In Oak Cliff, Tex-Mex is a sacred tradition

Before the days of Taco Bueno, Taco Bell and the Jack-in-the Box taco, restaurants and small cafes were the only venues peddling Tex-Mex.

The Cuellar family opened EL Chico No. 8 in the 1950s.

For cliffites, Tex-Mex is a sacred tradition.

Now I ask you: Is there anyone in Oak Cliff who doesn’t like Tex-Mex?

Didn’t think so.

Before the days of Taco Bueno, Taco Bell and the mid-1960s sensation of the Jack-in-the Box taco, restaurants and small cafes were the only venues peddling Tex-Mex food, and I don’t believe that there were that many of them, even then.

These days, many casual dining businesses offer at least a small number of Tex-Mex items on their menus — if nothing else, nachos.

Back in the day, it wasn’t so.

In the 1930s, one of the earliest Latino influences on Oak Cliff cuisine seems to be the affectionately remembered and well-patronized “Tamale Man”, normally staked-out on the southwest corner of Marsalis and Jefferson in front of the old Carnegie Library. Cliffites from around the neighborhood regularly purchased his ever-popular tasty tamales, wrapped in newspaper and steaming hot.

According to some of the Adamson and Sunset high school alumni from this period, the student’s tamale purchases back in those days were many times followed by a drive to Kiest, Lake Cliff or Kidd Springs park to consume the spicy cornmeal-covered edibles. When asked why they would travel as far as Kidd Springs or Kiest Park, they all agreed: It was just fun, especially as they had nothing more to do and could afford little else.

Another popular Mexican/Tex-Mex restaurant of that era, now gone, was Chapultepec on Zang just west of Lake Cliff Park, where in the 1930s and ’40s folks met and dined, and where many Oak Cliff social events took place. And later, though both are now closed, the Fort Worth Avenue-located Tupinamba and Benavides restaurants were also regular stops for hungry Cliffites in the post-war and late 20th century days.

In the 1950s, the Cuellar family opened El Chico Restaurant No. 8 at the corner of West Davis and Beckley in the former Wyatt’s Cafeteria building, earlier the Wyatt Food Store. The beautiful, and still-present, stained-glass window became the dining room’s showstopper, with its colorful, glowing images depicting the Cuellar family’s history as they traveled from Spain, to Mexico, to their Kaufman farm, to Dallas.

Today, operating as Tejano Restaurant, the dining room’s massive overhead chandelier remains intact, still attached to the ceiling by the tractor chain the Cuellar brothers used as a “temporary” measure. The fixture illuminates the main portion of the restaurant as it looks down on customers enjoying mouth-watering enchiladas, tamales and tacos.

The other iconic Oak Cliff Tex-Mex establishment is the El Fenix Restaurant at Colorado and Beckley, which opened in 1948. The Mike Martinez family developed the site as its second location for what became a DFW Tex-Mex chain. With the restaurant’s door constantly flooded by hungry customers, the Martinez family heritage is still being preserved, as loyal patrons munch on such El Fenix favorites as puffed tacos and guacamole. And then there’s the restaurant’s signature item: thick, rich chili con carne. Olé!

And their pralines ain’t bad, either.

Back in the 1950s, the chain premiered its smash hit “Wednesday Night, 95-cent Enchilada Special” still offered today, although the price is a bit higher at $4.99.

La Calle Doce is another popular south-of-the-border dining destination in Oak Cliff, serving Mexican seafood specialities at 12th and Bishop. And the Ojeda’s chain recently has opened a stop at the corner of Jefferson and Polk. The old Red Bryan Barbecue building at the corner of Jefferson and Llewellyn now houses El Ranchito, a “comida norteño” (northern food) restaurant that serves Monterrey-style Mexican dishes, along with a little Tex-Mex. Many similar restaurants, cafes and taquerias also populate the Jefferson Blvd.-area.

And if you take the time to drive around the entire expanse of Oak Cliff, you’ll find an additional assortment of Tex-Mex and Mexican specialty eateries peppering most every portion of our neighborhood, including Illinois Avenue, the Davis corridor and the Bishop Arts District.

Oak Cliff just can’t get enough of the stuff.

