By Amy McCarthy
By Scott Reitz
By Scott Reitz
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Alice Laussade
By City of Ate
The soft cheese taco I got with the "Special Mexican Dinner" at El Fenix on McKinney Avenue in downtown Dallas a couple of months ago mystified me. It was stuffed with cheddar and onions like a cheese enchilada, but the tortilla was steamed instead of fried and covered with chile con queso instead of chili gravy. It tasted sort of like a soggy Tex-Mex grilled cheese sandwich. It's long been a signature item at El Fenix—but why?
Susan Martinez, the former marketing manager of El Fenix, once explained to me over lunch that Dallasites like their salsa mild and their enchiladas bland. At a former El Fenix location in Houston, they had to put processed cheese inside the taco, she said. Houstonians like Velveeta better than cheddar.
But while the fare at El Fenix is lackluster, the Dallas chain has done a masterful job of promoting its long history. The iconic downtown El Fenix location is a Tex-Mex masterpiece. The décor is dominated by elaborate trompe-l'oeil murals that cover two entire walls. The swaying palms and blue seas of the painting transport you to a villa on the tropical coast of Mexico somewhere. Elsewhere, there are lots of old black-and-white photos of the Martinez family and their early restaurants.
Smartly dressed in a dark suit, Albert Martinez, the 84-year-old son of El Fenix's founder, wandered by my table asking if everything was all right. Albert and his siblings built the El Fenix chain and made it the place to see and be seen in the 1960s. Dandy Don Meredith and Cowboys football players loved the place. So did golfing great Lee Trevino.
Founded in 1918 by Mexican immigrant Miguel "Mike" Martinez, the El Fenix chain was family-run for five generations—until a couple of months ago. Turns out I visited the restaurant just in time. Recently El Fenix was sold to a corporation named the Firebird Restaurant Group formed by real estate executive Mike Karns, its chief executive. Firebird President Wyatt Hurt was formerly operations vice president at CiCi's Pizza.
Firebird promised not to change anything at El Fenix—and immediately announced that the new management group was planning to expand across the metroplex and eventually statewide.
The group's short-term success will depend on its ability to hang on to El Fenix's regulars. Longtime patrons of Tex-Mex restaurants don't like change. When the 30-year-old Los Tios chain in Houston was sold a few years ago, the new owner, Gary Adair, figured it was time to replace the powdered cheese in the chile con queso with real cheese. Loyal patrons were furious about the change in flavor. Adair was accosted by irate regulars—including his mother.
"She grabbed me by my lapels and said, 'Don't you change a single thing,'" Adair says. "It's amazing how emotional people get about Tex-Mex."
I started counting the old-time Tex-Mex institutions around the state that are still operating. Karam's Mexican Dining Room in San Antonio closed not long ago—the building is scheduled for demolition. Felix Mexican Restaurant in Houston just closed after 60 years in business.
The list is getting shorter every year. Is old-fashioned Tex-Mex in trouble? To find out, I went on a tour of some of the state's oldest temples of Tex-Mex. What I found was that some are holding steady, some are in decline and some are bringing back the honest old-fashioned Tex-Mex dishes that haven't been seen since the 1950s.
The oldest Tex-Mex chain in Houston is Molina's, which was founded in 1941. I had never been terribly impressed by the place—until I had lunch with Raul Molina Jr., the son of Molina's founder, several years ago. When the waiter came by, Raul Jr. ordered a bowl of chili.
"Chili?" I queried him, flipping the menu back and forth. "I don't see chili on this menu." No, it wasn't on the menu, Molina agreed. But Molina's made great chili con carne, he said. You could always get a bowl of chili at Molina's, whether it was on the menu or not.
In the beginning, the entire Molina family lived in the upper floor above their first restaurant on West Gray Street. Mom did the cooking, Dad was the waiter, and the kids bused tables and washed dishes. In those days, what they really did was short-order cooking with lots of chili con carne. There was chili and scrambled eggs, chili over spaghetti, chili and crackers, chili and tamales, and chili with enchiladas—chili was at the heart of everything.
Later I went back to the oldest remaining Molina's location on Westheimer Road in Houston and looked for cheese enchiladas with chili con carne. I couldn't find the dish until a waiter pointed it out on a separate part of the menu under the name, "enchiladas de Tejas." Three enchiladas were smothered with chili and topped with a pool of yellow cheddar. I poured a small dish of chopped raw onions over the top. It was the best meal I have ever eaten at Molina's.
Just like everybody else, I too often make the mistake of sitting down in an old-fashioned Tex-Mex joint and ordering the mole poblano or grilled meats while ignoring the vintage dishes that they do brilliantly. Never order a steak at the pancake house—or at a Tex-Mex restaurant.