The Boy who was Tex-Mex

Tex-Mex cuisine originated with Tejanos, Texans of Mexican descent, who mixed native Mexican and Spanish foods. It is characterized by shredded and melted cheese, beans, meat, chili peppers, spices, and flour tortillas. Beef, grilled food, and tortillas were popular in the ranching culture of south Texas and northern Mexico, and twentieth century Americans incorporated cheddar and jack cheeses.

A Tex-Mex favorite of mine is chile con queso, a smooth and creamy sauce of melted cheese and chili peppers, which originated in the northern Mexican state of Chihuahua and is both a topping and a dip for corn tortilla chips. I grew up loving the original pale yellow queso at the El Chico chain of restaurants, which is different from their bright yellow or white standard offerings today, but can still be obtained by asking for their old way queso. El Chico — The Boy — is my favorite Tex-Mex restaurant, and it has connections going back 85 years to the Café El Charro and the Café El Charrito in Oklahoma City.

This is the first in a series of three posts about restaurants I enjoyed in my hometown of Oklahoma City. Later I’ll recall pizza places and then hamburgers and drive-ins.

The Cowboy came before The Boy

Adelaida Cuellar with three of her children in 1901

Adelaida and Macario Cuellar emigrated to Texas from Mexico in 1891. Macario was a cook for a covered wagon gang, picked cotton by moonlight, and did odd jobs. In 1913, they became tenant farmers in Kaufman County southeast of Dallas. An old Mexican soldier they took in taught them to read Spanish, and their family grew to eight boys and four girls.

Adelaida opened a stand at the Kaufman County Fair in 1926, selling chili and tamales. The children had learned to play instruments, so they formed a band to attract customers, and Adelaida realized a handsome $200 profit.

Impressed, sons Frank and Amos, over the objection of their father, opened a small café in Kaufman in 1928. The boys had married sisters, and business was sometimes so slow that the two couples had to take turns picking cotton in order to pay the $30 monthly rent. Their café perished in the Great Depression.

Luis Alvarado married Mariá Cuellar

Different brothers opened and closed cafés in Terrell, Malakoff, and Wills Point. Frank eventually found success in Shreveport. Meanwhile, Frank’s sister, Mariá, had married Luis Alvarado, and Luis partnered with her brothers Gilbert and Willie Jack on a successful café in Tyler, Texas.

Luis Alvarado had grown up in Mexico and made tortillas the traditional way for five years, migrating to San Antonio and then Dallas, where was hired to train the staff at El Fenix on new-fangled tortilla machines. He then worked for three years at a corn chip factory in New York before partnering with Mariá’s brothers on the café in Tyler. When Luis and Mariá decided to open their own restaurant, they chose Oklahoma City. The Café El Charro (The Cowboy) opened on NW 10th and Dewey in 1937.

El Chico opening night in Dallas

Five of Adelaida’s sons — Frank, Mack, Alfred, Gilbert, and Willie Jack — then banded together to open the first El Chico (The Boy) in Dallas in 1940.

In February 1942, Luis Alvarado got a brief mention in the OKC newspaper for bringing St. Anthony Hospital its smallest patient to date. He had a beloved canary, Tony, and had taken him outside in his cage for some sun. The Oklahoma wind blew the cage over, injuring Tony and almost breaking Alvarado’s heart. Luis took his bird up the street to the hospital, where two nurses and a physician set and wrapped Tony’s right leg. They examined the bird again the following day. It takes a village!

The Little Cowboy

Nine years after opening, the Café El Charro had a fire, but Alvarado reopened at a place he named Café El Charrito (the Little Cowboy) at 2909 Paseo, partnering with his nephew Jesus Tello and Manuel Cruz II. Manuel Cruz introduced mariachi music to Oklahoma City, eventually becoming an icon at Chelino’s Mexican Restaurant, which opened in OKC in 1989. His son, Edgar Cruz, is a well-known guitarist I have had the pleasure of hearing perform at a Sunfest in Bartlesville and other venues.

Café El Charrito at 2909 Paseo in July 1950
Interior of Café El Charrito after a remodel in 1950

Willie Jack Cuellar had joined the North American Aviation plant in Dallas during World War II. When he left in 1945, he was unsure about returning to the restaurant business. Mariá and Luis Alvarado came to Dallas for a family gathering and convinced Willie Jack to come to Oklahoma City. Luis said, “I’ll give you a restaurant.”

