Still Solid

Time may have stopped at the Dakota Bar & Grill, but the crowds keep coming back

The Dakota Bar & Grill opened its doors in 1984. There have been some changes over the years, no doubt, but by all appearances this Trail Dust town dining room is still quite popular. The crowd is of a certain age and income level; let's just say they aren't the type to post on Yelp. And the restaurant's Facebook page has fewer than 500 "likes." It's a generational thing.

I hadn't eaten at the Dakota in ages, so I couldn't remember much about the menu back in the day. But it seems like the owners (not the original ones) try to honor the past while bringing in new touches. Our starters included coconut shrimp ($11) and bruschetta ($9). We also tried a cup of the soup of the day ($3), which was spinach potato.

Our lunch entrées included two "Dakota Favorites," the house chili ($8.50) and shrimp enchiladas ($12). On our dinner visit, we tried the hangar steak ($17) and the braised short rib rigatoni ($16). Cocktails and desserts were also part of the experience.

There were four shrimp in the appetizer. They came to the table so hot that they were almost impossible to eat. The coating was crisp and brown, and once it cooled down the coconut flavor came through. The mango chutney on the side was too sweet for my taste.

The soup had a Middle Eastern touch and was perhaps a bit over-salted. We didn't finish it.

The shrimp enchiladas were also nearly scalding when they arrived. The shrimp were chopped up a bit, rolled in handmade flour tortillas and blanketed with a creamy, Southwestern white sauce (red peppers, green peppers, yellow peppers, green onions). They were topped with enough cheddar and jack cheese to make every bite gooey and rich. This was a nice preparation but it wasn't until the heat dissipated that you could really taste it. Had the tomatillo salsa that was served on the side been less watery, this would've been a great dish.

The house chili, on the other hand, should have been warmer. The good-sized portion was chock full of tiny bits of beef tenderloin, ground beef, red beans and other chili staples. There was a dollop of sour cream and some cheddar cheese on top for good measure. The chili was hearty without being too spicy, and was flecked with cheddar cheese and plenty of green chile.

Cocktails are a big part of dining these days and most places go out of their way to concoct unusual drinks. At Dakota, there's a bit of a retro feel to the cocktail menu. The Dakota martini ($8), for example, was perfect in its simplicity. And the classic mojito popped with minty sweetness, the perfect respite to 100-degree-plus temperatures.

The bruschetta, reminiscent of a Waldorf salad—plus blue cheese—didn't quite work. The apples were cut too big and kept falling off the thin, crispy toasts.

Hangar steak is one of our favorites and Dakota's version didn't disappoint. The meat, with a hint of the marinade still lingering, was cooked to the perfect texture—tender but with some pull to it. The side of garlic mashed potatoes was authentic almost to the point of lumpiness. And leaving the skins on is just how we do it at home. The slaw, which was bright with lemon and pepper, was also tasty (and this from two people who don't really like slaw).

I'm a big believer that food should come to the table properly seasoned; there should be no need to add salt or pepper. So I was a bit disappointed with the rigatoni. And while the meat was plentiful, I wish there had been more of the other ingredients, especially the delicious oven-dried grape tomatoes and mushrooms. The ricotta on top was a nice touch and made what could have been a heavy dish into a light and creamy one.

The dessert options sounded like they hadn't changed since Dakota opened. And that's a good thing. The key lime pie ($7) was delightfully smooth and a bit tangy, with a perfect graham cracker crumb crust on the bottom and real whipped cream as a trim. The chocolate torte ($7) was also very old school, with Ibarra chocolate and a pecan crust. Both portions were generous and ideal for sharing.

The service was pleasant and professional. And while the artwork wasn't to my taste, it fit with the rest of the Southwestern décor. The layout was also a bit cramped, but I got the feeling that the regular customers—and there seem to be lots of them—like it that way; it allows for a sense of privacy.

The fact that Dakota has been in business for nearly 30 years speaks volumes about consistency and quality. Dakota may not be on the culinary cutting edge, but clearly the people who run it are doing something right.

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