It doesn’t much matter what I think about Superica and The El Felix, Ford Fry’s two new Tex-Mex restaurants with almost identical menus and almost identical lines. When I asked the manager of The El Felix—in Avalon, the Alpharetta mall-city—how many diners they served, he said, “Three to four hundred on a slow night.” A normal night? “Seven to eight hundred.” Try calling The El Felix at 5:30 on a Saturday to check on the lines, because neither restaurant takes reservations: “We’re now at a two-hour wait” is the fast response. It only gets longer as the night goes on. What about slightly newer sister Superica, at Krog Street Market? “They’re busier than us.” Little surprise that Fry announced a third Tex-Mex spot for Buckhead. (Fry prefers the label “Mex-Tex,” and insists that linguistically confounding moniker The El Felix just feels more approachable.)
What I can do is marvel at the popularity of the Ford Fry machine. I’ve eaten several times at The Optimist, his Westside seafood restaurant, and have been impressed by the smooth-turning gears. Servers nimbly walk the line between friendly and funky without being too familiar; hosts and bartenders keep the traffic and food flowing to make you feel welcome, but their cheery briskness reminds you that someone waiting will be glad to take your table as soon as you’re finished.
Like The Optimist, every aspect of Superica and The El Felix is deliberately designed: The architecture is as practical as it is theatrical. Superica is full of yellow braided curtains, hanging antlers, Southwestern beaded bric-a-brac, and 1940s factory floor lamps kitted out with Edison bulbs. The El Felix has rope nets suspended from the ceiling, a wall-height Mexican folk art hanging, and counters supported by patterned cinder blocks.
You’ll certainly have plenty of time to examine the details. The first night we went to Superica, we were told the wait would be at least two and a quarter hours, so we stalked seats at the bar. Two couples said they were about to get a table, and we could have their places—or so they thought. They’d spent the previous hour being told they were the next to be seated, then were bumped without explanation. Clearly, someone had put sand into the usually smooth-turning Ford Fry gears. Finally the two couples were told it would actually be at least another hour.
Was the food worth the wait? Well, no. But then what food would be? That factory floor lighting is apt for a place that turns out upwards of 800 meals a night. Your best bet to avoid a wait: Late lunch on a Monday. If you want to try dinner, opt for The El Felix, where the managers seem far less flummoxed by throngs, possibly thanks to their three-month jump on Superica. A long dinner at The El Felix, including duplicates of dishes I tried at Superica, convinced me that it isn’t only crowd flow the Alpharetta location manages better; the whole meal was on a far more even keel than either lunch or dinner at Superica, with a firmer hand on seasoning, sauce amounts, and presentation.
The menu at both restaurants (essentially identical) is built for production, not showcasing the chef. And the very reasonable prices buy forgiveness—a lot of it. When a dish is memorably good, as three or four were, it’s lagniappe. And in lagniappe mode, one of those dishes is fantastically cheap: a green posole with ample chunks of heritage pork shoulder and pork belly, nicely chewy whole hominy, diced avocado, and puffy chicharrones (fried pork rinds). The wide bowl, big enough for a double helping of corn flakes, is called a cup, and it costs $5. Incredulous, we asked our bar server at Superica if this really was the cup. “The portion size is a little out of control,” he acknowledged. “I don’t let anybody order the bowl.” So order the posole for a cheap fill-up. The other soup, sopa de tortilla based on chicken stock with slices of roast chicken thighs, was thrown off balance by salt and too much heat from several chiles, and it was so thick it seemed almost stew-like.
The generous amounts of meat in most of the Tex-Mex standards—tacos, enchiladas, fajitas—is lost in rivers of sauce and thickets of garnishes. You sense that the kitchen fears that a vegetable—or, for that matter, a shrimp, a skirt steak, or a drumstick—won’t give satisfaction on its own. Camarónes brochetas, grilled skewered shrimp, are covered by cheese and wrapped in bacon before going onto the grill: You can barely make out the rather mealy shrimp. Skirt steak, overcooked but nicely grainy nonetheless, is topped with a fried egg and a lukewarm enchilada. But at least you can tell it’s steak; the chicken enchilada is smothered with so much sour cream and salsa verde you can’t identify the meat. The “Pollo perfecto” entree features chicken legs, simmered in fat and then deep-fried—which manages to dry out the flesh, though it delivers a crisp mahogany skin—before being heavily coated with mole poblano. Richly flavored with cinnamon, nutmeg, clove, and, of course, anchos and other chiles, the mole gives life and depth to the chicken legs. The same sauce enhances the “hot tamales” with ancho-spiked pork.
Even among the misfires, there’s usually something satisfying—like that mole. And when dishes hit solidly, it’s with a thunk. Pork belly is irresistibly crackling and sweet in tacos al pastor. Served with grilled pineapple and warmed fresh corn tortillas, it’s one of the many dishes with the fun make-your-own components everyone loves about Tex-Mex. When the pork in the carnitas on the mixed fajitas plate is crisped, as it was one of the two times I tried it (once at each restaurant), the dish offers the best of the kitchen. The single most impressive menu item? Blackened North Carolina catfish, a huge double fillet thick enough to offer the right combination of spicy rub and clear-flavored, moist white flesh, in a pool of red-black butter and accompanied by a ramekin of whipped white wine-garlic butter that foams up just before it’s served.
If Superica gets its crowd control in hand and the kitchen up to the efficiency of The Optimist, The El Felix, and the other outposts in the Fry empire—and if it doesn’t raise prices—dining there will be worth the wait. Or, at least, the wait early in the week.
Good to know
Want to avoid the lines? Go for lunch on Monday, and arrive at 2:15, just before 2:30 seating cutoff.
The El Felix
Krog Street Market
This article originally appeared in our July 2015 issue.