Cuellar family portrait
Jesus Tello repairing music box selectors after a failed burglary at Café El Charrito

Willie Jack and Jesus Tello then managed the Café El Charrito on Paseo until 1949, when Willie Jack returned to Dallas to work at El Chico with his four brothers. Meanwhile, El Charro had expanded to Wichita, Kansas, and Luis had opened Café Palacio in Capitol Hill at US 77 and South Robinson.

The Café El Charrito underwent a significant renovation in 1950, and a second El Charrito opened at 113 N Walker in OKC in August 1951, which included murals of the Sleeping Lady volcano. A third El Charrito followed at 2300 N Broadway.

1950 full-page newspaper ad

In 1962, Luis Alvarado gained his citizenship. That same year, he opened an El Charrito in the new Shepherd Mall, which was where I first experienced El Chico. That isn’t a typo — a merger was coming.

El Charrito y El Chico

Mico Rodriguez, the co-founder of the Mi Cocina and founder of Mesero restaurants, recalled how his mother was a cashier and father was an assistant manager at an El Chico in the Dallas area in the 1960s, when the five “Mama’s Boys” went from one El Chico to another doing quality control. They all wore tall cowboy hats and boots, and spent time talking to the employees, encouraging them to be brave and to learn English. Each Christmas they gave away thousands of pounds of food. The company also developed successful lines of both canned and frozen foods.

Princess Grace of Monaco autographing a sombrero for Willie Jack Cuellar

In 1966, Princess Grace of Monaco, the former actress Grace Kelly, was urged by Trini Lopez, a popular singer from Dallas, to ask the Cuellars to cater the food at a Monte Carlo centennial event in Monaco. Trini had gotten his start in the El Chico restaurants, singing for tips. Willie Jack and an entourage of helpers boarded a transatlantic flight with 591 pounds of Mexican food. They served about 200 dignitaries enchiladas, chili, tamales, nachos, rice, refried beans, guacamole, and pecan pralines.

Gilbert, Mack, Frank, Willie Jack, and Alfred Cuellar in 1966

In 1968, El Chico went public and had just merged with El Charrito, bringing together the Cuellar boys’ thirty restaurants with the six of Luis Alvarado. Luis’s restaurants outside OKC became El Chicos, while the OKC ones were initially termed El Charrito y El Chico, but soon simply El Chico.

El Charrito and El Chico merged in 1968

The Later Years

Willie Jack, Mack, Alfred, Gilbert, and Frank Cuellar pose before Adelaida’s portrait
Adelaida Cuellar

But then the inevitable happened…Adelaida Cuellar passed away in 1969 at age 97. Mama’s Boys had long maintained a tradition of giving her the first dollar earned at each restaurant when it opened. Over the decades, her children had opened dozens of restaurants that drew upon her recipes.

The public company began franchising, with Gilbert Cuellar granting 22 of them, but he discontinued it in 1972 because they had trouble maintaining their standards.

By 1974, there were 77 El Chicos, and the five Cuellar brothers, who tightly controlled operations, saw the business wilting as an elder statesman in the industry. In 1974, they sold controlling interest to Hela, a Dallas holding company, and in 1977 Campbell Taggart, Inc. paid $20 million for the chain of 79 El Chicos.

That was also the year that Luis Alvarado died. Mary Goddard once shared in The Oklahoman how since World War II her family had gone to Luis Alvardo’s restaurants to celebrate special occasions, including every Christmas Eve. Her brother had celebrated his homecomings throughout his career at the Air Force with dinners at El Charrito and El Chico. So his son then associated the restaurants with homecomings. Once as a teenager after arriving in New York after a long tour of duty in Greece, he came straight to Oklahoma City to see his grandparents and requested a dinner with everything on the El Charrito menu.

Luis had obliged, arranging a full sampling for the lanky youth to enjoy, washed down with plenty of milk and topped off with pecan-laden pralines. Another time, when her nephew couldn’t make it home, he was sent a pinata from the array decorating the ceiling at El Chico. On Mother’s Day 1975, Luis snapped a picture of the group, and a couple of weeks later, called to ask them to be his guests at El Chico. They obeyed the mysterious command and were given the royal treatment. Luis appeared with a big print of the Mother’s Day snapshot he had taken. That became a precious memento, as Mary’s mother died the next January, and Luis passed in 1977. He left quite a legacy in Oklahoma. There are connections from him to La Roca Grande, Cocina de Mino, Tulio’s, Pepe’s, Laredo’s, and Milagros.

