A little more than a year ago, Martin Zisman decided it was his time to shine.
For years, Zisman managed other people’s restaurants, helping develop their businesses, their recipes, their customers and their ideas.
Finally, it was his turn.
The result is Martin’s Cocina, a family-owned and operated Mexican food restaurant on Ferguson between Samuell and Highland.
“I’m trying to fill a void I had to express myself,” Zisman says. “I’ve been working for other people 22 years. It’s something I’ve wanted to do.”
A mile or so away, Barry and Becky Barbec says they opened Barbec’s out of sheer desperation – they needed money.
Not too far away, Anita and Samuel Alves says they opened La Francais at Kingsley and Audelia to fulfill the American dream.
When you run your own business, particularly a family-owned and operated restaurant, chances are pretty good you have an interesting story to tell.
And that’s what you’ll read about here this month.
Martin’s Cocina: Taking His Turn
Zisman works 15 to 18 hours a day, seven days a week.
That’s what it takes to cook most of the food at Martin’s Cocina. He frequently races out of the kitchen and darts from table to table asking customers if everything is okay.
“They can expect the best I can offer, which is quality, which is why I’m here,” Zisman says.
But Zisman says he is never too busy to give back to our neighborhood. For example, he donated some of the food for the St. Thomas Aquinas Fall Carnival last month.
And every afternoon, he takes time out for four neighborhood children who drop by his restaurant on their way home from school. Zisman gives them two pieces of candy – never more, never less – and something to drink. And then he takes the time to talk with them.
“If you plant some roots in the community, it helps,” Zisman says.
Martin’s Cocina specializes in authentic Tex-Mex, the kind of food he grew up around in San Antonio.
He chose the site in our neighborhood because the rent was relatively cheap and because the building was the original location of Matt’s Ranchero, a Mexican restaurant owned by neighborhood resident Matt Martinez. Zisman managed Matt’s for several years.
“It worked before, it should work again,” Zisman says of the location.
But Zisman says the building is the only similarity between Martin’s and Matt’s.
“We’ve done well,” Zisman says. “But I don’t want to say that because you tend to get complacent.”
Barbec’s: A Desperate Move
Barry Brown began working in restaurants when he was 14. After receiving his college degree in wildlife management, Brown thought he was through with waiting tables and washing dishes.
But soon after graduation, he realized his degree had trained him for nothing.
So in order to have some kind of livelihood, he and wife Becky took their savings and borrowed a little more money, and in 1978 they bought the White Rock Inn. A rundown cafe ready to go out of business on Garland Road.
“We were desperate,” Barry says of their decision.
“It was miserable. Absolute misery. We were working dawn to dusk.”
They closed down the Inn and reopened it as Barbec’s. Barry cooked, Becky waited tables, and their staff of five filled in the gaps. It was so tough in the first year, they tried to sell the struggling business twice.
“It was mostly work,” Barry says of their success. “And timing. We came in here before the area was booming.”
Times have changed at Barbec’s. Whether you go in for breakfast, lunch or dinner, the restaurant usually is full.
Today, Barry says he works 10 hours a day, five days a week, and Becky works only on Tuesdays. They have 33 employees, some of whom have been with them 12 years – a feature many customers enjoy, along with the legendary Barbec’s beer biscuits.
“Most people say they walk in and like the down-home atmosphere,” Barry says.
There is a second Barbec’s on Buckner Boulevard, and Barry and Becky plan to open a third location within the next year.
“Then we’re looking at that magic 20 years and get out of it,” Barry says. “We’re just going to switch gears.”
Thai Soon: Something of Her Own
Soon Chanchaisiri hated the restaurant business.
But it was all she knew after years of marriage to a restaurant owner.
So after her divorce, she opened a restaurant and named it after herself – Thai Soon on Lower Greenville.
The Thai restaurant specializes in vegetarian and seafood dishes.
“Now, I fall in love with it,” Chanchaisiri says of her business. “It’s comfortable to me. I know how to do it.”
She moved to America from Bangkok, Thailand, in 1974, when she was 25. She had been an accountant in Thailand and earned a bachelor’s degree in business administration in Los Angeles.
She planned to travel and see the world, but instead she married and moved to Dallas. Now she’s a single mother, raising three children and running a restaurant.
