Real Southern Home-Style Cooking

They look like freeze-dried serpents, brittle with a golden sheath forged in a deep fryer. They're called tripas fritas, and they're served with rice and ranchero beans. But once euphemisms and lyrical language are boiled away, tripas fritas reveal their roots: coils of crispy cow intestines.

This dish is a delicacy in Northern Mexico. "My philosophy is to serve the food that people will find in Mexico that brings back memories as soon as they taste it," says El Ranchito Café & Club owner Laura Sanchez. This philosophy has paid off handsomely for the 52-year-old. Since she and late husband Oscar purchased the Oak Cliff restaurant in 1983, El Ranchito has gone from slinging some 30 pounds of coiled cattle plumbing per week to between 150 and 200 pounds. Cabrito a la parilla, or baby goat on charcoal, is another staple, and drives some 30 baby goats through her kitchen per week.

Since 1981, when her husband purchased La Calle Doce in Oak Cliff from the Cuellar family of El Chico fame (a second La Calle Doce opened on Skillman Street in 1999) for $1,250, Sanchez has unabashedly marketed her restaurants to Dallas' thriving Hispanic community, virtually ignoring those hordes of "see and be seen" Anglos who drive most Dallas restaurateurs into fits.

Sanchez never has to agonize over the latest tastes preoccupying this fickle society. Though she won't cite specific numbers, Sanchez says El Ranchito, whose clientele is 80 percent Hispanic and is the most robust earner in her stable, pulls in roughly $3 million per year. La Calle Doce restaurants, which draw roughly equal numbers of Hispanics and Anglos, earn a bit less.

It wasn't always this way. When she and her husband became restaurant owners in 1981, they geared the restaurant toward an Anglo clientele. "We were surrounded by banks and offices and lawyers," she says. "So the business was already there." They employed the same strategy when they bought the Fallis Steakhouse in 1983 for some $30,000, also from the Cuellar family, before converting it to El Ranchito. But as their Oak Cliff neighborhood gradually morphed into a Hispanic enclave, they shifted their strategy. "My husband used to say, 'I know the market is there, and I know it will take off once they know they can get the same kind of food that they can get in Mexico,'" Sanchez says.

They transformed the menu and aggressively marketed their restaurants on Hispanic radio and television. "I have good service, cleanliness--whatever you find in Dallas--but geared to the Hispanics. Sometimes there are invisible fences," Sanchez says of the experiences Hispanics often encounter in mainstream restaurants. "Here we welcome them."

That welcome mat is not made simply with exotic dishes like tripas and cabrito; it also features the rougher tequilas Hispanics prefer and mariachi bands--two of them, seven pieces each. "For an Anglo person, it sometimes is a little too loud," she says. "But for my Hispanic clientele, they feel extremely offended if the band doesn't play at their tables."

Originally from Monterrey, Mexico, Sanchez took the helm of the family's restaurants after her husband was deported to Mexico in 1990 after several marijuana possession convictions caught up with him. He retreated to the family ranch in Garcia, Nuevo Leon, while Laura Sanchez operated the restaurants, squeezing in frequent and regular visits to the ranch until her husband died from a heart attack in 1997 at age 58. His death thrust the future of the family restaurant business into her hands.

The shift sparked a sleeping ambition. Sanchez has a map that crisply delineates Hispanic Dallas neighborhoods--locales ripe for her restaurants. Over the next few years she plans to pebble these targets with at least three more El Ranchito restaurants and at least one more La Calle Doce. Yet this may only be the footing for a far-reaching restaurant empire. Her son Oscar, 28, who comes equipped with a degree in economics from the University of Texas, has spotted targets throughout the Southwest as well as pockets in Colorado and North Carolina where he wagers El Ranchito will thrive.

To lay the groundwork for this expansion, Sanchez is radically altering the way she has done business for more than 20 years. Since opening La Calle Doce, Sanchez and her husband fed their methodical inch-by-inch growth exclusively via profits from routine cash flow. Now she is dredging her operations and implementing more sophisticated financial and management systems in an effort to attract bank financing. She expects to have her second El Ranchito restaurant open by the close of the first quarter of 2004.

To ensure success, Sanchez will continue to cater to the Hispanic cultural nuances that have made her businesses thrive. That includes a willingness to accommodate large groups of extended family members on a moment's notice. "Hispanics don't believe in baby-sitting," she insists. "It makes no difference if there are 20, 25 or 40 people. Have you ever heard of a place where they go in on a Friday night and say, 'Hi, how are you? We're going to be 20'? They're going to wait two hours. When was the last time you went in and waited two hours to be fed?"

 
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