This venerated, uniquely Lone Star cuisine can make a man wax poetic

When I arrived in Dallas 22 years ago, one of the first things I was told to do was to go downtown to El Taxco for dinner. When an old colleague of mine, who has moved around the country to follow newspaper jobs, returns home, he makes it a point to eat at Matt’s Rancho Martinez in Lakewood. And when a friend of mine wants to wax nostalgic, he always mentions the 99-cent El Chico enchilada dinner of his youth.

At times, when it seems the only tradition in Dallas is change, there is one constant, one fiddler on our roof — the Tex-Mex restaurant. It might be the late, lamented but still not forgotten El Taxco, which stood on the corner of McKinney and St. Paul for some 40 years. It might be the El Chico and El Fenix chains, which both started here and which have been dueling for customers for more than 60 years. And it might be the neighborhood restaurant such as Matt’s.

Tex-Mex refuses to go away — despite changing diets, population and demographic shifts, and all of the assorted ailments that plague the Mom and Pop restaurateur.

In fact, talk to chefs, food critics, and people who are supposed to know about these things, and they’ll tell you that Tex-Mex is not authentic, that it has gobs too much cheese and sour cream, and that it’s a bastardization of what Mexican and Southwestern food should be. But a fiddler on the roof doesn’t make any sense, either. A fellow I know, who has lived here all his life and had some of those 99-cent dinners when the Inwood Village Cantina Laredo was an El Chico in the 1950s, doesn’t understand the fuss.

If you stop to think about it, he says, Tex-Mex is Dallas’ native cuisine. It may have been invented here (by whom depends on who tells the story, though most of the evidence suggests the Cuellar family, which founded El Chico, and the Martinez family, which started and stills run El Fenix, played key roles), and there really isn’t anything else like it anywhere else in the country. So if we don’t appreciate it, who will?

The first question everyone asks, of course, is what makes Tex-Mex Tex-Mex. One of the most eloquent answers comes from cookbook author Linda West Eckhardt, who notes “trying to define Tex-Mex is something like trying to define love. It’s hard to say what is I, but you sure know it when you see it.”

The more sensible explanation is that it’s Mexican food that has been adapted to Texas sensibilities and ingredients over the past 100 years. Or so says Victor Gielisse, who owned Actuelle, a very chic restaurant in town during the Reagan and elder Bush years. Today, Gielisse works for the Culinary Institute of America, and has very definite ideas about Tex-Mex and how it got to be what it is (and he’s not a big fan of all that cheese). Tex-Mex, says Gielisse, shares much in common with Italian-American cooking. The Italian immigrants who brought their recipes with them couldn’t find the same ingredients here that they used in Tuscany, Piedmont or Sicily, so they had to make do. Hence, spaghetti with meatballs, which is probably more American than Italian.

As Mexican food moved north from Mexico, Gielisse says, not only did ingredients change — did anyone here know what a jicama or tomatillo was before the Southwestern food craze of the mid-1980s? — but so did the palates of the people eating the food. Consider that tacos with potatoes and chorizo are a staple in the Valley, but have never made much of an impression up here. Or that our quesadillas bear little resemblance to the quesadillas described in Elizabeth Lambert Ortiz’s authoritative “The New Complete Book of Mexican Cooking,” which use a dough made with eggs and masa harina, and are flavored with dried chilés or even beef marrow.

Traditional Mexican cooking is full of stews and molés, with ingredients such as pumpkin and sesame seeds, chipotle chilés, Mexican-style chocolate and stale tortillas. Would this have appealed to Anglo restaurant-goers as Tex-Mex took hold here in the couple of decades after World War II?

Says Gielisse: “The El Chicos and the El Fenixes had to sell what they thought people would eat. It’s a fact of life: We always Westernize our food.”

Though not necessarily authentic, we have made Tex-Mex our own. According to the Yellow Pages, there are as many as 400 Mexican restaurants in Dallas, compared to 200 pizza places. And consider that a typical El Chico, according to figures from Hoover’s Online, probably does $2 to $3 million a year in sales, especially impressive given that the menu is mostly less than $10. Dean Fearing sells tortilla soup at the ritzy Mansion on Turtle Creek, and Ciudad, the Oak Lawn restaurant that specializes in Mexico City cuisine, serves chips and salsa.

