Our favorite hidden gem restaurants, from a nondescript food court to the most original small plates ever plated.
Toasted Walnut Table and Market
Toasted Walnut Table and Market serves gourmet sandwiches and home decor with Magnolia Market vibes and Dublin grape soda. The concept, by Chef Joey Dawkins, used to operate out of the boutique/coffee shop/cafe two doors down, Annie Jack. There, they became locally known for the weekly secret menu, housemade blackberry sage tea, and, overall, some of the best lunches ever to be served in a paper food boat in Celina. Now, Toasted Walnut is doing its own thing. (Though the people over at Annie Jack are very proud. They insisted we visit in the first place.)
The shop-bar-restaurant has three parts: a line of booths—each intimately curtained off—a cocktail bar against a wall paneled with antique mirrors, and a cheery front room with wares like copper birds, sassy aprons “I’m not bossy; I’m the boss,” and patterned dishware. Its three regions are divided by the counter where you can order or get your new paperweight gift-wrapped. But it’s bound together by the singular atmosphere, and the cohesive color scheme: dove gray and white with occasional yellow accents, like flashing canary wings.
Their menu is simple but delightful. Nothing says good Southern eating like warm, fresh pimento cheese, dotted with roasted red pepper, and shoveled up on homemade chips, or slow-smoked brisket fused with melted sharp cheddar between two thick slices of jalapeño cheddar bread.
People gather at Toasted Walnut at lunchtime for old standbys like Tomato Bisque that hums with garlic and sea salt, and The Italian, a square panini-pressed beast of mortadella, capicola, and salami with provolone cheese, shredded romaine lettuce, tomato, and thinly sliced purple onion. They crowd happy hours for Murphy Goode Sauvignon Blanc and the Chicken and the Avocado, creamy chicken salad served with half an avocado seasoned with flaky sea salt, black pepper, crushed red pepper, and lime juice, and either lavash or cucumbers on the side.
Then, every night, the lights dim just a little, and the menu fills with off-menu specials while they last, and occasional deals on local wines and beers. Hot tip: check their Facebook for weekly secret specials like a Double Royale with cheese oozing like lava over the sides, smoked brisket chili, and for dinner, smoked beef rib with a balsamic barbecue glaze—or, best yet, blackberry apple crisp with salted caramel ice cream.
Toasted Walnut Table and Market feels like something fresh and modern, a slice of a new kind of life. And yet the shop and cafe never loses its reverence for things local and beloved. It is a piece of polished, new Celina in a historic landmark of old Celina.
Also, they serve mini fried pies with Henry’s Homemade Ice Cream. So go for fried pie, if nothing else.
304 W. Walnut St., Celina | toastedwalnuttableandmarket.com
Spurlock’s Malt Shop
If you aren’t paying attention while you’re cruising down North Powell Parkway, you’ll blow right past this tiny drive-in malt shop. Located in Anna, on a big plot of land, where kids burn off energy post-dessert, Spurlock’s a living, bustling malt shop that rightfully belongs in the ’50s. It’s also the best place around to get fried Oreos, fried Twinkies and funnel fries outside of State Fair season.
According to the owner and operator of Spurlock’s Malt Shop, Kristi Spurlock Perez, the actual building originated as a malt shop when it opened in 1959. Over the decades, it had many different lives; a barbecue pit, a donut shop, and a burger joint, to name a few. Still, no one ever got rid of the big neon malt shop sign that stands at the side of the road. It’s fitting that, now, it’s a malt shop again.
In a previous interview, the owner, Kristi Spurlock Perez, discussed her love for retro aesthetics. When customers call in phone orders, they answer on a pink replica Crosley telephone; when employees start their shifts, they punch in on a green punch card stamper from the days before dial-up. An Elvis hit may play overhead as customers wait for their food, but inside the small space, workers rush to mix pecan butterscotch malts, frying burgers and fried burritos, and compiling Gizmo’s, Spurlock’s signature three-layer sandwich: a ham and cheese with mayo sandwich, topped with a hamburger, topped with mustard, lettuce, tomato, and onion.
Spurlock’s Malt Shop is all as old-school as old-school can get. People crowd after soccer games for celebratory burgers and patty melts, and the Spurlock’s famous super dog. They churn out a surprising amount of meals for how small it is. Customers order from the window and either take it to go, eat sitting on their cars, or scout a table at the detached dining room next door, a pink room with retro soda fountain signs and tables with high stools. Paper towels are self-serve. The same music plays there too, while people wait for their Coyote Pride burgers, double-meat hamburgers between two grilled cheese sandwiches, with bacon, mustard, lettuce, tomato, and onion.
At Spurlock’s Malt Shop, diners who don’t want to sit in their cars, gather with styrofoam cups of shaved ice or share old-fashioned banana splits. They tear open paper bags of pleasantly squashy burgers and fries, sipping marshmallow malts. Kids meals are served in foldable paper convertible cars, fries sticking up out of the back seats. Around sunset, when the lines get long on the lawn, and Spurlock’s neon roadside sign clicks on, it might as well be a 1959 evening again.
