El Fenix is celebrating a century of Tex-Mex
El Fenix birthday bash includes a create your own margarita contest
A nine-month lineup of promotions and special events is planned to celebrate the 100th anniversary of Dallas Tex-Mex mecca El Fenix.
Any 100th-birthday bash deserves considerable thought. But it takes extra-special preparation when the celebration involves the international mecca of Tex-Mex.
Founded in 1918 by Miguel “Mike” Martinez, an immigrant laborer from Mexico, El Fenix is more than a place to eat. It’s part of Dallas’ psyche.
Over the decades, visiting celebrities have had two downtown flagships on their must-see maps: Neiman Marcus and El Fenix.
Mick Jagger was once mistaken for a cabdriver while waiting for his now-ex, Jerry Hall, to come out of the restaurant’s ladies’ room.
On game nights or after concerts at the nearby American Airlines Center, visiting hockey and basketball players and concert performers can be spotted chowing down and having a toast or two.
A few years ago, Dallas Mayor Mike Rawlings saved a choking customer’s life with the Heimlich maneuver and now has an annual day in his honor at the restaurant.
“When I migrated from Kentucky to Dallas, El Fenix was a culinary revelation for me. Going there was like going to Tex-Mex school, and I’ll always remember and appreciate that.”
Dean Fearing, celebrity chef
While it was serendipitous, it wasn’t unusual for Rawlings to be there at that fateful moment.
“El Fenix has been a part of my family’s life for 40 years,” he says. “It’s my comfort place, where I feel attached to Dallas through cheese enchiladas and fast, friendly service.”
Given that bond with the city, a one-day anniversary celebration simply wouldn’t do.
So Mike Karns, the 53-yearold CEO and owner of Firebird Restaurant Group LLP, who bought the country’s oldest continuously operating TexMex chain from the Martinez family in 2008, has created a nine-month lineup of promos and special events leading up to a VIP bash the weekend of Sept. 15. That’s the official centennial of the downtown El Fenix and the beginning of the Tex-Mex revolution.
The back story
The history of El Fenix is a blast from the past. Here’s how the widely held company lore goes.
El Fenix was birthed in the front room of Mike and Faustina Martinez’s home on McKinney Avenue in what was then known as “Little Mexico.” It grew into larger quarters, changed its name to El Fenix and once had an adjacent ballroom where people danced the night away to the music of the El Fenix Orchestra.
When big band leaders such as Glenn Miller and Kay Kyser finished their sets at the Adolphus or the Baker hotels, they’d end up at El Fenix, which used to be open around the clock, seven days a week. After their meals, they often scooted next door to jam with the band.
At first, Martinez, who’d been a dishwasher at the downtown Oriental Hotel, offered only American food. But in 1918, he changed the name from Martinez Cafe to El Fenix Cafe and switched the menu to a blend of recipes from his Mexican upbringing with those for Texas cowboy fare.
And Tex-Mex was born. At the time, his mostly Caucasian customers thought they were eating exotically when they ordered enchiladas, tamales, chili con carne and frijoles.
After World War II, Martinez turned the restaurant over to his eight children.
In the mid-’50s, the family, hoping to boost Hump Day sales, slashed the price of its signature plate of two cheese enchiladas, rice and beans. That changed the way we thought about Wednesdays, and the enchilada special — and TexMex in general — became a midweek staple.
Studies of Wednesday tickets done by the Martinez family showed that only 55 percent to 60 percent of the patrons took advantage of the meal deal. The rest were there at full price.
And you might say that El Fenix helped lead celebrity chef Dean Fearing down the road to his renowned Southwestern cuisine.
“When I migrated from Kentucky to Dallas, El Fenix was a culinary revelation for me,” says Fearing, known for the lobster taco and other takes on a flavorful theme. “Going there was like going to Tex-Mex school, and I’ll always remember and appreciate that.”
Karns’ favorite piece of history is that Mike Martinez invented a tortilla machine and sold it to Herman Lay in 1919 for $200, or about $3,000 in today’s dollars, and thought he’d gotten the better end of the trade. Lay went on to create Frito-Lay, causing his heirs to wish that he’d bartered for two shares of Lay’s young company instead.
In 1965, El Fenix moved across the street to its parking lot on McKinney and the ballroom was closed to make way for the city to build Woodall Rodgers Freeway.
Forty-three years later, Karns, a real estate guy, made his first foray into restaurants by paying the 37 Martinez family shareholders their $30-plusmillion, all-cash asking price for the 15-unit chain. Karns promised that he wasn’t buying the flagship as a property play.
That was a natural concern given that the downtown El Fenix sits on prime real estate within walking distance of Victory, American Airlines Center and the West End.
Alarmed locals issued a battle cry: “Don’t Mess with Our Tex-Mex!”
Karns hopes that the centennial festivities will prove that he hasn’t.
Firebird (and thereby Karns) also owns Meso Maya, which serves food from the interior of Mexico; Taqueria La Ventana, which sells Mexican street food; and TorTaco, which is all about imaginative tortas, tacos and mezcal.
El Fenix currently has 22 locations, having recently closed the underperforming one on Belt Line Road in Addison to make way for its seventh Meso Maya, one of the hottest concepts in the country.
