More News From Cantina Feliz: A Review, An (Eventual) Expansion And The Blessing Of A Former Boss

As noted earlier today, Cantina Feliz got its review from Craig LaBan over the weekend, scoring two bells and the minor complaint that partners Brian Sirhal (who runs the front of the house) and chef Tim Spinner haven’t yet stepped fully out of the shadow of their former employer, Jose Garces. Spinner did some serious Garces time, working under him at Stephen Starr’s El Vez, at Garces’s first solo venture, Amada, then as chef de cuisine at Distrito. Sirhal earned his stripes as beverage director at Distrito before he and high school buddy Spinner jumped out for Fort Washington and their own thing at Cantina Feliz.

Those kinds of influences can be tough to shake off–especially since Feliz is working in the same culinary tradition as Distrito. Might’ve been easier had Sirhal and Spinner opened a sushi bar or a falafel cart, but they didn’t. They chose fancy-pantsy Mexican and while the Inquirer review was absolutely a big deal, they cooked for someone even more important than LaBan the week before it hit the stands.

Sunday the 17th: The day that Jose came for dinner.

“He’d been talking about coming out for a while,” Sirhal told me when I got him on the phone this morning. He was in the car, doing the long drive between Philly and Fort Washington (which will become important later–trust me). He explained how, for weeks,  Garces had been trying to get in for a meal at Feliz only to have to back out. What with his Iron Chef-ing, his celebrity’s travel schedule and his own restaurant empire to oversee, it was tough. “He’s a busy guy,” Sirhal said. And that’s probably an understatement.

But then came Sunday–always a decent day for Feliz but, on the 17th, a killer. “Jose sent Tim a text on Sunday,” according to Sirhal. It said he was on the way back from his new farm-slash-country-retreat out in Bucks County and was planning on dropping by Feliz on his way home. For dinner, in other words. In just a few hours.

“It was kind of the same feeling as knowing he was at Distrito,” explained Sirhal–pressure, but not uncommon pressure. But still, this was the man who’d trained Sirhal and Spinner. One of them, anyway. The man whose restaurant they’d walked away from to strike out on their own. And not for nothing, they were going to be serving tacos to Jose Garces. That wouldn’t be easy for anyone. “You always want to impress the boss,” Sirhal said. “Even when he’s not your boss anymore.”

Spinner recalls the night the way a chef would:  “It was crowded…”

That’s the first thing he tells me when I ask him what it was like to cook for his mentor, his ex-boss. He talks about the room, the crowd, the kitchen where he was working the line that night. “We’re always busy on Sundays, but we were extra-extra busy.” In a way, Garces’s party (which included him, his family, his lawyer) was just another party. VIP, sure, but Spinner had a whole floor to cook for.

“I wasn’t nervous at all,” he says. “I’ve been cooking for him a long time. I was just excited, you know? He’s been so busy lately. And what was cool was, he brought me two whole big bags of ramps. From the farm, I guess.”

Spinner didn’t go nuts. Didn’t shower the table with a bunch of off-menu special plates as is generally the temptation. With a full floor, he didn’t really have time or the six or seven extra hands he would’ve needed. “We sent him out some antojitos, some huaraches,” Spinner says. “Then he ordered a bunch of tacos.”

“Right away, there was a buzz in the room,” Sirhal recalled, telling me that Garces was very gracious, talking to people and smiling. He’d put his former boss right in the middle of the dining room, the best table in the house, but wasn’t trying to parade him around or anything. Even still, folks notice when an Iron Chef arrives. The next day there were blog posts and Facebook updates, twitter commentary on the night.

“I think they really liked it,” Sirhal said, speaking of Garces, of course, and his family and friends. But the same went for everyone else who was in attendance that night. You know you’ve managed to capture a bit of rare restaurant magic when some blogger calls his dinner part of “The Single Greatest Day Of My Life.” And Spinner was happy with it, too. He knew he’d done well–hadn’t shamed himself, hadn’t blown it in front of the guy who’d brought him up through the formative years of his career.

And what’s more, that dinner (and the review that followed) are just the start for Sirhal and Spinner. Now that they’ve got their bells behind them, and the blessing of their former boss, it’s time to look forward. “Onward and upward,” Spinner says when I ask him what his plans are for the future. He’s in the car, too. Just coming back from Philly, like his partner. And the reason?

“We have some surprises coming,” he says.

Two surprises, to be exact. And while he would only giggle and refuse to tell me about one of them (not wanting to give anything away to the competition, he insisted), the other is a second location, already in the works–a concept that Spinner calls Taqueria Feliz: a slightly more down-market place for tacos and tequila, a smaller and simpler operation than Cantina Feliz. The partners were actually out scouting for locations in Philly today–were just headed back to oversee the lunch service at Feliz when I called and interrupted their drives.

But there’s time, Spinner insists. They’re very early in the process. “Look,” he tells me. “It took a year and a half for us to find this space [meaning Cantina Feliz], so there’s no hurry. We’re at least a year out.”