504 N. Powell Pkwy., Anna | spurlocksmaltshop.com
Mariana’s Taco Shop
The interior of the red-trimmed house is steamy and small. Indoor seating is regulated to the stools that line a wrap-around counter, broken only by the swinging kitchen door, from which platters of fish burritos, tacos al pastor and chicken enchiladas drenched in salsa verde appear at regular intervals. Mariana’s Taco Shop menu casts a wider net than a gas station taqueria, trading more typical Texas hints for California influences. Their fish burrito is a perfect example, replacing more customary fillings with white fish, cabbage, pico de gallo, and tartar sauce.
It’s simple here: classic carnitas and tacos al pastor, fried tilapia wrapped in a warm flour tortilla with tartar sauce and pico de gallo slaw. This food is best eaten with a friend and a Coca Cola, at a picnic bench under one of Mariana’s wide green or red umbrellas.
8981 5th St., Frisco | marianasfrisco.com
A 41-seat restaurant in a historical building—actually, in what used to be Governor Throckmorton’s office—Rye combines all the best elements of modern dining: local sourcing, small plating, an unpretentious atmosphere, passion for the craft, and a menu that rotates like a carousel. Rye offers bento-box style sandwiches and sides for lunch; for brunch, the kitchen presents silver dollar pancakes, duck confit hash, and a weekly, rotating riff on French toast. Sometimes they host special dinners featuring interesting ingredients or cultures, like WhistlePig, or the Pacific Northwest.
As one of the new owners and general manager, Tanner Agar, explains, the traditional restaurant business involves the building of chains, the ritual of red meat, potatoes, and green vegetables on a plate, and in it, there are often more boundaries than freedoms. In his view, build that, and, “You’ve built yourself a prison.”
At Rye, under the supervision of Executive Chef Taylor Rause, food is still art. They play with ingredients, creating small, shareable plates instead of individual entrees, embracing the unpredictability of local sourcing, and the benefits of their small, nimble scale. Guests come back as the seasons change, knowing that every meal is, in a way, the first. Your eighth, ninth, tenth meal will still be full of surprises and culinary twists that make your heart beat faster.
Nothing on the fall menu encapsulates Rye’s soul quite like the Corn-ucopia, a small plate that utilizes one ingredient in as many different ways as possible, all of its subtleties laid bare. It starts with a hot, satisfying base of red corn grits, topped with a hunk of what looks like butter—but isn’t. It’s homemade sweet corn ice cream, melting rapidly to pool around fried blue corn tortilla strips. Open the banana leaf and you’ll find a green corn tamale stuffed with tender goat meat and huitlacoche, otherwise known as corn smut, mushrooms that grow on ears of corn.
The cocktail menu, curated by Bar Manager Katherine Moulder, matches the dinner menu’s creativity; Hippie Jimador pairs mezcal’s sweet fire with tequila, yellow chartreuse, and watermelon kombucha with a heavy rim of black lava salt, and a flaming jalapeno. Clearly a Colada is the most interesting Pina Colada on any menu, creamy yet clarified until it’s perfectly clear.
Never leave without dessert, like Rye’s welcome version of Chicago Style Popcorn. A square of creme brulee, served with cheese fritters and savory cheddar cake—not cheddar cheesecake, cheddar cake—and caramel popcorn. It’s a cacophony, sweetness bouncing off cream, then ricocheting off of into the savory pastry crumbs, all unfurled together in shades of orange.
111 W. Virginia St., McKinney | ryemckinney.com
Ogi’s European Deli
This McKinney deli is owned by a Bulgarian couple, Ogi and Dora Stoyanov, who serve old family recipes and some of the best cream cakes you can get in Texas. Ogi Stoyanov brings over 35 years of experience as a sausage maker to the business while his wife, Dora, is the brilliant pastry chef behind the Napoleon and chocolate almond cakes. Order a daily special like Hungarian goulash or boiled Weisswurst with housemade Bavarian sweet mustard. Around lunchtime, regulars come in, hoping to be talked into the homemade soup of the day alongside hot sausage sandwiches or the legendary Reuben (expect homemade sauerkraut).
There are few ways to go wrong with the lunch menu, and even fewer with the desserts, like Dora’s honey cake, a notoriously delicate cream cake that takes two days to complete. Her pastries are a wonder, from strawberries and cream layer cakes to homemade baklava dripping in honey, and black forest cake topped with distinctive maraschino cherries.
1651 W. Eldorado Pkwy., Mckinney | ogisbakery.com
Like a good man, sometimes a good bar is hard to find. You’ll discover this one in downtown Denton, in one of the oldest historic buildings on the square. There is no sign to mark it, no red light above the door. It’s the kind of place that you can only find if you already know where you’re going.
