Mariana Cuellar Baldridge

Mariana Cuellar Baldridge is general manager of El Corazon de Tejas. Her parents met at Tejano Restaurant. Photos by Danny Fulgencio

John Cuellar

John Cuellar’s first job was as a teenager working for his uncle at the El Chico at Six Flags Over Texas. He is managing partner of El Corazon de Tejas. Photos by Danny Fulgencio.

old El Chico restaurant chandelier

The old El Chico chandelier is one item interior designer Ann Spicer reused in the restaurant’s new look.

This has been quite a year for the Cuellar family. For starters, their 85-year-old restaurant tradition is represented in an exhibit about Tex-Mex food, which opened in November at the Smithsonian. Now the family has reinvented its Tejano Restaurant, virtually unchanged since 1981, with its relaunch as El Corazón de Tejas last month. The new restaurant features a more modern menu that includes items culled from lives devoted to the Tex-Mex business. Two Cuellar brothers, Frank and Amos, opened Cuellar’s Café in Kaufman in 1928. The Cuellars opened the first El Chico restaurant on Oak Lawn in 1940. And members of the family ran Tex-Mex restaurants all over Texas and Oklahoma before El Chico became a chain with more than 70 restaurants by 1996. The Cuellars also started El Ranchito and La Calle Doce, which they later sold to their partners, the Sanchez family. The Cuellars have owned the building at 110 W. Davis since 1955, when it opened as El Chico No. 8. In 1981, El Chico corporation for some reason decided No. 8 had to go. So John Cuellar and his brother, Bob, rebranded it as Tejano Restaurant. The bright paint colors, the plantation shutters, the worn green carpet, the velvet painting at the bar, the vintage Budweiser sign, the neon-green frozen margaritas — all that seemed like a source of pride for Oak Cliff, despite its kitsch, a place to bring out-of-towners and North Dallasites for a taste of the ’hood. With plans for a streetcar stop a block away, all that is changing. Interior designer Ann Spicer chose a seacoast blue and a coral pink to replace Tejano’s old red, green and white color scheme. Dallas-based artist Peggy Jones was hired to paint a 12-foot-by-8-foot mural of a Mexican woman wearing a silk blouse like the one belonging to John’s mother, Julia Cuellar, that is now in the Smithsonian. An octagonal painted-glass mural that told the story of the Cuellar family was removed and likely will be donated to the Latino Cultural Center, where John Cuellar is a board member. Artist Frank Boerder, the grandfather of Dallas-based architect Larry Boerder, installed that mural in 1955. Frank Boerder also painted two three-dimensional murals that are in the restaurant’s party room, and those are staying put. El Corazón de Tejas will include some Tejano favorites, including sour-cream chicken enchiladas, fajitas and brisket tacos. The new menu includes mushroom fajitas and “vegiladas,” plus Norteño-influenced dishes, big salads and fish, chicken and steak entrees. “Be ready,” says kitchen manager William Vasquez. “It’s all good.” El Corazón is still a family business. Cousins John and Gilberto Cuellar as well as Jamie Cuellar of Lakewood are partners. Other partners include Jamie’s cousins Alecyn Cuellar and Adrian Cuellar-McGuire, who are planning a new restaurant, the Local Oak, about two blocks away (see page 24). Mariana Cuellar Baldridge is general manager. “This is like home to me,” she says. Her parents met at Tejano, and she remembers celebrating quinceañeras and baptisms there from the time she was little. “We want people to think of this as an extension of the living room in their own home,” John Cuellar says.