Local Takes: Dallas-Fort Worth

Five notable locals show us how to do their towns, their way

WORDS Jonathan Auping
December 2018
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Photos by Amanda Friedman

When you think of Dallas-Fort Worth, you probably don’t conjure images of Japanese gardens, comic-book conventions or the perfect gin and tonic. You may not be aware that Fort Worth is home to one of America’s top modern art museums, or that some of the best restaurants in Dallas are Asian. For these sorts of insights, you have to ask the people who live and work here. Sure, in the following feature our diverse group of locals touches on a few DFW staples—country music, Tex-Mex, whiskey—but there are surprises, too, such as the professional mermaid who shares her favorite places to go for a dip, or the independent filmmaker who recommends a visit to a luxury mall to look at its huge collection of art. Who knew?

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Charley Crockett, 34 
Musician
The soul of Deep Ellum

It’s early at the Free Man, a small Cajun café-bar in Deep Ellum, and customers are trickling in from Commerce Street. Except for Charley Crockett. As a musician, Dallas is his city, Deep Ellum is his neighborhood and The Free Man is his bar. Here, Crockett comes in through the back.

Before turning pro, the Dallas native spent years busking in New York, Paris and New Orleans. Today, he performs his music—which has elements of blues, country, honky-tonk and Cajun jazz—in cities across the U.S. and Europe. But it’s here, in an area once known for its manufacturing industry, that Crockett finds his inspiration.

“This is the neighborhood that put Texas music on the map,” he says, sitting in a booth in the back of the bar, a toothpick in his mouth, a cowboy hat on his head and a Thunderbird medallion draped over a Western-style shirt. “Deep Ellum is as important to American music as New Orleans or Memphis.”

That’s a bold claim, but Crockett makes it convincingly. “I don’t just tout that,” he says. “It’s factual information.” He takes a bite of blackened catfish and adds, “It doesn’t make sense to me that this town would be better known for the Dallas Cowboys and the Kennedy assassination than for its musical heritage.”

Deep Ellum has been fostering musical talent for a century, helping to shape the careers of legends like T-Bone Walker, Blind Lemon Jefferson and Lightnin’ Hopkins. Go there today, though, and you’ll find more than blues. Local joints like Three Links, Twilite Lounge, Club Dada and The Prophet Bar stage everything from jazz to hip-hop, whether on a literal stage or just a cleared-out corner.

It’s this can-do spirit that makes Deep Ellum such a rich cultural incubator. Dallas has no shortage of big music venues, but it’s low-key spots like The Free Man and its neighbor Adair’s Saloon where you catch a glimpse of tomorrow’s stars. Crockett’s debut show at the city’s Granada Theater came after the owners saw him playing for tips a few feet from where he’s sitting now. 


Boots at Dolly Python

Crockett’s dress sense, like his music, is rooted in Western traditions. He sometimes shops for basics at chains like Cavender’s, but more likely you’ll find him picking through the vintage racks at local gems like Lula B’s in Oak Cliff or Dolly Python in East Dallas. It’s the little things that distinguish his style from the typical retro look. “I wear Wranglers,” he says, “but I cuff ’em.”

Later, out back, Crockett lingers for a bit, running his boot over an old trolley track. “I love standing out in the alleys,” he says. “I love walking these alleys.” At night, the streets here—Main, Elm, Commerce—are thick with revelers, some drawn by the hip pubs and clubs, some by the old-school music bars. But the real story of Deep Ellum starts in these quiet, scruffy backstreets, where generations of musicians have moved from one set to another, following dreams of their own. 

“Sometimes it ain’t pretty,” Crockett says, “but it’s beautiful.”

Hector Rodriguez, 36 
Comic Book Creator 
A superhero in the heart of Dallas

“This place has always been special for me,” says Hector Rodriguez, creator of the comic-book series El Peso Hero. As he speaks, a dinosaur stomps aggressively behind him, then starts dancing.

We are at the Perot Museum of Nature and Science, near a display that converts the movements of users into a screen display of a cartoon dinosaur. A dramatic cube-like structure, the museum has interactive exhibits that include a 55-foot track upon which visitors race virtual versions of, say, a cheetah or Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliott. As for the beast dancing behind Rodriguez right now, that is actually a little girl who can’t be more than 5 years old.

This might seem an odd “special place” for a comic-book artist, but Rodriguez is also a fifth-grade science teacher, and he and the Perot have a history. On his first visit, he brought a colleague along. You could call it a first date. Two years later, when he and kindergarten teacher Ms. Schüetz got married, the ceremony and reception were held here, and the whole school was invited. “There’s actually a stain from where I broke the margarita machine,” Rodriguez says in a stage whisper. “I think it’s in the Earth Science area.”

