Felix's Queso Makes a Comeback

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When Robb Walsh chronicled the closing of Felix Mexican Restaurant last year, the outpouring of grief was reminiscent of the sadness accompanying the loss of a great statesman or member of a royal family. And in a way it was. That restaurant was the last remaining legacy of Felix Tijerina Sr.'s contributions to both the cuisine that came to be known as Tex-Mex, and to the promotion of Mexican-American causes through his four terms as national president of LULAC.

Blog comments and handwritten notes taped to the shuttered restaurant's doors mourned the loss of the Houston institution known for frozen-in-time Tex-Mex classics such as cheese enchiladas smothered in chili gravy. But none of these classics garnered more attention than Felix's "world famous" chile con queso.

Old recipes for the queso circulated around the Internet, but no one could claim a faithful reproduction of the original. Felix Mexican Restaurant and its beloved chile con queso appeared to be lost forever.

That is, until about a month ago, when El Patio Restaurant, itself a Houston Tex-Mex institution, began serving a dish called "Felix's World Famous Queso." Could this be the real thing? I ventured out to the original El Patio on Westheimer at Voss, took a seat, and ordered the queso. As someone who has been eating Felix's queso for 35 years, I took a few bites and immediately concluded that this was in fact the original Felix queso. Turns out that the story of how El Patio began serving Felix's world famous chile con queso started seven years ago, when three Houston businessmen decided to buy a Mexican restaurant.

Back in 2002 when friends and business partners Scott Sullivan, Jon Deal and Todd Johnson found out that one of their favorite watering holes, the venerable El Patio Restaurant and the adjoining Club No Minors, might go out of business, they decided to buy the operation and make a go of it as Tex-Mex restaurateurs. They would expand to a Midtown location some years later.

Then in 2005, Felix Tijerina Jr., who had taken over daily operations of the last Felix Mexican Restaurant in Montrose, began making plans to close the restaurant for good. The El Patio owners caught wind of this and contacted Tijerina about buying the operation. Then Marvin Zindler publicized the possible closure of Felix, and the restaurant was swamped, at least temporarily, with customers and business. As a result, Tijerina decided not to close or sell the restaurant and continued to run it until it closed without notice in March 2008.

The El Patio owners remained friendly with Tijerina in the years after the aborted sale in 2005. Several months ago, Sullivan contacted Tijerina on an unrelated matter and offhandedly asked if he'd be interested in opening another restaurant. Tijerina said no. Sullivan asked if he would be willing to license the Felix name and recipes to El Patio. Tijerina was interested. After several months of negotiations, El Patio Restaurant came to an agreement with the Tijerina family to license the Felix name and recipes.

El Patio would eventually hire a 17-year veteran cook from Felix's old restaurant to make the queso and other Felix dishes at the original El Patio on Westheimer at Voss. On May 1, El Patio quietly rolled out the first resurrected version of the queso. With feedback from some of Felix's longtime regulars, they tweaked the dish to the final, authentic version I tasted at the beginning of June.

Today, El Patio will begin serving the Felix queso at the Midtown location. The restaurant plans to have a sub-section of its menu with four or five Felix dishes and is currently taking suggestions for other Felix favorites it should include. Dishes currently in the running are the crispy beef tacos and the cheese enchiladas (make your own suggestions by using the comments below).

One of the unexpected consequences of adding Felix's queso to the El Patio menu has been the tendency of longtime Felix customers to order gallons of it to-go so they can freeze it and have a lifetime supply, in case El Patio decides to takes it off the menu. So as to avoid any "run on the bank" scenario when he starts serving Felix's queso at the Midtown location, Sullivan wants to make one thing perfectly clear about the Felix queso served at El Patio -- it's on the menu permanently.

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