Thursday, March 31, 2011

Tim Love's Love Shack Denton, Denton, TX

Love, actually

The man, the myth, the menu promise to make dining on the Square a whole lot juicier

01:32 PM CDT on Thursday, March 31, 2011

By Ellen Ritscher Sackett / Staff Writer
Chef Tim Love is running behind. His executive assistant calls to say he will be 20 minutes late. He’s on his way from Fort Worth to talk about Love Shack Denton, his latest restaurant about to open just east of the Square. For months, passers-by have peered through the windows, observing the building’s transition from barbershop to burger joint. It’s almost ready — but not quite.
DMN file photo
DMN file photo
Tim Love, pictured in 2007 just before the opening of his first Love Shack at the Fort Worth Stockyards, is preparing to open the burger joint’s third location, in Denton.
The 2007 Iron Chef America winner, instantly recognizable for his many television appearances on cooking and morning shows, walks through the front door without his crisp chef’s coat and signature white Stetson. Despite his busy morning, he appears relaxed in faded jeans, cowboy boots and a worn T-shirt that reveals a tattoo inked on a buff upper arm. He sits down and leans back in his chair as construction workers keep the place hopping, with sparks flying and the sound of drills and saws buzzing, and hammers pounding away.
This will be Love’s third gourmet hamburger establishment by the same name, Tim Love’s Love Shack, one of several restaurants he has owned over the years that run the gamut from casual to fine dining. But this one is special. It’s Love’s first venture in his hometown.
“My mom wanted me to do a restaurant in Denton — that’s the main reason I’m here. She’s excited,” says the 39-year-old culinary rock star who spent the first 18 years of his life here.
“I wanted to bring something back.”
Long before Love became a celebrity chef, he spent summers in Tennessee working on his father’s farm.
“I’ve raised almost every vegetable under the sun growing up as a kid, and same with animals,” Love says. “I raised chickens and rabbits and lambs and goats and steers.”
After Love graduated from Denton High School, he went back to Tennessee to earn double degrees in finance and marketing at the University of Knoxville. While making a little cash in various restaurant jobs, he found his calling.
“I fell in love with it,” he says. “I wanted to cook for a living.”
Love never went to culinary school, but he gained a solid foundation based on experience.
“You learn from every ingredient you touch.”
Love spent his mid-20s in Colorado, snowboarding when he wasn’t cooking for crowds. He scooped up the Taste of Breckenridge Grand Award three times and the Taste of the Mountains Award, four. He met his wife, Emilie, at the Uptown Bistro in Frisco, Colo., where he was chef. Eventually the two moved back to Texas, making their home in Fort Worth, where they now raise their three children.
• Address: 115 E. Hickory St.
• Phone: 940-442-6834
• Hours: 11 a.m. to midnight Sunday through Thursday;
11 a.m. to 2 a.m. Friday and Saturday
• Opening date: early April
• On the
In 2000, Love opened Lonesome Dove in Cowtown’s historic downtown Stockyards district, once the Grand Central Station of livestock, where visitors can still witness daily cattle drives. Love, who calls himself a “huge meat guy,” made his mark serving what he calls “urban Western cuisine” — not only traditional high-end steaks, but rabbit, elk, rattlesnake, wild boar and even kangaroo.
Love says people often try out-of-the-ordinary meat just to say they did it.
“But can I take it and turn it into something people really like?” he says. “That’s the challenge.”
More than a decade since opening, Lonesome Dove is packed and critics rave; in fact, just last week The Dallas Morning News published a four-star review of Love’s upscale restaurant.
Just around the corner from Lonesome Dove is the original Love Shack — all 140 square feet of it — next door to the White Elephant Saloon, which is also owned by Love. The second Love Shack is located near Fort Worth’s Trinity Park and the museum district.
“We’re a different breed,” Love says. “We’re not a fast-food joint. We’re a really cool, hip, burger spot.”
The concept was born out a “what the heck” situation, he says. Love wanted to offer food to White Elephant Saloon customers, and he also needed to find a way to use the leftover trim from Lonesome Dove’s popular garlic-stuffed beef tenderloin.
“We have a lot of it,” Love says. “It’s expensive meat to just throw away.”
It took about five months for Love to develop the perfect grind and mix for his unique burger.
“We do 50 percent prime brisket and then 50 percent of tenderloin,” Love says. The combination makes a “tremendous meat patty.”
The Love burger itself is simple.
“It’s not like we have all these crazy things on the burger,” he explains. “It’s not a burger made with foie gras and blueberries or whatever.
“It’s made from really top-notch, high-quality ingredients that are all house-made,” including the pickles and the ketchup and mayonnaise that go into Love’s special Love Sauce.
The Dirty Love Burger “gets a little more exciting,” topped with wild boar bacon and a quail egg. “It’s a beautiful thing,” he says. “It’s even better with a fried portobello on it. We call that the Love and the Boom Boom. It’s awesome. It’s what I eat.”
The next order of business was developing fries that are “not like anybody else’s,” Love says. “We do a thin, plain french fry that gets pretty crispy. They’re different.”
Love devotes a huge amount of time creating the perfect eating experience, down to the width of the tomato slice.
“All of it involves the texture of one bite,” he says. “It’s hard to develop a burger where [when] you bite into it, it still tastes the same all the way around.”
The three Love Shack menus vary. The Denton menu will include chicken, fish, hot dogs, soups and salads in addition to burgers, fries and onion rings. The Denton location is the only one that will serve grilled, cured pickles. Every Love Shack serves root beer on tap and milkshakes, too.
“We don’t have five shakes on the menu, we have today’s shake,” Love says. “And today’s shake could be anything.”
The same fare will be served from opening to close. The lunchtime crowd will order at the counter and seat themselves, whereas after 5 p.m. diners will be served by waitstaff, and to-go orders will be available for pickup at a window on the west side.
Bartenders will man a full bar and pour “fun, funky cocktails,” he says, and there will be a daily happy hour from 4 to 7 p.m. Several flat-screen TVs are mounted overhead on nearly every wall.
“I’m a big sports guy. I don’t like missing any sports,” he says.
But the main focal point will be the stage flanking the east wall.
“You should be able to see the music from anywhere in the restaurant,” he says. Love says he’s a big proponent of live music, and the bands will “run the gamut.”
He says he wants his restaurant “to get heavily involved in the Denton music scene.”
“It’s such a great music town.”
Love envisioned the building to have “a spacious feel” with lots of windows and two 30-foot glass garage doors.
“The place is created to feel like you’re outside all the time,” he says.
The walls are constructed from reclaimed farm wood from South Texas. Patio seating with two giant maple trees will shade the north side, and diners can play outdoor pingpong, washers or cornhole. Love wants to create a relaxed atmosphere where customers will want to hang out for a few hours.
“The Love Shack is all about having fun,” he says.
Looking around on a recent afternoon, one can see there’s still plenty to do. Construction is not quite complete. The tables and chairs are stacked on top of each other. The staff has yet to learn the art of the food preparation and will be trained by Love himself. The city still has to give its stamp of approval, and is in the process of ensuring that the building is up to code and the health department is satisfied. So when does it open? Early April, Love says, but there’s no firm commitment yet as to an exact date.
“It’s got to be perfect,” he says. “My goal is for the food to be perfect, the service to be perfect, and whenever those things come together, that’s when we open.”
ELLEN RITSCHER SACKETT can be reached at 940-566-6845. Her e-mail address is .

