A waitress holds a large platter of food inside of a restaurant

A number of El Chico employees have been with the company for years

An overhead view of platters of fajitas, chips, salsa, and more

Beef fajitas and other Tex-Mex favorites

It’s now accepted wisdom within the state: The words “hot plate!” roared by a server is something of a culinary covenant guaranteeing Tex-Mex transcendence. As soon as that steaming dish hits the table, you just know it’s going to be good.

El Chico
503 I-30, Rockwall.
Open daily 11 a.m.- 9 p.m.
972-771-8814;
elchico.com

For me and my family, nothing epitomized that notion quite like El Chico. I heard those words ringing throughout childhood excursions to Dallas, where the restaurant has been based for more than 80 years. Although our preferred location was an outlet in Waco—a halfway point to our home in Austin—those same molten hot cheese enchiladas, saturated with meaty chile con carne, christened every return trip. And no vacation felt complete until we drizzled honey over a platter of sopapillas, each pillowy pocket inflated by warm, cinnamon-tinged air.

Like any native Texan, I’ve been to more Mexican restaurants than there are stars at night. But, El Chico always felt different. In its eight-plus decades, the restaurant chain has fed families across the state and halfway around the world. Once boasting 80 locations, the El Chico phenomenon has dwindled to just 15 restaurants—including a Middle East outpost in Abu Dhabi.

But there’s still something special about these restaurants. Whenever a customer enters El Chico, they step into the house that the Cuellar family built.

A black and white historic photo of a family

The Cuellar family. Photo courtesy El Chico Restaurants Collection, 1908-1990, Archives Center, National Museum of American History.

A black and white historic picture of a woman shopping for canned goods

El Chico canned goods used to line supermarket shelves. Photo from the Collections of the Dallas History & Archives Division, Dallas Public Library.

“You hear people talk about generational wealth, and that’s especially true in the oil patch. But the same thing can be said about food in this state,” says Bill Watson, vice president of marketing for the Dallas-based restaurant group that has owned El Chico since 1998.

The eatery’s roots go back to the 1890s, when a young couple named Adelaida and Macario Cuellar eloped. As their grandson, John Cuellar, likes to say, Adelaida wouldn’t give Macario her hand unless he agreed to emigrate from Mexico to Texas. After settling in Kaufman County in 1913, the couple raised eight sons and four daughters on a farm. But like so many battling the hardships of the Great Depression, Adelaida had to look for ways to make extra income to help the family.

“The only job skill she had was cooking Mexican food for her 12 children,” John says. “So, she got the idea to make homemade tamales and sell them at the Kaufman County Fair.”

Capitalizing off the success of that 1926 debut, Adelaida opened Cuellar’s Cafe just two years later. And the hospitality streak seemed to run in the family, as her five sons—Frank (John’s father), Mack, Gilbert, Alfred, and Willie Jack—all opened their own restaurant concepts around the state and Oklahoma. Known as “mama’s boys,” they eventually reunited in the Oak Lawn neighborhood of Dallas to launch El Chico together in 1940.

A group of three people pose, standing at a wooden table top in front of large artwork on the wall behind

John Cuellar (middle), flanked by El Chico president Don Dungy and general manager Olivia Garza.

In its extraordinary, Forrest Gump-like journey across interstate highways and into 20th-century American lore, El Chico was immortalized by visits from celebrities such as John Wayne at the State Fair of Texas in 1964. Grace Kelly requested its Tex-Mex specialties at the centennial of her adopted country of Monaco. And Ronald Reagan—an avowed fan of the restaurant’s fajitas—had El Chico cater the 1985 White House Congressional Barbecue.

Yet even as the brand grew across grocery store shelves with a line of canned goods and frozen dinners starting in the 1950s, it remained a family business at heart. Following in the footsteps of his father and uncles, John, now 78, worked summers at the restaurant as a teen. After graduating from Harvard Business School, he joined the company full-time in 1973. But that familial spirit extended well beyond business hours, as the Cuellars congregated at the restaurants during the holidays and large family gatherings.

After going public in 1968, El Chico changed hands a couple of times, finally selling to Dallas restaurateur Gene Street (the co-founder of Consolidated Restaurant Operations, its current parent company) in the late ’90s. The last direct descendant of the Cuellars who worked for the company, Carmen Cuellar Summers, retired in 2020. But the family’s culinary legacy lives on in Adelaida’s original recipes, many of which are still used at El Chico today. There have also been subsequent dining concepts, like Gilbert Cuellar Jr.’s acclaimed Casa Rosa, situated in the Highland Park neighborhood.

Sadly, the Waco location of my childhood closed in 2017, a casualty of Interstate 35 expansion. To find some of the chain’s longest-tenured employees, you’ll need to head to Rockwall, 23 miles northeast of Dallas. Inside that longstanding destination, follow liquor bottle piñatas and papel picado in the colors of the Mexican flag to a set of twin murals positioned in the back of the dining room. Painted by Frank Boerder, an interior designer who worked on the early El Chico restaurants, they were originally installed in Dallas’ Inwood Village location in 1949, then later moved.

Like that piece of architectural history, manager Sergio Santos has witnessed years of activity at a number of locales. Entrenched in Rockwall since 2020, he says the sense of family is still very much alive at the restaurant. His fellow managers, Patrick Balogun and Olivia Garza, also have decades of tenure. Then there are the regulars, some whom have been coming back for the chicken tacos and golden, gooey queso flecked with Christmas-colored chiles since the 1980s.

A caramel-colored sauce is poured on a puffed, golden brown pastry

Desserts like the eatery’s sopapillas drizzled with honey are the perfect end to a meal.

When I visit in August, I am looked after by server Robert Mojica, who has been with El Chico since 1982. He slides in front of me a ramekin of escabeche, some well-puréed salsa roja, and more packets of butter than I could ever use. I sip on a grande margarita that tastes like the lime candies you get at the host stand and peer out the window.

Beyond a medical scrubs supplier and an Edible Arrangements, I can see miles of interstate and the Texas flag flapping in the wind. A man finishing his meal at the table across from me tells Mojica, “I’m going to see you next time, OK?”

“Take care of yourself,” my server shouts, before disappearing into the kitchen. When he returns, tray balanced atop his shoulder, I’m anticipating that first bite of piping hot yellow cheese oozing out of an enchilada almost as much as the cautionary words he utters with a smile.

“Be careful,” Mojica says. “Hot plate!”

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