Let’s play a quick word association game. When I say “Pantego,” what are the first words that pop into your head? I’m guessing for most people, the little city tucked in between Fort Worth, Arlington, and fellow tiny town Dalworthington Gardens conjures some combination of the following: “speed trap,” “police,” “traffic ticket,” “ridiculously soft water,” “never heard of it,” and “one of the guys from Pantera used to live there and had a pool shaped like a bottle of Crown Royal” (true story).
Maybe it’s time we all acknowledged Pantego’s respectable collection of independently owned restaurants. Sure, there are plenty of chains and fast-food joints, too. But (and I mean this), pound for pound, Pantego has a better restaurant scene than Fort Worth, if for no other reason than it hasn’t been infiltrated and completely overwhelmed by Dallas mini-chains (see: Clearfork, Shops at and Waterside; West 7th). In Pantego, most of the restaurants have an earnest feel, the owners are working the counter or in the kitchen, nary a focus group had a hand in creating the “concept,” and (here’s the kicker) the food is great.
One of the most under-appreciated culinary destinations in North Texas is David’s Barbecue (2224 W Park Row Dr, 817-261-9998), a family-owned and-run tradition for five generations – David’s is a branch of the Bryan barbecue family, whose origins date back to 1910. In his unassuming strip-mall storefront next to fellow standout meatery Chop House Burgers, David’s owner and pitmaster Jimmy Harris confided in me that he’s never so much as sampled another restaurant’s ’cue. And why would he?
On a recent weekday visit, my guest and I arrived after the lunch rush and were able to glide right on up to the cafeteria-style counter, where I asked the most annoying question a customer could: What do you recommend? That’s almost followed by the equally obvious: What do you like? Ribs? Well, then …
The St. Louis-cut ribs on my two-meat combo ($12.95) were all about the bark. The burnt caramel-sweet burnished crust veiled pink, smoky, fois-gras-tender meat. The brisket, my second protein, was moist with an impressive smoke ring that crowned the ample portion of the oily hillock. The accompanying pit beans were also smoky and sweet but not cloying. The slaw, simple yet elegant, was a crisp, tangy, and refreshing respite from the smoke and fat of the rest of my plate. Extra sauce, which lives on the condiment bar, wasn’t necessary, though it did add a welcome kick.
David’s is the elder statesman on that restaurant row, but there’s tons of new blood, like Cajun Corner (2304 W Park Row Dr, 817-275-6300) in the space once occupied by dearly departed Mijo’s; Fattoush Restaurant (2304 W Park Row Dr, Ste 25, 682-321-7650); and month-old newcomer El Oceano Mexican Restaurant (2304 Park Row Dr, Ste 21, 682-321-8311), all of which share the same shopping center.
El Oceano is not your typical cluttered, chaotic taqueria. The décor is decidedly clean, with craft-store-level art on the green–splashed walls. A trio of TVs provided a low murmur. The seafood-centric Mexican eatery offers a small menu replete with just about every Tex-Mex classic and a few fishy options.
The standout of the appetizer menu was the shrimp ceviche ($9.99). Tiny, plump crevettes dusted in red pepper sat atop a layer of fresh onion and diced tomatoes and were topped by slivers of sliced avocado. Less memorable was the soupy, bland salsa, but our polite, if timid, server brought us bottled hot sauce specifically for the little crustaceans.
Though the portion initially seemed a bit scant, the tender, piquant pork guisado ($8.99) is a must-try. Once I loaded the meat onto the accompanying store-bought corn tortillas and slathered the creation with the kitchen’s cheese-covered refried beans, the whole dish seemed filling. The fresh-tasting, well-cooked filet con camerones ($12.99), served battered in cornmeal, arrived with pleasant sides of butter-coated squash and a fluffy corn-and-green-bean-specked Spanish rice.
There are other Pantego restaurants worth visiting, but don’t go too far off the beaten path – you’ll be in another town. And if you go too fast, well, don’t.