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Soup's On ~ Soup in Denton, TX

SOME LIKE IT HOT: A little spice, a lot of warmth served up in local soup

Published in the Denton Record-Chronicle, Thursday, January 13, 2011

By Ellen Ritscher Sackett

What better way to stave off the wintry chills than a piping hot bowl of homemade soup? Almost every Denton restaurant offers at least one soup on its menu, and many have revolving selections that change daily. Narrowing down this list was a challenge, but here are a few you can count on to warm you up when the temperatures drop.


$7.25 for a large bowl.
1663 Scripture St. 940-566-5671.
Open 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday through Saturday and 11:30 a.m. to 9 p.m. Sunday.
This slightly sweet, slightly spicy Vietnamese rice noodle soup makes more than a meal. Pho lovers can add chicken or beef to Mr. Chopstick’s version, which is made from a chicken-based broth rather than the more traditional beef stock. According to owner Chai Tamprateep, the quality of the broth is “crucial.”

“To have good soup, you have to have good broth,” he said.

His pho is steeped with onion, garlic and spices, which include anise, cinnamon stick, cardamom and fresh ginger. Limes, bean sprouts, jalapeno slices, cilantro and plum sauce sides come served on a plate covering the bowl, ensuring the soup will be hot when it arrives at the table. Other condiments, such as soy sauce and chili paste, are already on the table available for additional soup doctoring.

This 25-year-old Asian restaurant, which moved from Hickory Street to its current location north of the University of North Texas campus, features Chinese, Thai and Japanese cuisines. Other best-sellers? “We sell a lot of hot and sour and egg drop soup,” Tamprateep said.


2900 Wind River Lane, Suite 134.
940-390-7693. Open 11 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. Sunday through Thursday and 11 a.m. to midnight Friday and Saturday.

Those who live on the south side of town can indulge in this healthy pick from Unicorn Lake’s new upscale Mexican restaurant, Los Toreros, which took its recipe from its big sister restaurant, El Matador.