The number of Oak Cliff Tex-Mex eateries has grown a lot since the days of Chapultepec and the lone Tamale Man on the corner, and I suppose the growth will continue. With more and more folks moving to Oak Cliff and with continued movement into the Dallas area in general, Tex-Mex is forever growing in popularity.

From what I hear, Tex-Mex is now the second “official” food of Texas, trailing, of course, Texas barbecue. Holy guacamole, we love it!

Wish the enchilada special was still 95 cents, though.


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  • Steve Watson

    El Fenix in Oak Cliff was quite a treat for us. Our family ate there nearly every Sunday after church. I can still taste those tamales covered in con carne sauce & cheese. We also dined at the McKinney Ave. location. A bit fancier with the Mariachi band and homemade tortillas. Portraits of well known Dallasites and celebrities adorned the walls of the building. I believe the artist was Demitri Vail. Thought that was kinda weird having these paintings staring at you ala “Twilight Zone”. Maurice, I do remember La Tupinamba’s. Ate there a couple of times – should have changed it’s name to “Dante’s Inferno”…A little too original for my taste…

  • Maurice Eason

    Gayla, one of my favorite Tex-Mex places was Tupinamba which I believe was on Ft. Worth Ave., Davis or Jefferson just west of Hampton Rd. That location has been closed for a number of years but there is one on Inwood Rd. just north of Forest Lane and plans to build a new one in Frisco. Also, I needed to have a cherry coke with my Kip’s Big Boy.

  • Sherrie Luttrell Voegele

    What memories this article brings back…and especially all the posts. Sunday lunch after church at Hampton Place Baptist was either Wyatt’s Cafeteria in Wynnewood Shopping Center, El Fenix or El Chico, and also Naler’s Fried Chicken. Austin’s was for during the week if mother didn’t want to cook one night or if daddy was out of town.

  • Bitsey Ker Loy

    Your article was great. Brings back lots of old memories. My family loved El Chico’s and Buddys loved El Fenix. Our alltime favorite was Naler’s Fried Chicken. I think one was on Davis and one in the Westmoreland Heights Shopping Center. I’m glad you remember a lot of these things about Oak Cliff. Helps me to remember. Do you remember Polar Bear Ice Cream down on Ft Worth Ave across from Lake Cliff Park? First Mexican food then ice cream. Yummy

  • Margaret Dandridge Herring

    I loved hearing all about your memories of eating in Oak Cliff. I think that most of you went to Adamson or Sunset. My group went to South Oak Cliff so there were no lunch breaks to any of these great places. Kip’s Big Boy was near my last home in Oak Cliff, just off Sangner (sp not known)and Illinois. Of course we did love to go to Red Bryans after a game. Thanks for reviveing all these great memories. What happened to the effort to save the big church that was about to be towrn down. Did the historical group raise enough money to stop the distruction? Now I live in East Texas and do not hear all that is going on there. Margaret Dandridge Herring

  • john

    You forgot to mention the original Taco Wagon on Davis, And not the current one. And those famous carne guisada tacos.

  • Vonnie Brown Schoenrock

    I remember him well Sharon!!You and me and Peggy Palmer…oh what memories…Mostly good…..Me and the girls would go to El
    Fenix, order one enchalada and fill up on chips and hot sauce….

  • Gayla Brooks Kokel

    I’ll keep a record of everything you guys are posting, all of which is great! So any of you who have memories of eating at Austin’s, email them to me at gkokel@advocatemag.com. I plan on doing that column sometime in late spring. However…I have a word limit. So I may or may not be able to use every comment. Thanks for reading!

  • Sharon Holland Enenkel

    Gayla, Thanks again! I can almost taste the food! Up here in Canada there is nothing that can compare! Last Mother’s day my youngest son mailed me El Fenix Hot Sauce and Chips! What a treat!

    P.S. When you write about Austin’s, don’t forget Officer Tippett who put fear in everyone and he paraded down the aisles.

  • Martha Owens Garcia

    When you write about Austin’s, be sure to mention the “Corn Puppies”. Bite-sized corn dogs served in either a “litter of six” or a “litter of eight”. Yum!

    I moved away from Dallas in 1964, but still have fond memories of Oak Cliff. I thoroughly enjoy your column (which my cousin e-mails to me)!

