The first thing you notice walking into Fénix is the wallpaper. It's bedecked in lotería cards — from the Mexican equivalent of bingo, played with silly riddles and rhymes — and it's impossible not to adore. (Indeed, SF Weekly gave it a shout-out in our recent Best Of issue.) The same motif turns up later on the tortilla warmers, except in a more graphically intense fashion. This version of la rana, or the frog, looks like she'd seduce you and give you warts if she could.
It's the sort of incidental details that make dinner at Fénix such a genuine pleasure. The food takes center stage — of course — but the attention paid to the mise-en-scène is enough to differentiate this restaurant in a city bursting with Mexican places high and low. The format is inventive and the quality high, as you'd expect from executive chef Mark Liberman, who runs the kitchen at AQ next door — just as he did with Fénix's predecessor, TBD, until a kitchen fire laid it low last year. His menu is basically a hit parade, especially if you lengthen the parade route by going for as many small plates as possible, then taking your time with the little tastes that precede the large plates. You will probably eat yourself to near-catatonia, but Fénix is best enjoyed at a leisurely clip.
Oxtail sopes, $4 each and languorous in a mole sauce, were cooked to perfection. A queso fundido made with poblanos and chorizo verde ($11) might stick to its skillet a shade too hard, but with a little scraping, your reward is a rich plate of spicy fondue. Flecked with burnt strawberry seeds, the cabbage salad with lime and onion ($7) was the platonic ideal of a palate cleanser, even if the Gulf shrimp aguachile ($13) was decidedly milder. Should you go for the chips and trio of salsas ($5), know that the árbol is a genuine slow-burner, but it holds the heat, the smoke, and the tanginess in perfect proportions. If there was one questionable app, it was the mayocoba bean salad ($8). The beans themselves were tasty enough, but the black garlic was hard to discern and the presentation was unappealing.
As is, it's a well-rounded collection of small plates, but the little tastes that follow cover an even broader range of flavors and intensities. They're basically the Mexican equivalent of Korean banchan, only without a cultural script they feel compelled to follow — and, this being spring, individual metal bowls of tomatillo-asparagus soup arrived first. (“I could drink this like a gazpacho straight out of the fridge,” my dinner companion said.) You might be tempted to sit back and wait for whatever meat you ordered as a main — along with the rice and the beans — but I suggest just going for these accompaniments as they materialize. Like a salty seaweed salad, the preserved fava leaves with cilantro were the closest thing to the entire concept's Asian antecedent, but from the grilled pineapple to the jicama and the pesto-like pumpkin seed hummus, virtually everything was delicious. One possible exception: I found the zucchini, tomato, and epazote salad a little bland even with cotija sprinkled on it, but even a salad of chilled nopales (whose sliminess usually makes me wary) arrived al dente and punched up by vinegar.
Of the five large plates, I tried three: a chicken tinga ($19), a root vegetable pibil ($17), and a pork shank ($19). While the vegetables — mostly onions, beets, and carrots, plus parsley — were fantastic if treated as a side to the meats, I'm hard pressed to see them as a good taco filling. (They're not hearty enough, but they're also too big.) The tinga was gorgeous, if a little mild; in retrospect, I regret not pouring its residual sauce over the remaining rice and taking it home. But the pork shank, which essentially disintegrated on contact with a fork, crushed the competition. Braised overnight and grilled, it comes with a deceptively simple serrano-and-onion sauce that one doesn't even need to eat in order to enjoy. Just its proximity to the pork will do — although fans of maximally piquant garnishes on par with pickled lotus root might find a new favorite here — and it's a dream with the smoky beans and almost-crispy rice. For dessert, I bet at least three out of five people will note the existence of the churros ($7) and order them, but at $6, the stiffer-than-average flan is well worth it.
The four sangrias ($7 each, or $32 for a five-glass carafe) varied considerably in style. To my surprise, I liked the classic red wine version (Fruity & Refreshing) best, because it was the crispest and it went well with everything. Others can run sweeter: The Fresa Fresca, for instance, leaned too hard on the strawberry puree, and the mint was actually a mint simple syrup.
I asked about the proprietary bottles of hot sauce that come on each table, simply marked Fénix. The server wasn't sure of their exact contents — which turned out to be red and green jalapeños that have been fermented, pureed, and strained, then mixed with vinegar — and apologized, saying she didn't care for spicy food. (I also learned that the staff eats next door at AQ, which sounds like the best possible perk of working in a restaurant.)
Overall, though, what struck me throughout was the attention to small stuff, which pretty much never wavered. The picks for the little tastes sit upright in a pot of dried beans. When the check arrives, it's held in place by a brass bird claw. To solve the occasional small-plates issue of dirty dishware piling up, Fénix seats its diners at tables with individual drawers. (Want fresh cutlery? That's in there, too.) And when our tortillas came, the warmers that weren't patterned with lotería cards had lucha libre figures on them. Mine was a mouth-breather named El Superstar Destructor, and I hope his fearsomeness deters people from stealing them, because they might be the coolest thing I ever saw.