A recent survey in Men’s Health ranks Plano as the third best city for men based on “health,” “life” and “fitness.” Here’s the deal: it’s really hard to decipher how it is that the periodical came to this conclusion, other than they claim to have measured 37 categories.  And, I can’t tell you what those 37 categories are, because after perusing the article for a good 15-20 minutes, I gave up trying to figure out the math that went into this oh, so scientific survey. What I can tell you is that Plano finished first in weight training, based on a study in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, according to the Men’s Health article. So, there’s that cause for celebration, too!

However, according to The Business Journals, Plano does top all other Texas cities in ‘brainpower.’ This ranking came from educational statistics compiled from U.S. Census data. This stat might also come from the Men’s Health determination that Plano is considered the “most tech-friendly” city in America. Interestingly enough, this was determined by counting the number of Apple and Best Buy stores per capita, as well as the percentage of households that own tablets, notebooks, or laptops. Way to go, Amex warriors of Plano! I won’t mention that there is also an article stating that viewing nude women can boost your brainpower too (oops, I just mentioned it). Now we have a guess as to what’s being bookmarked on those laptops and tablets, I suppose? 

Plano sure seems to be the “tops” of its fair share of categories. They did miss out one one crown, however. Turns out, Plano did not top the list of “Cavity Capitals”. Alas, Dallas took home that most anti-dentite of titles.

While we left May’s North Texas Beer Festival slightly underwhelmed (just slightly), we left with some grand impressions on a couple of brews that we knew we wanted to get to know much better than through the 2-3 oz samples we met them with at the very crowded, long-line-filled festival in Plano.

In fact, the beer that left me longing more than any other that day was one that I had been told once before to give a shot, actually. A few months ago, we stopped for a quick quality beer at Dallas’ Meddlesome Moth before a meeting, and as we were ready to leave, the bartender, realizing I had just downed one of their stout offerings said, “Bro, you gotta give the Jester King Black Metal a shot, now.” Unfortunately, we had to leave, but those words were at top of mind as the all-too small sample made its deep impression on out taste buds and frontal lobes at the festival.

This week, we found ourselves with reason to celebrate, and what better way to do that than with a premium beer that has haunted you for months, yet remained unexperienced fully to this point? After a stop into the wonderland that is Plano’s Mister G’s (for real, whether you’re looking for beer, wine or a great deli sandwich, this place is a practical toy store for adults), we had our eager hands on a 750 ml bottle of the Jester King Black Metal.

Easily one of the better Russian Imperial Stouts we’ve ever tasted, Jester King, located just outside of Austin, has simply done it and done it right. Weighing in at a seemingly weighty 10.4% ABV, the chocolatey, smokey, nutty and robust nectar has smooth and full mouth-feel yet never tastes like the pure alcohol that one might expect from a brew boasting a ABV that’s over twice what the typical Miller Lite limps in with.

As great as the beer itself is, Jester King just seems to know how to have fun and how to market their brews to their fellow Texans. The black bottle contains sweet, glam-metal-riffic artwork that would satisfy any KISS fan and the description of the beer that’s located on the back label boasts that it’s a “cruel and punishing brew fermented by the sheer force of its awesome will.” Can’t we all agree that a brewery that puts as much effort into the packaging and marketing of their product as they do in the quality of it is one that we should all get behind?

I thought so…

It’s now been a couple of months since the horrendous happenings that basically tore apart Joplin, MO occurred. The video footage of the tornadoes ripping through the small town still makes most of us wince and should still make us all feel a little helpless inside.

Even as far south as Plano, TX, though, people refuse to forget and refuse to let the helplessness feelings take over. A great group of artists will be taking the stage in an effort to raise money for The Joplin Recovery Fund.

On Sunday, July 31, a fine and talented group of Singer/Songwriters, primarily based in north Texas will take one of our favorite stages anywhere, Love & War in Texas (Plano), and play their hearts out to get some money and supplies to those who so desperately need it right now.

Zane Williams, Saille Branch, Guthrie Kennard, Andrew Delaney and Michael Prysock are among many performers that will be hosted by Brett Dillon of KHYI 95.3 The Range on the 30th from 12pm to 6pm.

We found out about this event when we came upon this touching video tribute to the town of Joplin by Michael Prysock, a talented, Dallas-based songwriter who grew up in Arkansas, not too far from the region he’s trying to help now. Here’s that video for Prysock’s “Joplin.”

Growing up in Texarkana, all Craig Monroe cared about was sports, in particular baseball. A standout in almost any type of physical activity, Monroe eventually had to choose between football and baseball, however, getting picked up by the Texas Rangers organization made the decision pretty easy.