You can also learn more about Luis Alvarado in this video, starting at 16:40.

Unfortunately, Campbell Taggart was far more interested in El Chico’s frozen and canned Mexican food business, which was 1/3 of the corporate revenue, than the restaurants. The company was in trouble by 1980.

El Chico transitioned its frozen dinner line to the El Charrito brand in 1980, drawing upon the old restaurant name from Oklahoma City, and hired Richard Rivera, a senior executive at Steak & Ale, to lead a revival of the faltering restaurants.

Rivera refurbished the restaurants at $40,000 to $50,000 each, stressed manager training, changed employee uniforms, and redesigned the menus, signage, and logo.

The former Cafe El Charrito closed in 1981

In 1981, the original El Charrito on Paseo, which had been an El Chico since 1968, closed. A year later, Campbell-Taggart was acquired by Anheuser-Busch, and a brewing company couldn’t operate retail restaurants.

That provided an opening for Gilbert Cuellar, one of the original five brothers who founded the chain. At age 73, he offered $12.6 million to acquire the business. He and his son, Gilbert Jr, took over, with Gilbert Sr. passing away in 1986. Under Gilbert Jr. the company tried new concepts such as Cactus clubs, an upscale Casa Rosa dinner house, and spicier food at a Cantina Laredo. Gilbert Jr. was ousted in the early 1990s by a board of directors who wanted to focus less on upscale dining and emphasize the original El Chico restaurants, and the chain fluctuated over the years, but still had about 100 locations in 1996.

In 1995, the El Charrito frozen food brand was sold to Don Miguel Mexican Foods. In 2009, Hormel Foods and Herdez del Fuerte created MegaMex Foods, and it acquired Don Miguel Foods Corporation in 2010. The El Charrito frozen dinners were discontinued by 2018.

In the 21st century there was far more competition in the Tex-Mex space than El Chico had faced in its first 60 years. El Chico’s parent company became Consolidated Restaurant Operations, which also ran the Cantina Laredo, III Forks, Luckys, and Silver Fox restaurants. The company was heavily impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic, and by 2021 it was down to 50 restaurants with plans to franchise its Cantina Laredo operations.

As of early 2023, the El Chico operations have shrunk to only 15 locations in the USA and a couple in Abu Dhabi. All of the locations in Oklahoma City are gone, with the only remaining Oklahoma locations being two in Tulsa, one in Ardmore, and another in Norman.

My Boys

As I mentioned earlier, the first El Chico I experienced was the former El Charrito at Shepherd Mall in Oklahoma City. While in elementary and high school, my family travelled regularly to a cabin on Table Rock Lake in Missouri, often stopping for lunch at the El Chico at Interstate 44 and Lewis Avenue in Tulsa.

As an undergraduate at the University of Oklahoma, I was delighted there was an El Chico at Sooner Fashion Mall, and I ate there at least once per week. And when I was in Oklahoma City, there was one at May Avenue and Britton Road which I liked.

After I moved to Bartlesville in 1989, there were five El Chicos beckoning me down to Tulsa. I frequented the I-44 and Lewis location there as well as one at Promenade Mall. Highway improvements doomed the one on Lewis, and the Promenade location closed in 2020, but service there had already slipped enough to divert me to the 21st street or 71st street locations. When I travelled around Oklahoma or to nearby states, I often checked to see if there was an El Chico I could stop in at for a delicious meal.

A mouth-watering sight

Wendy and I still love eating at the surviving locations in Tulsa, but I am fearful that someday I will no longer able to order my old way queso and steak lunch fajitas with frijoles and flour tortillas. I’ve seen many of my favorite restaurants in Tulsa close over the years…Crystal’s Pizza in 1995, Marie Callender’s and Casa Bonita’s final Tulsa incarnation in 2011, Spaghetti Warehouse in 2017, and now both of the Zio’s Italian Kitchens are closed, albeit with a note on Yelp that one might reopen in March 2023. Alas…here’s hoping that Mama Cuellar’s legacy lasts awhile longer.

Next week’s topic will be OKC pizza places I knew and loved.

About Granger Meador

I enjoy day hikes, photography, podcasts, reading, web design, and technology. My wife Wendy and I work in the Bartlesville Public Schools in northeast Oklahoma, but this blog is outside the scope of our employment.
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