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South of downtown Dallas, just blocks from the popular (and extremely busy) Bishop Arts District, lies a piece of Dallas history: Jefferson Boulevard, a miles-long stretch through the suburb of Oak Cliff. This true boulevard, complete with center median, turn-in parking on both sides, and wide sidewalks, was the main street of this suburb in its heyday in the 1950s. At one time, a trolley made its way down the boulevard as shoppers walked in and out of mom-and-pop shops and large department stores such as Levine’s and Sears. The star of Jefferson Boulevard was (and is) the Texas Theatre. While it was a draw for shoppers and residents in the Dallas area, it may be best known across the nation as the place where Lee Harvey Oswald was apprehended after the assassination of JFK in downtown Dallas in 1963.
As the years passed, the boulevard started to fall into decline, but an influx of Hispanic families moving to the area and starting businesses on the boulevard in the mid-1980s brought it back to life. In the years that followed, it became an active retail area for the Hispanic community. Today, brightly-colored buildings line Jefferson Boulevard, full of signs advertising for Mexican food, quinceañera dresses, jewelry, small professional businesses, and hair salons.
The sharp ascension of the Bishop Arts District has brought new attention to Jefferson Boulevard—a fresh wave of businesses has come in to add to the neighborhood’s vibe, including some great places to eat and drink. Developer Jim Lake bought the old Jefferson Tower, a medical office building with ground-floor retail just a block from the Texas Theatre, in 2013, and he’s curated a roster of retailers who serve up custom specialties in spaces that look modern but retain the historic feel of the building. No matter what they’re cooking up, the aim for all is to contribute to this quickly-evolving community.
In a small space at one end of the Jefferson Tower retail strip, New Orleans native Maureen Ehrlicher packs fluffy shaved ice into cups and tops them with fruit-flavored syrups in true Crescent City style. At NOLA Snoballs, she serves the cream-based flavors that are a staple of the New Orleans version, but has also added some Texas touches to the treat, including topping mango and other fruit-flavored snoballs with tajin, the popular Mexican seasoning, or adding a special ‘knockout’ of chopped pickles, a favorite of area customers.
Next door, owners Darla McQuen, Nita Briggs and Kim Haynes bake sweet goodness at Kookie Haven, named after their mother, who was a world-class cookie baker. Each day, they make fresh individual cakes and cookies from scratch. Briggs says the Strawberry Cake is a crowd favorite, as is the Butter Toffee Crunch cookie. On Fridays and Saturdays, those who want the best of both worlds can order Stuffers, or a cupcake that’s stuffed inside a cookie.
If sweets aren’t on the menu, try Small Brewpub, where craft beers made on site sell for as little as $4, handmade cocktails are only $9, and pub favorites with a special twist are ideal for any lunch or dinner. Owners Joshua Dawn, Benj Potca, Aaron Garcia, and Dan Bowman offer 10 to 11 beers on tap, including best-seller Black Pepper Pils, which combines black pepper, orange peel, coriander, and a little rye to make a light beer with the perfect amount of hops.
Coffee lovers can’t miss Cultivar Coffee, the third location for owner Jonathan Meadows. The calm space featuring local art on the walls make it the ideal place for enjoying leisure time or working away from the office. Coffee is serious business here—Meadows has personally met with 80 percent of the Latin American growers he sources from, and is still involved in the roasting of beans served at Cultivar. Light grub is served for those seeking a nosh, or happy hour goers can enjoy a glass of wine from Meadows’ personally-curated list.
If only a full meal will do, barbecue lovers can try the baby back ribs and other smoked favorites at Juanito Diaz’s JD’s BBQ and Grill. Try the brisket or chicken with JD’s homemade sauce. Those wanting a taste of the Caribbean can check out The Island Spot, where owner Richard Thomas, and his mother, Mama Joyce, cook up traditional recipes from their hometown of Spanish Town, Jamaica. Favorites include oxtails and chicken thighs smothered in a flavorful Jamaican yellow curry.
All of these small business owners are proud to bring their culinary passions to Jefferson Boulevard, and see it as an opportunity to truly be part of a community.
“People might characterize this as a poor neighborhood that’s gentrifying, but we’ve been very intentional on making this a place for everyone, especially those who were in the neighborhood long before we came along,” Masters says. “It’s about the coffee, but it’s also about creating a place that serves the community. At all of our stores, we employ people who live in the neighborhood, and it’s important to me to elevate them, and make sure they’re the faces of these shops.”
Dawn says Dallas has a lot of history that often gets overlooked, and he felt opening his brewery and pub on the boulevard was an opportunity to be a part of a revitalization.
“We knew we were opening on the edge of something, kind of pioneering it, and that was appealing to us,” Dawn says. “We wanted to be part of an area that’s coming up. As a business owner, I feel a responsibility to the neighborhood—lots of these businesses have been here for a long time, and these are our livelihoods. It’s important for us to take responsibility and be involved so we keep the integrity of the neighborhood…so it doesn’t become like everything else.”
All of the owners noted the sales of surrounding buildings and know that they will soon be joined by other entrepreneurs bringing their businesses to Jefferson. They’re glad to see others join in on the continued growth of the boulevard. It’s definitely the vision Lake had when he bought the tower five years ago.
This is a catalyst,” Lake said. “It’s important to redevelop these historic structures in a way where you’re not necessarily gentrifying it – you’re keeping the integrity of the building and reflecting the neighborhood. For the long term, the changes have already started to happen. This is going to be an entertainment district. You have a two-mile stretch with some great historic structures. We think this (development) is going to be a spark for the area.”