Next year, she plans to open a second restaurant in Austin, where one of her daughters attends college. She will commute back and forth between the two cities, keeping an eye on both.
“It has been pretty good,” Chanchaisiri says. “I have good people working for me. It’s like a family.”
Cafe Brazil: Taking a Chance
Mike and Dawnelle Tate just wanted to open a small coffee house. But ever since Cafe Brazil opened in 1991, it has been obvious the pair was destined for more.
During the past three years, the small coffee shop that originally had room for only 28 customers has grown into four restaurants in Dallas and Austin employing more than 300 employees.
“It’s been very trying,” Mike says of their growth. “But it’s very professionally done.”
Their first location was in the Lakewood Shopping Center, and they only served coffee and pastries.
“Within the first week, everyone was saying: ‘Give us food,’” Tate says.
He looked at his supplies and designed a menu around what he had – sandwiches, crepes and empanadas.
Tate manned the first location mainly himself, with support from wife Dawnelle and son Dylan.
Tate says his days started at 3 a.m. with prep work for the day. He drank as many as 20 cups of coffee a day to stay awake.
“Some nights, I would sleep on bags on flour,” Tate says. “And sometimes I would go up there and hang a sign that said ‘Closed for repairs’ just so I could have a break.”
But he says Cafe Brazil succeeded because of our community.
“People saw what we were doing,” Tate says. “We’re very honest people.”
Today, the Lakewood restaurant is located at Abrams and Belmont. There is also a Cafe Brazil at Central and Yale and a new location in Deep Ellum on Elm Street. They have a fourth restaurant in Austin.
The first year-and-a-half of business was tough, Tate says. His family lived off a loan from NationsBank that he refinanced several times to stay afloat. But today he has a partner, accountant Craig Feronti, who has helped Tate with the finances and growth.
“I take chances,” Tate says. “A lot of people don’t take chances, especially if they don’t have money. If I believe in something, I go after it.”
Basha: His Baby
Bachar Alaia came to Dallas on vacation five years ago.
He’s still there.
“We have a saying back home: Wherever you make a living, you stay,” Alaia says. “I think I had good opportunities here, so I stayed.”
Alaia grew up in Syria, but he moved to Dallas from Switzerland, where he studied hotel management.
“My dream was, when I was a kid, to be a sailor,” Alaia says. “I used to watch Love Boat and wanted to be like the captain.”
His father talked him out of a sailing career, and it’s a good thing for the Dallas restaurant scene. Alaia opened his first restaurant, Ali Baba, a Middle Eastern and Greek restaurant on Lower Greenville, when he was 23 years old.
He left that business and traveled for a year. When he returned, he and a partner opened Health Nut Cafe at Abrams and Skillman. He sold his half of the restaurant and decided to open Basha, a Middle Eastern restaurant on Greenville at Belmont, with fiancee Liz Korkames.
“This is my baby now,” Alaia says. “We sweat in this place. Everything we did, we thought: Will they like this?”
“You’ll feel like we’re putting our heart in the dishes.”
The spot on Greenville Avenue was important to him.
“I always feel this is home, Greenville Avenue,” Alaia says. “It has a lot of personality.”
Alaia says the restaurant has been described by customers as romantic. He and Korkames are there nightly and work the restaurant themselves, making it their family.
“We don’t know how many people we’ll invite to the wedding,” Alaia says.
Swaney & Yarbrough: They’ve Got You Covered
No matter what type of fun you’re looking for, Jeff Swaney and Jeff Yarbrough say they have you covered.
The two neighborhood residents own the restaurant Blind Lemon, the bar and gallery Art Bar, and the nightspot Club Clearview in Deep Ellum.
All three businesses are physically connected so that patrons from each can circulate. The purpose is to have as much entertainment bang for your buck without leaving one location.
“It’s a one-stop entertainment area,” Yarbrough says.
Swaney opened Club Clearview in 1985, when he was 25. He was working in the computer industry, but was spending all his spare time in Deep Ellum with friends.
“I really took a liking to this part of the City,” Swaney says.
“It’s like my adopted hometown.”
He liked the artists and musicians who lived and worked in the neighborhood and was fascinated by the old architecture.