Monroe graduated from Texas Senior High 1985, “I decided I was going to do everything in my power to get myself a chance to be professional baseball player,” Monroe recalls while sitting in the corner booth of his new Plano sports bar, Twenty7, the number he wore in seven seasons as an outfielder for the Detroit Tigers,“I started in the minors in Tulsa as part of the Texas Rangers organization. I decided very early I was going to work harder and try harder than anyone else and I got a chance to play for my hometown team in the Texas Rangers.”

While bumped up to AAA Oklahoma City when he got the call to come to Dallas after Ruben Sierra was put on the injured list, Craig explains, “I was up with the Rangers for three months, but at the end of the season they needed a roster spot for a pitcher and I was put on waivers.” Monroe smiles with a professional athlete’s confidence earned in ‘The Show,’ “I don’t think I was on waivers for more than a day when the Detroit Tigers called and I was on the way to join them.”

As a hard-hitting outfielder, Monroe earned a spot in the starting lineup and even made the trek every kid with a bat dreams of: competing in the 2006 World Series. Grins Craig, “I’m actually very proud that I managed to tie Hank Greenberg for most home runs by a Tiger in a world series.”

As his career began to wind down, he was traded to Chicago and then the Pirates. In the end, Craig had to find a life after baseball. Now a full time resident of Frisco, he’s teamed up with some other industry veterans to create Twenty7, a baseball themed sports bar with quality food usually expected to be found at a higher-end Gastro-Pub.

The food, which is really quite amazing, comes courtesy of Jonny Weisman, formerly the kitchen wizard at The Rugby House. Jonny has been making a name for himself since moving to the Dallas area a few years ago as one of the best pup chefs in the area.

On the menu Weisman has created a number of unique dishes to augment the high quality traditional fresh cut fish and chips and burgers. Case in point: A mango-based bruchetta adorned with fresh mozzarella which is wrapped in panchetta and topped with a lime-infused mango salsa that makes for a wonderfully light, bright and extremely tasty appetizer. “We wanted to put together a menu, right off the bat, that has some light items as well as the traditional bar offerings,” Weisman explains. He’s also reached into his bag of tricks to create a Cuban fried rice served as a side and as the base of the Taco del Mar Fish Tacos.

Weisman also brings his deft touch to spare ribs that should have a warning label on them: After one bite, the slow cooked meat literally leaps off the bone, so make sure you lean over the plate and adorn your lap with a napkin. Rounding off the delights I experienced were lightly battered fresh cut haddock and multi cheese mac’n’cheese that was so sinfully rich, it darn near gave me heart palpatations.

The bar itself is decorated with some of Craig’s own memorabilia from his years with the Tigers and other items from friends and other famous players. The uniform worn by the young ladies working at the bar is a sexy variation of the “ball girl” uniform.

Taking the Sport-Bar+Gastro-Pub mixture, adding in a pinch of “breastaurant” with the sexy outfits, and rounding it out with an additional side of non stop high-def televisions might just prove to be a winning combination.

Twenty7 also sports – no pun intended – another section originally meant to be a small ultra-lounge attached to the bar. However, the plan has been modified to bring more of a game room lounge to the location. “We just think this will work better in this location, we want to expand on our theme and business center rather than trying to do the ultra lounge in Plano,” explains GM James Brown.

The official grand opening kicks off August 27th. Craig admits he’s a little nervous, “My whole life has been about hitting, running and throwing. This is the first real job I’ve ever had.” His smile is rather electric and the anticipation of getting this bar off the ground is something that is really energizing him,“I really hope this is the first one…” he smiles with confidence again knowing the premise, if successful could be the foundation of a multi location business.

3100 Independence Parkway Ste 299
Plano Texas 75075

Man, oh man. There are certain afternoons where I am convinced that I couldnt be experiencing what I am at experiencing at that given moment in any other state. Sure, that’s a bit shallow, perhaps. There are many unique locales that boast myriad opportunities, unique to their perspective areas that we, as Texans, may not be privy to on a regular basis. Regardless, last Sunday afternoon (and many other previous Sunday afternoons, for that matter) was one such moment where I felt especially Texan.

For eight spring and summers running, I have made a point to attend at least a few Shiner Sundays at the Plano, TX location of Love & War in Texas. For a couple of dozen Sunday afternoons each year, the best and biggest names on the Texas Country scene share the stage with the most promising newcomers, while all of it is broadcast live on KHYI 95.3, The Range. Personal highlights from the past, for me, have been due to solid, and perhaps rare parings of talent. In 2004, Jesse Dayton and Dale Watson carried out a marathon set, with Dayton and his band playing for literally hours beyond the two hour broadcast portion of the show. Last year, Darryl Lee Rush and Jason Boland packed the Hill Country-style patio to its absolute capacity and turned the time into their own mini-Red Dirt festival.

