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Temples of Tex-Mex: A Diner's Guide to the State's Oldest Mexican Restaurants

We took a pilgrimage in search of old-fashioned tamales, chili con carne and cheese enchiladas

"Are you kidding?" Christy Carrasco, the restaurant's owner, said in disbelief. Apparently Palmetto Inn has always been way more famous for old-fashioned Tex-Mex than for newfangled seafood. The menu featured such old-time relics as tamales in chili con carne, chili by the cup or by the bowl, and a carne guisada ­dinner.

"Get a #10 Mexican Dinner," she advised. I could barely believe the sizzling hot plate when it arrived. There were three "American-style cheese enchiladas" (which is what the Palmetto Inn calls enchiladas in chili con carne) covered with a generous portion of oozy neon yellow chile con queso. The #10 is also known as the "Hangover Special" and the "Heart Attack on a Plate," Christy said.

The first Palmetto Inn was opened in Brownsville in 1945 by Christy's father-in-law, Moises M. Carrasco. He had six children, and as the family grew, they built restaurants in old highway locations in Harlingen, McAllen, Corpus Christi, Weslaco and San Antonio. The northernmost location of Palmetto Inn was on "The Circle" in Waco across from the Elite Diner.

#10 Mexican dinner at Palmetto Inn — "The Hangover Cure."
Paul S. Howell
#10 Mexican dinner at Palmetto Inn — "The Hangover Cure."
The Dallas Cowboys out with their wives at El Fenix.
Courtesy El Fenix
The Dallas Cowboys out with their wives at El Fenix.

Christy showed me old photos of what the Palmetto Inns had once looked like. I particularly liked one of Nancy Reagan eating with Roger Staubach with a gaudy velvet painting on the wall behind them.

The chain was among the most successful in Texas, but business slumped at most locations when the interstate highway system opened. "When I-35 was completed, Moises started closing the restaurants," Christy said. "It was just like what happened to those wonderful diners along Route 66." The South Padre Island location is the last remnant of the once proud chain.

"It's the end of an era," she said.
_____________________

The soft cheese taco I got with the "Special Mexican Dinner" at El Fenix on McKinney in downtown Dallas a couple of months ago mystified me. It was stuffed with cheddar and onions like a cheese enchilada, but the tortilla was steamed instead of fried, and covered with chile con queso instead of chili gravy. It tasted sort of like a soggy Tex-Mex grilled cheese sandwich. It's long been a signature item at El Fenix — but why?

Susan Martinez, the former marketing manager of El Fenix, once explained to me over lunch that Dallasites like their salsa mild and their enchiladas bland. At a former El Fenix location in Houston, they had to put processed cheese inside the taco, she said. Houstonians like Velveeta better than cheddar.

But while the fare at El Fenix is lackluster, the Dallas chain has done a masterful job of promoting its long history. The iconic downtown El Fenix location is a Tex-Mex masterpiece. The decor is dominated by elaborate trompe-l'oeil murals that cover two entire walls. The swaying palms and blue seas of the painting transport you to a villa on the tropical coast of Mexico somewhere. Elsewhere, there are lots of old black-and-white photos of the Martinez family and their early ­restaurants.

Smartly dressed in a dark suit, Albert Martinez, the 84-year-old son of El Fenix's founder Miguel Martinez, wandered by my table asking if everything was all right. Albert and his siblings built the El Fenix chain and made it the place to see and be seen in the 1960s. Dandy Don Meredith and other Dallas Cowboys football players loved the place. So did golfing great Lee ­Trevino.

Founded in 1918 by Mexican immigrant Miguel Martinez, the El Fenix chain was family-run for five generations — until a couple of months ago. Turns out I visited the restaurant just in time. Recently El Fenix was sold to a corporation named the Firebird Restaurant Group formed by real estate executive Mike Karns, its CEO. Firebird President Wyatt Hurt was formerly operations vice president at CiCi's Pizza.

Firebird promised not to change anything at El Fenix — and immediately announced that the new management group was planning to expand across the metroplex and eventually statewide.

The group's short-term success will depend on its ability to hang onto El Fenix's regulars. Longtime patrons of Tex-Mex restaurants don't like change. When the 30-year-old Los Tios chain in Houston was sold a few years ago, the new owner, Gary Adair, figured it was time to replace the powdered cheese in the chile con queso with real cheese. Loyal patrons were furious about the change in flavor. Adair was accosted by irate regulars — including his mother.

"She grabbed me by my lapels and said, 'Don't you change a single thing,'" said Adair. "It's amazing how emotional people get about Tex-Mex."

robb@robbwalsh.com

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