The two versions are virtually identical. They both start with chicken cooked in a tomato-based broth chock full of vegetables, including corn, carrots, celery, onion and red and green peppers. Each is topped with crispy tortilla strips and avocado.

The only difference? The cheese. El Matador’s version is laden with mozzarella, while Los Toreros comes with a slice of queso fresco. Los Toreros’ portion is for smaller appetites, but it also comes with a side of Spanish rice. Either way, you can’t go wrong.


Cup $4, bowl $5.
219 W. Oak St. 940-565-1638.
Open 10 a.m. to midnight daily.

Tomato basil ranks right up there as the most popular soup in town, if the number of restaurants that boast a recipe is any indication.

Banter’s won this feature spot for being the most unique, with low-fat cream cheese blended with crushed tomatoes, fresh basil, garlic, salt, pepper and extra virgin olive oil. The recipe came from Michelle Kuzov, who sold the restaurant to Stephen Johnson and Ellen Ryfle in January.

Ryfle said Banter lovers need not worry; the atmosphere of the artsy downtown hangout will not change. It will still offer live music, feature local artists and continue the Thursday open mic night, one of the few left in the area. The menu will undergo a slight revision in February, but favorite dishes, including the tomato basil soup, will remain.

Try these other deserving tomato basil soups when you’re out and about town: Bochy’s, for its superb garlic infusion, Hannah’s Off the Square, for its heavy, cream-based, don’t-start-your-diet-today concoction; and Round Belly Cafe inside the Antique Experience of Denton, for one unnamed ingredient that chef Baldemar Rivera says keeps customers coming back for more.


Regular $5, large $6.50, monster $8
210 E. Hickory St. 940-387-3757. Open Monday through Thursday from 11 a.m. to 9:30 p.m., Friday and Saturday from 11 a.m. to 10 p.m., and Sunday from 11 a.m. to 9:30 p.m.

This is not the curly, compact, low-budget ramen that goes on sale at the grocery store in packages of 10 for $1. These are long, thin, elegant noodles that swim in broth hot off the stove.

First-time customers to Ramen Republic are walked through the five-step process of building their own noodle dishes. Picking the bowl size is the first big decision — big, bigger, biggest — followed by selecting an all-natural, low-sodium vegetable, garlic beef or ginger chicken broth.

Next, choose from one of four types of noodles and add the protein, either tofu, plain or sesame ginger chicken, slow-roasted pulled pork or Asian beef mini-meatballs. Tenderloin tips or the salmon filet are available for an additional charge as well as extras such as baby spinach, fresh basil, edamame or egg.

Lastly, a small bowl filled with your choice of veggies from the complimentary bar can be tossed into the mix while your soup is prepared behind the counter. In minutes, the meal is complete.

Ramen Republic is a place where strict vegans and shameless carnivores sit side by side, where the bland meets spicy, and hot meets cold. Owner Charlie Foster, who opened the Asian-inspired restaurant near the Industrial Street area last June, said, “There are over 1 million different bowl combinations available.” A meat-eater’s suggestion: Try the pork.


609 Sunset St. 940-383-2051.
Open from 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday through Saturday and from noon to 8 p.m. Sunday.

For a simple soup that’s good and good for you, try the lentil soup from International Foods of Denton, one block south of University Drive. This restaurant, which opened its doors to Denton over 16 years ago, specializes in Mediterranean, Persian, Greek and Middle Eastern cuisine.

The lentil soup is “very healthy,” said Kim Pourmorshed, who owns and operates the restaurant with her husband, Ali.

“It’s good for your stomach, your body and your hormones,” she said. In addition to crushed lentils, the soup contains a blend of carrots and onions, herbs and some secret spices that make it special, Pourmorshed said.

The ingredients are blended into a thin, smooth soup that goes down easily, a good choice for a sensitive tummy, and reheats well. Customers can ask for a side of pita bread as well, perfect for scraping the bowl to get every last drop.


Cup $3.99, bowl $5.99.
101 W. Hickory St. 940-566-5483. Open 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Sunday through Wednesday and 11 a.m. to midnight Thursday through Saturday.

The Abbey Inn’s French onion soup is made with beef and chicken stock added to a sweet onion, sherry and butter reduction. But what makes this version memorable is the homemade croutons — soppy-soft bite-sized pillows made from sourdough, wheatberry, pumpernickel and marble rye breads — covered by a thin layer of melted Harvarti cheese, which holds in the heat and contains the flavors.
Next time you’re in the neighborhood, stop by and check out the recent renovations in the lower level of the restaurant on the southeast corner of the downtown Square. What was once the Boiler Room, dedicated to live music, is now the Abbey Underground.
Co-owner Tim Trawick said they have added seating and are “trying to create a cozy pub environment,” which will feature 99 bottles of beer on the back wall of the bar. For now, the menu will be the same upstairs as down, so either way you can have your soup and eat it too.


