Ford Fry wants to make you happy.
His wildly popular, variously themed Rocket Farm restaurants often don’t resemble one another, aside from a willingness to please the crowds.
But even his most unfamiliar, concept-heavy creations — say, the wood-fired hearth cooking of King + Duke or the pan-American high-low seafood of the Optimist — are grounded by the kinds of dishes that anyone might recognize and crave: wood-grilled steaks, peel-and-eat shrimp.
With this in mind, Fry’s recent turn, with longtime right-hand chef Kevin Maxey, to open two Tex-Mex restaurants — El Felix in Alpharetta and now Superica at Krog Street Market — creates an unusual problem. How does a chef create a distinctly crowd-pleasing Tex-Mex joint when the cuisine at hand has already become the most crowd-pleasing chain restaurant food in America?
Superica, like El Felix before it, is a fun, cheese-dipped solution to that question.
Having grown up in Louisiana, one of the states where good Tex-Mex arrived long ago, I was surprised to later find that many restaurants across our country get away with serving bland refried beans and soggy, sorry excuses for cast-iron fajitas.
Tex-Mex is generous, easygoing food, but too often the tradition has been dumbed down to throwing cheese and chunks of meat at corn vessels. The carne asada in those fajitas should crunch with rub and char, refried beans should pack a cumin punch, enchiladas should melt into their chili and cheese, and your margarita cup should runneth over.
Superica reminds me of the Tex-Mex pleasures of my youth and, at times, surpasses them.
To say that Superica is already a hit is an understatement. I walked in on a recent Wednesday night to find, I think, four hostesses, two of whom were hurriedly answering phones, the other two talking to a line of people in front of me. After waiting to just talk to a hostess, I still had an hour wait for a table — on a Wednesday night, for two.
This isn’t a small restaurant. One wall is so large that the decorators have projected on it the slowly moving image of a desert scene, tumbleweeds blowing in the wind. That may be the pace of your wait if you don’t plan your evening accordingly.
When you do get a table, though, you may find more surprises than you’d expect from a fajitas-and-margaritas joint. The drink list is so long that I would need a second liver to try them all, but I can say that the house margarita is as tall, strong and salty as it should be. The Superita is a nice variation on the Mexican martini, an Austin-specific specialty that is like a cross between a dirty martini with olives and a margarita served in a martini glass. It should appeal perfectly to the drinker who wants nothing to do with the cloying sweetness that sometimes befalls a margarita.
When you order a bowl of queso with those drinks, your server may suggest the “Bob Armstrong,” a regionally celebrated variation with seasoned ground beef, guacamole and sour cream in the cheese, named after a former Texas land commissioner. These touches are common at Superica and are evidence of a thoughtful dressing-up of a cuisine that usually gets dressed down.
Sometimes, that dressing up can go awry, like the steak nachos, which are carefully plated as individual chips piled with melted cheese and chunks of skirt steak. Unfortunately, the steak chunks are too big and tough for a single bite, ruining the whole fussy effect of plating them individually.
And the long menu is a little heavy on lackluster but pricey entrees, including a 14-ounce ribeye that arrives underseasoned and overcooked. You really shouldn’t bother ordering it. Then again, every Tex-Mex restaurant I ever loved growing up always had a steak on the menu and everyone knew you shouldn’t order it.
The real pleasure of Superica is how the kitchen improves (but sticks to) the formula. The chili relleno, the ubiquitous cheese-stuffed fried poblano, is pushed here to a limit that I’d call vaguely insane — a pile of cheese, fried pepper, corn, mushrooms and more cheese that rises inches above the plate. The pollo perfecto, a common chicken leg quarter, is cooked to a crisp and doused in a dark, earthy mole that almost lives up to the name.
But I would be surprised if Superica sells anything as much as the fajitas mixta, a cast-iron platter piled with strips of still-juicy grilled chicken breast and carne asada, a large, crisp slab of pork belly, and all of the accoutrements: caramelized onions, flavorful guacamole, dense flour tortillas, cumin-packed refried beans, and tomato-enriched rice. The pork belly is an unusual touch, but these fajitas are different without being too different, as comforting and crowd-pleasing as anything that could come out of a Tex-Mex kitchen.
It strikes me that Fry and Maxey, who both grew up in Texas, might have been trying to make Tex-Mex restaurants all along, big crowd-pleasers with recognizable and boozy pleasures. Now that they’ve turned back to the Tex-Mex of their youth, we might be seeing a clearer picture of the chefs they are.