Our neighborhood is a destination for fine dining. It’s home to one of the city’s two five-star restaurants, Lucia. And the Bishop Arts District draws brunch eaters from all over Dallas and the suburbs. But Oak Cliff also has a rich culture of lowbrow food — tacos, gorditas and pupusas abound. Ours is a neighborhood where you can find a good meal in a gas station or the back corner of a meat market. We toured Oak Cliff’s holes-in-the-wall and dive restaurants so that we could showcase a few of our favorites here and tell their stories.
4444 W. Illinois, 214.330.9616
Kam Southammavong escaped communist Laos in 1984 and resettled in Wichita, Kan., where he apprenticed under a jeweler and learned the trade.
Jewelry making is Southammavong’s passion. He produces custom jewelry for many clients in California, where he lived for 21 years. He could do the work from home, but instead he works inside a cage at Somphou Market, the business he owns with his wife, Ly.
“We have an interesting place,” says Kam, who is soft-spoken and humble. “I’m a jeweler, and my wife loves to cook.”
Ly is the cook in the market’s takeout café, and one of their four sons usually runs the market’s cash register.
Ly produces Thai food in the café’s tiny kitchen, but it’s not authentic Thai food, Kam says.
“We cook for Mexicans and Americans,” he says. “Authentic Thai is too sour and spicy.”
But considering it is one of two Thai restaurants in north Oak Cliff, it is excellent. The café has a small menu, with pho, pad thai and fried rice being the most popular items. There are a couple of tables at the back near the 8-liner machines, but it’s really a takeout place.
This is the Southammavong family’s third restaurant venture. Kam says he went into the business for his wife. Their first was a hamburger stand in Irving that failed terribly. Kam says he lost almost six figures in 10 months. Then they went in with partners and started Koung Thai in Rockwall, which received positive reviews and still does good business. But Kam says he gave his share of the business to his wife’s younger brother because the commute to Rockwall took too long. Now they concentrate solely on their little market, about a block from home.
They serve the whole neighborhood, but they’re also rooted in the small Laotian community near the market. Every Laotian community has a jeweler, Southammavong says.
“I’m the first one here,” he says. “It’s not very big, but we are here.”
Kam and Ly, who met in a refugee camp in Thailand and married in California, have four children. Their oldest serves in the U.S. Air Force, and the youngest entered basic training for the Air Force in January. The other two are in college.
The Southammavongs have visited their homeland recently — it takes 18 hours by plane.
But they say they never want to give up the freedom they have here.
Kam says that under communism, “you belong to them, and your life is theirs.”
Crown Grocery and Deli
1210 S. Hampton, 214.467.3810
Ibrahim Dalgamouni never knew he was a good cook until he took over the kitchen in his own business.
Dalgamouni opened Crown about 22 years ago. Prior to that, he had worked for other people until he saved enough to buy his own building, a former foreign auto parts place, and renovate it.
Dalgamouni came to the United States from Jordan about 26 years ago, originally to get a Ph.D. He earned a bachelor’s degree back home and worked for the civil aviation authority. Friends told him that earning a Ph.D. while working in America would be easy.
“In reality, it was very hard, so I decided to open my own business,” he says.
He married an American woman, Ann Marie, and immersed himself in work. Earning that doctorate degree soon seemed unimportant.
Crown beckons motorists from Hampton with its strangely appetizing fiberglass sign with the image of a hamburger. It’s like, the king of hamburgers, you think. And then one day, you’ll try it.
For a fast-food burger, it’s not bad. A thin patty and all the fixin’s plus fries and a can of soda costs $7. Dalgamouni doesn’t griddle the buns — that just adds unnecessary calories, he says.
“Quality is my priority,” Dalgamouni says. “I try everything to be healthy. We don’t need bad ingredients and preservatives. I want to eat healthy, and I want to offer that to my customers.”
Onion rings, he says, could be the best-tasting food around. But he doesn’t eat them, and there is nothing on the menu that Dalgamouni doesn’t eat.
The menu does include corndogs, burritos and sandwiches, though.
Dalgamouni says he enjoys cooking, but the customers are what keep him interested. He likes giving advice to young men with the typical troubles of fighting, girls and schoolwork.
“My neighbors, my people, my customers. That’s my social life,” he says. “I know everybody. Everybody comes to talk to me.”
El Padrino Restaurant
408 W. Jefferson, 214.943.3993
Juan Contreras worked for seven years as a janitor at Love Field and Tyler Street United Methodist Church until he saved $3,000.
That was enough to lease the little restaurant on Jefferson, but it wasn’t enough for everything he needed to start. His mother borrowed $300 from a friend so that Contreras could buy groceries and other supplies to start his humble Mexican restaurant in 1989. His sister helped out at first, but after just three months, Contreras hired four employees.
It seems funny now, but back then the restaurant answered a demand for tacos and tortas, real Mexican street food. Contreras had worked at a restaurant in his hometown, Nuevo Laredo, at a restaurant called Padrino.
“I named it after that,” he says. “When people come from Nuevo Laredo, they recognize it.”
The restaurant was so popular that Contreras opened a second location in the Bishop Arts District a year later, in 1990. That store moved to Pleasant Grove after he lost his Bishop Arts lease a few years ago.
After Contreras appeared on Univision in the early ’90s demonstrating how to make tortas, El Padrino had lines out the door most lunch hours.
The building is a former hamburger stand that went up around 1949. A customer once told Contreras he saw Elvis Presley eating there, and others remember it as a rock-and-roll café. Anyway, it’s a tiny little joint. There are only about seven tables. No
more than about 20 people could be seated in there at once. But it has a kitschy charm. Have a big breakfast for under $7, and watch the action on Jefferson Boulevard.
El Padrino has very loyal customers. A few come every morning, Monday-Sunday. And some who ate there as children now bring their kids. Contreras works every morning except Sunday. And one employee, Ofelia, has worked there for 12 years.
Contreras doesn’t own the building, but he says El Padrino will be around for many more years. His 28-year-old son, also Juan Contreras, runs the restaurant’s catering business.
“We’re not retiring for at least 15 years,” he says.