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.
"Have you ever tried the old-fashioned tacos?" a friend asked me when we sat down at Matt's El Rancho in Austin a couple of years ago. I had often disparaged the place as hopelessly out-of-date, but when the tacos arrived I was astonished. Two tortillas were dipped in oil and wrapped around several thick slices of smoked brisket, placed on a hot griddle with a weight on top and then flipped and griddled on the other side. They came to the table crunchy but chewy, with chopped onions and cilantro, cold lettuce, tomatoes and guacamole to shove inside the taco. The wild variation in temperatures and textures are unbelievable. I have been back to eat those tacos at least a dozen times.
The old-fashioned Tex-Mex that's worth eating is the honest stuff that got lost in the fast-food frenzy and is currently making a comeback. And today, a fresh-fried taco shell, a gelatinous tamale or a well-made bowl of chili tastes shockingly new and different.
This is the way all the food tasted when Matt Martinez, Austin's "King of Mexican Food," first opened his restaurant in 1952.
The Martinez family is one of the oldest Tex-Mex dynasties in the state. Matt was the son of Delphino Martinez, who pushed a tamale cart on Congress Avenue in Austin before opening El Original in the city in 1925. Matt Jr., a third-generation owner and chef and author of several Tex-Mex cookbooks, divides his time between Matt's El Rancho in Austin and his other restaurant, Rancho Martinez in Dallas.
But why did old-fashioned tacos like the ones at Matt's El Rancho disappear in the first place? Why did Tex-Mex go into decline?
In the 1950s and 1960s, Tex-Mex restaurants soared in popularity along with all kinds of casual new restaurants, Raul Molina told me. Many owners felt they had to compete with the emerging fast food outlets and burger joints. And so they began streamlining the cooking process and cutting prices. Raul started making pre-formed taco shells by fastening tortillas to a bent coffee can. It saved a lot of time and money, but the tacos went downhill.
The chili con carne clung to the fat tamales like a meat sauce. Each tamale showed a thick streak of pork inside the tender layer of corn masa. "We have always made our own tamales," the waitress told me when I asked about them.
Tamales and chili con carne is the oldest dish on the menu at the Original Mexican Restaurant in Galveston, which, as far as I can determine, is the oldest operating Tex-Mex restaurant in the state. The Original Mexican Restaurant was opened by Raymond Guzman in 1916. Guzman had worked at several other Galveston restaurants, including the popular outdoor "Mexican Restaurant" at Electric Park, a seaside amusement park.
Tamales with chili con carne are so old-fashioned, people rarely order the dish anymore, but it was once the very definition of Texas Mexican food. I enjoy ordering it for its sense of nostalgia, but tamales just aren't what they used to be.
I wish The Original Mexican Restaurant was making tamales that were as rich and gelatinous as the ones they made 90 years ago, when the standard recipe for tamales included twice as much lard as it does today. To the detriment of flavor, modern Tex-Mex restaurants have cut back on the lard in tamales and refried beans in order to appease modern tastes. This is a huge mistake and one reason old-fashioned Tex-Mex is in decline. The food used to taste a lot better.
In my Tex-Mex Cookbook, I defended outdated ingredients like Velveeta and lard, which inspired one young food blogger in Portland to suggest that I had drunk too much of my own "Tex-Mex apologist Kool-Aid." I completely understand his point of view. Properly made, old-fashioned Tex-Mex includes lots of processed cheese and lard, ingredients that sophisticated food lovers rail against. But so what? Tex-Mex is a low-class cuisine that has been vilified by elitists throughout its history.
Commercial Tex-Mex started out as street food. Latino-operated stands and pushcarts were the taco trucks of the late 1800s. Laborers counted on them for quick, cheap sustenance. Adventurous eaters loved them. And the upper classes abhorred them.
On November 25, 1882, The San Antonio Evening Light published this editorial: "We heard a prominent doctor denounce the tamale stands on the squares as sources of disease. It's about time the cooking and eating was done somewhere else than in the streets and squares."
In 1901, the city of Houston banned tamale sellers from Market Square. "There are about a dozen of the stands and hundreds of people eat at them night and day. Besides tamales, chili is served among other cheap dishes. Many farmers coming to the city eat there. It is maintained by some citizens that forcing the stands out of business is a poor move and will be a hardship to many people who eat there," wrote the Galveston Daily News.
The oldest permanent Tex-Mex restaurants were little more than tamale stands moved indoors to escape the wrath of sanitation inspectors. "The two-story frame building on Texas Avenue, near the corner of Main, used as a tamale and chile con carne restaurant, has been torn down. A new building will take its place," reads a short news item in the Houston section of the Galveston Daily News on January 17, 1886. It's amazing to learn of a Houston Tex-Mex restaurant that was operating in 1885—I believe that's the earliest on record. Too bad we didn't catch its name.