The Perot’s 2012 opening coincided with that of the nearby Klyde Warren Park, a 5.2-acre green space built over a freeway, which serves as a gateway to the Dallas Arts District, home to institutions like the Nasher Sculpture Center and the Dallas Museum of Art. Also nearby is the Sixth Floor Museum at Dealey Plaza, set in the building from which Lee Harvey Oswald shot John F. Kennedy. These are all tourism hot spots, but for Rodriguez and his kids, all roads lead back to the Perot. “Children are born as scientists,” he says, “with that curiosity.” 

Rodriguez’s science-guy personality makes sense: Every superhero has a secret identity—and a cause. When he became a teacher in 2004, he presided over classrooms full of kids from the local Latino community, and before long a thought struck him: His students didn’t have any superheroes who looked like them.


El Peso Hero comics

Out of that realization came El Peso Hero, who fights villains along the Mexican border. The series made Rodriguez into a celebrity, and not only in the classroom. “The kids were like, ‘Hey, look! Teacher is on TV!’” This made sense, too. A frequently overlooked aspect of DFW culture is the prevalence of geek-friendly enterprises like Barcadia, a video game parlor/pub, and the Red Pegasus comic book store, along with events like the Texas Latino Comic Con (co-founded by Rodriguez), which last July was held at the Dallas Latino Cultural Center.

Rodriguez, who was born 400 miles away in Eagle Pass, credits this kind of cultural cross-pollination with fostering his own development. “I found myself here,” he says.

Khanh Nguyen, 37 
Fashion Designer
Quality time in Highland Park

Khanh Nguyen looks happy. We are in the lavish restaurant at Grange Hall, a boutique south of Dallas’ wealthy Highland Park neighborhood, which sells everything from gold-cluster necklaces to salted caramels. Nguyen has ordered the aptly named Snob Sandwich—egg, crème fraîche, smoked salmon and caviar. “I come here for the ambience,” she says, referring to an interior that is part art installation, part Victorian curiosity shop. “I could spend days here.”

Nguyen came to Texas from Vietnam in 1993, as a 12-year-old who spoke no English. Today, as the designer behind Nha Khanh, the fashion label she co-founded in 2010, she is among the hottest talents in town. Her clothes can be found at retailers like Saks Fifth Avenue and have been worn by the likes of Kim Kardashian.

Dallas is no stranger to high-end fashion, but there are few boutiques that get the credit cards flapping like Forty Five Ten, whose flagship store occupies a stunning four-story building downtown, its interior dotted with artworks as well as items from designers both acclaimed and obscure. Nguyen got her first break when the shop picked up her ready-to-wear line. “It has so many beautiful things,” she says, “which in most cases I can’t afford.”

Certainly, Snob Sandwiches are a rarity for Nguyen. More likely, you’ll find her eating sushi at the Tokyo-style Tei Tei Robata Bar, or the ultra-modern Uchi. Her favorite under-the-radar spot is Sushi Robata. Sometimes she heads for a strip of restaurants in Carrollton Town Center, about 25 miles north of the city, whose options include Korean, Japanese, Thai and Vietnamese. “I really love the variety,” she says, “everything in one place.”

As for work, Nguyen is currently looking to dress a smaller clientele—as in stature. “My goal is to have a children’s line,” she says, due in part to persistent requests from her six-year-old daughter. Keeping her kid happy is a demanding sideline for Nguyen. On weekends, she and her husband will drive up to the water park at Great Wolf Lodge in Grapevine. Closer to home is the Crayola Experience in Plano, a large, colorful playground where Nguyen recently spent a hectic six hours. “I did not have coffee that day, and I regretted that. I was exhausted.” 

She rolls her eyes and smiles. She looks happy.

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David Lowery, 37 
Filmmaker
From the Hollywood Hills to Oak Cliff

Coming up as a young filmmaker in Dallas, David Lowery swore he wouldn’t do the Hollywood thing. “I felt I could make my way here in Texas,” he says. In 2013, without leaving town, he made Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, starring Casey Affleck and Rooney Mara. After that he went to Hollywood, to write and direct the Disney box office hit Pete’s Dragon. The lure of Tinseltown, as ever, prevailed. 

Or not. In 2016, Lowery and his filmmaker wife, Augustine Frizzell, surprised everyone by heading back to Dallas. The city was the backdrop for A Ghost Story, the moody 2017 supernatural love story that established Lowery as a star. “I’d like to give Dallas more credibility as a place where filmmakers exist,” he says, sitting in Cultivar Coffee, a sleek café that opened in Oak Cliff a couple of years ago, amid a clutter of nail salons and Mexican restaurants. 

