El Fenix is cel­e­brat­ing a cen­tury of Tex-Mex

El Fenix birth­day bash in­cludes a cre­ate your own mar­garita con­test

The Dallas Morning News - - Front Page - CH­ERYL HALL cheryl­hall@dal­las­news.com

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.

Fightin’ words

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.”

Andy Ja­cob­sohn/Staff Pho­tog­ra­pher

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.

El Fenix

A his­toric post­card shows the down­town Dal­las lo­ca­tion in 1940, with the ball­room next door. The restau­rant moved across the street in 1965.

Andy Ja­cob­sohn/Staff Pho­tog­ra­pher

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.

Andy Ja­cob­sohn/Staff Pho­tog­ra­pher

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.

Cour­tesy of El Fenix

The down­town El Fenix in around 1920. The com­pany, now owned by Firebird Restau­rant Group, cur­rently has 22 lo­ca­tions.

Andy Ja­cob­sohn/Staff Pho­tog­ra­pher

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.

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