Almost everyone knows the standard Tex-Mex menu by heart: Nachos and quesadillas, cheese enchiladas with chili gravy, beef tacos, tamales, chicken enchiladas with sour cream. There might be some variation from restaurant to restaurant, a taco salad here or a flauta there, and the combination plates might go by different names (though not always), but once you’ve seen one Tex-Mex lineup, you’ve seen them all. Which is not necessarily a bad thing. The problem, as with most problems in the restaurant business, comes in execution.

And this, according to a thoroughly unscientific survey I took in conjunction with this article, isn’t much of a problem. There may be some Tex-Mex restaurants in town that aren’t good, but there aren’t many that are awful, and even most of the chains are perfectly acceptable. We know Tex-Mex, and the awful ones close. And there are quite a few that are very, very good (especially when you consider that two people can eat dinner, with a couple of beers each, for less than $40 at many of them). Plus, given how many Chinese buffets and chrome and plastic corporate eateries keep popping up, despite their wretchedness, the fact that you can walk into almost any Tex-Mex joint and leave after a more than satisfactory meal is almost too good to be true.

So what defines a good Tex-Mex restaurant?

• It’s a family business, even for many of the chains. Because when the boss’ name is on the front door, someone usually takes responsibility. Owners tell me that one of the worst things customers can tell them is: “This never would have happened if your daddy was still here.”

• It’s a place for families. They’re always there, parents and children and grandchildren, often at noon on Sunday, sitting at long tables with blue-haired grandmas next to teenagers with bare midriffs and a baby or two gurgling on a parent’s lap.

• It’s in the neighborhood. This is more than not having to drive very far. It’s the atmosphere that the restaurant has, a reflection of the people who eat there. How else to explain why the Mi Cocina in Lake Highlands is decidedly different from the Mi Cocina in Far North Dallas on the Dallas Tollway? The menu is the same. The food is the same. But the neighborhoods aren’t.

• It’s a tradition. These places stay in business for decades, somehow beating the statistics that say 70 percent of all restaurants close in five years. This means that the 5-year-old Don Pepe’s Rancho at Coit and Arapaho can shoot for Mario and Alberto, which has been at Preston and LBJ for more than 20 years. And they can both shoot for El Fenix, which has existed in one form or another since 1918.

• It’s the chips and salsa. Gene Street, whose company bought El Chico from a company controlled by the Cuellars in 1998, once told me that in a perfect world, no one would get free chips and salsa. It’s just too expensive. So even Gene Street, who knows the restaurant business as well as anyone, can be wrong. Tex-Mex without chips and salsa — and especially when the salsa is more than canned tomatoes — is unthinkable.

So what’s next? Will Tex-Mex survive into the 21st century, in an era when restaurants are becoming more authentic, as well as more expensive? Even around here, there are signs that something is changing. Prices for basic platters are starting to creep up to the $10 level, which seems like a lot to pay for enchiladas, rice and beans. Case in point: El Chico converted most of its Dallas locations into the more upscale Cantina Laredo to take advantage of that trend. Then there is the influx of chi-chi concepts such as Tin Star and Taco Diner, with their portabella mushroom tacos and Mexican-Parisian cobb salads.

Still, I wouldn’t bet against the durability of Tex-Mex. Rick Bayless, whose Chicago restaurants are at the forefront of popularizing authentic regional Mexican cuisine, grew up in Oklahoma City. At last count, there are four El Chicos in Oklahoma City. If that’s not a sign from the food gods, I don’t know what is.

Nacho Average Tex-Mex

A rundown of the neighborhood’s leading Tex-Mex joints — both chain and independent — and what makes them unique:

The Independents:

Matt’s Rancho Martinez

214-823-5517, 6332 La Vista

What it is: Sometimes the kitchen is frustratingly slow and the waiters would rather watch the TV over the bar, but this is Tex-Mex the way it should be. And why not? The family has been doing it for three generations.

What you may not know: The lunch menu is available all day on Tuesday.

What to order: It’s supposed to be the Bob Armstrong dip, named after an Austin politician, but how can anyone pass up the chicken-fried steak cowboy style, covered with chili and cheese?

La Parrillada

214-327-5513, 7260 Gaston

What it is: One of the least known quality Tex-Mex places in the city. That’s because it’s a neighborhood joint whose neighborhood doesn’t extend much past Abrams on the west and Garland on the east.