As I prepare to head on over for this weeks boffo bill, featuring Charlie Robison and John David Kent as the opener, I cant help but wonder how tough it will be for today’s acts to top the show from last week, featuring a prodigal Texan, Zane Williams, fresh off of his return from writing hits in Nashville and one of the finest writers to ever come out of the heralded tradition on the Brazos, Hal Ketchum.

Looking more grizzled than suave with his glorious mane tamed by father time, Ketchum professionally worked through his catalog of solid, radio hits from the 1990′s. Truthfully, I had forgotten how many great tunes the man has in his considerable portfolio. Few need reminding that the simple-life classic “Small Town Saturday Night” is his, but I’ll be darned if “Sure Love”, “Hearts Are Gonna Roll” and “Stay Forever” werent every bit as enjoyable to hear again. Ketchum brought the reverent crowd to their feet, and to tears (literally, in many cases that I personally witnessed) with an acapella rendtion of “Yesterday’s Gone”, a song that he wrote in honor of and about his Grandfather. Simply beautiful.

It really was an amazingly Texan afternoon. For most Sunday’s, Love & War in Texas is all about the love

Kelly Dearmore is a freelance writer, mean pot of chili maker and opinionated music lover. To read more about what Kelly is listening to, visit him here on The Squawker weekly or daily on his personal music blog, The Gobblers Knob

Something interesting has been cooking in Old Downtown Plano. Over the last year, in particular, there has been a sudden and dramatic change in an area of the world seemed to have written off.

Just steps from the DART station up and down what used to be the core of a sleepy whistle stop on the Interurban Rail Line a row of old buildings once mostly abandoned or decrepit have been reborn and become home to a cluster of hidden gems of culinary expression.

Almost a decade ago Jorg’s Café Vienna opened where the explosive suburban growth of Plano had moved north and east, at that time there was nothing but second hand shops, the occasional antique store but nothing but empty for blocks. Developers began to retask the area with mixed use condo’s and some new retail development but only lately have diners been able to find high quality independent restaurants each with its own distinct flavor.

“We decided to open a second restaurant here mainly because we know the guys across the street at Fillmore’s.” explains Sean Teele, who along with partner Miles Zuniga have operated Vickery Garden, the Slip Inn and recently opened The Hacienda on Henderson. “We watched Fillmore’s and decided this area had the right potential and really the right feel for us too.”

The building they moved into presented its own unique challenges having a life that has included being a pharmacy, doctor’s offices, a sports bar, and many other incarnations over the years from when it was first built in 1896. “If you were designing an efficient floor plan for a lounge and eatery it sure would not be like this, but working around and using the existing structure is part of the authenticity we really like.”

During the renovations and even before as a large addition was tacked onto the back of the 14th Street location many artifacts of the buildings history have been found including dozens of pharmaceutical bottles in an area that used to be a “dump” for the business. The front façade is narrow but the building stretches back from the street and is broken into two large rooms. The front houses the bar top and dining booths wrapped in dark wood and leather, the back room is appointed with comfortable sofas and chairs. The entire lounge/eatery concept is swathed in deep rich earth tones which is set off by soft lighting and candles.

“The lighting is something. We couldn’t find any fixtures we liked so we went to Home Depot and bought these black iron lantern fixtures and a mosaic glass tile kit. It took effort but it ended up being as close to what we wanted as we could get. Finding antique fixtures like that would have been cost and time prohibitive.” Explains Teele.

The unique nature of the Lounge Eatery concept also allows for other twists on the traditional like displaying local artists work (which is also for sale) one of the bartenders is actually the artist behind the current selection. The bold color splashes of the art is set off by halogen task lighting and gives the place a very organic comfortable feeling.

“We like to offer comfort food with a twist, some places do fusion or blends of tastes but we like to think our flavors collide rather than blend.” Teele points out everything is scratch cooked with fresh mostly local produce.

An example of how the “Collision of Flavor” concept works is in almost every item on the menu. A spicy Buffalo Chicken sauce is added to a plate of fried Calamari creating a truly unique twist on a bar staple.

The Pulled Pork sandwich comes with a Hosin based barbeque sauce that is very reminiscent of a traditional Korean Barbeque rather than a typical Texas smoke house.

Then there is the Brisket Sandwich. Slow roasted brisket is covered with a sweet creamy Kahlua cream sauce. At first glance your brain says no but the sweet and meat is something your taste buds will never forget. It comes with a bowl of fresh cut fruit and a side of the Kahlua crème sauce to dip the fruit in.

