The Salt
1:41 pm
Fri April 4, 2014

Cuisine And Culture Transform A Dallas Neighborhood

Originally published on Fri April 4, 2014 4:18 pm

Can food revitalize an ailing neighborhood? In Dallas, global flavors seem to be playing a pretty big part in one area's transformation.

For decades, West Dallas was a ramshackle place: a Superfund site with a cement plant, some crime-ridden warehouses and a modest Latino neighborhood known as La Bajada across a potholed two-lane bridge from the glittery downtown.

This place was kind of like a desert with not so much to do, but it had some of the best views of downtown. Now there's a soaring new bridge that some called the "Bridge to Nowhere." But with a dozen new restaurants, nowhere is becoming somewhere.

Stuart Fitts is the principal investor in an 80-acre development project in the area that hopes to generate $3 billion. And it all starts with Trinity Groves, a 15-acre restaurant incubator that's designed to attract diverse chefs whose restaurant ideas might be worth taking national.

"The Trinity Groves concept has never been done anywhere before," Fitts says. "We knew that we wanted to change the perception from old Dallas that this is a dangerous place. It's not."

Phil Romano, the Macaroni Grill founder, started buying up property here a decade ago. He's the food guy behind this project, and says they're catering to and working with millennials.

The idea is to bring in young chefs with no money, invest half a million dollars in their plan, and then, if they're good, take the business national. It's kind of like Shark Tank, but better, Romano says.

Nearly a dozen restaurants now fill the renovated warehouse, from a Moroccan place with hookahs and belly dancers to a Chinese-Latin mashup. And it's all just three minutes from downtown.

"I was driving through the area, and I had already heard about some of the redevelopment," says Mike Casas, who grew up just four blocks from the area but moved out to find a job. "I came out here at night one day, and I did not recognize the area at all."

Excited, he invited his extended clan back to the old neighborhood to celebrate his 44th birthday. The Casas family queued up at a joint called Hofmann Hots to eat gluten-free New York wieners, some topped with bruschetta, avocado or Asian slaw.

"The food was really great," he says. "And I thought it was nice to be able to bring my kids back to experience this part of Dallas."

But what's unique about this project, says Jeff Herrington with the West Dallas Chamber of Commerce, is that the nearby La Bajada community wasn't forced out to make room for Trinity Groves.

"The No. 1 priority of this area was to preserve La Bajada as a neighborhood," Herrington says. "And [the residents] were understandably worried, because another neighborhood, which is colloquially referred to as Little Mexico, was basically obliterated back in the '90s by development."

There's still a lot of skepticism about Trinity Groves. But the packed lots along the riverfront suggest that, right now, it's the place to eat.

Copyright 2014 KERA Unlimited. To see more, visit http://www.kera.org/.

Transcript

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

West Dallas sits just across the Trinity River from where I've been this week. For decades, it was a ramshackle place: a Superfund site with a cement plant, some crime-ridden warehouses and a small Latino neighborhood known as La Bajada. But now, it's packed with springtime revelers and dog walkers. As KERA's Doualy Xaykaothao reports, the engines of this change are restaurants.

DOUALY XAYKAOTHAO, BYLINE: This place was kind of like a desert with not so much to do, but it had some of the best views of downtown. Now there's a soaring new bridge that some called the Bridge to Nowhere. But with a dozen new restaurants, nowhere is becoming somewhere.

STUART FITTS: The Trinity Groves concept has never been done anywhere before.

XAYKAOTHAO: That's Stuart Fitts, who's sipping iced tea on the broad patio outside a colorful renovated warehouse. He's a principal investor in an 80-acre development project that hopes to generate $3 billion. And it starts with this restaurant incubator.

FITTS: We knew that the restaurant industry needed concepts. We knew that we wanted to give people a reason to come across the bridge. We knew that we wanted to change the perception from old Dallas that this was a dangerous place. It's not.

XAYKAOTHAO: Phil Romano, the Macaroni Grill founder, who started buying up property here a decade ago, is the food guy behind this project. He says they're catering to and working with millennials.

PHIL ROMANO: I call them new people. That's 18 to 35. They're new. They don't like anything we old people did.

XAYKAOTHAO: And the idea is bring in young chefs with no money, invest half a million dollars in their plan, and then, if they're good, take the business national.

ROMANO: We let them get a chance to get up their back, try his idea, and if it works, God bless him, he's got 50 percent of a deal that's going to go all over the country. And if he can't do it, he's out.

XAYKAOTHAO: It's kind of like a "Shark Tank" but better, he says. The Trinity Groves site now houses a Moroccan restaurant with hookahs and belly dancers. There's a Chinese-Latin mash-up, and soon a chocolatier will move in. And all of this, just three minutes from downtown Dallas.

Mike Casas grew up just four blocks from here. But like other young people, he moved out to find a job.

MIKE CASAS: I was driving through the area, and I had already heard about some of the redevelopment. And I came out here at night one day, and I did not recognize the area at all.

XAYKAOTHAO: Excited, he invited his extended clan back to the old hood to celebrate his 44th birthday. The Casas family queued up at a joint called Hofmann Hots to eat gluten-free New York wieners, some plain, others topped with bruschetta, cheese, avocado or Asian slaw.

CASAS: Of all the places that we could go to, I said, well, let's go have it here. The food was really great. I ate here the other day, and I thought it was nice to be able to bring my kids back to experience this part of Dallas.

XAYKAOTHAO: Oh, and another thing, says Jeff Herrington with the West Dallas Chamber of Commerce, the nearby La Bajada community wasn't forced out to make room for Trinity Groves or its future lots.

JEFF HERRINGTON: The number one priority that came out for this entire area - it was to preserve La Bajada as a neighborhood. This is completely antithetical to the way things have been done in Dallas before. And they were understandably worried because another neighborhood, which is sort of colloquially referred to as Little Mexico, was basically obliterated back in the '90s by development.

XAYKAOTHAO: There's still a lot of skepticism about Trinity Groves. But from the packed lots along the riverfront, right now, it's the place to eat. For NPR News, I'm Doualy Xaykaothao in Dallas.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

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This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.