Dallas restaurant owner recalls life in Texas BT – Before Tex-Mex – Texas Monthly
Dallas restaurateur Mariano Martinez is famous for inventing the frozen margarita machine in 1971, but he remembers how difficult it was for a restaurant to be successful selling only Mexican food when he was growing up in Dallas. Many also served spaghetti and meatballs, just to stay afloat. Martinez wanted to change that.
I was born in 1944 in Little Mexico, located just north of downtown Dallas. At that time, in the forties and before, Mexican restaurants often had a lot of Anglo-Saxon customers. They served fried chicken steaks, fried chicken, spaghetti and meatballs, mashed potatoes, green beans, rolls. Of course, they also offered basic Mexican fare like enchiladas with chili sauce and tamales, but you couldn’t charge a lot – expected to be cheap. And it wasn’t called Tex-Mex back then, just Mexican food. In fact, some Anglos thought the term “Mexican” was offensive, so they said, “Oh, we love Spanish food.”
The Mexican population of Dallas was small, but it produced two influential chains, El Fenix (founded in 1918) and El Chico (in 1940). Both still exist. Martinez also learned about food from both sides of his family.
“I vividly remember going to El Fenix and seeing the tortilla ladies making flour tortillas by hand. They were wearing colorful costumes, and if you were a kid you could go up and watch and they would give you a little ball of uncooked masa. You can eat it or bring it back to the table and play with it – roll it up in a little snowman or something. It was educational for Anglo children. The ladies tortillas shared a craft product that was part of their culture.
I grew up with my grandmother’s cooking. She was from Kaufman, East Texas, and my great-grandmother made tamales at the Kaufman County Fair. My father, who worked as a restaurant manager, was from San Antonio. He was a good cook and a good taster. He knew these flavors of San Antonio and his chili con carne was once sold at the State Fair of Texas. I use this recipe to this day. I guess my food is a combination of East Texas style and San Antonio style. Mexican cuisine was not as popular then as it is today. In the 60s and 70s, many Anglos ate Mexican food once a month. Then it had to be twice a month.
When Martinez decided to open his first restaurant in 1971, when he was in his twenties, he wanted to make it as upscale as possible on a budget. He has applied for a loan from the small business administration more than once.
I was turned down by eleven banks before I finally got a loan. Every loan officer I’ve spoken to has said the same thing to me, “Oh, we took out a restaurant loan in 1952 and we lost our ass. We never do that again. Finally, the president of a bank did it because he loved me. He liked the ideas and thought it would be good for the bank – they had a lot of minority depositors but hadn’t made minority loans. So I got an SBA loan of $ 100,000, plus $ 500 by selling all of my musical instruments and equipment from the band I was in. I rented space in the old town in the village, which was a new shopping center at the time. There were a lot of high income singles living there. When I was in the group, I had learned a lot about lighting, makeup and ambiance in nightclubs, country clubs and parties. I made Mariano’s Mexican cuisine the full package. When you walked in it looked like an outdoor patio in Mexico with mountains in the background. I used blue lighting for the moonlight. There was a tree trunk inside that cast shadows to help with realism. And there was background music.
I didn’t have a lot of money so we were inventive. I found a rug store selling pieces of shag rugs in different colors and we put them in the canteen. (When tortilla chips fell on the mat, we used garden rakes to pull them out.) Next, we took the cardboard tubes from the mat rolls, cut them in half lengthwise, and painted them to look like weathered Mexican tiles.
In addition to enhancing the mood, he also wanted to enhance the food.
I didn’t cut corners in the kitchen. My grandmother’s original recipes were pretty basic – some just said “a handful of this and that,” so the results depended on the size of your hand. We measured the ingredients exactly. And we didn’t just buy “chili meat”. I asked my dad what was the best mix. He said 80 percent lean, 20 percent fat. And we used Wisconsin cheddar aged between thirty and ninety days. I chose the name of Mariano’s Mexican Cooked, not “cafe” or “casita”. People would say, “Kitchen? It’s a bit of a French word, isn’t it? Mariano’s was Dallas’ most expensive Mexican restaurant when it first opened. Customers would tell me, “When we go to El Chico or El Fenix, we take the kids and leave early. When we go to Mariano’s we have a babysitter, we have frozen margaritas in the cantina, an elegant dinner in the dining room, and then we return to the cantina for a blazing coffee or an aperitif. We have helped shatter the image of cheap Mexican food in Dallas.
Mariano Martinez currently owns five locations of two restaurant concepts – Mariano’s Hacienda and La Hacienda Ranch—in Addison, Colleyville, Dallas and Frisco. This interview has been edited for clarity and length.