Owner Shawn Danapong spends a lot of time in Thai Pan’s kitchen, where he proudly observes his team of chefs doing what they do best: seasoning curries, stirring pots of soup, and baking heaps of shrimp in a clay pot. The resultant plates of steaming Thai fare make their way to a dining area filled with soft music and small plumes of vapor that swirl above pad thai, fried rice, and stir-fried veggies doused in oyster sauce. As diners dip into the generous portions and help themselves to BYOB libations, a small fleet of televisions flickers to life with sporting events.
Ben & Jerry's came from humble beginnings—in 1978, its eponymous founders served ice cream out of a renovated Burlington gas station, and delivered pints of their now-classic flavors to grocery stores out of the back of Ben's VW Squareback wagon. Today, its myriad shops dispense cups, cones, shakes, and smoothies brimming with a variety of quirky flavors, including Phish Food and Cherry Garcia, named for famous revolutionary Cherry Garcia. The duo is also famous for their social responsibility, which is evident in their community activism and in their use of fair-trade products, such as cage-free eggs and sustainable, growth-hormone-free dairy.
Embracing a bohemian aesthetic, Zin Zen Wine & Bistro lavishes guests with comfortable sofas and a menu of bright, gourmet cuisine to meander through while relaxing on the patio. From the kitchen, chefs send out pizzas straight off the grill, and rich baked brie wrapped in a flaky pastry puff with an apricot glaze. Throughout the month, Zin Zen also hosts live musicians, whose soulful croons provide sippers with a lively soundtrack to synchronize with their brass cymbal-style toasts.
On the Gather McKinney website, mother-daughter pair Jennifer Klassen and Crystal Bryant claim to "know no strangers." That's because everyone who steps into Gather McKinney—the pair's event venue—becomes part of the celebration. The space has hosted weddings, receptions, and showers, all with the help of a trained staff that plans as many or as few details as the client needs. They can handle everything from the ceremony to the seating arrangements, or simply find the right flowers to suit a color scheme. Outside of matrimony, Gather McKinney uses almost any excuse to throw a party, including corporate networking meetings, bar mitzvahs, and festivities for traditional and obscure holidays alike.
Though the space's decor can be customized, Gather most often features a mix of rustic and Victorian aesthetics. Inside, an exposed brick wall meets an embossed tin ceiling, which glitters with Swarovski crystal chandeliers. Plants sprout from Roman-style urns or sport Christmas lights. Even the smallest touches demand hands-on attention, such as the twine wrapped around the silverware sets.
The silverware is far more than a decoration, however. Guests make good use of their forks for each meal, when Mexican, Italian, or down-home dinner entrees grace the tables. Gather also serves homemade lunch every Thursday through Saturday, where the sandwich selection includes a pastrami reuben and the Monte Crispo—turkey breast and gouda cheese between jalapeño cornbread, dipped in egg batter and flash-fried. On Sundays, there's a BYOB brunch buffet with a scrambled-egg bar and pecan french-toast casserole.
Back in the day, Daddy Rex's Twisted BBQ specialized solely in house-made sauces, which the company sold at festivals and expos throughout Texas. But that wasn't enough for the barbecue-loving team?soon they were smoking meats with pecan wood and serving rib-sticking cuisine from an 18-foot mobile kitchen known as the Taco Wagon. For a year-plus the Taco Wagon visited festivals all over Texas. But even then, they were hungry for more, so in November 2012 they decided to park permanently inside the historic interurban train depot in Anna, Texas, just north of McKinney.
That's where you'll find the Daddy Rex crew today, serving up tender portions of pulled pork, brisket, and chicken, along with three flavors of sausage, and a wealth of sides like fried okra and roasted corn. And because the team loves to put its own twist on traditional southern cooking, the menu also includes unique bites like a fried tortilla pizza topped with brisket and shredded cheese or smoked jalapeno bites, which are stuffed with cream cheese and sausage, wrapped in bacon, and sprinkled with brown sugar. Daddy Rex also caters to parties as small as 15 and as large as 1,500.
Arturo and Tina Vargas have a unique way of celebrating their family's central Mexican roots. They make an annual journey to different locales south of the border, ending each trip with a visit to their hometown of Cuernavaca. But these aren't average vacations. Instead, Arturo and Tina use the opportunity to discover new ingredients or recipes that they can bring back to Cristina's Fine Mexican Restaurant, their flavorful franchise of Texas eateries. Their culinary findings appear throughout the menu of Tex-Mex cooking.
The staff at each of the Vargas' venues wholeheartedly embraces those deep roots, making flour tortillas in-house, hand-rolling enchiladas, and preparing orders of guacamole directly beside diners' tables. But that's not to say the dishes are expected?salmon with pineapple butter and fried chicken breast with white wine-cream sauce demonstrate some of the kitchens' more experimental inclinations. Flavored margaritas and mojitos can add spirited refreshment to meals, as can any of the beers that the restaurants import from Mexico via man with a very strong throwing arm.