A bucket sized bowl of steamed mussels might also sate the pallet but alongside all the unique dishes Vickery Park offers a selection of Craft Beers any Gastro pub would be proud of and a quality selection of wines for any taste or budget.

“We are very proud that you will probably never find any of our dishes on another eatery’s menu. The last thing we want is to be like “Everyone else”. It is kind of like the building, we could go out and build a standalone structure in a parking lot that is perfect, a place where you don’t need a map to find the bathroom, but it would lack the character, authenticity and feel of this place.”

The nature of the location also extends into the night. By day, the location is a restaurant/bar by night a lounge with an entirely different feel and crowd. Being so close to the only thing that passes as mass transit in Dallas the Dart station has a blessing. “We are starting to see the downtown area become far more pedestrian friendly. One thing people have, as a pre conception, about this area is that there is no place to park, nothing could be further from the truth. Besides the street parking right out front there are literally hundreds of parking spots within steps from our front door. I only wish they would run the DART a little later in the night. I honestly believe people want to be able to utilize that service.”

With an ever-increasing roster of unique places to dine and go out the Downtown Plano area and Vickery Park will continue to become a slightly hidden gem in the culinary mosaic of the area. An area that has been reborn.

Dallas Location
2810 N. Henderson Ave
Dallas Texas 75206

Plano Location
1011 East 15th Street
Plano Texas 75074

Gordon Biersch is a brewpub; this is different from a gourmet tap or gastro pub in that they actually brew their own beer in-house. That beer, and the process of making it in huge vats, have become part of the destination aspect of Gordon Biersch – the other half is the exceptionally well presented food.

The craft brewed beers are Golden Export, Hefeweizen, Czech Pilsner, Marzen, Schwarzbier and a selection of seasonal choices. The seasonals are traditional German beers like Winter Dark, Oktoberfest and summer brews that bring a constant variable into the mix. All the beers were developed by Founder Dan Gordon and in the Plano location they fall under the guidance of brewmaster David Huls.

David first started brewing beer with a Mister Beer kit back in the early 1990’s while he was working for Greyhound Bus Lines as a dispatcher, “I started with one of those and because I have a natural tendency to tinker and experiment I started trying to figure out other styles and types of beer.” After moving with Greyhound and associated companies doing dispatch and logistics, the call of the brew began to consume his thoughts. While sitting with his wife discussing career options, they decided he was going to pursue the brew full time.

After graduating from the American Brewers Guild program in Vermont, he took a job in Dallas as the in house brewer for Humperdinks and even won a silver medal in competition for the taste and quality of his product. ‘Dinks’ decided to move his store in a different direction and when Gordon Biersch came to town, David started setting up a major little brewery on the side of the Legacy location.

Gordon Biersch takes its name from the founding partners Dan Gordon, a brew master and graduate of the old world schools of brewing got together with restaurateur and foodie, Dean Biersch, and began a new concept brew pub in Palo Alto California. From those roots in 1988, the company found an eager customer base looking for their unique product.

In California, at that time, the population was exploding with the tech boom, and the area around Silicon Valley’s highly educated and affluent customer base became the target demographic for G/B. They began expanding locations up and down the west coast and reaching into the interior in locations with similar demographics. Affluent, educated and well-traveled clients expect quality in food, demand choice and appreciates top-notch service.

Around the same time, on the eastern part of the country a company called Big River Breweries was using nearly the same approach. From a headquarters in Chattanooga Tennessee they had expanded up and down the east coast. A time came where the competitors were going to start running into each other but instead of chopping their own market places Big River bought Gordon Biersch from its owner Las Vegas Casino operator and Mixed Marshall Arts promoter Lorenzo Feritta.

Feritta had purchased G/B in 1996 and provided the backing to take the brew house to the next level. If you look back at old UFC and MMA videos the Gordon Biersch label is a sponsor of the new combat fighting but as the cage fighting began to really take off Feritta sold out to Big River to invest in taking the combat sport to the next level and has gone from merely wealthy to silly wealthy along the way.

As the two operations blended their business’ plans the Headquarters remained in Tennessee and more expansion began. Plano’s Toll Way corridor was a natural with some of the highest value zip codes in the country. When the Shops at Legacy started on Phase two on the north East corner of the Dallas North Tollway it seemed like the ideal. Microsoft had announced they were moving in with their Gaming Division and Hotel’s and other amenities were getting approval.

