First Look: The El Felix
A trek to Ford Fry's new Alpharetta Tex-Mex jointMonday February 16, 2015 04:00 am EST
There were about six people in The El Felix’s dining room at 11 a.m. on a Friday. An hour later, the place was jam-packed. To the left of us, ladies who lunched and to the right, businessmen talking about numbers of cups sold this week. Apparently, one of the men was there because the name reminded him of a spot he used to frequent back in Houston, Felix Mexican Restaurant. Little did he know the same Felix Mexican Restaurant was a childhood favorite of restaurateur Ford Fry, and thus served as the culinary touchstone for his own Felixian homage to Texas, in Alpharetta, Ga.
Located within the Avalon shopping complex — Fry’s first OTP outpost — the El Felix channels the cheesy, Americanized expression of Mexican cooking we all know and love as Tex-Mex. Inside the three-month-old eatery, designer Elizabeth Ingram created a chic, border-town-cantina feel with natural materials like prettily patterned slats of reclaimed wood seamlessly woven into industrial design. There is so much texture. Natural elements mixed with vibrant colors like the flowy, patterned red drapes are classically Mexican. Ropes crisscrossing the ceiling are reminiscent of a giant hammock, easing you into relaxation mode. A stunning Mexican flag tapestry hangs near the bar with an eagle grasping a snake. An earth-toned piñata mounted on a wall sets a fun yet refined tenor.
Executive chef Kevin Maxey shares Texas roots with Fry, and it shows. The El Felix’s self-described “Mex-Tex” menu offers a range of classics like enchiladas, fajitas, or mesquite-grilled tacos al carbon, to refined dishes like beautifully plated, butter-basted whole red snapper. Why the flip-flopping of Tex and Mex, you ask? It’s related to that idea of range. “Tex-Mex has gone through a few stages of evolution,” says Fry. “We say ‘Mex-Tex’ to allow for some more modern items that we as chefs have learned from our cooks and dishwashers.” Speaking of semantics. If you’re curious about the whole, seemingly redundant “the” as in the El Felix, Fry says it’s a matter of creative license. “I named it as if ‘el Felix’ was a noun like an el Camino,” he says. “So it’s like this: ‘Hey dude, let’s go out in the El Camino” or “Hey dude, let’s go to the El Felix.”
If Tex-Mex has a holy trinity like New Orleans cooking, it would be a margarita, tortilla chips, and salsa. Two types of salsa are delivered when seated: a dark brown chipotle rojo and a light green tomatillo-avocado verde. Chips are fresh, whisper thin, and served hot. It is easy to polish off a basket, alternating between the smokiness of the chipotle and the creaminess of the avocado. El Felix’s heaping bowl of guacamole ($9), while a bit pricey, is simple, fresh, and seasoned perfectly with cilantro and lime. Dig into this while making selections from the menu divvied into starters, soups and salads, traditional plates, and plates from the wood-fired grill.
Our server identified the tacos al carbon ($16) as her favorite dish, with its thick slices of wood-grilled skirt steak, charred onions, and avocado salsa verde nestled in a house-made flour tortilla. Most sighted in the dining room were fajita platters piled high with chicken ($21), steak ($26), pork belly ($21), or a mixture of all three ($24).
The puffy taco dinner ($14) comes with a choice of chile-braised chicken tinga or ground beef. These are, you guessed it, San Antonio’s signature puffy tacos aka tacos with corn tortillas that are thrown in hot oil till they’re fluffy, flaky, and crispy on the outside, but tender on the inside. The chicken is full of smoky notes and the picadillo is redolent with earthy cumin and a touch of sweetness. The pollo perfecto ($16) is a flash-fried chicken leg that stays astonishingly crisp after it’s cloaked in cinnamon-y poblano mole sauce and is served with a puffy tortilla topped with guac.
PRO TIP: Dining for lunch Monday through Friday is a deal with the El Felix’s totally cheese-laden combo plate. Ten bucks gets you a choice of two of the following: nachos, tacos, enchiladas, soup, and salad, along with endless rice and refried beans. This is a super deal compared with the rest of the menu where traditional entrees run $12-16 and items from the wood-fired grill are $16-34 (not including market priced items).
The El Felix’s mirror-backed bar holds more than 50 tequilas and around 10 different mezcals. The whiskey list is large, too. The restaurant’s general manager Bradley Wyatt (formerly of King and Duke, One Eared Stag) created a cocktail list with drink names Elmore Leonard would approve of: Texas Star, El Diablo, Burro, Briar Patch, Revolver. The 3:10 to Yuma ($10) with mezcal, lavender bitters, lemon juice, and Cava shows the versatility of mezcal not just a smoky jolt, but also good as a sipper. The wine list appears carefully chosen to accompany spicy fare with fruit-forward albariños, sauv blancs, and reds like malbecs and tempranillos. El Felix’s perfect margarita ($8) is good and boozy, sweetened with a bit of agave. We tried to order a michelada, the classic Tex-Mex beer cooler, but our server was confounded.
Tex-Mex is personal to many people, much like talking about Texas with a Texan almost always is. The El Felix is an elevated, OTP love note to Texas, serving food that could hold its own against San Antonio, the Tex-Mex capital of the world. Apart from lunch, a meal here may set you back a few twenties more than your average neighborhood Tex-Mex joint, but the gorgeous space sets the mood of a Mexican border town — without the kitsch — in that unique Ford Fry way we are all getting used to. Oh, and is it worth the 30-mile drive from Atlanta? Well, the El Felix does have a sister restaurant with the same fare slated to open at Krog Street Market any day now, so we’ll have to get back to you on that one.