By Carolyn Wyman
Originally published on philly.com July 2016
Chef Tim Spinner is the mind behind 95 percent of the dishes at the local Feliz Mexican restaurants
But the restaurants’ most famous menu offering was invented by businessman co-owner Brian Sirhal.
It was 2011 and the partners had just opened Cantina Feliz in Fort Washington, the first of what is now a four-restaurant chain.
“It was at the end of a 20-hour day and I was really hungry,” recalled Sirhal. “I grabbed some caramel popcorn we were serving with a pudding and put it on a scoop of churros ice cream,” another one of the new restaurant’s desserts. Though “great in its own right,” Sirhal thought it might be even better on top of a brownie with whipped cream and caramel sauce.
So he asked his pastry chef to make a brownie and, within a week, this so-called Domingo sundae was on the dessert menu, where it has remained ever since, the one constant and the best-selling sweet at Cantina and all the subsequent Feliz restaurants.
“It’s universally loved by everyone from little kids to the oldest adult,” Sirhal thinks because of the complementary flavors and contrasting textures — “the softness of the ice cream, the crunch of the popcorn and the chewiness of the brownie.”
There is also the quality of the ingredients: The caramel corn, brownie and churros ice cream are all made from scratch at the birthplace Cantina. (They source the cajeta goat milk caramel sauce from a Mexican specialty food company.)
The ice cream is particularly labor-intensive — it involves soaking house-made cinnamon-y churros in heavy cream, straining out the pastry and adding ribbons of caramel and chocolate — with a payoff noticeably complex flavor.
The result sells well year-round, not just in summer, as might be expected of an ice cream-based dessert.
Skinner and Sirhal’s Feliz restaurants are known for unexpected contemporary spins on Mexican traditions, or, as Sirhal puts it, “building off of tradition with modern ingredients and cooking techniques, and borrowing from other cultures.” Like old-fashioned American culture’s Cracker Jack, and brownie sundae, complete with fire-engine-red maraschino cherry.
The dish also fits the Feliz restaurants’ colorful decor and feliz or “happy” names.
Speaking of names and fun, the dessert’s name, Domingo, is a play on words. Domingo, in Spanish, means Sunday. It’s also slang for a striking or sexy person, something that Sirhal did not know or intend, though, he quips, “That does describe me.”
Sirhal also created Feliz restaurants’ bacon and fig guacamole when he added bacon and blue cheese to some guacamole, also originally for his own enjoyment. Although Spinner added the dish’s defining figs, and need not fear the loss of the culinary reins.
“As much as I love eating, and cooking at home, I enjoy my business role. I do not go into our kitchens wishing I was sweating over a stove,” Sirhal says.
Get it: $5.95-$7 at La Calaca Feliz, 2321 Fairmount Ave., Fairmount, 215-787-9930; Cantina Feliz, 424 S. Bethlehem Pike, Fort Washington, 215-646-1320; Taqueria Feliz, 4410 Main St., Manayunk, 267-331-5874 and Taqueria Feliz, 303 Horsham Rd., Horsham, 215-323-4530, www.felizrestaurants.com.
Make it: To quote Marvin Gaye, ain’t nothing like the real thing, baby, especially when it’s house-made, but Brian Sirhal was kind enough to provide instruction for those who’d like to make a quick and dirty home version of his Domingo sundae.
1 homemade or bakery-bought brownie, cut into four, 1-inch squares
1/3 cup Cracker Jack or Fiddle Faddle caramel or butter toffee popcorn with peanuts
2 scoops of cinnamon super-premium ice cream (Bassetts and Little Baby’s are two brands available locally)
1 tablespoon goat milk caramel or other caramel sauce
1 teaspoon roasted pepitas (available at nut stores)
1 maraschino cherry
Arrange pieces of brownie on the bottom of a large cereal bowl. Cover with the popcorn. Add ice cream, drizzle with caramel sauce and top with whipped cream. Sprinkle with pepitas and adorn with the cherry. Serves 1.