Then the bottom fell out of the economy and credit lines dried, commercial real-estate developers began reevaluating projects and Microsoft never arrived. Gordon Biersch had opened to a mostly empty development that has steadily been filling in but nothing like the plans said.

“I guess we were a little arrogant when we first opened,” General Manager David Kim says, “We had been such a success in every market we had entered and I am sure if the development had been at the stage we were told it was going to be, things would have been different.” Kim is a long time G/B fixer who came from successful stores in San Diego to find the place somewhat in turmoil. Microsoft had bailed, the “Hotel” was a vacant lot and even the residential development was months behind schedule.

“We decided that even with all the space and possibilities we had we were going to concentrate our efforts on doing what we do best, great food, great beer and especially Great Service,”

One thing you notice about the staff is they all know their product, and there isn’t one “typical” waiter or waitress in the place. “There are a lot of places that seem to hire people based on how they look, as if they only have one size of uniform and they hire staff to be able to fit in, rather than look for the personality and ability. You will see all shapes, sizes and colors here. It is more important that they can do the job very well than they conform to a uniform look.” Kim probably spends more training and retraining staff than most bars or restaurants spend on advertising. “It is simple, really, we want our customer to have an exceptional experience every time they come in. In every market we are in there are dozens of options for a customer and if you are selling based on look or trying to be the price leader there is a point where the service will be sacrificed.”

With over 7000 square feet of dining and bar area the restaurant can accommodate a couple of hundred diners at a time and the processes they have put in place have to work on slow days as well as those days they near capacity.

If the old rule of “Eating with your eyes first” is true then your pupil’s are in for a treat, each dish on the menu is very tasty but the presentation of each is simply excellent. Beginning with a Seared Ahi Tuna Salad, it is served on a curved triangular plate and looks somewhat like an Easter bonnet created by a chef. The tuna is seared to hold the flavor and consistency, served over a bed of field greens and has a Märzen Balsamic Vinaigrette and a Cajun Remoulade that zig zags its way across the plate.

Even something simple like a Southwest Grilled Chicken sandwich is served on a diagonally cut baguette and served standing on end like a strange mountain towering over Garlic Fries. Lighter fair like a Hummus and Goat Cheese salad is served over flatbread and also utilizes their in house Märzen based Balsamic Vinaigrette.

The Märzen Beer base seems to be thematic throughout the cooking process and is the base of an Asian inspired barbeque sauce that caramelizes Oyster sauce, and is glistening brown on the grilled Salmon. The salmon is an inch thick slab served with a Balsamic dipped and grilled red onion section and sweet Thai Jasmine Rice and fresh spinach.

“Everything we prepare in the kitchen is scratch prepared using local, when possible, fresh product. We think, by concentrating on the quality of the food and delivery of the staff we will be in a position to handle anything the market can throw at us.” As Kim is talking about how well trained the staff is and the standards he expects from everyone there is a training session going on behind him. One of the experienced staff members is testing newly hired wait staff on the ingredients of various meal options by placing prepared plates on the table and getting the staff not only to know but experience the dishes so they can add their own take to the standard descriptions.

The staff is also instructed in how various flavors combine with their beer selections to help customers experience more for their visit.

The Beers the other David brews all have to hold to the German Beer Standard Rein Heit Segbat of 1516 that standardizes the content and process of what Beer is and should be. All the ingredients are natural with Malt coming from Germany, hops, yeast, grains and water. That is it. The beer is natural and fresh and has no stabilizers or flavor additives and some of it is served in specific glassware. The Dark German Wintergarden brew in a tankard mug, the Amber colored Märzen in a tall wide glass and the Heffenwisen golden wheat in a tall pilsner. Each has its own specific way of preparation and the taps behind the bar are tied back into the brewery’s cold room.

The process in the brewery is exacting and precise and was developed by Dan Gordon, who still operates the Gordon Biersch bottling facility in San Jose California. The Bottled selections are available at many gourmet stores like Central Market and Whole Foods but one of the more interesting things as a brewer is the ability of a customer purchasing directly from the bar a large reusable bottle to take home.

“As a brewer we can self distribute ourselves, and a customer buys one of the big flasks and can come in and get it refilled as many times as they want.” Says David “We can also do Kegs but at this point we have not yet. If the market demands and someone has the ability to have one in their home we would be more than willing to accommodate them.”

Customers are regularly invited into the brewery to watch David work his recipes into beer. The left over mulch from the process is sold to a local farmer who feeds it to very happy sheep.

