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In Defense of Tillman’s Roadhouse in Dallas

Tillman's s'mores. Photo by Gustav Schmiege for D Magazine.

I review theater, not food. Sometimes movies, but mostly theater. I get to see the show only once, and the measure is, would I like to go back, and see this again? Would I bring someone else to discover it, too, so I can watch their face instead of the stage? Of course, no matter what I think, someone, somewhere is going to think I’m wrong. But I hope we can all appreciate decent writing, and recognize good intentions and the desire to be fair.

Which brings me to Mark Vamos’ no-star review of Tillman’s Roadhouse, published at the end of last month in The Dallas Morning News. We don’t give stars here, and even if we did, I’d have nothing to do with that and no basis on which to award them. The last time we reviewed the Dallas location was in 2007. As I mentioned, I’m a theater critic, not a food critic, for many reasons (Exhibit A: I don’t like seafood, which my friend Michael—a cook—tells me repeatedly is like saying I don’t like sandwiches.). But to me, no stars means there’s absolutely no reason on Earth for anyone to set foot in that restaurant. I humbly disagree. For me, there are at least two. But I’ll leave a dissection of the main courses to the professionals (though the ones I’ve had have been just fine), and talk about the tater tots.

Let’s go.

When I moved back to Dallas a little more than a year ago, the adjustment was rough. A bright spot: access to tater tots, one of my primary food groups sadly lacking on the East Coast. A friend pointed me to Tillman’s, where they serve something that sounded tailor-made for my picky palate—goat cheese tater tots, drizzled with truffle oil. I know that people don’t necessarily care for these. But I am firmly convinced that these soft, creamy, delightfully greasy nuggets are the best things I’ve ever tasted. I don’t care about “snap” or “crisp,” though last night’s tots were actually crispier than usual. Still not the point. The point is the warm chèvre, mixed with a little potato, and it is so, so good. It’s a cure for whatever ails me: long work day, relationship trouble, friendships gone sour, creative insecurity. I can walk into Tillman’s a nasty, scowling storm cloud of emotion, sink into a pillow-strewn booth along the wall, and walk out stuffed and happy, savoring that last tot, tipsy off a single 87 Ways.

I’ve been at least once every couple of months since last June (certainly since the restaurant changed execu chefs).  What other restaurant in Dallas so consistently makes me forget my petty, petty problems? I tend to order the same thing every time—giant salad, tater tots, 87 Ways—because I know what I like and I’m a small person (I can’t order starter, main, dessert, or I’d blow up like blueberry Violet Beauregard). The roasted beet salad, with large leaf lettuce and goat cheese, tastes better to me than Bolsa’s. The mac ‘n cheese is appropriately gooey and peppered with just enough bacon. Service two nights ago, as usual, was quick, friendly, and efficient.

But all of this is sort of secondary. The tots give me a primary reason to go back, again and again, and nothing about this Bishop Arts outpost, from the kitschy decor to the rest of the menu, has persuaded me that I shouldn’t.

14 comments on “In Defense of Tillman’s Roadhouse in Dallas

  1. I haven’t been there in a year. But the last time I was there the Chicken Fried Flanksteak was redonkulous.

    And yes… “redonkulous” is just as valid as a the star system.

  2. The DMN still reviews restaurants?! Interesting. I heard about the 0 star review after having a typical fantastic meal at Tillman’s. DMN has really just become a sad attempt to get page views, nothing more.

  3. Now I have to try the tots! Tillman’s is one of our regular “go to” places for good food, service and consistency. I’ve never had a bad meal there, had several great dishes, and always have a great time. The DMN review just confirms that their food criticism is irrelevant to any dining decision I might make.

  4. yeaaaa, um. idk. I’ve been 5 times all spread out over the last 2 years and it’s just so damn unimpressive. I just think they’re trying too hard in the kitsch department to actually make some decent, tasty food. I mean, I find it to be incredibly bland. I want to like it, I really do. The tots, ok. They’re pretty good. The fries are not bad either, though they’re limp…yes, fresh, purple potato, yadda, yadda.

    I’ve never had an entree there that I actually thought was quality.

  5. Add me to the list of folks that just doesn’t get (appreciate?) Tillman’s. Have never had a meal there that was memorable — either good or bad. I don’t know that it’s a zero star place, but it certainly doesn’t rate more than a single star IMHO. Actually, given the prices they charge and the quality of the food, maybe zero stars is appropriate.

  6. Gotta agree that Tillman’s was just flat unimpressive. I was DYING to try it based on all the positive review a few years ago. On my single experience at the FW location, the decor was far better than the food. Just can’t bring myself to try it again with so many other options.

  7. Zero stars? Tillman’s gets at least 1 for a fun atmosphere and their fries & tots. However, I have had some pretty bad meals there in my 5-6 visits. One included an almost inedible CFS compounded by an indifferent waitstaff. Better nearby choices and the zero review may hurt this pioneer.

  8. Tillman’s is one of my fam’s favorite places to go hands down!! NO stars is shocking to me and makes me wonder what kind of “food critic” this guy is. While Tillman’s might not be his flavor the tableside s’mores deserve two stars themselves just for being fun!!!!

  9. This is the best review I have read in years!!!!!!!
    Maybe we need less experts and more laymen.

  10. The chicken fried steak and house made potato chips = at least a star and a half. Seems the DMN has really started playing hardball with ratings lately, perhaps to give itself some elitist cred. Bottom line is, for the best restaurant reviews in Dallas, I prefer Alice Whats-Her-Name in the Observer (“Cheap Bastard” review). Honest and hilarious.

  11. I give the Dallas Morning News zero stars.
    Their subscription fees are ridiculous for that paper rag with old news.

    My laymen friend foodies provide more restaurant insight

  12. CapGuy, I wouldn’t call Mark Vamos an expert by any means, at least not as a restaurant reviewer.

  13. I haven’t been to Tillman’s since they hired a new chef last year, but my 5-6 visits before than have been WONDERFUL. I remember visiting my brother in Dallas when I was in college, and he took me here for the first time and I was in love. Agree with alyb, the 0-star Dallas Morning News review just confirms that their food criticism is irrelevant and will have no effect on any dining decision I make.