Hit all the lights just right on River Oaks Boulevard – the main drag that cuts through this community of about 7,000 – and you can do the town in a minute and a half. But this, the first installment in our new Spotlight: Neighborhood Eats series, is about slowing down to explore the communities many of us take for granted as we speed through them. Here in the nooks and crannies of the suburbs and side-streets of Fort Worth often lie the unpolished gems of our local restaurant scene, known only to those who live around the corner from them.
While regulars of these spots may snarl as we unveil the places they hold dear, these restaurants merit audiences that go beyond city limits. Here are our picks for the quintessential River Oaks restaurants:
5177 River Oaks Blvd., 817-585-3205
» Every neighborhood should have an ice cream shop, and when River Oaks lost theirs last year, Tina and Jay Winnett did something about it: They opened their own. After the local Braum’s shuttered, the couple opened this charming little ice cream storefront in a strip mall on River Oaks Boulevard. There are two four-top tables, two club chairs and a small countertop crammed inside a colorful space about 500-square-feet small. “It’s exactly what we were hoping it would be,” says Tina. “A place where you can hang out with your friends, and if you don’t know the people here, you will before you leave.”
The dozen or so varieties of ice cream come from Ashby’s Sterling Ice Cream, in unusual flavors such as banana pudding, Eskimo Kisses (coconut ice cream dotted with fudge and chocolate truffles) and strawberry cheesecake, along with good ol’ fashioned vanilla and chocolate. The shop is well-known for cobblers, made fresh by Tina in a variety of flavors: peach, blueberry, cherry, strawberry and apple. The Winnetts – daughter Amanda Wooldridge helps out sometimes too – also serve funnel cakes, Italian cream sodas, banana splits and other malt shop necessities.
Essential eat: Cherry cobbler with a scoop of salted caramel ice cream.
Or else try: Perfect for families, or individuals who have given up on life, the ice cream nachos are a sheer delight, consisting of pieces of ice cream cones loaded with four scoops of ice cream; hot fudge, caramel and strawberry sauces; and whipped cream and walnuts. Mercy.
Chuy’s Mexican Restaurant
4441 River Oaks Blvd., 817-625-1107
» A prerequisite to calling yourself a Fort Worthian: Knowing the difference between the two Chuy’s in town. On West Seventh Street is a branch of the massively popular, Austin-based Tex-Mex chain. Near the gateway to River Oaks is the other Chuy’s, our Chuy’s. Found in a strip mall near the intersection of Jacksboro Highway and River Oaks Boulevard, it’s the latter that serves some of the city’s best Mexican food, in a festive, upbeat environment that is more authentic than fancy. Open since 1999, the restaurant serves gargantuan portions of food — enchiladas, tacos, tostadas, chile rellenos — for absolute steals; most plates are under $10.
Founder Jesus “Chuy” Adame opened his first restaurant on Central Avenue in 1982. Since then, locations all over North Texas have come and gone and come again; a new store recently opened on Boat Club Road. The family is on its third generation of owners, but Jesus is still involved in the day-to-day operations. “I have no idea what he’ll do when he retires,” says Jesse Adame, who helps run the new store on Boat Club Road. “If he retires, that is. He loves this business.”
Essential eat: Carne guisada, bite-size chunks of meat in a thick, spicy gravy. Regulars forgo forks and instead use thick flour tortillas, made in-house, to scoop up and sop up every last drop of this wonderful dish.
Or else try: Breakfast burritos, big as a plate and super-cheap, come stuffed with eggs and your choice of bacon, chorizo, cactus, potatoes and beans.
5442 River Oaks Blvd., 817-720-7388
» The latest restaurant to open in River Oaks, Italiano’s takes over the space vacated by the beloved Tex-Mex haven Riva’s (which has moved to a location on Azle Avenue). Didn’t take long for locals to warm up to Italiano’s, though. On a street lined with Mexican restaurants and home-cooking spots, it’s the only pizza and pasta game in town.
Owner and Macedonia native Giovanni Halili is part of a family of restaurateurs. He ran a similar restaurant in Cleburne for more than 20 years, and his brother and cousins own a Joe’s Pizza near Everman.
The menu is practically a short novel, consisting of pastas, from standards such as spaghetti and meatballs to nice surprises like lobster ravioli; New York-style pizzas; sub sandwiches; and classic entrees like chicken and eggplant parmigiana.
Essential eat: The excellent pasta trio offers a heaping sampling of the lasagna, fettuccini Alfredo and chicken parmigiana.
Or else try: Thin-crust pizzas, cooked in a brick oven.
J’s Casa Burgers
5181 River Oaks Blvd., 817-404-3244
» When J’s Casa Burgers opened two years ago, in an inkblot of a spot that once housed a fried-chicken stand, you had two options: walk-up or drive-through; there was no seating. So burger-lovers improvised, sitting on the sidewalk, on their tailgates, on their car hoods, chowing down on some of the city’s best burgers. Kids would run around the parking lot, and people would laugh and visit, bonding over burgers.
Last year, owner Jesus Garcia built a patio, adding seating, not to mention shade. The patio’s tight, though, so customers are still side by side. “Now they have somewhere to sit,” he laughs.