The Golden Export is a smooth lager with a dry finish and a slightly hoppy taste, the Hefeweizen won a bronze medal at the 2007 American Beer Festival for its light sparkling refreshing flavor. The Märzen is an Amber somewhat like a Shiner for those who like that sort of thing and the Czech Pilsner is a two time Gold Medal winning medium golden colored Bohemian. The dark German Black Beer Schwarzbier is another multiple gold medal winning combination and is a molasses dark color with a light body.

“When people think dark beer they automatically think Guinness which is served warm and is a pretty thick beer the Schwarzbier is really light in texture in comparison and served cold but it is one of my personal favorites.” David admits he usually is somewhat enamored with which ever seasonal he has on tap. “Soon we will be moving on to our Maybach which is a German amber but right now it is the Winterbach. We also have FestBier which is a more modern take and an Imperial Pilsner which has around a 7% alcohol by volume.”

A second local Gordon Biersch has just opened down in North Park/Park Lane area of Dallas, again seeking the customer base that has been so successful for them in other markets from San Jose to Annapolis Maryland.

The bar and restaurant scene around Dallas Fort Worth is somewhat unique in opportunities and growth potential. It seems to act as a test bed for good ideas and the tremendous variety of excellent choices and good business operators is not unlike a proving ground for those who dream of owning their own business.

Two of the more successful examples can be traced back to a good idea with roots in Dallas’ Schneider Plaza. Originally a deli, then Michelle’s Café, then later Shell’s Seafood which became Half Shells and spun the origin of Rock Fish and Twin Peaks and Fish City Grill.

Dallas is not exactly the first place you think of when considering fresh seafood, but Bill Bayne started even farther from the ocean by working at a fish diner called Penguins in far West Texas. Bayne explains, “I came to Dallas to go to graduate school because I had been working as a waiter in college and, oddly, I wanted to get an education so I wouldn’t be stuck working in restaurants.” A smile crosses his face as he looks around the Half Shell’s at the Shops at Legacy. With some experience and a freshly minted graduate degree, he went to work at Nate’s Seafood in Addison in accounting and managing.

“I remember it well, I started at Nate’s just at the same time that Tiananmen Square was happening. I had just come back from a backpacking trip to China I went on just after graduation. It was so odd sitting in Nate’s watching that go on,” Bill remembers. After 8 years working in a variety of roles from accounting to bar and kitchen manager at Nate’s, the entrepreneurial spirit kicked in and Bill began looking for an opportunity of his own.

In Schneider Plaza there was a location called Michelle’s Café, owned by Randy and Michelle DeWitt. Together they shortened the name to Shell’s and began to offer Cajun inspired upscale casual fish-centric food. It began to take off and soon more locations were being sought but a big bump was about to hit.

The name Shell’s Seafood was apparently trademarked by a company out of Florida, which Bill and Randy found out when notice of a lawsuit arrived. So, creatively, a Half was added and a new venture was set to open at Preston and Park in Plano – the first Rock Fish.

Schneider Plaza continued under the Half Shells banner but it wasn’t long until some differences led to the end of the partnership. “We had some philosophical differences, Randy wanted to go with stand alone locations in the big box areas and I really thought our “Sweet Spot” was “in line” locations inside developments like the Shops at Legacy with high pedestrian traffic near upscale women’s fashion stores.” Bill points out that Rock Fish was really successful with their push to big box locations, “We parted company and I ended up with the Schneider Plaza location as part of the dissolution.”

“I really love that location, I have a lot of good memories from that place including meeting my wife there.” His wife, Lovett, was working as a waitress when they met and many of the current staff give her outgoing personality credit for being just the thing that perfectly fit with his. “We didn’t want to fall into the same issues we had with the Shell’s name. We had a contest with staff and customers to find a name that we could trademark and Fish City Grill won.”

Walking into the Schneider Plaza location you are struck by how small it is, compact might be an overstatement or understatement depending on your perspective. Barely 40 seats available and outside patio seating for another dozen, the snug location still manages to push over a million dollars of sales through the arched doorway every year. The Plano Half Shell’s is easily three times the size and shares many of the same thematic style of home made signs with catchy double entendres.

If you were to try and find a word to describe the décor, the words “Lake Cabin” pop to mind. This carries over to the Fish City Grill locations, as does the menu. “Fish City and Half Shells are one in the same.”

With two Half Shell and 21 Fish City locations from Colorado to Florida, the concept had taken on a life of it’s own. There have been other bumps along the way, but Bill credits a couple of things implemented early to their success, “Our chalk board menu gives some control to each location to run their own specials. All the dishes have to be approved by me, but each day the manager can run with what is available and customize their own line up.” Even the old Schneider Plaza location still sells the majority of its dinners from the “board” rather than the printed menu, “This keeps the choices as a constant variable.”

