Every restaurant in the Dallas area has battled against an impossible spring. But one beloved Mexican restaurant in Oak Cliff is facing a tougher fight than most and doing it with more optimism, too.
It’s no surprise that Maskaras Mexican Grill would have such combative spirit. The dining room is still lined with luchador masks, full costumes and autographed memorabilia.
But that theme might be part of the problem. For years, Maskaras has been a destination restaurant for lucha libre fans from across North Texas. Owner Rodolfo Jimenez, who runs the business with wife Zulma Vanessa Hernandez, says he thinks that only about 5% of Maskaras customers are from the surrounding blocks of Oak Cliff.
“The other 95% comes from Collin County, Arlington, even Fort Worth,” Jimenez says. “For them, even to drive all the way from there right now is difficult, because everyone is starting to come outside and feel that they can live their life. We’re taking everything day by day. There’s nothing we can do aside from keep trying, keep trying.”
A week before Dallas ordered restaurants closed March 16, sales were already plummeting. Jimenez estimates a 50% drop before the dining room closed — which left his team without a business model, because almost nobody had ever ordered takeout from Maskaras before.
Making matters worse, many of Maskaras’ best dishes are the kind that diners want to eat quickly rather than pack into takeout boxes, like its glorious tacos ahogados, crispy fried tacos with salsa poured over the top, or the similarly “drowned” torta ahogada.
“We barely have to go orders,” Jimenez says. “It wouldn’t be worth it to have 10 employees around the restaurant just doing nothing. We were closed for pretty much 50 days.”
A seven-week total closure was just the beginning. Maskaras opened its dining room at limited capacity May 1 and also began promoting takeout and delivery sales — but now the restaurant faces two new problems. One is that few customers have come back; sales are worse now than they were before March 16. Jimenez says his daily numbers are about 80% below average.
“The other thing is that the food prices from our providers went up,” he adds. “Our beef went up 300%. Everything else is up 100 to 200%. All the needs right now for restaurants — meats, all the to-go things, containers, plastic bags, vegetables — there’s not a single product in my restaurant that the price did not increase. Why? I have no idea. Supposedly, according to the news and the president, they shut down two meat companies, but if you shut down two companies, what happens to the rest of them? It doesn’t make sense. It’s more like, let’s make money.”
Demand is surging nationwide for takeout containers, bags, plasticware and compostables. Often, small businesses feel afraid to pass that cost on to consumers — especially at a time when most people aren’t comfortable returning to restaurants.
The Maskaras team, though, is keeping hopeful. True to the luchador spirit, they’re fighting back with everything they’ve got.
Menu prices have ticked upward across the board since the restaurant reopened, reflecting the new cost of ingredients. A see-through barrier stands in front of the cash register, to prevent transmission of disease between customers and cashiers. The huge, sunlit dining room, which usually seats 100 customers, now has just 24 chairs, and Maskaras is keeping capacity at 24 even though they can legally add more.
This week, the menu got a new star attraction: birria, available as a plate, in standard or crispy tacos and as quesabirria, the crispy, cheesy star of photos on sites like Instagram.
“We were testing it for the past two weeks, handing people who were coming free tacos to try,” Jimenez says. “They kept coming back asking for it, so we decided to add them to the menu.”
He’s hopeful that his new birria tacos will help attract more customers from across town.
There’s another reason he keeps a hopeful attitude about the coronavirus crisis: Maskaras has already faced worse odds, and won.
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A few years ago, and for a stretch of months, Dallas city officials tore up the streets in front of the restaurant, replacing underground pipes and blocking off lanes. The intersection was crippled, and sales were down by a devastating 90%. It’s astonishing that the restaurant survived; it’s even more surprising that a construction crew could have had a worse effect than a global pandemic.
But that history also suggests Maskaras’ hospitality, spotless dining room and destination-worthy food can outlast the current crisis, too.
“This is the second-biggest challenge,” Jimenez says of the pandemic. “We passed the first one. Hopefully every day gets better.”
Maskaras Mexican Grill, 2423 W. Kiest Blvd. (Oak Cliff).