Combination Plates

Legendary restauranteur Felix Tijerina mixed Mexican food and Texas politics

With Caldwell's encouragement, Tijerina opened his own Mexican restaurant in 1929. He had learned Caldwell's formula well: Promise authenticity, but deliver the kind of Anglo-friendly food that Houstonians actually eat.

The Depression put Tijerina's first restaurant out of business, but in 1937 he built another one on Westheimer in River Oaks. Felix and his wife, Janie, slept in the back of the restaurant and worked virtually around the clock turning the operation into a huge success. He opened an outlet in Beaumont, another in Bellaire and the flagship restaurant on Westheimer near Montrose. He would go on to build six altogether, creating one of the most successful restaurant empires of his day. "For the finest in Mexican foods" was Tijerina's slogan.

But fine Mexican food isn't really what Felix Tijerina is remembered for. A veteran of Mexican-American voter registration drives going back to the 1930s, Tijerina was among the city's earliest Hispanic activists. As a successful businessman, he became friends with Roy Hofheinz, R.E. "Bob" Smith and Louis Cutrer, and was the first Mexican-American appointed to serve as a board member of the Houston Housing Authority. Tijerina also rose through the local, regional and state levels of the League of United Latin American Citizens. In 1956 he was elected the organization's national president and served four consecutive annual terms. As president of LULAC, Tijerina started the Little Schools of 400.

Kid-friendly: Molina's goes easy on the spices, which is just fine for young palates and nostalgic parents.
Troy Fields
Kid-friendly: Molina's goes easy on the spices, which is just fine for young palates and nostalgic parents.

At the time, Mexican-American students suffered an extremely high dropout rate. Tijerina believed that if Spanish-speaking students could learn a little English before entering elementary school, they might stand a better chance. A pilot program was started in 1957 in Ganado, southwest of Houston and just north of Port Lavaca. Tijerina paid a 17-year-old named Isabel Verver $25 a week to teach five-year-old Hispanic children 400 words of English. All the children in the program successfully completed first grade in a school system that had a poor track record with Spanish-speaking kids: It had failed 50 percent of them the year before.

Governor Price Daniel asked Tijerina to expand the Little Schools of 400 program to other Texas cities. Speaking on Spanish-language radio stations across the state, he urged Mexican-American parents to get their children involved.

Felix Tijerina went from a 13-year-old busboy who didn't speak a word of English to the most prominent Mexican-American in Houston and one of the state's Hispanic leaders. Politicians such as Ralph Yarborough courted his support. He was even invited to the LBJ ranch to consult with Lyndon Johnson about educational programs. His efforts to educate Spanish-speaking kids made quite an impression on the future president.

Felix Tijerina's Little Schools of 400 became the inspiration for LBJ's Head Start program.

In the spring of 2001, Texas A&M University Press will publish a biography of Tijerina, Mexican American Odyssey: Felix Tijerina, Entrepreneur and Civic Leader, 1905-1965, written by Thomas H. Kreneck. The author worked on the book in conjunction with the University of Houston's Center for Mexican-American Studies.

"Felix Tijerina was the most prominent Mexican-American in Houston," Kreneck told me. "And as a four-term president of [LULAC], he was also nationally famous. Leaders like Tijerina are part of what scholars call the Mexican-American generation, the era of political activists who moved Mexican-Americans from the facelessness of the 1910s to the limelight of public attention in the 1960s. These leaders articulated Mexican-American concerns to the society at large and put their issues on the national agenda."

The Daily Special ($5.95) never changes at Felix Mexican Restaurant: It is two chicken enchiladas in Spanish sauce with shredded iceberg and chopped tomatoes on the side. The "salad" has no dressing, but there is a big scoop of sour cream with it. As you eat the enchiladas, the cold lettuce and tomatoes get mixed in with the hot tomato sauce and chicken juice. In fact, the Daily Special might be accurately described as a chicken enchilada salad. There is hardly any chili pepper bite to the sauce, which appears to be a simple combination of well-cooked tomatoes and onions.

"It tastes so old-fashioned," said a friend who came along to lunch recently. "It reminds me of my childhood. The chicken and the soft tortillas with sour cream, it's like chicken and dumplings, comfort food."

Between the 1970s and 1980s, the "American melting pot" was being replaced by the "American mosaic" as the official metaphor for ethnic assimilation. At the same time, America's tastes in food were growing more adventurous. Influenced by Diana Kennedy and other proponents of authentic Mexican cuisine, food lovers sought more assertive flavors. Old-fashioned Mexican food like Felix's began to be referred to, condescendingly, as Tex-Mex.

A crop of restaurants that reflected the new mood, including the original Ninfa's on Navigation, sprang up starting around 1973. Their slogans promised authenticity, just as the Original Mexican Restaurant and Felix had before them. "Our food is so Mexican, don't drink the water here," read the sign for a defunct Mexican restaurant across from Market Square Park. But in fact, the new Mexican restaurants weren't much more authentic than the ones they replaced. The new menus touted fajitas, soft (flour tortilla) tacos, chimichangas, burritos and other dishes of Mexican-American ancestry that were unknown in Mexico City. This new kind of Mexican food featured fresh spicy salsas, charcoal-grilled meats and seafood, and dishes that seemed much more distinctive than the combination plate. Monterrey House, El Chico and the other giants of 1950s-style Tex-Mex declined in popularity or went out of business. A few old Tex-Mex restaurants, like Molina's [5227 Buffalo Speedway, (713)432-1626; 7901 Westheimer, (713)782-0861; 3601 South Highway 6, (281)497-1800], Loma Linda on Telephone Road, the Original Mexican Cafe in Galveston [1401 Market, Galveston, (409)762-6001] and Felix's last restaurant on Westheimer, seem to remain open for reasons of nostalgia. Run by Felix Tijerina Jr., the lone Felix location is frequented mainly by patrons who have been eating there for half a century.

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