One of the items on the printed menu Bill is particularly proud of is the Clam Nachos, he smiles, “It is one of the few things I developed myself.” A salty tortilla chip is swathed with tangy and spicy chipotle tartar sauce, topped with a cornmeal breaded clam and finished with fresh pico and guacamole. The variety of flavors tickle your taste buds with enough spicy-cool variety to make you stop and say, “wow.”

At Schneider Plaza the lead chalkboard item on the day Best of Texas stopped by was a Macadamia Crusted Flounder served with mashed potatos and steamed asparagus. The light flaky fish balanced the crisp texture of the breading making a brilliant combination.

“You have to remember Texas does have the third longest coastline after Alaska and Florida. While we may be inland here in Dallas, we have some great suppliers,” Says Bill. The success of the restaurants has been helped by market trends towards fish as a healthier option to the traditional meat and potato dinner.

The issues facing any fish specialty include those who simply hold a personal bias against seafood explains Bill,  “I am pretty proud of our non seafood items too, like Mexican Meatloaf, but sticking with our core strength is going to be things our cooks have developed. I do get asked when we are going to offer a steak and I say never. After all, we know, we are a fish restaurant.”

In recent years sustainability of the fisheries has become an issue in some areas. A number of years ago the Northern Cod fishery off the East Coast of Canada was completely closed due to a number of factors from overfishing and overpopulation of seals pressuring the fishery that was once thought bottomless. Muses Bill, “We do have some people who ask about that, but it is pretty rare, the biggest thing is having a supplier you know you can trust.” The nine local DFW locations all rely on Fruge’s Seafood and locations in Denver have their own supply chain.

“We also use both farm raised and wild salmon. Some people will swear they prefer one over the other, but given availability we offer many seasonal choices, too.” Seafood, shell fish, and lake fare like trout and crawfish are also staples of the menu. “Some things like tilapia are the basis of many of our dishes and we make great use of shrimp and other things that are local to Texas fisheries.”

In any rapidly growing business like Fish City/Half Shells, finding the right people to work in the locations can be a challenge. Explaining his process, “We can teach a process to almost anyone but you can’t teach personality. For the servers the biggest thing is “Would I want to go out for a drink with this person”, and for managers it is if we think the person is someone we would invite to our own dinner table for dinner. That qualifier has helped us find some great people, some have been with us from the beginning and others have become great friends.”

There have been some hard lessons as the upscale retail areas they decided to anchor their locations around have taken a considerable hit with the recession, “I think we did get a little arrogant with our real-estate choices. Denver is a great example of when commercial development grew faster than the population could support we made a mistake in growing too quickly there. We recently closed one of our two locations there, the surviving location is now doing great business but we really had to make some tough choices.” Of the 23 locations 8 of them are “Company Stores” with the others being franchised.

“That business hub of corporations here in Dallas specializing in food has been great for us, a number of our franchisees are ex Brinker executives. Bennigan’s and TGIFriday’s have also been great sources of experience for us as well. There are over 250 people employed in the locations and around 18 in the Addison corporate offices. It is necessary to have a Human Resources person to handle the administrative side but I still like to know who works for us.”

The fish business has been as good to Bill and Lovett as they have been to it. The original cramped location has blossomed into a growing empire that has managed to maintain a personal touch that can only be achieved with a personal interest. It is obvious that Bill still loves to go to work every day. The variable of 8 chalkboard items along with the regular menu seems to keep the customer base happy to come in too.

On Saturday, September 19, 2009 at approximately 2 o’clock in the afternoon, my husband Joshua almost brutally attacked me. Though, had he attacked, it would’ve have been in self-defense. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Though I’d already consumed breakfast burritos, funnel cake, German roasted nuts and a chocolate dipped, fried Twinkie that morning at the Plano Balloon Festival, my father-in-law, Don, convinced us to meet him up at Ringo’s Pub in Plano. Though I’m pretty wary of supposed Irish pubs and suspicious of most places at The Shops at Legacy, Don claimed Ringo’s had a real neighborhood bar feel and great food, so off we went.

First off, finding Ringo’s Pub among the chain restaurants, cougar-filled bars and high-end boutiques that heavily pepper The Shops at Legacy was near impossible. But in the pub’s defense, I think it’s a brilliant strategy: shun the shoppers and the see-and-be-seens, cater to the actual residents in the immediate area. Tucked away on a barren side ‘street’ behind the Angelika, one of the first things you’ll notice is the pretty little patio adorned with umbrellas and flowers. But don’t be fooled into thinking the place a little too chi-chi, once inside you quickly realize that Ringo’s is all about the beer, food and conversation.

