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?"

At the end of a low-slung, flat-roofed, unprepossessing strip mall is a room that for some 40 years has been the site of mysterious magnetic or gravitational natural occurrences, not unlike the Bermuda Triangle. Since before the JFK assassination, whether the name on the door was The Loon, Joe Miller's or The Villager Club, the wrists of bartenders here have been loosened to pour deeply and heavily to the delight and occasional downfall of their patrons. Partly as a result, all dates in this story are approximate, coming as they do from the hazy memories (including my own) of longtime patrons and employees. For whatever reason, the one person in a position to know them for sure, Homer Rader, who has owned the property at 3531 McKinney Ave. throughout, declined to be interviewed for this article.

One thing everyone agrees on is that the room has always been dark, especially when entered from the blinding summer sunlight. Built into the brick wall by the original entrance is a functioning wood-burning fireplace, still welcome on winter nights but invaluable to the ambience when it first opened as a jazz bar, The Villager Club, in the early '60s. "It was just about the hippest spot in town," says longtime scene-maker Bill Gilliland, who was president of the Dallas Jazz Society at the time. "It would have been right at home in any noir movie, dark, smoky and always with an ironically detached piano player. The hippest people in town would gather there, including a lot of writers, journalists and otherwise, and--unusual because Dallas was only somewhat integrated at the time--a lot of black musicians, athletes, assorted hipsters and beautiful women."

Banks Dimon, who played drums at the club for years backing Jac Murphy, the ironically detached piano player who owned the club for a while, agrees. "The scene was a lot different back then; there were dozens of jazz clubs around town, many of them right on McKinney, and The Villager was where everybody wound up jamming, listening, drinking."

That's something else that's changed. Most people don't drink the way many people did 20 or 30 years ago, and most of the scenes from that room now sound like they belong in that smoky old noir film: a lot of passing out, a little nudity and some epic fights. One of the funniest involved legendary Dallas bartender Joe Miller, who figures large in the history of this room. According to Dimon, a jingle singer named Frank Bloebaum was a regular at The Chateaubriand, another storied Dallas spot where Miller then ran the bar, and had been verbally harassing Miller for weeks. "Joe was three sheets to the wind in The Villager one night when Frank walked in and the two immediately got into it. Their voices got louder and angrier until finally Joe threw a punch. He was so drunk that he missed completely and knocked over several tables, breaking a couple of ribs in the process. The whole town knew about it overnight, and the bar at the Chateau was mobbed for the next couple of weeks with people who wanted to watch Joe working in his cast."

In the mid-'70s, The Villager closed and Joe Miller opened his eponymous saloon there. Joe got rid of the piano and the sunken bar but changed little else. The newspaper and TV news guys, like livestock to the barn, returned to make it a sort of unofficial press room. Our current mayor used to drink there. Karen Hughes, W's close aide, met her husband there. Back when Dallas had two dailies, competing writers with the same beat would sometimes share assignments with the guy covering the story by calling it in to the writer at Joe's. According to Louie Canelakes, Joe's second-in-command and for the past 17 years the proprietor of Louie's, "At Joe's, there was no rivalry between the papers, but all the writers would drink together, and so would the editors, and the two groups would cuss each other."

The news people were augmented by advertising people, lawyers and the occasional celebrity, and the room was once again the hippest spot in town. The drinks were huge, the talk was spirited and Joe ruled with a whim of iron. Frequently argumentative, rarely violent, Joe would have feuds resulting in the 86-ing of those who displeased him, feuds that were almost always resolved. Louie quotes longtime sportswriter Sam Blair, "Joe Miller's was like Rick's place in Casablanca. Everyone used each other and nobody cared."

Joe died in 1985. His widow, Linda, ran the place for a while, eventually giving up and setting the stage for its current incarnation as The Loon. New owner Cliff Gonzales enlarged the room, squared off the bar and staffed it with what may be the best-looking bunch of young women who are neither hookers nor dancers to be found in any bar in town. (He denies that he hires for looks. I don't believe him.) Perhaps Gonzales' biggest change was to add food, standard bar fare augmented by longtime Dallas chef Alessio Franceschetti's Italian specialties.

Partly because of the food, the extended hours (The Loon now opens at 11 a.m. and serves lunch) and proximity to the West Village, the crowd is more eclectic now, changing as afternoon gives way to evening and then to late night. The war stories sound familiar, though. Gonzales tells of two groups of regulars, one made up of blind people and the other of daily afternoon drinkers known to the bar as "the boys." One of the boys once drank so much that--surely to his good fortune--he was unable to find his car and then couldn't find the door back into the bar. "He was led back in by one of the blind guys, and it brought down the house!"

Under Gonzales, The Loon has continued the tradition of the big drink. "I learned it from Joe," he says. "Pour heavy, make the customers comfortable and they keep coming back." Maybe, but I still go for the mystical force of nature/location theory.

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