But Karns says there’s no blending of the brands.
“We’ve embraced the heritage,” says Karns, sitting at a table in the main dining room before the lunch crowd rolls in. “I don’t know that we’ve changed it much. The family had kept it well-preserved, had great staff, great locations, great food and great leadership.”
It did need to be refreshed and rejuvenated, he says.
A 007-worthy margarita
The dinner menu was reduced from eight pages to five.
Shrimp, pork and brisket dishes were added. Veggies were added to the rice to give it more color.
Three dishes have Medical City Healthcare’s seal of approval. Margaritas now include upscale tequilas. There’s a hand-shaken 1918 Martini using the premium Don Julio Añejo and Grand Marnier that might have converted James Bond from vodka.
But the chips and salsa — made by its sister company, Sunrise Mexican Foods — are the same.
And messing with the chicken tortilla soup or lemon icebox pie?
Forget about it.
“My uncle is a runner,” says Karns, who grew up in Richardson, “and he always does his prerace meal at El Fenix, and he has lemon ice box pie. He claims that is his secret to success.”
Seal of approval
Alfred Martinez, 93, one of two surviving children of the founder’s eight, is sitting with Karns and adds his seal of approval.
“They’ve kept up the restaurants real well,” says “Mr. Alfred,” who still comes downtown from time to time to carry on his duties at ambassador of the culture. “Usually when you sell to another person, they start changing the food, the recipes and other stuff. But they’ve done a good job staying true.”
After a bit, Martinez leaves the table to greet a foursome of early lunch diners. Shirley and Don Williams had their wedding reception here 35 years ago. The couple and their friends, Michaela Bellas and Lisa Haar, eat at the restaurant together every week.
After visiting with them for a while, Martinez takes up his post at the entrance, where a line is beginning to form.
“I eat at the one at Webb Chapel that’s close to the house, and the food is real good,” he says.
“If I come downtown, it’s usually on Wednesday in case they need me. I’m not here every Wednesday, but I come often as I can.”
It’s a Thursday, but he’s here for the interview and isn’t about to pass up the opportunity to play host.
Pulling in newbies
Firebird — the code name used by the Martinez family when it began looking for a buyer and adopted by Karns — also owns Snuffer’s Restaurant & Bar and Village Burger Bar. All told, the company will post revenue of more than $100 million this year and is profitable, Karns says, declining to break the sales down by the six concepts.
The downtown El Fenix typically serves 1,600 guests on
weekdays, turning tables three times at lunchtime, and 3,000 on game and concert nights and on weekends.
But Karns figures he’s missing out on two groups of potential customers: millennials who don’t know the cool factor of traditional Tex-Mex and Lone Star newcomers who really don’t know what that is.
First up is a “Create Your Own Margarita Contest” that kicks off on Jan. 22. Customers can design their own libations using Sauza Hornitos Tequila and whatever else that tickles their spirits. My colleagues at GuideLive, led by The News’ entertainment editor, Sarah Blaskovich, have drawn the hardship duty of judging the concoctions on Feb. 22, which happens to be National Margarita Day.
ICYMI, El Fenix is also known for its award-winning margaritas — frozen or on the rocks — that aren’t for the easily tipsied.
“The rooftop sat as storage for 40 years. Now it’s a gold mine,” says Alfred’s son, Al Martinez, who’s also at the table. He’s talking about the upstairs room that’s now used for special events and often has to be booked months in advance. “Mike has taken the concept and broadened it. He had a Cinco de Mayo party out on the parking lot about three years ago, had all these bands and spent a lot of money. That brought in a younger demographic to check out El Fenix.”
The third-generation Martinez says there’s no family gathering planned for the centennial. The clan has gotten older, is more dispersed and has other interests.
But that’s not to say they won’t be gathered in spirit, Al Jr. says.
“My grandfather left the Oriental Hotel angry because he wasn’t picked to be part of the kitchen team and opened his own place in the front room of his house. We’re all very proud that his idea lives on.
“My favorite memories are the characters who worked in the kitchen and on the floor — people who had moved to Dallas. Waitresses who were willing to make a quarter off of each table and send it back home to help their families in Mexico.”
Alfred Martinez, a member of the founding family of the restaurant, often drops by the downtown El Fenix on Wednesdays to greet the crowds that show up for the enchilada special.
A historic postcard shows the downtown Dallas location in 1940, with the ballroom next door. The restaurant moved across the street in 1965.
Alfred Martinez (top left) stops by to visit with Shirley Williams (top right) and her husband, Don Williams (left), who were having their weekly El Fenix lunch with Michaela Bellas and Lisa Haar. The Williamses had their wedding reception at the restaurant 35 years ago.
The downtown El Fenix opened in September 1918 after the restaurant outgrew the front room of Mike and Faustina Martinez’s home on McKinney Avenue. It moved to its current building in 1965.
The downtown El Fenix in around 1920. The company, now owned by Firebird Restaurant Group, currently has 22 locations.
Mike Karns (left) is CEO of the Firebird Restaurant Group, which bought El Fenix in 2008. He’s shown with two members of the founding family, Alfred Martinez (center) and his son Al Martinez Jr.