Music leaks quietly from the speakers, the televisions are muted, in fact, even the lone video crack machine is silent. Even on a packed Saturday night, Ringo’s owners ensure that the patrons can actually hear each other, let alone hear themselves think. The bar staff is friendly and the beer selection diverse without being confusing. After settling ourselves at the bar, bartender Max handed us menus as I asked what his favorite item on the menu was. His response, “The Ringo Burger.”

After a great deal of discussion and haggling it was decided that I’d try the pot roast sandwich, Don would order the fish and chips, Chris would go for the Reuben and Joshua would take a stab at the Ringo Burger. Little did we know Joshua was about to be confronted with epic cheeseburger porn of the Tex-Mex/Irish persuasion.

burgerweb1When the Ringo Burger arrived I’m pretty sure we heard the sounds of trumpets and I’m positive the burger had some sort of golden aura about it. There it was, nearly 6 inches of stacked meaty goodness. We stared in awe at the layers – starting from to to bottom – griddled bun, lettuce, tomato, red onion, 1/3 lb hamburger patty, two sliced bangers, queso, two crisp onion rings, griddled bun – all held together with the stabby force of a large steak knife. So drawn to the monster, I got up and walked over to where Joshua was sitting. I just wanted to stare at it a little, scout’s honor. But as I approached and caught wind of the aroma of this bovine beastie, without realizing it, I actually made a grab for the burger.

All hell broke loose.

I saw a primal, venomous hatred leap forth from my husband’s eyes. Shoulders hunched to his ears, teeth bared, he raised his hand to me. It was shocking and frightening. This once gentle man had suddenly turned on me with the fury of a rabid badger. He actually growled a little. I backed away very slowly and returned to my seat.

My pot roast sandwich looked so meager in comparison and although quite delish, I had a difficult time swallowing it as I was trying to choke back my seething envy. I nibbled at Don’s fish and chips, flaky and tender cod nestled in a perfect crispy coating, still no dice. Chris offered a bite of the Reuben, and though not crazy about the skimpy amount of corned beef, the marbled rye was a winner. Finally, while picking through my sweet potato fries, I heard a voice. “Sweetie, do you want to try a bite of the burger?”

Does a bear take the latest copy of Entertainment Weekly to the woods?

I cautiously approached. Once I made sure the steak knife was out of my husband’s reach, I confronted the burger with both hands, sized up where, exactly to take the ‘perfect bite’ and then somehow managed to unhinge my jaws in a way that would make a rattlesnake proud. The lone bite I was allowed was extraordinary. Juicy, sloppy, crunchy, onion-y, cheesy, hamburger greatness exploded in my mouth. The well seasoned bangers coupled with the chargrilled hamburger patty made my little taste buds dance with delight. As I approached for a second bite, Joshua swept in grappling for the burger while emphatically crying, “No!” Fearing for my life, I submitted.

Joshua finished the whole thing and once I could tell that he was slipping into a blissful food coma, I asked, “What happened to you, why were you so mean?”

“Well, when you came over to my plate to get a bite of the burger my instincts kicked in and I wanted to hurt you or bite you. That has never happened to me before with anything. Ever.”

And that, ladies and gentlemen, should be endorsement enough to make the trip to Ringo’s Pub. Just keep an eye on the steak knives.

Ringo’s Pub
5865 Kincaid Rd
Plano, TX

There’s a new destination in Old Town Plano that has people flocking there – even if parking is a problem – Urban Crust and 32 Degrees. Now people living in Collin County won’t have to head south past LBJ for wood fired pizza with fresh Italian ingredients – and don’t forget the homemade mozzarella.

At the opening, we were served the Antipasto Toscano on skewers – great nibble – fresh spicy Italian cold cuts, mozzarella, marinated grape tomatoes, olives and basil – a caprese plus – absolutely divine. The pizza is some of the best in the city – crispy thin crust – with just enough bite. The Black & Blue is great – basil pesto, sirloin steak, baby portobellos, carmelized onion and Maytag blue cheese.

The pizza may be outdone by the incredible rooftop bar – 32 degrees – a three season hit – couches and low tables in the middle with four top tables with bar stools lining the deck – inside is cool blue naturally given the name. It’s the only rooftop bar in Plano. Grey Goose Vodka, Patron Silver Tequila and Jagermeister are served on tap at -5 degrees. Also, the beer department features the usual suspects and Widmer – unfiltered Hefeweizen – a golden wheat beer. Save your head for that trip back down stairs.

So next time you’re in Plano, think pizza and a rooftop – a winning combination.

Urban Crust/32 Degrees
1006 East 15th Street
Plano, TX