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O.K. Carter: New restaurants begin serving in Arlington

Opening a restaurant is a high-risk venture, but here are a few that we think – and hope – will be around for a long time.

In a quest exploring frontiers of new Arlington cuisine – at considerable caloric and cholesterol risk – just in the last two months I’ve come upon two sad examples of what happens to most new restaurants: padlocks and chains coiled about their doors (landlords become so surly when rent goes unpaid), the lights inside gone dark. No lunch specials today.

Restaurants are high-risk enterprises.

This column, then, celebrates some gastronomically delightful newcomer survivors on the Arlington restaurant scene – a subjective (feel free to debate the selection) list of relatively new entrants that have hung around and prospered. So far. The first two are locations that boomed upon the scene with multiple entries.

Here’s a tip – the top pick is at the bottom of this column.

Texas Live! Okay, it’s really about the experience as much as food, like visiting the world’s largest mall food court gone steroid upscale. Eleven restaurants, hundreds of massive TV screens. A few hundred beer spigots. Multiple bars, including what might be the coolest saloon in the Metroplex, Choctaw VIP Lounge. Troy Aikman, Pudge Rodriquez and Guy Fiera all have places. Did I mention Lockhart Smokehouse Barbecue? Plus, there’s always, always, something cool going on. Check it out at 1650 E. Randol Mill Road. There’s a rumor that NFL football and MLB games are played in proximity.

Champions Park: The Texas Department of Transportation used this site at Interstate 30 and Collins Street as a supply yard: Mountains of gravel, sand, asphalt and assorted road repair gear made it the ugliest exit on the interstate. Now, after a land swap deal with the city, it’s the home for Champions Park, home for a plethora of above-average fast-food establishments – an even dozen right now catering to an assortment of palates from pizza and yogurt to burgers and gyros: Urban Bricks, BurgerFi, Zero Degrees, Tiff’s Treats (a cookie bakery), Yumilicious Frozen Yogurt, Tokyo Joe’s, Firehouse Subs, Salatas (all kinds of salads), Rocket Fizz (candy, soda pop) and the newest arrival, Halal Guys Gyros and Chicken. Northwest corner, I-30 and Collins.

Mercury Chophouse: Might as well get the pricey restaurant out of the way early. Located on the ninth floor of a skyscraper at 2221 E. Lamar Blvd. (where Cacharal used to be, and yes, Arlington has skyscrapers), there’s an overview of Six Flags, Globe Life Park and AT&T Stadium, plus skylines of Dallas to the east or Fort Worth to the west, creating an Arlington rarity – a view. Sometimes there’s live music. But mostly it’s about the menu, which runs the gamut from braised short ribs or broiled lobster tail to pepper-crusted tuna mignon and roasted rack of lamb. This is not fast food, so be prepared to hang around a while.

Pho Kim: Several restaurants have come and gone at this site (1201 W. Arbrook Blvd.) just north of The Parks of Arlington Mall, but this bright, cheerful and affordable Vietnamese restaurant looks to be a keeper. Yes, this style of cooking is an acquired taste. You’ll find classic pho noodle soups, wonton egg noodle soup, shaken beef, any number of combo fry dishes and – if you’re feeling adventurous – bun bo hue, a spicy beef/rice/vermicelli dish. There’s also bubble tea and spring rolls, as well as some extraordinarily flavorful vegan dishes.

Since you’re in the neighborhood, know that this little shopping center at Cooper and Arbrook is a gold mine for exotic cuisine, most of the eateries also newbies. Look behind Rock Fish and in addition to Pho Kim you’ll discover Ahi Poke Bowl (Hawaiian cuisine), Havana Bar and Grill (Cuban), El Mofongo (Caribbean emphasizing Puerto Rico style), Thai House, Halal Grill (Middle Eastern), Pollo Compero (Latin takes on chicken) and Taste Afrik (African cuisine). You’d be smart to also add Nagoya Japanese Restaurant (hibachi, tempura or traditional style, plus sushi) right next door, 1155 W. Arbrook Blvd.

New downtown: Be sure to drop by Tipsy Oak, an icehouse-style restaurant and bar with a surprisingly eclectic menu (Korean barbecue burger with bacon, chicken ciabatta, blackened salmon BLT), plus a covered wrap-around porch on three sides and an oversize back patio. The bar – lots of craft beers — closes at midnight. The location: 301 W. Front St.

Or journey another two blocks to 506 E. Front St. for the recently opened Cartel Taco Bar right next to Legal Draft for some truly exotic gourmet tacos – smoked salmon, mahi or pulled pork to name just three – and a bar offering the most expansive collection of tequilas anywhere.

Worth your time: It would be easy enough to drive by another pair of Arlington’s relatively new restaurants (you really should stop) – Pantego Cafe at 2400 W. Pioneer Parkway and Papaya Mexican Grill, 100 W. Pioneer, off Center Street.

The booming Pantego Cafe is a traditional blue-plate-special breakfast and lunch only place, serving breakfast all day, lunch specials daily, and both senior and kid specials. It’s traditional Americana food served speedily by friendly waitstaff at modest cost.

Papaya Mexican Grill, run by four brothers, is a little place with big ambitions in a location that doesn’t get much attention – more room for us, plus the menu offers items not so easy to find such as ceviche salad, breakfast mariachis, seafood platters and nortena quesadillas (grilled chicken and mushrooms). There’s also a full bar.

Top pick of the newcomers? A shout-out for Roma Trattoria Italian Cuisine, 6204 S. Cooper, nestled right next to another superlative place, Istanbul’s. The BYOB eatery is smallish, room for maybe 50 patrons, but racks up rave revues on social media like YELP or Arlington Eats. Bread is served with an olive oil and pesto sauce. Good picks include lobster ravioli, pollo Milanese (highly recommended) or chicken marsala. Or, for the non-adventurous, there’s also really tasty spaghetti Bolognese or standbys like lasagna. It’s difficult to go wrong. Service is also great.

O.K. Carter is a former editor and publisher of the Arlington Citizen-Journal and was also Arlington publisher and columnist for the Star-Telegram and founding editor of Arlington Today Magazine. He’s the author of the definitive book on Arlington’s colorful history, Caddos, Cotton and Cowboys: Essays on Arlington.

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