Cup $2.99, bowl $3.99, add-on to a meal $1.49.
5812 N. Interstate 35. 940-387-3500. Open 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Sunday through Thursday and 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday.

It’s winter, so think summer, as in Indian Summer Soup — one of three of Good Eats’ soup offerings, which also include a daily special and tomato basil.
“It’s our best-selling soup,” said kitchen manager Eric Wright. The golden yellow comfort food looks as warm as it tastes, made with melted American cheese, chicken, onion, margarine, garlic, mushrooms and corn with an ever-so-slight kick from poblano pepper.

Denton is fortunate to be home to one of only three Good Eats restaurants left in Texas from a chain serving ranch-style food that started off with a bang in 1986 by E. Gene Street. Street also began the Black-eyed Pea country-style chain and several other successful Dallas-based restaurants and became a founder of Consolidated Restaurant Operations Inc., which oversees the operations of successful chains in the Dallas-Fort Worth area, such as El Chico, Cantina Laredo and III Forks as well as Good Eats.

Unlike other repeateries whose menu items are often at least partially premade, Good Eats uses all fresh produce and creates all of its recipes in-house from scratch, which makes its ranch-style meals particularly mmm, mmm good.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Freebirds World Burrito, Denton, TX

Freebirds’ barrage on the senses has flavor 

A version of this article was published in the Denton Record-Chronicle on Thursday,   September 16, 2010. 
By Ellen Ritscher Sackett / Staff Writer

Over the last 20 years, Freebirds World Burrito’s Texas-focused chain has developed something of a cult following.
Freebirds fanatics are those willing to drive for miles to get their fill of the restaurant’s burritos, tacos, nachos and the like. They hotly debate the merits of Freebirds over its national competitor, Chipotle, and describe in detail their favorite combinations from a choice of 3 trillion possibilities. They fill up “fanatic cards” with stamps, redeemable toward rewards based on accumulated purchases.

Now, fortunately, local fanatics won’t have to fill up their gas tanks to get to the closest Freebirds. As of today, Denton has one of its own.
Earlier this week, Freebirds Denton opened its doors in two days of mock trial runs, which doubled as benefits for its two local causes: the University of North Texas College of Music and the Denton State Supported Living Center. For a $5 donation, customers were invited to chow down on a custom-made meal and to experience the Freebirds culture. From its start as the joint venture between two college roommates to its more recent corporate expansion, Freebirds’ philanthropic, “change the world,” be-yourself attitude appeals largely to the college crowd and the ever-optimistic — a perfect fit for Denton.
DRC file photo/
DRC file photo/
Holding a burrito high, “Libby” sits on a custom chopper at Freebirds World Burrito. The Denton location of the Texas-centric chain is now open at Rayzor Ranch Marketplace.

Earlier this week, Freebirds Denton opened its doors in two days of mock trial runs, which doubled as benefits for its two local causes: the University of North Texas College of Music and the Denton State Supported Living Center. For a $5 donation, customers were invited to chow down on a custom-made meal and to experience the Freebirds culture. From its start as the joint venture between two college roommates to its more 
Until Monday, I was among the uninitiated. Peeking through the glass windows, I could see the Statue of “Libby” suspended from the ceiling, busting through the Berlin Wall on a Voodoo custom chopper. (Later I learned this representation of freedom is found in every Freebirds restaurant.) As soon as I walked through the door, I was hit with a barrage of rock ’n’ roll and greetings from more-than-helpful employees.
A young, nose-ringed gentleman loudly suggested over the music that I try the famous burrito. He led me to the cafeteria-style fresh food line where I was introduced to Miyaka, a friendly employee with a movie-star smile who made recommendations from the freebies, extras and sauces as we went along.
Our completed collaboration was a foil-wrapped cylindrical creation stuffed inside a spinach tortilla, made with grilled chicken, black beans, rice, guacamole, lots of cilantro, red onion, roasted corn, salsa and who knows what else I agreed to. Common sense aside, I also agreed to chips and queso. Fortunately, I was starving.
As I properly unpeeled the foil, I began a lengthy journey toward the other end of the burrito. I didn’t quite make it through the seismic Tex-Mex portion. (I did, however, in spite of my big eyes and stuffed stomach, find some room for the creamy white cheese queso.)
My husband went with the more manageable carnita tacos, slow roasted since morning and slightly spicy. He gave the Sweet Leaf Tea the thumbs up, and I washed down my meal with a soda (no Coke, Pepsi). Maybe next time we’d go for a beer or try a frozen margarita. At meal’s end, we opted to throw out our used foil rather than add to the restaurant’s decor, as suggested, with artistic expressions. The new restaurant was already dotted with odd-shaped animals and shiny aluminum-foil sculptures.
The eager employees all wanted to know how we liked our first visit. We liked it. Was it, as one Facebook fanatic described, “the most bodaciously epic masticating flavorful adventure of the taste buds”?
Well, that statement might be a bit over the top, but then, "over the top" would describe Freebirds perfectly.
ELLEN RITSCHER SACKETT can be reached at 940-566-6845. Her e-mail address is .
World Burrito
2700 W. University Drive at Rayzor Ranch Marketplace. 940-565-5400. $.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Hannah's Off the Square, 100-mile Meal, April 20, 2010


