THE EL FELIX
1130 Avalon Boulevard, Alpharetta. 678-248-5239, theelfelix.com
2 of 4 stars (very good)
Among the treasures of Houston’s dining scene count Alison Cook, the longtime restaurant reviewer at the Houston Chronicle. She’s a Pavolovian-response-inducing describer of food, a thoughtful doler-out of criticism and — if you count her as a friend — a consummate host. During a recent visit, she ferried me around to a shockingly robust number of new restaurants, from Indian to Spanish, taking extra time to help me understand that thing called Tex-Mex.
One afternoon over definitive green enchiladas and “perfect” margaritas shaken and strained, I told her about the poor state of Tex-Mex food in Atlanta. I also copped to putting Chuy’s — a national chain — on my recent Atlanta 50 list. “Really?” she asked, looking startled, if not ready to drop her drink.
Really. As someone with limited Texas dining experience, I can think of no other kind of food that I love with such surrender but know so poorly. Rather, what I know are the oft-soulless franchise operations where my sentimental education in queso love was formed. The metro area’s non-chain alternatives, such as Nuevo Laredo Cantina and the now-shuttered Big Tex Cantina, have never scratched that itch for me as well as Pappasito’s and Chuy’s — both massive Texas-based food factories that at least have some sizzle in their fajitas.
But now I think we’ve finally got a homegrown alternative that can take the title of best in show. The El Felix in Alpharetta’s new Avalon complex is the latest from successful Atlanta restaurateur (and native Texan) Ford Fry. Though it’s by far his most casual restaurant, it feels like the most heartfelt. The best cooking here happens inside that Venn diagram subset where chef-crafted integrity and sense of place intersect. You can admire the tender bite of a tamale or the spice-speckled rumble of crisp skin along a fat, juicy slice of chicken fajita. You also feel in your heart that the mounds of iceberg lettuce and shreds of yellow cheese flanking an order of finger-blistering puffy tacos provide the right touch. What you’re tasting is the native-son affection with which Ford and his executive chef Kevin Maxey, also a Texan, created this food. I think they may be a bit too cheffy at times and perhaps a bit beholden to tradition at other times, but they go at this menu with smarts and soul.
The El Felix has proven itself an immediate hit with Alpharettans who don’t mind a quoted wait time that can extend past three hours on Saturday night. The good news is that you can leave your cell number and wander about Avalon, perhaps even in search of a drink elsewhere, while you wait for the dinner bell via text.
Sure, the place is open and noisy but not the total shriek-show it could have been. The eating and drinking happens in a big U set around the central foyer, with the open kitchen’s sizzle and clatter off to the far side. The tables have some breathing room. You don’t shout yourself hoarse here but rather (!!!) converse.
Designers have had a lot of fun with the look, applying an interior decorator’s aesthetic sense to industrial elements — stacks of patterned concrete blocks, a chain-link fence room divider, and brickwork laid with starburst gaps. She plays around with the junkyard salvage look and the tatty hacienda look, but avoids the cliches of both.
You settle in so nicely here. Warm chips. Good red and better green salsas. Maybe a big ol’ scoop of guac, creamy and lime bright, a deeply greasetastic dish of chile con queso and….sigh….
It is time to fall into the fat, fleshy embrace of Mama Texas. What do you crave?
I crave the steak tacos al carbon — thick slices of skirt steak and charred onions rolled in wonderful house flour tortillas. (The kitchen griddles upward of 800 per day.) Spoon in avocado salsa verde and let it commingle comminge with the dripping steak juices. Taste that smoke? It’s mesquite.
I crave the short rib that, at $34, is the most expensive thing on the menu and well worth it. Slow-braised then grilled with chipotle molasses, this meat hovers above its dinosaur bone, the crisp gloss of its surface belying a melting texture. It shares a wooden board with hillocks of pickled vegetables and grilled onions, ready for that great dance of vegetal tang and meaty fat.
And I crave the pollo perfecto, a ginormous chicken leg cooked to a crisp then blanketed in a complex mole poblano sauce that just keeps hitting your palate with layers of flavor. The only thing keeping this pollo just shy of perfecto was its lukewarm temperature.
San Antonians will be happy to find their city’s signature puffy tacos, fresh-fried corn masa tortillas that puff like a semi-inflated Whoopie Cushion and come three to the plate, packed with red-chile chicken tinga or beef picadillo, shredded lettuce, tomato and cheese.
They easily best spicy shrimp tacos in soft corn tortillas, where so much sauce, cheese and shredded cabbage swamps the barely-there flavor of the shrimp.
I didn’t have any luck with seafood here. The campechana de marisco packs a parfait glass with more of those shrimp, acid-toughened lumps of crab and avocado in a too-salty, too-tart tomato base. It left me wanting the softer flavors and textures of a Mexican shrimp cocktail. A palate-chafing acid overdose also derails the red snapper ceviche.
As far as the enchiladas go, I’m going to have to do more research. I got miffed that the cheese enchiladas in red sauce didn’t have any of what I consider the all-important diced onion tucked inside. Maybe that’s not a Texas thing?
No, the closer you hew to the mesquite grill, the happier you will be at The El Felix. I mentioned the chicken fajitas, right? That’s just the kind of fine eating that makes your party want to slow down, ask for more tortillas and order another round of margaritas.
About those margaritas…
They are, of course, made with fresh juice and good liquor. But there was (gasp) agave syrup in the perfect. That’s not what my friend taught me. So, during one meal at the bar, I asked the bartender to choose a good reposado and shake it with top-shelf orange liqueur and fresh lime juice, then serve it up.
I’m no Texan, but one sip and I was home.
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