What you may not know: Live Latin jazz every Friday and Saturday night.

What to order: The La Parrillada — fajitas taken to another level, which includes the usual beef and chicken plus ribs, pork, and roasted salsa.

Tarascos Nuevo Leon

214-887-8148, 2013 Greenville

What it is: A critic’s darling that is surprisingly inconsistent (and probably more Mex-Mex than Tex-Mex). But it is one of the few places in town that serves a respectable mole, and that’s saying something.

What you may not know: This location is not owned by the same family that owns the original in Farmers Branch (which explains the Tarascos).

What to order: Molé verdé, of course, chicken and squash in poblano pepper sauce

The Chains:

El Fenix

214-327-6173, Casa Linda Plaza

What it is: The Martinez family started serving Mexican food to Anglos in 1918, when that was a novel concept. They’re still doing it, and if some of the locations are a little frayed around the edges, that’s part of the charm.

What you may not know: El Chico’s owners were going to buy El Fenix in 1998, but the deal fell through over real estate concerns.

What to get: The Martinez family says they invented the cheese enchilada with chili, and they still do a $4.99 Wednesday night special with two enchiladas, rice, beans, chips and salsa.

Cantina Laredo

214-821-5785, 2031 Abrams

What it is: What it isn’t is El Chico, but a more upscale version to take advantage of the wealthier demographics in its old neighborhoods (there’s even fish on the menu). Some customers have adjusted to the change, and others have gone elsewhere.

What you may not know: The chairman of Consolidated Restaurant Operations, which owns Cantina Laredo, is Gene Street of Dixie House/Black-eyed Pea fame.

What to get: Tacos al pastor — corn tortillas filled roast pork marinated in cascabel chilés, available as an entrée or as part of the appetizer platter.

Gloria’s

214-874-0088, 3715 Greenville

What it is: Technically, Gloria’s is a Salvadoran restaurant. But as owner Jose Fuentes has always said, if you don’t have Tex-Mex on the menu, you’re not going to make it in Dallas, so you’ll find fajitas, enchiladas and the like.

What you may not know: Fuentes and wife Gloria immigrated to Houston to open a car repair shop.

What to get: The Gloria’s plate — a tamal (a tamale wrapped in a banana leaf instead of a corn husk), a papusa (a Salvadoran quesadilla), yucca, fried plaintain, rice and black beans.

In Memoriam:

May the Enchiladas Rest In Peace

Sadly, nothing lasts forever, and that includes great Tex-Mex restaurants. They close for any number of reasons — deaths in the family, changing consumer tastes, even because of real estate prices. These were some of the most memorable in town in their time.

El Taxco. Though it has been closed for almost 20 years, the downtown restaurant still has a fanatical customer base, and they get almost poetic about eating there. Ask someone about the enchilada hash.

Tupinamba. This Dallas icon, run by the Dominguez family on Fort Worth Avenue and on Lovers Lane, had its heyday in the 1960s and is almost as revered as El Taxco. An offshoot survives today on Inwood Road at Forest.

Guadalajara. First on Ross near downtown and later on Ross between Peak and Haskell, it attracted hipsters, politicians and the first wave of people moving back into East Dallas in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Plus, the food was really cheap, and it stayed open really late.

Raphael’s. During its peak in the late 1970s, customers waited an hour to eat dinner on a weekend night, and the patio was a happening place. Today, the restaurant is not only gone, but so is its location at McKinney and Lemmon, which is part of the West Village.

El Chico. As late as the early 1980s, everyone who didn’t eat at El Fenix ate at El Chico. So why is there just one El Chico left in Dallas today? The company changed hands a couple of times, which hampered growth, and its current owners converted most of the remaining locations to the more upscale Cantina Laredo. Best bet for an old-fashioned El Chico experience: Coit and Spring Valley.

Pancho’s Mexican Buffet. OK, so the food wasn’t as good as El Taxco. But how many of us haven’t raised the flag to get more iced tea or another sopapilla? Today, the chain has just two locations in Dallas, although there are almost 40 throughout the Southwest. Ironically, you can still raise the flag a couple of blocks north of the last Dallas El Chico, on the Richardson side of Coit.


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