By Ellen "EJ" Sackett
Originally published in the Denton Record-Chronicle, DentonTime, April 15, 2010

Nine summers ago, Sheena Croft arrived in Denton with nothing but her cat, her car and a small overnight bag. Excited to start a new life in Texas, her boyfriend — now husband — was about to begin graduate studies in art at the University of North Texas, while Croft, a trained chef, planned to travel around Texas to learn about its cuisine. They packed all of their belongings in a huge Ryder truck and drove in tandem from southern Georgia, stopping to spend the night in New Orleans. The next morning, they woke up to find their truck gone.

They did, however, have an apartment ready and waiting. The property management company provided them with towels and tooth- brushes. Croft’s aunt sent a care package of clothes and helped them with immediate expenses. But the stress of starting over in a new place took its toll. At a shopping excursion at Sears, the couple had a minor melt- down. It got the attention of a clerk, who called in the store manager, who listened to their story and offered them a line of credit at zero percent interest. The Sears manager also handed Croft a section of the Denton Record-Chronicle with an article about a new “Tex-French” restaurant that was opening in two weeks, called “Hannah’s Off the Square.”
“I put on clothes from my aunt and drove to Hannah’s,” Croft said.
She was determined to convince the then-owner, Eric Hill, that she was the perfect person to be chef. Unfortunately, he already had hired someone else, but Croft didn’t give up.
She told him: “I know this cuisine. I know your customer base. I worked at a restaurant just like this for three years. Let me create a menu.” 

Almost a decade later, Croft is still creating menus as the restaurant’s executive chef, never leaving her Southern roots far behind. “We didn’t have fast food,” said Croft, referring to her years growing up in southern Georgia and northern Florida. Instead, her family ate what was readily available to them. “My chicken was shark tail, alligator, snapping turtle — they were all mystery white meats,” Croft said. “We’d get mussels from the river, go down to the creek and get crawfish, go deep-sea fishing where the Suwannee River enters the Gulf of Mexico. We were down there every other weekend, bring back whatever, fishing in the river behind our house, getting mullet, smoking the mullet, gathering hickory nuts for the fire, drying sassafras leaves from the tree in the backyard for gumbo filé.” Even now when Croft goes home for Christmas, she can count on being served either quail or squirrel. “My mom gets her .22 out and goes into the front yard,” she said.

Croft became particularly mindful of using fresh, local ingredients a few years ago when she read the book Plenty: Eating Locally on the 100-Mile Diet, by Alisa Smith and J.B. Mackinnon. The book inspired her to create a meal served family-style for Hannah’s patrons using only ingredients found within a 100-mile radius of Denton — all the way down to the salt. The 100-mile meal has now grown into a biannual event. Previous such meals were held in the fall, when fresh, local produce is abun- dant. However, Hannah’s upcoming 100-mile meal is the first to be held during the spring. “There’s not as much in the spring as in the fall,” Croft said. She called it “a challenge. I just want to see if I can do it.”

The 100-mile-diet concept is related to the Slow Food movement, whose focus, in part, is reducing the environmental impact of how food is brought from farm to table.
“It’s also the way of preparing food — the idea of things being cooked simply within their season, as fresh as possible,” Croft said. The dishes served Tuesday night will be based on what produce is available “right then,” Croft said. “The food really does dictate the recipes.” The menu will include soup; simple salads; sauteed greens; roasted and braised meats including beef, pork and chicken; egg dishes; and fresh strawberries and whipped cream for dessert. The meal will be accompanied by local wines selected by wine steward Jason Lastovica.

“My large food vendors have contracts with local farmers. I can order through my regular supply,” Croft said. She will also get some specialty items from small farms “at the last second.” She’ll use herbs grown in her own garden, a stash from her larder of canned goods and red wine vinegar from other seasons and 100-mile meals past, and produce from local growers through the Denton Community Market and The Cupboard Natural Foods. In addition, she has been promised amaranth (Chinese spinach) from the community garden at Bowling Green Park. “I have a plot there,” Croft said. “I put in tomatoes, lemon cucumbers, chili peppers, all kinds of stuff. I’m really excited to be able to get some things from there for the next [100-mile meal] in the fall.


