Celebrity chef Emeril Lagasse is in Dallas this week—not for Super Bowl XLV, but to film episodes for his new show, The Originals, which will air this spring on the Cooking Channel. He spent Tuesday and Wednesday at El Fenix (first, at the restaurant’s tortilla chip factory on Harry Hines Boulevard, then at its longtime spot downtown). Today and tomorrow, Lagasse and his crew will be at the original Sonny Bryan’s and The Mecca.
“These days, everyone is trying to do everything new,” says the celebrity chef, who took a break from filming to talk with me. “I wanted to do something old. So I’m going around the country to visit older, established restaurants that have had a significant impact not just on the food scene but also on American culture.”
Lagasse says he’s focusing on restaurants that are at least 50 years old that are “still doing it right, and still packing ‘em in.” El Fenix was a perfect fit because it offers “not just the face, but the gut,” he says. ”They’ve been here since 1918. The Martinez family basically pioneered Tex-Mex. They’re exactly what we’re looking for: true originals.”
Longtime El Fenix chef Lucas Flores worked with Lagasse to prepare three of the chain’s signature dishes for the show: cheese enchiladas, chile relleno, and tortilla soup.
Founded in 1918 by Miguel Martinez, the restaurant had remained in the family until 2008, when it was sold to Firebird Restaurant Group, led by former CiCi’s executive Mike Karns. Several members of the Martinez family remain on board, Karns says, including the founder’s son, Alfred Martinez, and grandson, chief operating officer John McBride Jr.
Since buying El Fenix, Karns has added four locations, bringing the total to 19, all in the Dallas-Fort Worth area. He’s planning to continue “careful, strategic” expansion, first throughout Texas and then into other states.
As for the big game on Sunday, Lagasse says he has a ticket, but isn’t sure if he’ll attend. “I’ve been to the last 12 Super Bowls,” he says. “I have to be in Atlanta on Monday, so I may just take Sunday to be with my family.”