, drawing out new and distinct flavors from staples like chicken fried steak, mashed potatoes, hash browns, etc. They also have a good bartender (something you can’t take for granted in Arlington).
Piccolo Mondo is another nice place, offering Italian food for the local epicures. Remember, though- this is Texas. If Arlington barbecue rates an 8 compared to the best the world (i.e. Lockhart) has to offer, the finest Arlington Italian food has to be a 6 compared to that cuisine’s best. If you like to eat, and you’re not from here, go to Olenjacke’s for quality dining that will leave a (good) memory.
Feed this child.
What about the stadium food? It’s not bad, although overpriced (the long "security" lines are focused more on keeping contraband food out than weapons). You expected overpriced, right? Personally, I would rather overpay $9 for good nachos (what you get at Cowboys Stadium) than $5 for crappy nachos (what you get at other stadiums). The beer and drink selection will vary based on where you sit, with premium seats offering premium choices. For the vast majority of locations, you need to like Miller products (which is fine), assuming beer is sold for the college game.
Side Note- In this stadium, you really do need to think about where you want to sit. I recommend against the highest level. Fans who sit there tend to watch the giant video screen that hangs over the field, instead of the actual live game.
The city does a great job of managing traffic so you can get out of the parking lot quickly after the game. That’s great, because Arlington (we don’t call it Fun Central for nothing) is giving you a free Bruce Robison-Kelly Willis concert the night of the Tide-Wolverine game.
One more place to recommend as you drive to the Levitt Pavilion for the free show (by the way, the Pavilion holds about 75,000 fewer than the stadium) - the snow cone stand in the strip mall parking lot at the southeast corner of Randol Mill and Cooper. These are the best snow cones in the DFW metroplex, in my opinion (it’s the snowy ice that makes them so good). Tip the girl a couple of quarters, and she’ll really load them up. These are far superior to the snow cones sold at the amphitheater. If you get hungry at the show, grab some burgers and Irish Nachos (cheese fries) from the J. Gilligan tent (J. Gilligan is a longtime UTA hangout).
Hopefully, if you stayed with me through this, you’re getting some ideas for your trip. This might be the place to mention that Arlington only allows sales of beer and wine in the city. You need to go to Dallas or Fort Worth for liquor purchases. The nearest to Arlington is extreme east Fort Worth, off Eastchase and Meadowcrest, where several liquor stores are located (only a coincidence that my Arlington home is only 50 yards away). I don’t know for sure, because I am a decent person, but beer and wine might not be sold before noon on Sunday, and liquor not at all on Sunday. Also, a lot of the restaurants I mentioned are closed on Sunday, so remember to check before you make plans.
Food and drink is a topic that just begs for opinions. Please chime in with any disagreements or counters, and Tidesters and Wolverines- any questions?
Also, this is the place to mention that these are all my personal opinions, and do not reflect the views of the website. Hey, if you can't trust an anonymous internet poster, who can you trust?