Such neighborhoods, Lowery continues, “have become inseparable from the stories I’m trying to tell.” And these stories, he hopes, will help to puncture some of the myths that have grown up around his hometown. “A lot of people have perceptions of Dallas that are based on TV shows,” he says. “But there are so many things that go beyond the clichés. This is a city that is constantly redefining itself, and it’s really exciting to be a part of that.”

One of the more notable transformations of recent years is the revival of the Texas Theatre, just down the street from Cultivar. The cinema opened in 1931, financed by the famous aviator, business magnate and germaphobe Howard Hughes. Its most notorious moment, though, came on November 22, 1963, when Lee Harvey Oswald was hauled out and arrested in the middle of War Is Hell. Today, as a 645-seat arthouse cinema, it is one of the most popular venues in town. “There used to be two people in the audience,” Lowery says. “Now it’s packed pretty much every night.”

When he’s not watching films, Lowery can be found jogging around White Rock Lake, a peaceful and picturesque spot northeast of the city. “It’s a winding path, enough so that, even though I’ve been running it for years, I never quite remember what’s around the next bend.” In fact, Lowery says, the DFW area overall—with green spaces ranging from the Katy Trail in Dallas to the Fort Worth Nature Center & Refuge—has become fertile ground for outdoorsy types. “You don’t have to go too far to go camping, biking, kayaking, horseback riding.”

Lowery’s other favorite spots include The Wild Detectives, a quirky bookstore-bar in Oak Cliff, and the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth. “It’s up there with the Guggenheim, in that the architecture is a work of art in itself.” Then there’s NorthPark Center, a luxury mall (or “shopping museum”) that houses an impressive collection of art. “It’s a strange mix, one that feels indicative of the temperament here, in that there are massive amounts of consumerism and incredible aesthetics on display,” Lowery says. “This is part of what makes Dallas such a rich and wonderful place.”

Ale Ochoa, 25 
Whiskey Scientist
Test tubes and jazz bars in Fort Worth

When Ale Ochoa pulls up to her workplace, a ranch in southeast Fort Worth, she always takes time to enjoy the short journey from the gate to the door, which affords a fine view of the city’s skyline. “It’s a proper introduction,” she says.

Once Ochoa gets down to business, there is little in the way of bale stacking or dung shoveling. Ochoa works as a whiskey scientist for the Firestone & Robertson Distilling Co.’s Whiskey Ranch, a striking timber-and-stone facility that hosts public tours and tastings but has no cattle.

“Whiskey scientist” might sound like a novelty job title, but Ochoa holds degrees in food science and “sensory science and flavor chemistry.” At the ranch, she oversees the distillery process “from grain to glass,” which includes tasting. Tough job, and Ochoa sometimes takes it home with her. “I’m an ‘everything’ drinker,” she says of her off-the-clock tipples, “and Fort Worth has a great drinking scene.”

For a bartender, having someone like Ochoa as a customer might be a tiny bit stressful. “I know when there is something off or really right,” she says, “based on smell.” Her litmus test for a bar is how it does the simple stuff: the old-fashioned, the G&T, the tequila and soda. For the latter, Ochoa likes either the quirky Dallas dive The Grapevine Bar or The Usual in Fort Worth. “The Usual probably has some of the best drinks I’ve ever had,” she says.


Scat Jazz Lounge

But good things don’t come easy, as they say, and the adage holds true when it comes to finding the best gin and tonic in Fort Worth. The place to start is Sundance Square, from where you can just make out an old neon sign, halfway down an alley, pointing to the Scat Jazz Lounge. Inside is an elevator that descends to a small bar with live jazz and a cool retro vibe. “If I didn’t know it was there, I’d be scared to walk down there by myself,” Ochoa says. “But it’s my absolute favorite place.”

As for her preferred spot for an old-fashioned, Ochoa points to the chair she’s sitting on. “The best ones I’ve gotten are from Jason, our mixologist,” she says. With this, she presses a button that raises a row of whiskey barrels to reveal a hidden door, beyond which is a tiny room with a round table and various glass-encased bottles. I have a TX blended whiskey, which is pretty darn good as is. 

Ochoa also likes the Magnolia brewpub the Bearded Lady (opening in a new location soon), not so much because she’s a big beer drinker but because this is where she met many of her friends after moving here a couple of years ago. “The Bearded Lady has a special place in my heart,” she says, “because it’s a spot where I started to make Fort Worth home.”

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