An elegant lounge with sleek cocktails, Paschall Bar—named after the building’s original proprietor—serves both classic cocktails and fine new twists. From the layered Scottish Fog, scotch and Creme de Violette, to Aviators that taste like yesteryear, the menu is both subtle and precise, matching the character of the circa-1877 building where it’s found.
Paschall Bar bills itself as Denton’s only speakeasy. It is part of Andy’s, a three-story entertainment venue with three parts; it is primarily a concert venue, but there is an underground kitchen serving fancy waffles in the basement. The third piece is Paschall Bar. It hides behind a narrow door around the corner from the entrance to Andy’s. Inside, Paschall Bar is laidback and refined, with the tall bookshelves and plush leather seats of a professor’s private study, and the behind-the-bar artistry of a New York black-tie affair.
The mixologists on staff are hard to faze and never rushed. No matter how crowded it gets, every drink receives its due. The showy Smoking Jacket arrives still wreathed in maple wood smoke; the Texas Pecan, whiskey and pecan syrup, has an egg white peak.
Any regular could tell you that Paschall Bar was made for honoring the art of the well-made cocktail. There’s time to sit at the bar and ask for a recommendation, perhaps a signature cocktail aged in American white oak barrels. There’s time to try absinthe, traditionally served from an absinthe fountain, diluted with sugar cubes and ice water. Paschall Bar is well-stocked with board games, pool, darts, and events, like live jazz on Saturdays.
Polished and understated, Paschall Bar is the kind of secret designed for discovery. It’s an undisclosed haven built for lingering, in solitude or with old friends, and a round of French 75s and Negronis.
122 N. Locust St., Denton | andysdenton.com
You’ll see the words in bright yellow on the right side of the Jusgo Supermarket at Legacy and Highway 75. There is no website. It’s mostly cash-only. The food court is quietly notorious; among hot dining spots like Legacy Hall and nicer courts like Mitsuwa Market next door, there’s a reason this one still has its staunch following.
For example, Morefan, a Xi’anese stall, serves buttery two-foot-long noodles with succulent bites of pork belly so substantial that oily splatters of the brothy sauce are unavoidable. Hakka Express, tucked in a corner, is still one of the best places to find knife-cut noodles and popcorn chicken with dry noodles. Plano Sokongdong Tofu offers the best of Korean cuisine, like cold buckwheat noodles, short ribs and seafood, beef, and tofu soups. The same food court has Sushi Spot center stage, serving the kind of quality sushi you’d expect in a sleek downtown sushi lounge: spider rolls with tempura shrimp, the delicate Pink Lady topped with crab salad; a dragon roll with jewel-toned caviar.
240 Legacy Dr. #308, Plano
Lucy’s on the Square
You know that quintessential diner, with longhorn heads on the walls, country music on the radio, and scattered neon signs? It’s where you can find the second-best coconut cream pie in the world? (The first best, is the pie your mom and/or grandmother makes, according to our waitress.) In Celina, that place is Lucy’s on the Square. It’s appropriate at all hours and for all comers. No one puts on airs, no one stands on ceremony. Everyone orders something fried.
Lucy’s on the Square is in the historic part of downtown Celina, and it shows it with vintage photographs and one huge metal cow standing in an alcove above the dining room wearing lipstick. The menu has fried pepperjack and fried mushrooms for appetizers, and chicken fried steak and Punk Carter bacon-wrapped meatloaf for entrees. Catfish comes in its cornmeal batter, and it’s breakfast time until three in the afternoon. The BLT is triple-stacked, mayo on Texas toast, with bacon and thick slices of tomato. You can order bacon and jalapeños on your 12-ounce cheeseburger. And there, life is as it should be.
127 N. Ohio St., Celina | lucysonthesquare.com
The Volstead Room at Prohibition Chicken
Prohibition Chicken draws in visitors with the siren song of fried chicken and whiskey. In the main dining room, it’s hard not to notice the antique, red telephone booth between the kitchen and a row of whiskey barrels. Go inside. If you know what to to dial—and if there’s room inside—you are granted access into a sleek red-lit lounge. It is a separate bar experience, complete with bartenders in 1920s dress, and a whole new atmosphere. TV sets show visions of historic Lewisville. Old, framed photos around the shadowed booths honor actual bootleggers.
Named for the National Prohibition Act of 1920, The Volstead Room serves all of Prohibition Chicken’s food, fried chicken and Nashville hot chicken sandwiches. However, though Prohibition Chicken has a phenomenal bar of its own, The Volstead Room merits a unique, separate cocktail menu. Options include the Original Gangster, built around a fine Japanese single malt, and the Berry 75, bright with champagne and gin.
201 W. Church St., Lewisville | prohibitionchicken.com
Originally published in the January 2020 Hidden Collin Issue of Local Profile under the title “Under the Radar Restaurants”