“It’s kind of been a legend,” Swaney says of Club Clearview, one of the original nightclubs in Deep Ellum. “I’m a very different kind of person. I’m driven in the creative sense. To me, at that time, the limelight, the spotlight and the night life was important to me.”
In 1988, he opened the Art Bar, which is a gallery that features local artists. Customers view the art while having drinks and eating gourmet food.
In 1991, Swaney became partners with Yarbrough, and they opened the Blind Lemon, a casual dining restaurant featuring pasta, pizzas and salads.
All three businesses have been successful, bringing in about 3,000 patrons a weekend, Yarbrough says.
“We always knew we were going to be successful,” Yarbrough says. “People want something new, creative and fun. We can provide them that.”
Later this year they are opening a similar set-up in North Dallas. In addition to the Blind Lemon and Art Bar, there will also be a coffee house called Your Mother’s Hip and the LaVaca Cantina, a bar with a Texas and Hispanic flavor, Yarbrough says.
But don’t worry. Swaney and Yarbrough insist their loyalties lie in this neighborhood.
“We definitely want to stay here,” Swaney says. “My heart is in this area.”
“I have a sense of pride of being a kind of pioneer.”
York Street: Having A Good Time
By day, Mike Shaw is a construction worker.
By night, he is a gourmet chef at York Street, the restaurant he and wife Felissa own.
“I just like cooking,” Shaw says. “I picked it up here and there. I worked with good guys.”
Shaw “picked it up” by working in restaurants while growing up and by doing construction jobs in some of Dallas’ finest restaurants.
He says the place he learned the most was the Adolphus Hotel French Room. While doing construction in the kitchen, he was hired in the restaurant and worked as many positions as possible – from wine steward to expediter.
This knowledge has paid off for York Street, a small restaurant on LaVista at Skillman that Shaw opened six years ago. The menu changes daily, and Shaw shops for supplies everyday.
“I cater to people who really enjoy food and fine dining,” Shaw says.
Between construction work and York Street, Shaw says he works nine to 17 hours a day. His schedule doesn’t allow much time for his hobby of drag racing. But he does take two weeks off every summer to fish at South Padre Island and a third week off in the winter.
His life and business are a surprise to him, says Shaw, 33.
“I was always a wild kid,” he says. “I never planned on anything, except having a good time.”
Gold Rush Cafe: The Family That Cooks Together
The Gold Rush Cafe on Skillman at Oram, is a family-owned and -operated restaurant at its best.
Virgil Sanchez opened the restaurant 14 years ago with sons George and Virgil Jr.
George opens the restaurant everyday, handles the cash register and waits on tables, working at least 14 hours a day. Virgil Jr. cooks, along with brother Mark and sister Liz. And Virgil Sr. pays all the bills and makes the behind-the-scenes decisions.
The restaurant opens for breakfast at 7 a.m. and serves lunch until 5:30 p.m. There is no dinner, because that means they would have to split up the family, George says.
“When you start splitting everyone up, it’s not the same,” he says.
They once tried a second restaurant in North Dallas, but it didn’t work – the family was split up, and the Gold Rush concept, a neighborhood restaurant that serves a simple breakfast and lunch menu, didn’t go over.
“People in North Dallas are completely different than people in East Dallas,” George says. “This little place was paying for both.
Gold Rush has been in the same location for 14 years. It was a doughnut shop for one year before the family switched over to a restaurant. Their original menu offered a 99-cent breakfast and three hamburgers.
“We just did that to bring in the crowd,” George says.
And it worked.
For breakfast and lunch, the small restaurant usually is packed with a variety of patrons – “We get lawyers, we get doctors, we get football players, and we get all the musicians,” George says.
“I know everybody who is here, and everyone is nice. I also know what everyone wants.”
The menu has grown somewhat over the years, now offering what George describes as “regular food” – hamburgers, sandwiches, salads, enchiladas and breakfast dishes.
The most drastic change happened in this last year, when the Gold Rush more than doubled in size by taking over an empty space next door. The move increased their business by 45 percent, George says.
“I’m not surprised,” George says of the success. “We’ve put in a lot of hard work. It’s been good. I’ve been real happy.”
Click to sign up for the Advocate's weekly news digest and be the first to know what’s happening in Lakewood/East Dallas.