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.
Click to sign up for the Advocate's weekly news digest and be the first to know what’s happening in Oak Cliff.