Marc Cassel's Fish Story
Why it took the chef only 25 years to open his own seafood joint.
One night several weeks before the January opening of their East Dallas restaurant, 20 Feet Seafood Joint, Marc Cassel and his wife, Suzan Fries, tested their new fryer for the first time. Fries wore a blue apron and a short haircut suited to kitchen work. She squeezed a pastry bag, producing a series of chocolate “20”s on parchment paper, while Cassel, in matching apron, his long white goatee giving him the appearance of a birthday party magician, gingerly laid a piece of battered cod into hot oil. First he tried a yeast batter, then tempura. Brined fish, then unbrined. Much experimentation lay ahead as the couple worked toward a menu.
“It’s like cooking in someone else’s kitchen,” Fries said. “It’s ours, but it’s not really ours yet.”
Cassel is something of a folk hero for having run the kitchen at the Green Room for more than eight years. Say “feed me, wine me” to anyone who spent any amount of time in Deep Ellum during its mid-’90s zenith, and that person will likely let loose a wistful moan filled with boozy memories of the place.
So it was big news, at least in foodie circles, when it came to light that Cassel would open a restaurant on Peavy Road, completing a trinity of gustatory hipness in a building that not long ago housed a biker bar and a hair salon whose business model included selling drugs to customers who placed their orders from an adjacent carwash. First came Good 2 Go Taco, then Goodfriend Beer Garden & Burger House, and, finally, 20 Feet. If one were so inclined (I am, and not just because I live in the neighborhood), one could see this bustling little settlement as the impetus for openings all along the territory that lies on the sleepier side of White Rock Lake. Starting from the south, working our way up Garland Road and around the lake, let’s include Cane Rosso, Hypnotic Donuts, Torchy’s Tacos, Alligator Cafe, White Rock Abbey, and Lake House Bar & Grill. It can all be traced back nearly 20 years ago to those halcyon days at the Green Room.
Goodfriend is owned by a burly, tattooed man named Matt Tobin. It just so happens that he used to work the door at Trees, the music venue a few doors down from the Green Room that gave the restaurant its name (the idea being that musicians might eat there before a show). This would have been 1996 or so. Brandt Wood, one of the owners of Trees and the Green Room, had just lured Cassel away from Stephan Pyles’ Star Canyon.
“It was really intimidating,” Cassel says. “Everybody at Trees was just huge and menacing-looking in general. And then Brandt brings me over to make introductions. He’s dorky—in the best possible sense—and he’s introducing me to these bartenders and bouncers.”
Tobin noticed that Cassel was “hanging out with the suits,” but that impression didn’t last long. “The other security guys,” he says, “the people on the lower end of the totem pole, we saw Marc as one of us, and so we liked him a whole bunch.”
In 2005, when Tobin opened his first place, Vickery Park, on Henderson Avenue, Cassel helped him with the menu and hooked him up with a young cook he’d trained at the Green Room. Eight years later, Eric Najera still runs the kitchen at Vickery.
That brings us to Good 2 Go Taco, which is owned by Jeana Johnson and her partner, Colleen O’Hare. It just so happens that O’Hare cooked for Cassel at the Green Room. At the time, Johnson was working next door at Daddy Jack’s. Every Tuesday for a year she would walk over to the Green Room and ask Cassel’s sous chef, James Pitzer, for a job. She got the job only after O’Hare—having left to work at York St., then returned to replace Cassel—hired her.
It gets complicated. Cassel loved the Green Room. Heck, he shared that kitchen with Fries and proposed to her there one New Year’s Eve while standing on the lid of the grease trap. But by 2004, Deep Ellum was on the wane, and paychecks began to bounce. So Cassel handed over his kitchen to O’Hare and quit. The Green Room went under in 2006, reopened four years later, then folded again.
During its brief second life, though, the Green Room served as an important setting. Pitzer, the sous who wouldn’t hire Johnson, had moved to Washington state, where his house burned to the ground. All the old staff gathered once again at the Green Room to put on a benefit. The Reverend Horton Heat played on the rooftop deck. Many drinks were drunk. Afterward, Fries and Johnson went to their good buddy Matt Tobin’s place, Vickery Park, to drink some more drinks. At that point, in late 2010, Johnson and O’Hare hadn’t yet opened Good 2 Go, but they’d signed their lease and more or less talked Tobin into signing for the spot next door. Cassel and Fries were unemployed and looking for something to do.
“What’s your dream?” Johnson asked Fries.
Fries, no doubt enlivened by the strong waters she’d tread that happy night, said, “I want to open a pie shop.”
Johnson responded with a question: “Why don’t you do it in the third space on Peavy?”
How that pie shop became a seafood restaurant is a story for another time, but Cassel and Fries met each other in culinary school at El Centro College, so you could say the transition took only about 25 years.
For more information on 20 Feet Seafood Joint, visit our online restaurant guide.