El Fenix Café in Mercedes still going strong

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El Fenix Café in Mercedes makes a great caldo de res. (Travis M. Whitehead | Valley Morning Star)

MERCEDES — The chorizo and egg breakfast taco lays bare its charms, enticing me with its aromas and the memories of those aromas.

I have enjoyed the real food — I’ll explain what that means — at El Fenix Café for 25 years. Even more powerful is the very authentic and sincere friendship I have enjoyed with owner Dalia Carr.

“Oh, hi, Travis! Sit down!”

I take a table at the very back of the café and there’s my sweet joyous friend at “her” table. Her pleasant and honest demeanor are the same as when I first met her so many years ago.

“How have you been doing?” she asks with that same warm smile.

I’m doing great now that I’m sitting with Dalia at El Fenix Café.

I have a whole catalogue of stories and diary entries about El Fenix saved in my computer.

A March 2002 entry sets the scene perfectly.

“I went straight into the kitchen and Dalia was bent over a dough mixer. The mixer had already mixed the dough and she was kneading it even further then breaking it off into sections and rolling those sections into balls. Ofelia was at the stove putting a lid over a steaming pot of caldo de res, then she stirred some carne guisada on a back burner.”

Ofelia De La O is Dalia’s mother. This inspiring matriarch passed not too long ago, but her influence is felt still.

This morning I’m enjoying a breakfast at El Fenix in the quiet and the familiar. Dalia hasn’t arrived just yet, but she will soon. Meanwhile I find a healing power in the warmth of El Fenix. I appreciate again the mismatched décor around the restaurant; a large Pepsi Cola bottle cap here, a stuffed armadillo there, old pictures and news articles and flags placed with no real pattern.

This lack of pattern makes it real. Placed here and there as the mood strikes, each piece tells a story. It is embedded with a memory of a moment when someone suddenly decided, ‘Let’s put the armadillo here.” “Let’s put the Pepsi bottle cap there.”

This is one of many things that makes El Fenix such a delight.

Delia Carr, owner of El Fenix Café in Mercedes, takes pride in her homemade food. (Travis M. Whitehead | Valley Morning Star)

“It’s the same, nothing’s changed,” Dalia says. She’s arrived now and we sit and catch up.

“We are still here, still keeping it up,” she says. “We did catering for schools all this week. We had four or five events. It’s a lot of work.”

These were all turkey meals she catered, and throughout this week she’ll be serving turkey at El Fenix Café.

This kind of planning is vital, as she tends to the needs of her son, Andres, who has autism. Andres is non-verbal and he is a familiar presence around El Fenix. He sometimes opens the door to conversations with customers who want to talk to Dalia about their own relatives with autism.

There’s something else that hasn’t changed at El Fenix: Dalia is just as “silly” about cooking as ever. By “silly” she means she wants it done exactly to her specifications. And those specifications are all about natural ingredients and virtually nothing store bought.

“I use the spices, like the garlic, the cumin, the black pepper,” she says.

And that’s what I mean by “real food.” There’s something artificial and pretentious about using prepped items from a store. It does offer convenience and brevity, but the reality of food is lost.

Not at El Fenix.

“I know promotors try to sell you instant rice, instant carne guidasa, anything instant, even enchilada sauce,” she says. “We make our own.”

The only time she uses canned goods is for Thanksgiving when she purchases corn and cranberry sauce and pumpkin. The canned pumpkin she uses for the pies.

But …

She pointed now to two large pumpkins on a table. Those will be used for the pumpkin empanadas, another dish for which El Fenix café is popular.

The following day I return for a lunch of hot caldo de res with a chunk of corn on the cob and carrots and beef and all things good in the world.