Enjoy The Heat and Climb Aboard the Tex-Mex Train

The Tex-Mex segment in Dallas is en fuego.

Within the circulation boundaries of Preston Hollow People and Park Cities People alone, there are at least 12 Tex-Mex restaurants including Rafa’s, Mesero (2), Odelay, Mi Cocina (2), Fernando’s, El Fenix, Muchacho, and Jalisco Norte. That doesn’t include two Chipotles, one Taco Joint, a Velvet Taco and two upscale predominantly Mexican, not Tex-Mex restaurants, Jose and Tulum. Just a smidge outside our circulation area is Casa Rosa, Mia’s, Uncle Julio’s, Doce Mesas, Chuy’s, Tupinamba, and Desperado’s. Days after the print version of this story was submitted, I received news that a new Tex-Mex concept called Escondido would open in Preston Hollow.

There is a corn silk thread that connects most of them to each other, though there’s only one locally that’s currently owned and operated by one of the two original families that successfully commercialized Tex-Mex in Dallas, and that’s Casa Rosa which is owned by Gilbert Cuellar, Jr. whose family built El Chico, once the largest Tex-Mex chain in the world.

Some of this information might be old hat to long-timers here, but we’ve got lots of new neighbors who probably don’t understand the precedent of Odelay’s pan-fried tacos or how the Mambo Taxi came to be. With the opening of so many new Tex-Mex joints here, it seems time for a refresher.

First, the term “Tex-Mex” is derived from The Texas Mexican Railway Company which was christened in 1881, a subsidiary of the Kansas City Southern Railway which was one of the largest operators at the time. Known as the Tex-Mex, the route connected Corpus Christi to Laredo. In 1883, Tex-Mex became the first Mexico-United States railway connection when a bridge was built over the Rio Grande River to connect Laredo and Nuevo Laredo.

The term appeared again when British food writer, Diana Kennedy, a foremost expert on Mexican cuisine, dismissively and unflatteringly wrote about the Mexican-influenced cuisine she found in Texas and referred to it as Tex-Mex in her 1972 best-selling cookbook, The Cuisines of Mexico.

No matter, more than 50 years prior to that intended insult, two Mexican families emigrated to Dallas and were successfully selling Tex-Mex cuisine before it had the name; The Martinez family opened the first El Fenix in 1964 and the Cuellar family opened the first El Chico in 1940.

Since then, the Martinez family sold El Fenix to Mike Karns who operates it under his Local Favorite Restaurant Company. El Fenix still enjoys success and celebrates its original flavors. Karns also owns Mexican/Tex-Mex restaurants Tulum, Jalisco Norte, Meso Mayo, Taqueria Ventana and TorTaco.

The Cuellar family took El Chico public in the 60s and over the next 30 years, the company was reclaimed and sold again, with the Cuellar family finally exiting in the mid-90s. Gilbert Jr. alone opened the original Casa Rosa in 1981 and he and his father went on to open Cantina Laredo in 1984. Other restaurants that can trace their roots back to El Chico include:

Mia’s – Founded by Ana and Butch Enriquez who worked at El Chico.

Mi Cocina, Mesero, and Doce Mesas – These three concepts were started by Michael “Mico” Rodriguez, who worked at El Chico while his parents, Ana and Butch Enriquez, worked there.

Rafa’s – Raphael Carreon, who passed away July 27 of this year, was an El Chico manager.

Desperado’s – Founder George Levy was an El Chico manager and is part of the Cuellar family.

On the Border – Founder David Franklin served as in-house legal counsel for El Chico.

Mariano’s and La Hacienda Ranch – Founded by Mariano Martinez, Jr. who is part of the Cuellar family. Mariano invented the frozen margarita machine that many restaurants now use for their frozen margs, including Mi Cocina’s famous Mambo Taxi.

Tex-Mex is a regional cuisine that, like certain viruses, has subvariants.  The Tex-Mex you taste in Dallas is different from San Antonio’s Tex-Mex. The Tex-Mex at Fernando’s is not exactly like Mesero, some folks like one and not the other. Thank goodness we have so many, right?

The latest two market entries are Odelay and Casa Rosa; very different, both excellent.

Odelay has a beautiful patio but is still all about the food such as the shrimp fajitas. Photo: Courtesy Odelay

Odelay is the bebé of Julian Barsotti who’s known for his Italian restaurants.  Odelay’s spacious, highly decorated with carefully curated textiles, pottery, and paintings from Mexico.  It has the most beautiful patio in the area and, though it Instagrams well, it’s more about the food than the décor. 

The pan-fried Wagyu tacos are sublime – the filling is like meat butter – creamy, rich, and beefy. This is an updated version of El Fenix’s panfried taco. The naked chile relleno is baked and has a punchier chile and tomato flavor than the fried version. The chips are sturdy, the salsa is tomatoey and on the mild side and the shrimp fajitas are filled with grilled, plump shrimp, seasoned perfectly.

Casa Rosa is a reiteration of the legendary Inwood Village spot now located in a former El Fenix location at Lemmon and Inwood. Far simpler in décor, rose pink and terracotta walls are illuminated by a beaming skylight and wall lanterns that glow a deep maize. A lush center planter spilling with greenery and the uncluttered space remind me of a restaurant in San Miguel de Allende.

What I love most about this menu besides the most amazing taco meat, flavorful shredded chicken in enchiladas, and the best queso in town (I really mean that), is that you can choose your own combinations. You pick two ($15.95) three ($17.95) or four ($19.95) menu items such as enchiladas, empanadas or chimichangas and get two sides.  Excellent quality food and reasonable prices.

The margaritas come frozen or on the rocks with your choice of tequila.  Specialty cocktails such as The Texas Chubasco with Tito’s, lime juice, cucumber juice, agave, and orange syrups and Tabasco and the El Fleetwood Chocolate which has Mezcal, brown syrup, Angostura, and Aztec chocolate bitters are outstanding.

Can so many Tex-Mex restaurants survive in the 21 square miles that encompass the distribution area of People Newspapers? Time will tell. I know which ones are my favorites and will enjoy supporting them, I hope you will too.

Kersten Rettig

Kersten Rettig is the only DFW Food/Travel writer with luxury hospitality leadership experience and a former restaurant owner, employee, and chief marketing officer. Kersten's worked on the inside and has the insight and experience to tell the stories to the outside. She's a Park Cities resident, mom, wife and a decent cook. Follow her on Instagram @KerstenEats.

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