Customers come from all corners of Fort Worth for Garcia’s old-fashioned burgers, which zero in on the essentials: thick patties of quality meat, fresh toppings, housemade sauces and fantastic buns. There’s a Hawaiian burger with ham and pineapple and a breakfast burger with a fried egg, but that’s about as gourmet as it gets.
Essential eat: A bacon cheeseburger, piled high with crisp strips of bacon and American cheese. Simple and good.
Or else try: The Mexican Burger is an inexpensive mouthful, with bacon, avocado, grilled jalapeños and onions and a housemade salsa verde — for under $7.
5412 River Oaks Blvd., 817-737-0237
» Imagine doing the same thing nearly every single day of your life, from the time you were 9 to now, when you’re 78. Now imagine that same thing is making doughnuts. That’s Jessie Ricardo, owner of Jessie’s Donuts, the oldest restaurant in River Oaks and quite possibly the oldest doughnut shop in the Fort Worth area. He’s worked in this tiny, funky, 1939 stucco building since he was 18, but he got his start in the doughnut biz a good decade before that, at the old Jack ’N’ Jill Donuts on University. “There was a big window where you could watch them make the doughnuts,” Ricardo says. “I’d watch all the time, just mesmerized, until one day one of the cooks motioned for me to come in. He said, ‘You wanna help?’ And that’s how I got my start.”
Decades later, little has changed. Ricardo makes the doughnuts the same way he has since he took over the business in 1959, using much of the same equipment. He begins at 4 or 5 in the morning, making the mixes, and ends hours later by cutting each doughnut by hand and painting them with frosting, coconut flecks and candy sprinkles. “Kids will sometimes look at him in the window,” says his wife, Charlie, pointing at the large window that faces the street. “Just like he used to.”
Essential eat: A plain glazed doughnut will taste like your childhood.
Or else try: Any of the sausage rolls, which are also made in-house.
4335 River Oaks Blvd., 817-625-0999
» One of the best-kept secrets in Fort Worth’s Mexican/Tex-Mex scene is this family-run mini-chain, whose third location opened last year at the border of River Oaks and Fort Worth, in a long-standing building that once housed the River Oaks Steakhouse and a Dixie House Cafe.
There are fajitas and enchiladas and tacos, but the Acosta family throws plenty of interesting and welcome curveballs, like chimichangas stuffed with portobello mushrooms; squash blossom quesadillas; and stacked enchiladas, served with an egg on top; there are also 20 different kinds of margaritas.
Small details don’t go overlooked here: Both the corn and flour tortillas are made in-house, as are the chips, which come with warm salsa and complimentary black-bean dip — a nice touch.
Essential eat: The restaurant’s signature dish, Pollo Xochitl, comprised of sliced pan-fried chicken breast served over a mound of garlic mashed potatoes and drizzled in a tequila cream sauce.
Or else try: At breakfast, the outstanding French toast, drenched in a housemade caramel sauce.
4705 River Oaks Blvd., 817-378-9262
» Those who have an affinity for the mom and pop diners found on Texas’ back roads and highways will instantly fall for Moe’s Café. Open for breakfast, lunch and dinner, Moe’s specializes in comfort food – big platters of eggs and French toast and meat loaf and chicken-fried steak. Quintessential Texas eats, in other words. In a homey, two-room dining area, servers call you “sweetie” without an ounce of irony while the TV blares “Judge Judy.” Families and loners and neighborhood couples swear by the housemade dinner rolls and can’t decide if they should get chocolate or apple pie.
Housed in an old Pizza Hut, Moe’s is part of owner Mazen Haddad’s empire of local cafes. He named this one, which opened in 2004, after his oldest son. Haddad also owns the similar Benbrook Café and Moe’s Country Kitchen in Azle. You remember Summers Café on Henderson? That was his, too. “Thirty-nine years I’ve been in the restaurant business,” he says. “It never gets old.”
Essential eat: Chicken-fried steak special, often priced at a super-low $4.99, comes with a healthy-sized CFS, along with two veggies (you’d be a nut to not get the mashed potatoes) and hot dinner rolls.
Or else try: The Tex-Mex Omelet, stuffed with housemade chili and jalapeños. You’ll pretty much be done for the day.
River Oaks Cafe
4837 River Oaks Blvd., 817-625-7337
» You may not find a happier place in River Oaks than the cafe that bears the town’s name. Regulars, the curious and tourists alike jam Buck Bybee and his wife Heather Denton’s cheerful café every morning for housemade pancakes and afternoon for terrific burgers, pulled pork sandwiches and a ridiculous amount of friendliness. “It’s pretty much one of the rules of working here,” Bybee says. “I tell all my employees, ‘You treat people like you want to be treated.’ That’s why everyone around here smiles.”
The two certainly know their way around a place like this. Before the couple took over the cafe six years ago, they worked at two of Fort Worth’s most well-known spots – her, Paris Coffee Shop; him, West Side Cafe. That’s how they met. After leaving Paris, Denton briefly worked at West Side. “We wanted our own place,” Bybee says. “We knew it would be hard work, but there’s a certain amount of satisfaction in running your own restaurant – and making a lot of people happy.”
Essential eat: Plate-engulfing pancakes. One, we swear, will fill you up.
Or else try: Burgers are necessary eats here, and there are 10 from which to choose.