Bless Us, Oh Lard

Damn fajitas and health-conscious eaters. They're killing traditional Tex-Mex.

The first Palmetto Inn was opened in Brownsville in 1945 by Christy's father-in-law, Moises M. Carrasco. He had six children, and as the family grew, they built restaurants in old highway locations in Harlingen, McAllen, Corpus Christi, Weslaco and San Antonio. The northernmost location of Palmetto Inn was on "The Circle" in Waco across from the Elite Diner.

Christy showed me old photos of what the Palmetto Inns had once looked like. I particularly liked one of Nancy Reagan eating with Roger Staubach with a gaudy velvet painting on the wall behind them.

The chain was among the most successful in Texas, but business slumped at most locations when the interstate highway system opened. "When I-35 was completed, Moises started closing the restaurants," Christy said. "It was just like what happened to those wonderful diners along Route 66." The South Padre Island location is the last remnant of the once proud chain.

No. 10 Mexican dinner at Palmetto Inn–"The Hangover Cure".
Paul S. Howell
No. 10 Mexican dinner at Palmetto Inn–"The Hangover Cure".
The Original Mexican Cafe in Galveston–oldest Tex-Mex joint in the state?
Courtesy Original Mexican Cafe
The Original Mexican Cafe in Galveston–oldest Tex-Mex joint in the state?
The former Dallas Cowboys–that's Roger Staubach at right–out with their wives at El Fenix.
Courtesy El Fenix
The former Dallas Cowboys–that's Roger Staubach at right–out with their wives at El Fenix.

"It's the end of an era," she said.

————

The recipe for chile con queso at Felix Mexican Restaurant predated processed cheese. Before there was Velveeta, old-fashioned queso was made with a flour-based tomato and paprika bechamel to which the cheese and cayenne were added. Felix's queso had an odd, gravy-like texture, and it tended to separate as it cooled, but it was one of the state's first Mexican cheese and chile dips and a Houston tradition.

Felix Mexican Restaurant was a museum of old-time Tex-Mex. The restaurant on Westheimer Road, which opened in 1948, was the last remaining location of what was once a six-store chain. Felix provided generations of Anglo-Houstonians their first taste of Mexican food, their first words of Spanish and their first contact with Mexican-Americans.

The business had been declining for a long time. Then in March of this year, Felix closed its doors after 60 years in business. When the Houston Press food blog noted the closing, an outpouring of emotional comments followed. "I was first taken to Felix's in a car-bed in 1945 and have gone at least once a week ever since," wrote Nancy. "I am in mourning, as is my sister and many of my friends." Another commenter, Donna, wrote: "Our entire family is sad and grieving as if we have lost a family member. The queso and cheese enchiladas were the best anywhere, hands down! It was my birthday spot for the last 20 years. So very sad!" Readers wrote in about how multiple generations of their families were Felix fans, how they will miss the staff and how much they loved the Mexican spaghetti.

There were also plenty of Houston food lovers who were happy to see Felix go.

"About time. Maybe a real restaurant will go up in that spot soon! They have been serving nothing but swill for the past five years," wrote one restaurant scene wag.

As much as I loved Felix for its historical significance, it was hard to explain the food. I once compared eating there to "listening to scratchy recordings of the Delta blues" to understand our roots.

Felix Mexican Restaurant was a cultural landmark because of its founder, Felix Tijerina. Born in Mexico, he and his parents came to Texas when he was 14. His parents worked the cane fields in Sugar Land, but Felix walked into the city of Houston and got a job as a busboy at The Original Mexican Restaurant on Fannin Street, learned English on the job, worked hard, opened his first restaurant in 1926, built a Tex-Mex empire and made a lot of money.

Felix Tijerina was also elected president of the League of United Latin American Citizens four times, came up with an educational program for Spanish-speaking children that inspired Lyndon Johnson's Head Start program and became one of the most important Mexican-American leaders of the last century.

But when loyal fans remember Felix Mexican Restaurant, it isn't the political career of Felix Tijerina they talk about tearfully—it's the cheese enchiladas, the spaghetti with chili and the chile con queso.

Remembering Felix, blog commenter Micaela no doubt made some other readers jealous: "The queso is something to behold," she wrote. "I still have one quart remaining in my freezer, and I will be extremely cautious with whom I share it! Only a true lover of Tex-Mex would deserve this honor!"

For location information on the restaurants mentioned in this story, please see "Vintage Tex-Mex."

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