  • Cindy Truelove McCord

    That was Naler’s Chicken (not sure I remember the correct spelling, but I can almost smell it). I actually have a picture of the ’68 Reunion Committee outside Austin’s before our 25th or 30th which was just a bit before it closed. The Griddle System on Jefferson… Yep, I remember that as going out to eat was fairly rare in my house, and that was the breakfast spot when we did. How about Kip’s Big Boy where we would go after a football game. Kip’s Big Boy and a coke, please!

  • Hey! Don’t forget about Nader’s fried chicken, and all the great burger joints. Rockefeller (5 great burgers for a dollar on Tuesdays), the Griddle Systems, and Sybil’s drive-in. When you do your piece on Austin’s BBQ don’t forget the table-top jukeboxes.

    KHS 67

  • JOHN “TINY” GLANTZ

    Enjoyed your article on Tex-Mex the only one was El Fenix on Colorado or Downtown knew the owner Alfred Martinez before they sold the chain now is owned by the younger generation. Great food for 47 years.

  • Beverly Kimbrough

    Chapultepec was my favorite. I don’t even remember what I ate, but I loved saying the name.

  • Gayla Brooks Kokel

    Sharon,
    Benavides on Ft. Worth Avenue sold about 10 years ago. The new owner closed it later, and I’m not sure about the status of the building now. Two of my children attended school with two of the Benavides children. Thanks for the post, Sharon.

  • Sharon Marvin

    I really enjoyed your article, Gayla. Great job! I always have found that El Fenix is my very favorite restaurant to eat Mexican food. I frequent the one at Casa Linda. Gotta have those cheese enchaladas!!!! There used to be a Benevides (may have spelled this wrong) Restaurant on I-30 in Oak Cliff. If you got a booth by the window you could see the traffic zooming back and forth. They had pretty good food, but their pralines were the best. Just wondering if it is still there.

  • Gayla Brooks Kokel

    Amy, You hit it on the head. And you’re right. Those three are the “Holy Trinity” of Texas. There will be an upcoming column on Austin’s Barbecue…or as we spell it in Texas, either barbeque, BBQ, or just “Q.” I think everyone in Oak Cliff ate there, really. Gayla

  • Amy

    And now columns on the other 2 of the ” holy trinity” of Texas eating – BBQ and chicken fried steak? Thanks!

  • Yummm… the El Fenix at Colorado and Beckley was a family favorite — especially enjoyed the fried shrimp!

  • Cookie Rowe

    Oh my!!!! The memories just keep going. So glad you have an article every month! Enjoy them all.

    If any of you out there went to Lida Hooe, you’ll remember the 7th grade trip to them….El Chico..Wow! Still enjoy eating at Tejanos, of course Ojedas, also enjoy Buena Vista on Ft Worth Ave.

    Keep the memories coming.
    Cookie Rowe

  • John Hall

    The location built on Beckly was built by a friend of mine, Granville Cash. He loved the food, and was a regular there for many years, right up until the time he died last year. Also, the Noah family, with their patriarch H. C. Noah, who led Oak Cliff Assembly of God for many years, weekly ate there also. It was, and still is, a treat to eat there these days with friends.

  • Terry Prichard

    Been eating at Tejano since it was El Chico beginning in 1956 and still think its the best.

    One main stay you left out that goes back to before most of us were born was Austin’s BBQ. Many fun memories, eating breakfast there before band practice. And for some of us, skipping out to make an Austin’s run for lunch (to go and they had it waiting for us) and bringing back a lunch to the parking lot gate guard so he wouldn’t turn us in to Mr. K.

    Great memories and thank you Gayla for helping to keep them alive.

  • Larry Click

    Gayla:
    My favorite Oak Cliff south of the border food today has to be the tamale store at the corner of Marsalis & 8th St. Best tamales, (beef or pork) for the money in Dallas.

  • Charles “Benny” Kirtley

    Fond, fond , memories. I remember going there as a child with mom & dad. How fortunate we are to be associated with great tasting foods here in Texas. The old El Chico restaurant reminds me of all the rest of the eating establishments in Oak Cliff also. What a legend of a town we lived in….and some still do!! Thanks, Gayla.