Dr. Who, the Eleventh Doctor to be precise, once responded to a question about his tasseled red felt hat by saying, “It’s a fez. I wear a fez now. Fezzes are cool.” That particular fez was immediately vaporized, but other versions of the same headgear have appeared throughout the series. It’s doubtful that fezzes will ever experience the same hipster resurgence as fedoras, but the Phoenix restaurant named Fez is celebrating its two millionth customer, having grown in popularity since its relocation from an original home in Midtown to its current space Downtown.
Fez’ home is in the ground floor of the Roosevelt Square apartment building, just across the street from the Roosevelt / Central light rail station. The space is lively with abundant color and plenty of natural light. A striking sculpture resembling an assortment of screwdriver heads in bold hues is suspended over the centrally located bar. A shaded patio wraps around the restaurant, addressing both Central Avenue and Portland Street and accounting for half the total seating. There is a bike rack just outside Fez’ entrance with another across Portland Street.
In the transplant from Midtown to Downtown, Fez clearly upgraded its space but didn’t fundamentally alter its menu and service. Sure, there are a few new items, but for the most part, the restaurant didn’t tinker too much with a formula that has worked for a decade. Despite the similarly of the restaurant’s name to that of Morocco’s second largest city (Fes), this is not a place for couscous and lamb tagine. Instead, the approach here continues to be a hybrid of a light Mediterranean or North African touch and hearty all-American comfort food.
Those slight Middle Eastern influences are most apparent among the starters. Fez has two signature soups available each day, cumin cinnamon carrot and tomato lentil. Both are smooth purees, differing in taste and color but not at all in terms of texture. The carrot soup is mild with subtle nuances of both the spices in its name; the tomato lentil soup is a bit more tart but still on the gentle side. In a trend reminiscent of the California Pizza Kitchen’s “two in a bowl,” both soups can be had side-by-side in a single vessel. At Fez, that option is listed as “duo.”
Lamb, a meat abundant in Middle Eastern food, makes a rare appearance on menu in the form of a quartet of sliders. The miniature burgers come accessorized with a sauce of mint and yogurt, tomatoes, and cucumbers. The chicken phyllo packets are somewhat similar to bastilla, the Moroccan meat pie. In each of the eight pieces that come per serving, minced poultry is blended with feta cheese inside a packet of airy, multi-layered pastry. Kisra, Fez’ answer to seemingly ubiquitous flat bread, comes with hummus in either garlic or spicy harissa varieties.
Garlic and harissa, the hot pepper paste of North Africa, are two big flavors also used to enliven one of the menu’s biggest crowd-pleasers, a basket French fries. The crisp, thin potato slivers are also available in a plainer salt-and-pepper variety. Sweet potato fries have become a trend lately, but Fez has been offering them for all of its ten years. Be warned, though, that the cinnamon topping seems really to be cinnamon sugar, making these fries even sweeter than expected and perhaps not the best best for those seeking more savory tastes before dessert.
Burgers and chicken sandwiches are the most popular entrees, and both display the same understated influences of North Africa. The Tangier burger is an oblong beef patty cut in two and topped with dried tomatoes, hummus, pesto, red onions, and manchego cheese. The Fez burger adds a dimension of fruit with its combination of pears, feta cheese, and crispy onions. All burgers, including the vegetarian black bean patty with goat cheese and dried tomatoes, are served in ciabatta rolls rather than buns. A side salad is included; fries are a few dollars more.
Poultry sandwiches range from the mild rosemary chicken sandwich to the more fiery Spice Road. Chicken also plays a big role among the non-sandwich entrees. Fez’ take on a Latin American classic, arroz con pollo, doesn’t come across as particularly authentic without flavorful bone-in dark meat, but the zesty sauce is effective with less adventurous white meat. Fez Fit is a lean entree of featuring the customer’s choice of protein from choices such as chicken, gyros strips, or a black bean patty served over yellow rice with grilled vegetables and sliced pita bread.
On weekends, Fez open a little earlier and serves brunch. There are traditional items such as pancakes on the menu, as well as some less common choices. The Baja brunch is chilaquiles by another name and with a slight Mediterranean accent. A layer of corn ships is covered with sauce, feta, and eggs. The golden curry is imported from the normal weekday menu and given a morning twist via the addition of scrambled eggs. Of course, there are the usual brunch cocktails such as mimosas, which can be intensified with vodka, the predominant spirit at Fez’ bar.
Yes, there’s a selection of wine and craft beer, but the overwhelming emphasis is on vodka here. Naturally, that means a lot of cocktails ending in “tini,” even if they’d be unrecognizable to James Bond. Of course, in those movies, it was usually the bad guys who wore fezzes. Here, the idea of a fez is cool, and even kid-friendly with a menu of entrees just for those under 12. There’s no TARDIS, Dr. Who’s mode of travel, at Roosevelt and Central, but with light rail, bike lanes, Roosevelt Row, and Hance Park nearby, Fez is still at a Whovian crossroads of space and time.
105 W. Portland St., Phoenix AZ 85003
Roosevelt / Central Station