Dining with Denise: The Flaming Cazuela is a Wichita legend
Its fried tacos are fabulous. And its giant Pancho Villa enchilada is a Wichita legend.
But what Felipe’s Mexican Restaurant is really known for is served in a bowl, emerges from the kitchen on fire – every time – and has a 40-year reputation as one of the city’s most reliable party starters.
It’s the Flaming Cazuela, and it’s a uniquely Wichita invention so intense, you’ll likely never forget the first time you experienced it. (Well, you might, actually.)
If you’ve been to one of Wichita’s four Felipe’s restaurants, you’re likely familiar with the Flaming Cazuela. It’s such a big deal, the sign on the original Felipe’s at 3434 W. Central identifies it as the “Home of the Flaming Cazuelas.” They’re such a big deal, Felipe’s has even gone to the trouble to trademark the title “Flaming Cazuela.”
In short, a Flaming Cazuela is a 40-ounce cocktail that combines four types of liquor, four citrus fruits, ice and a couple of secret ingredients in a terra cotta pot, also known as a cazuela. Felipe’s version, which has been around since the 1980s, also includes fire courtesy of an Everclear-soaked grapefruit rind set aflame and afloat on top of the creation.
“When it comes to the Cazuela, people automatically think, ‘Oh, fun drink,’” said co-owner Poncho Lujano, who was born around the same time as the Flaming Cazuela.
Tequila and a trademark
Felipe’s, which got its start in Wichita in 1967, didn’t invent the cazuela cocktail. They’re served throughout Mexico, particularly in Guadalajara, the capital of Jalisco. But when the restaurant’s founder, the late Felipe Lujano Sr., added the drink to his menu in the early 1980s, he also added a little drama in the form of floating fire. (Felipe Sr. died in 2003 at age 66 after a 10-month battle with cancer, leaving his wife and grown sons, Felipe and Poncho, to run the business.)
Flaming Cazuelas were a big deal in the 1980s, but by the time Poncho was old enough to bar tend at the family restaurant, they’d fallen out of favor.
Poncho remembers seeing the clay pots used for the drink stacked behind the bar and asking his father what they were for.
“Oh, they’re for a drink,’” his father said.
About that time – in the late 1990s – Felipe’s became a destination for groups of college kids, and the Flaming Cazuela made a comeback.
“They took off again, and they’ve been popular enough for us to call ourselves the ‘Home of the Flaming Cazuela,’” Poncho said.
Once they got hot, a few other Mexican restaurants started advertising their own Flaming Cazuelas, but the family trademarked the drink. Competitors now can make a Mexican punch and set it on fire, but they can’t call it a cazuela.
Too fun to extinguish
The Flaming Cazuela is a deceptively smooth drink. It goes down like punch – and it hits you like one, too.
The bowl comes with four to six long red straws, and most diners lean in to sip and share. Some insist they’re tough enough to handle a Flaming Cazuela on their own. Those people often regret that decision.
“When you first drink it, it’s not a strong drink,” Felipe Jr. said “But halfway in, you’ll start feeling it.”
The drinks come out of the kitchen already on fire, and the Everclear fuel creates a blue-colored flame. Diners always turn to watch when they’re delivered to tables, the owners said, and it’s a particularly dramatic if one table orders several Cazuelas and they’re paraded through the dining room. They’re available in two versions: regular, which is made with well spirits, or top-shelf, made with premium liquors and extra fruit.
Owners can easily spot experienced Cazuela fans. They immediately dunk the flame into the drink to extinguish it before too much of the alcohol burns off. Felipe and Poncho also make sure that their servers are Cazuela trained, teaching them to caution their tables about letting babies near the flame or leaning in with long or over-sprayed hairdos.
There’s never been a Cazuela-related fire or injury, though, Felipe Jr. said.
“We have fire extinguishers, just in case.”
The Flaming Cazuela
Where to get one: Felipe’s restaurants at 3434 W. Central, 445 S. 119th St., 9718 E. Harry, 2241 N. Woodlawn.
What is it: A cocktail made with rum, tequila, vodka, orange liqueur, citrus fruit and secret ingredients that’s set on fire and served in a clay bowl
How much: A regular Flaming Cazuela, made with well liquors, is $11. A top-shelf Flaming Cazuela with premium liquors and extra fruit, is $16.