The recipe for chile con queso at Felix Mexican Restaurant predated processed cheese. Before there was Velveeta, old-fashioned queso was made with a flour-based tomato and paprika béchamel to which the cheese and cayenne were added. Felix's queso had an odd gravy-like texture, and it tended to separate as it cooled, but it was one of the state's first Mexican cheese and chile dips and a Houston tradition.
Felix Mexican Restaurant was a museum of old-time Tex-Mex. The restaurant on Westheimer, which opened in 1948, was the last remaining location of what was once a six-store chain. Felix provided generations of Anglo-Houstonians their first taste of Mexican food, their first words of Spanish and their first contact with Mexican-Americans.
The business had been declining for a long time. Then in March of this year, Felix closed its doors after 60 years in business. When the Houston Press food blog noted the closing, an outpouring of emotional comments followed. One commenter, Donna, wrote: "Our entire family is sad and grieving as if we have lost a family member. The queso and cheese enchiladas were the best anywhere, hands down! It was my birthday spot for the last 20 years. So very sad!" Readers wrote in about how multiple generations of their families were Felix fans, how they will miss the staff and how much they loved the Mexican spaghetti.
Commenter Micaela no doubt made some other readers jealous: "The queso is something to behold," she wrote. "I still have one quart remaining in my freezer and I will be extremely cautious with whom I share it! Only a true lover of Tex-Mex would deserve this honor!"
There were also plenty of Houston food lovers who were happy to see Felix go.
"About time. Maybe a real restaurant will go up in that spot soon! They have been serving nothing but swill for the past five years," wrote one restaurant scene wag.
As much as I loved Felix for its historical significance, it was hard to explain the food. I once compared eating there to "listening to scratchy recordings of the Delta blues" to understand our roots.
Felix Mexican Restaurant was a cultural landmark because of its founder, Felix Tijerina. Born in Mexico, he and his parents came to Texas when he was 14. His parents worked the cane fields in Sugar Land, but Felix walked into the city of Houston and got a job as a busboy at The Original Mexican Restaurant on Fannin, learned English on the job, worked hard, opened his first restaurant in 1926, built a Tex-Mex empire and made a lot of money.
Felix Tijerina was also elected president of LULAC four times, came up with an educational program for Spanish-speaking children that inspired Lyndon Johnson's Head Start program, and became one of the most important Mexican-American leaders of the last century.
But when loyal fans remember Felix Mexican Restaurant, it isn't the political career of Felix Tijerina they talk about tearfully — it's the cheese enchiladas, the spaghetti with chili and the chile con queso.
After Felix went out of business, I started counting the old-time Tex-Mex institutions around the state that are still operating. Karam's Mexican Dining Room in San Antonio closed in May — the building is scheduled for demolition. El Fenix in Dallas was just sold.
The list is getting shorter every year. Is old-fashioned Tex-Mex in trouble? To find out, I went on a tour of some of the state's oldest temples of Tex-Mex. What I found was that some are holding steady, some are in decline and some are bringing back the honest old-fashioned Tex-Mex dishes that haven't been seen since the 1950s (see "Temples of Tex-Mex: Vintage Restaurants").
Since the demise of Felix, the oldest remaining Tex-Mex chain in Houston is Molina's, which was founded in 1941. I had never been terribly impressed by the place — until I had lunch with Raul Molina Jr., the son of Molina's founder, several years ago. When the waiter came by, Raul Jr. ordered a bowl of chili.
"Chili?" I queried him, flipping the menu back and forth. "I don't see chili on this menu." No, it wasn't on the menu, Raul agreed. But Molina's made great chili con carne, he said. You could always get a bowl of chili at Molina's, whether it was on the menu or not.
In the beginning, the entire Molina family lived on the upper floor above their first restaurant, on West Gray. Mom did the cooking, Dad was the waiter and the kids bussed tables and washed dishes. In those days, what they really did was short-order cooking with lots of chili con carne. There was chili and scrambled eggs, chili over spaghetti, chili and crackers, chili and tamales, and chili with enchiladas — chili was at the heart of everything.