Hannah's Off the Square
111 W. Mulberry, Denton, TX

April 20, 2010
Reservations required. Limited Seating. $75 per person.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Arché Winery & Ancient Ovens, Saint Jo, Texas


By Ellen “EJ” Sackett
Originally published in Edible Communities DFW, Spring 2010,

Ancient Ovens and Arché Winery go together perfectly, just like the homemade artisan bread and the fine wine they serve. Together they form the ideal date night, just an hour-and-a-half drive northwest from Dallas and Fort Worth—away from work, kids and the hustle and bustle of everyday life.

Both are classic examples of “if you build it, they will come,” and the word is spreading about these hidden gems. Tucked away north of Saint Jo, they are located in what is unofficially called the North Texas Hill Country. Better known as the Red River Valley, the terrain resembles Central Texas with its gentle slopes and pastoral views.

Squint and you might even believe you’re in Italy.

Hosts for the evening are Howard Davies and Amy Sterling, owners of Arché Wines and Oak Creek Vineyards, and Denis and Susan Moody, whose home is the backdrop for Ancient Ovens. The two couples are not business partners, but good neighbors who live a few miles apart. Their combined vision is to create a memorable, magical experience for their guests.

The adventure begins at Arché. Visitors arrive at the winery in the late afternoon for a taste of red or rosé and a leisurely tour of the Oak Creek Vineyards. Arché sells its estate wine by the bottle or the case, and guests continuing to Ancient Ovens often buy some to complement their Old World Italian-style, oven-fired dinner.

Just five minutes away is Ancient Ovens at BlueDog Vista Ranch.

From the Lookout deck, guests enjoy being served a family-style, fivecourse meal while the sun slowly disappears over Devil’s Backbone.
Before long, strangers become friends. A light evening breeze crosses the valley and cools the night air. Under the tiny white patio lights, all the elements meld into one consummate, unforgettable evening.


Howard Davies’s first grape-growing experience began in his backyard when he was in his twenties, and his love for the grape followed him throughout his life. After a family vacation in Napa, California twelve years ago, Howard’s wife Amy encouraged him to pursue his passion and suggested a life of growing grapes commercially. They looked for land within a fifty-mile radius of their Plano home, but found it to be cost prohibitive, so they expanded their search. Finally they found what they were looking for—115 acres conducive to growing grapes, including an abandoned vineyard.

In three short months, they cleared the property of bramble, greenbriers and scrub oak trees and replanted the wild Venus vines inherited from the original vineyard. The forty-seven more rows of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Chardonnay, and Syrah grapevines were added, more than doubling the size of Oak Creek Vineyard, and there are plans to add additional rows this year.

Arché may well be the smallest commercial winery in Texas. The entire facility, including the tasting room, is all of 300 square feet. Visitors to Arché Winery literally walk into the factory, whatever stage of wine making is in progress. “At any given time, any number of winery operations might be going on,” says Amy. “We might be bottling, or pressing wine or doing some kind of chemical analysis.”

Remarkably, all of Arché wine is made from its own grapes. Currently Arché produces approximately 500 cases of estate wine a year, which are available only through the winery. Its varietals and blends are made from Syrah, Chardonnay, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon as well as the hearty, but less commonly known Roussane, Mourvèdre, Granache and Carignan grapes. Most of the rootstock came from California, but these grape varieties originate from the Bordeaux and Rhone regions of France and the northern regions of Italy.

“Those regions are more like our region,” Howard says. “These particular grapes can take the heat.” The wine choices vary because the grapes vary from year to year. This year’s wine choices are Syrah and Cabernet wines from the Ryan’s Red series, named for Howard and Amy’s middle son; Texas Rose, a popular semi-sweet wine; and Nouveau Montague 2009, a dry redblend table wine.

The art and science of growing grapes and making wine (not to mention the business of meeting federal and state regulatory standards) keep Howard and Amy on their toes twelve months of the year. The process is labor-intensive and never-ending.
Says Amy, “We start pruning in December, and we tend the vines into harvest,” which happens mainly in August, September and October. “Then we’re working pretty heavily making wine between harvest and pruning time.” Any one of a number of variables, like a draught, black rot, a late frost or a nearby 2,4-D crop dusting can send their best-laid plans plummeting.

