The term farm-to-table gets tossed around with such frequency in the restaurant industry that it may soon be entering the domain of equally useless descriptors such as natural and superfood. Saying a dish is farm-to-table it isn’t regulated in any meaningful way. At best, it’s a simple way of reassuring guests that someone involved in the restaurant can point to a place on a map where their mushrooms came from. At worst, it’s downright deceptive. That doesn’t mean the term has lost all meaning for some. Ellen and David Ling, owners of Plano’s Texas Forest Farm restaurant, take the phrase very seriously. For them, they own both the table and the farm.
Texas Forest Farm isn’t your usual Chinese restaurant. Even down to its name, it breaks some of the rules. While the restaurant has been open since March of last year, its beginnings started way before then.
“When we moved here, to Dallas, our kids said, ‘You know, we kinda miss the food in Japan.’ Kids are very picky. They are very pure in their sense of taste,” Ellen said. “We wanted them to be happy. We wanted to have a place for them to play.”
In 2017 Ellen and David purchased a small farm in Leonard, Texas, about 45 minutes northeast of Plano. They eventually began raising Berkshire and Mangalica pigs, sheep, goats, chickens and ducks. The couple has the farm-raised meat processed at Bluebonnet Meat Company in nearby Trenton.
Buying a farm to give their kids some space to run and the ability to know exactly where their food comes from turned up its own set of surprising results.
“Two years later, my friend asked, ‘The meat is so good, why not have a small restaurant?” Ellen said. “People appreciated our food then. They thought it was very healthy, very delicious.” It was with that realization that Texas Forest Farm began as a simple butcher shop for customers to buy cuts of meat from their farm. The menu was soon to follow.
Ellen decided she wanted to represent her hometown cuisine in the restaurant. Centered around the Jiangsu province in China, not far from Shanghai, the menu focuses on Huaiyang cuisine.
“Huaiyang is one of the four major cuisines in China. It’s very famous, and has a full history,” Ellen said.
While Chinese food is as varied and complex as the region itself, Huaiyang cuisine focuses on its own specific subset of rules and traditions. Most offerings on Texas Forest Farm’s menu use extremely intricate, precise cuts for meats and vegetables alike, while keeping the dishes beautifully simple, with just three or four ingredients that let the quality of those ingredients speak for itself.
Nowhere is this more apparent than the Jiangnan Style Ham appetizer, which, simply put, is a stack of perfectly cut rectangles of meat. It has a salty, savory punch that encapsulates pure porky goodness.
“It takes seven days to make. You have to massage it first, to make sure all the spices are incorporated. It doesn’t taste greasy at all,” Ellen explained. “For Chinese people, we really like this portion,” Ellen pointed toward the semi-translucent caps of gelatin on the dish, “but Americans – they like the meat!”
While clearly having an affinity toward showcasing livestock that the owners raise, Texas Forest Farm doesn’t neglect vegetarian dishes. The Lings are particularly proud of their Crispy Vegetarian Goose, a layered tofu dish that more closely resembles a savory baklava than its typical bean curd brethren.
The restaurant receives fresh meat from the farm every week. Ellen says it’s all local and farm-raised, but not certified organic because the process is too lengthy. The quality of the ingredients used is reflected in the price per portion size of many dishes.
“There are many Chinese restaurants in this part of town, but nobody else has this. We are unique.”
Texas Forest Farms is certainly unique in more ways than one. While the usual fan favorites of dumplings and beef noodle soup can be found on the menu, it’s the specialty dishes that set the place apart. Ellen and David consider the quality of their food as a part of their lifestyle, as an obligation to give diners an authentic meal that embraces farm-to-table in the most genuine sense of the phrase.Texas Forest Farm >