The Original Mexican Restaurant in Galveston, like the Original in Houston, and restaurants of similar names across the state, imitated a formula invented by Chicagoan Otis Farnsworth at the Original Mexican Restaurant in San Antonio.
Farnsworth came up with the idea of building a Mexican restaurant for Anglos in the commercial district and staffing it with Latinos. The Original Mexican Restaurant in San Antonio was built in 1900. Gentlemen were required to wear a jacket to dine there. It became the most successful Mexican restaurant in the state.
Following Farnsworth's example, some Mexican-Americans relocated their restaurants from the barrio to the commercial district to appeal to mainstream clientele. According to old newspaper society columns, many charity functions were held at the Original in Galveston.
Today, The Original in Galveston is a Tex-Mex restaurant in decline. The food is little better than average, and the current employees are clueless about the restaurant's past—the manager has only been there four months. The place was sold last September to a Houston barbecue restaurant entrepreneur named Nicholas Servos. Hopefully, the new owner will do a better job of presenting the restaurant's long and colorful history. Putting more lard into the tamales is probably too much to hope for.
Some of the best vintage Tex-Mex I encountered this spring was at Leal's, a 51-year-old Tex-Mex restaurant in Muleshoe, where I ordered a deluxe plate and chatted with the founder, Irma Leal, over lunch. The chips we were dunking in salsa were wonderfully light and flavorful.
The chips came from Leal's tortilla factory a few blocks down the street. Leal's "Thin and Crispy Homestyle Tortilla Chips" are so good, they sell for a premium at upscale grocery stores like Central Market. The "seasoned" version of Leal's chips, lightly seasoned with garlic and lime, are sensational.
My deluxe plate included a taco, rice and beans, a tamale and enchiladas in red chile sauce. Leal's has two other locations just across the border in Clovis, New Mexico, a mere 30 miles away. The chili con carne around here is called "red chile," and it's made with New Mexican dried chiles rather than chili powder. The combination of the rich red chiles and Leal's tortillas is terrific.
Most of the tortillas you get in the United States and Mexico these days are made from the instant mix called masa harina (corn flour). Leal's tortilla factory is a throwback—they make tortillas (and tortilla chips) the old-fashioned way. They still buy dried white corn, slake it with chemical lime to make nixtamal and grind it on giant lava stones into fresh corn dough. The difference between tortillas made with corn flour and those made with fresh masa is like the difference between instant coffee and fresh-brewed.
"I grew up making tortillas," Irma Leal told me. And she means it literally. Her childhood home in the Lower Rio Grande Valley town of Mercedes was located next to her father's business, the "El Arco Iris" (Rainbow) Tortilla Factory, where the whole family worked. Irma married Jesse Leal, and the couple left the Valley when Jesse got a job working for the Bracero Association in distant Muleshoe.
The bracero program of the 1950s was an immigration agreement between the United States and Mexico. By legalizing the influx of migrant Mexicans, the federal government was able to allocate workers to areas where they were needed and supervise their return. In return, the government of Mexico negotiated some basic rights for the workers, including a guaranteed rate of pay, familiar food, proper shelter and one day off a week.
When the program started, there wasn't any Mexican food in Muleshoe. Irma saw an opportunity. "I told Jesse, 'Let's buy a tortilla machine.'" They spent their savings bringing a tortilla machine up from the Valley and setting it up in a tin-roofed building on the east side of Muleshoe. When sales were slow, Jesse would peddle tortillas door to door. Before long, they were selling barbacoa on weekends to go with the tortillas. Then they added a few tables, and the tortilla factory was renamed Leal's Mexican Restaurant.
The Muleshoe Leal's relocated to its current location on American Boulevard in 1968. There are now six Leal's Mexican Restaurants, all owned by members of the Leal family. Along with the one in Muleshoe, there are two in Clovis, one in Plainview, one in Henrietta and one in Amarillo. All six locations serve tortillas and tortilla chips manufactured by Leal's Tortilla Factory in Muleshoe.
When I finished mopping up the red chile with tortillas, the tiny, soft-spoken Irma passed me a manila envelope. Inside I found a stack of handwritten letters from Leal's customers.
The one written by Heriberto Mendoza, a former bracero, told the story of a day in 1960, when Mendoza's boss, a local farmer, dropped him off at Leal's on his day off. With no way to get back to the fields, Mendoza had to hitch a ride with Irma's husband, Jesse, who loaded him up with enough barbacoa and tortillas to last all week. Forty-eight years later, Mendoza, who is now a grandfather, still remembered that kindness.
"I got married and made Muleshoe my home..." the former farm worker wrote in his letter. "Now I take my children's children to Leal's."
