Chef Ford Fry opened his first Atlanta restaurant, the Southern-inspired JCT Kitchen, in 2007.
Since then, the Texas transplant has added a string of award-winning concepts around the city, including No. 246, the Optimist, King + Duke, St. Cecilia, Marcel and BeetleCat, that explore everything from wood-fired Italian to regional takes on seafood and old-school steakhouse fare.
But in 2014, when Fry debuted the El Felix, which he describes as “a neighborhood Tex-Mex joint,” he joyfully returned to his Houston roots. And the next year, with the opening of another Tex-Mex restaurant, Superica, he started digging even deeper into the history and culture of the food he grew up with.
Fry’s new cookbook with Texas writer Jessica Dupuy, “Tex-Mex: Traditions, Innovations, and Comfort Foods From Both Sides of the Border” (Potter, $29.99), is set to be released on April 23. It offers recipes for all-time favorites like nachos, fajitas and enchiladas, with lesser-known dishes like albondigas, and staples such as migas and campechana de mariscos.
More enlightening, though, is the cookbook’s road trip-like approach to singular, crave-worthy dishes at specific Texas restaurants — from the processed cheese and chili gravy enchiladas at Molina’s in Houston to the puffy tacos at Ray’s Drive Inn in San Antonio.
Along those lines, Fry is opening a new “super-casual” Tex-Mex restaurant in Atlanta called Little Rey. The menu, created by Fry and and fellow Texas chef Kevin Maxey, is primarily focused on wood fire-roasted chicken al carbon, which is also featured in “Tex-Mex.”
Recently, I caught up with Fry at Superica in Atlanta’s Krog Street Market, where we sipped margaritas, shared some guac and chips, and chatted about the cookbook and the cuisine it celebrates.
“Growing up in Texas, Tex-Mex was an everyday food for me,” he said. “It was something we ate three, four times a week. Moving to Atlanta, I missed that. So kind of an Austin, Texas, vibe place is what I was interested in doing here, and I was passionate about it.
“Our chef Kevin Maxey felt the same way. I’m Houston and he’s Dallas. And together we have our take on it all. I want to give Kevin a lot of credit. He played a huge role in this. A lot of this is coming out of my mind, but he did a lot of work on the recipes and talking things through with me.”
Developing the recipes for “Tex-Mex” brought Fry back to the sense memories of his youth, which is how he developed many of the dishes that became staples on his menus, he noted.
“I took some of the recipes from Superica, and modified them for home cooks, then cooked them at home,” he said. “We didn’t want to do a cheffy cookbook. We wanted to do a cookbook that people would really cook from. And I’m so glad we did that. You don’t have to be a chef to make the recipes.”
One of the most satisfying recipes in “Tex-Mex” is simply titled Beef Fajitas. The beauty is that the presentation manages to elevate a seemingly common dish to the sublime level it deserves.
“Everyone here thinks fajitas is basically this stir-fry of meat and peppers and onions,” Fry said. “But that’s not it. The meat should be marinated and grilled. And everything else should be on the side. That’s something I wanted to highlight.
“This is a book you’re definitely going to want to read because there are a lot of tips. What I’m most excited about, though, is that it’s an extremely approachable, fun cookbook.”
These recipes from chef Ford Fry’s new “Tex-Mex” cookbook include an elegant twist on the margarita, a Texas breakfast favorite, a spicy seafood parfait, and the proper way to make beef fajitas.
The El Jefe Margarita
Austin’s Cedar Door bar claims the honor of inventing the Mexican Martini, a twist on the standard margarita. It arrives in a frosty metal shaker and is accompanied by a chilled glass adorned with two fat green olives impaled on a toothpick. At Superica, it’s called the El Jefe and served with a wheel of lime instead of olives.
For centuries in Spain, and later in Mexico, migas — meaning “crumbs” — were the leftover ingredients you’d find after a late-night celebration with family and friends. The next morning, they would be repurposed into some sort of hearty, fortifying breakfast. In Tex-Mex cooking, the philosophy is similar: Migas are typically a scramble of eggs and variations of pico de gallo ingredients that are sprinkled with a bunch of day-old tortilla chip crumbs.
Campechana de Mariscos
Sort of like a Mexican shrimp cocktail, campechana is a far cry from the kind that comes with chilled shrimp alongside a dish of ketchup-y horseradish sauce. It’s more of a spicy, vodka-free bloody-mary-meets-loads-of-seafood. While campechana is often made with just shrimp, Fry likes to use whatever seafood is fresh and in season, and you should do the same.
People often make beef fajitas using too much citrus in the marinade — and then marinate the meat for way too long. The acid in lime juice cooks the meat, often resulting in a texture that is dry and gritty. Fry’s not-so-secret weapon for fajita marinade is canned pineapple juice, which contains an enzyme that tenderizes the meat without cooking it. And, bonus, the canned juice has added sugar in it, which helps caramelize the surface of the fajitas as they cook on the grill.
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