With the precarious life of a viticulturist, a sense of adventure comes with the territory. There’s a bit of the daredevil in both Howard and Amy, who met while racing motorcycles competitively. They left their stable jobs and suburban lifestyle to pursue their dream in the country and downsized from a 2,600-square-foot house to their current 350-square-foot home. “The easy part was making the decision,” says Howard. “The hard part was doing it.” Even making the decision about what vines to plant is a gamble, as there is no guarantee what will thrive. But the risk is also the thrill and what keeps it interesting. “We experiment to see what works,” says Howard. “Everything changes every year, and we have to be ready for it.” Howard and Amy’s sons were also bit by the bug. Patrick is the winemaker at Eagle Castle Winery in Paso Robles, California. “He’s my authority,” says Howard. Ryan helped plant many of the grapevines in record time and designed the Arché label logo, and youngest son Grayson works part-time for his parents and is currently pursuing a degree in horticulture with a concentration in viticulture at Texas Tech.

A spirited conversation about the particulars of viticulture comes with the tour. Howard and Amy love to share what they know. For four years Howard was the Region 2 Vineyard Director for Texas Wine and Grape Growers Association, covering 54 counties in Texas. He also authored a booklet, “The Starting Point”, which explains how to start a vineyard in Texas. Says Howard, “This booklet tells you everything.
It tells you where to go, who you should talk to, what region you’re in, who to contact…” With a smile he adds, “I’ll tell you more than you want to know. Amy will tell you exactly what you need to know.”

The time flies by and dinner awaits. Head back from whence you came, turn left at the next gravel road. Look for a black, bashed-in mailbox on your right. Another episode is about to begin.

Ancient Ovens

The centerpiece and the reason to visit Ancient Ovens is the wood-fired oven itself. Denis built the oven in three months and finished it in February, 2007. Surrounded by rock and brick, it stands nearly ten feet tall, eight feet deep and six feet wide. The inside space, which includes the walls, hearth and arches, can handle as many as five pizzas or twenty loaves of bread at one time. Constructed from 330 fire bricks that retain the heat necessary for this Old World method of baking, the oven can heat up to 850 degrees, baking the pizzas to a bubbly crisp within minutes. Denis tends the fire and cooks the meal here, while Intrigued onlookers sit on benches under the covered pavilion.

Denis always dreamt of building an outdoor wood-fired oven like those he saw in his Navy days when he was deployed to Italy for extended stays. “The food is just so good coming out of them,” Denis says. After he retired from the military, he looked for something else to do. One day when Susan was surfing the Internet, she stumbled upon North House School of Folk Learning in Grand Marias, Minnesota, which offered a seminar in how to build the ovens. Denis immediately took the class.

At first Denis intended to build the ovens as his main enterprise— “for other people’s backyards,” he says—but when the housing market tanked, so did his plans. Meanwhile, he built the Lookout, a large deck beyond the oven overlooking the valley.

Susan, who had no previous formal training as a baker, went to North House to take a four-day, wood-fire method baking class. “A lot of it is trial by error and just learning the feel of the oven,” she says. “I can stick my hand in it and without even looking at the thermometer, know if it’s too hot to bake bread. I can just sense it.” They hosted parties for family and friends and soon were getting requests to host large gatherings at their home. In April, 2009 they officially began doing business full-time as Ancient Ovens with help from their son Chris, who has also learned the art of wood-fired baking, and daughter Eryn, who helps with the preparation and serves the guests.

They perfected what is now their standard five-course meal, which has been modified over time. “Like a lot of restaurants in Italy, we serve one type of meal,” says Denis. “That’s our staple, and we’ve served it for close to a year-and-a-half now. People keep coming back and coming back.” This meal at Ancient Ovens is bread-based, starting with Susan’s rustic artisan country bread, made from an 80-year-old starter, and served with a rich spinach and artichoke dip glazed with garlic butter in a hot cast iron pan. Next is Susan’s own creation, Italian Teardrops, made with olive cream cheese and spices wrapped in a pasta pastry and seasoned with garlic, butter and herbs. For the main course, guests may choose one of the thin-crusted Neapolitan-style pizzas, topped with a variety of ingredients depending on what is fresh and available. (With prior notice, Ancient Ovens can accommodate dietary concerns. For example, if someone is lactose intolerant, they will substitute olive oil for the cheese.) The meal is finito with a decadent dark chocolate hazelnut dessert pizza made with Nutella. Magnifico!

Many of the ingredients used to make the meal come from Susan’s organic garden, including Roma tomatoes, basil, oregano, rosemary and garlic. They compost hay and add vegetable scraps to worm castings to enrich the soil. “We want to get more sustainable, more local and be more mindful of where our food comes from,” says Susan.

In addition to growing herbs and vegetables, they also raise cattle and free range chickens. Susan uses the eggs in her baked goods and sells them to the local feed store, and they have processed their own chickens as well. The Moodys frequent Fischer’s—“one of the most happening small grocery stores in Texas,” according to Denis—which sells local produce, especially in the spring and summer. Ancient Ovens also buys its Italian sausage and Canadian bacon from Fischer’s, which processes and packages its own sausages and cheeses. He adds, “By patronizing local stores in the community, we’re helping them sustain themselves. It works hand in hand.”