"Puffy tacos," which are all the rage in San Antonio and Austin lately, have been served at Caro's in Rio Grande City since 1937, when Modesta Caro opened the place. I visited Caro's a few years ago. It serves the best-preserved example of old-fashioned Tex-Mex I have ever encountered. Unfortunately, Rio Grande City, which is situated on an isolated bend in the river across from Carmargo, Tamaulipas, is a long way to drive for a taco.
But Modesta Caro's daughter Maria and her husband, John Whitten, opened another Caro's on Blue Bonnet Circle in Fort Worth in 1954. And today their son John Jr. still runs it. The Fort Worth Caro's has preserved the same family tradition for fine Tex-Mex. "No steam tables, microwaves or can openers," is the restaurant's slogan.
The fresh-fried puffed taco shells at Caro's in Fort Worth are just as good as the original. (Get the chicken tacos—the beef filling is bland.) The restaurant also serves the only decent version of spaghetti with chili con carne I have ever eaten in Texas. The restaurant, which is decorated with deer heads and old calendars, has a time capsule appeal that serves to make their modernized entrees, like grilled salmon with crab and Caribbean pork chops, look incongruous.
The signature item at both Caro's locations is the basket of puffy tostadas placed on every table when you walk in. They are made by cutting a fresh-pressed tortilla into pie-shaped eighths and frying them fresh. The basket of puffed-up "chips" tastes incredible with salsa and chunky guacamole. And these chewy hot masa wedges make the best nachos in the state.
Caro's is a newcomer in Fort Worth compared with the Original Mexican Eats Café, which was opened by the Pineda family of Waco in 1926. The murals on the walls, the tin ceiling and some of the decorations at the Camp Bowie Boulevard restaurant go back more than 50 years—and so do some of the employees.
The restaurant used the "Original" formula—it targeted an Anglo audience. The Original of Fort Worth became a favorite haunt of Fort Worth bluebloods including Amon Carter and Franklin Delano Roosevelt's son Elliott. President Roosevelt raised the profile of Tex-Mex when he ate at The Original with his son during a visit to Fort Worth in 1937. If you want to sample real old-fashioned Tex-Mex, order what FDR ordered, now known as the "Roosevelt Special." It's a fried-to-order chalupa shell topped with beans and cheese, a crispy beef taco and a cheese enchilada in chili con carne topped with a fried egg.
Cheese enchiladas served in chili con carne—not thin, meatless chili gravy, or authentic enchilada sauce—are the hallmark of real Tex-Mex, according to 78-year-old Fort Worth sportswriter and Tex-Mex expert Dan Jenkins. What else does he look for in a great Tex-Mex restaurant? "There isn't a goddamned fajita within 10 miles of it," he told me.
"The first time I ate Mexican food was at the Mexican Inn in downtown Fort Worth when I was in junior high," he said. "Cheese enchiladas, rice and beans. I'll never forget it. It was like an orgasm."
Jenkins favorite Fort Worth Tex-Mex restaurant is Mi Cocinita, a tiny operation located in a garage. He said the pork tamales there actually have some lard in them.
Was it health concerns that ruined Tex-Mex, or was it the authenticity thing? "Fuck healthy. I've been eating lard for over 60 years," he railed. "What happened to Tex-Mex is the same thing that happened to all the other food. It got too fancy. Culinary institutes are turning out idiots who want to put ferns and cactus on everything. Unfortunately, it's infected Tex-Mex too."
Jenkins wouldn't approve, but when I eat at the Palmetto Inn on South Padre Island, I always get the shrimp. After all, the biggest shrimp fleet in Texas docks right down the road in Brownsville.
The Palmetto Inn's shrimp and avocado cocktail served in a traditional parfait glass with chopped onion, cilantro and serrano chiles spicing up the red sauce is the most popular shrimp dish there. I like the shrimp fajitas, marinated in lime juice and garlic and served on a sizzling skillet with guacamole and hot flour tortillas.
Though I had eaten at the Palmetto Inn on visits to South Padre before, I had overlooked the old-fashioned Tex-Mex dishes on the menu. I was clueless about the chain's long history until I interviewed the owners and waitstaff on my Tex-Mex travels this spring. I asked if they served old-fashioned cheese enchiladas in chili con carne.
"Are you kidding?" Christy Carrasco, the restaurant's owner, said in disbelief. Apparently Palmetto Inn has always been way more famous for old-fashioned Tex-Mex than for newfangled seafood. The menu featured such old-time relics as tamales in chile con carne, chili by the cup or by the bowl and a carne guisado dinner.
"Get a No. 10 Mexican Dinner," she advised. I could barely believe the sizzling hot plate when it arrived. There were three "American-style cheese enchiladas" (which is what the Palmetto Inn calls enchiladas in chile con carne) covered with a generous portion of oozy neon yellow chile con queso. The No. 10 is also known as the "Hangover Special" and the "Heart Attack on a Plate," Carrasco said.
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.
"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.
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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."