Traveling around the world as a naval officer to 23 different countries during his thirty years of service gave Denis perspective. “Quite a significant portion of the world’s population still lives like this. This is their norm. It made me think,” says Denis. “We lived quite a few years in Euless, and we thought, ‘This is just not us. We’ve got to get out and get some more room,’” says Denis. “I don’t think either one of us ever had a plan to be here, at this level of earthiness, but we sure like it!” Ancient Ovens is primarily an outdoor venue, but over the past winter, Denis and Chris, with help from Howard, built a kitchen, a teaching space for Susan’s baking classes and an indoor dining room surrounded by glass. This new addition will also include a second wood-fire oven And year ‘round seating and protection from inclement weather.

Rather than driving home late at night, visitors might consider turning the trip into a short staycation by booking a room at the quaint Texas King’s Hotel, directly across from Saint Jo’s historic town square. Guests stay in one of five charming guestrooms at the inn, renovated from two turn-of-the-century buildings. Because the hotel does not keep regular hours and is only open by arrangement, reservations must be made well in advance.

Finding Arché Winery and Ancient Ovens isn’t easy, but follow the map we’ve included, then remember that once you are on Hwy 677 and you stumble upon your first breathtaking vista, you’re almost there.

Arché Winery
228 Wagner Road, Saint Jo, Texas 76265
214-908-9055 or 214-536-6330
Hours: 11 a.m. to dark, Wednesdays through Sundays and by appointment. Wine can be purchased by the bottle or by the case for a 10% discount. No reservations required. Children are welcome but must be supervised.

Ancient Ovens
At BlueDog Vista Ranch, 857 Childress Road, Saint Jo, Texas 76265
Hours: 7 p.m. Thursdays, Fridays & Saturdays and by appointment
Advance reservations by telephone required.

Texas King's Hotel
104 S. Broad Street, Saint Jo, Texas 76265
Hours: By appointment only
Advance reservations required.
Call or e-mail:

Originally published in Edible Communities DFW, Spring 2010

Monday, March 8, 2010

Buffet King Chinese Cuisine, Mongolian Grill & Sushi, Denton, TX


By Ellen "EJ" Sackett

If eating out at a Chinese buffet is your thing, you're not alone. Buffet King, Denton's newest such restaurant has only been open a few months, yet it's drawing the crowds. Easily accessible near the southeast intersection of I-35 and Loop 288 near the Golden Triangle Mall, expect a wait on a Friday and Saturday night, but not for long. The line moves quickly. The dining room seats hundreds at a time and the serve-yourself style lends itself to an almost fast-food experience.  

While not exactly cheap dining, customers certainly get their money's worth. The fixed-price buffet has an extraordinary amount of options from which to choose--over 200, in fact. You'll find what you expect at a Chinese buffet, like Sweet and Sour Chicken, Pepper Steak and Lo Mein. But this restaurant also offers a sushi bar with several kinds of Nigiri and Japanese-style rolls as well as a Mongolian grill station, where customers choose from variety of meats and veggies that are cooked on a large circular grill while you wait. 

Oftentimes quantity affects quality in buffet-style dining, but here the food doesn't have a chance to dry out or get cold. The meat dishes are flavorful but not too spicy, and the vegetables aren't overcooked. The food tastes fresh, the way it often looks at a buffet, but rarely is. Seafood lovers can chow down on unlimited amounts of crab legs, shrimp and mussels. Don't forget to try the tasty pork potstickers, found near the hot and sour and egg drop soups, and make a point to try the green beans that have just the right amount of crisp to them.

Children have options too. There's pizza and chicken drumsticks, and rows of desserts to tempt the sweetest sweettooths. Fortunately, for those who are trying to watch their weight, there's a little hope, as fresh fruit, such as cantaloupe and grapes, are available in addition to the puddings, cakes, soft-serve ice cream and other sugary delights. 

While most customers clammer for the buffet, diners can also order off the menu. Lunch specials and combinations plates offer good values and can be made to suits one's taste, be it mild, medium or hot. Take out is also available. The restaurant is cheery and clean with bright chandeliers, neon signs and flat-screen TVs, the service is friendly, and the food, while not exceptional, caters to the hungry. For large parties, quick business lunches, and family nights out, Buffet King rules.


Buffet King
2251 S. Loop 288, Denton, TX

Lunch ~ Monday through Saturday, 11 a.m. to 3:30 p.m.
Dinner ~ Monday through Thursday, 3:31 p.m. to 9:30 p.m., Friday and Saturday, 3:31 p.m. through 10 p.m.
Sunday ~ All day dinner buffet from 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. 

Also posted on . 

Buffet King on Urbanspoon