Immigrant Creates a Food Tradition

In 1892 when Adelaida and Macario Cuellar left their impoverished home, crossed the Rio Grande, and were married in Laredo, they had dreams of working hard and finding success. They did not imagine that their family would eventually head a multi-million dollar food business.

Adelaida Cuellar and the first of her dozen children.

Adelaida Cuellar and the first of her dozen children.

The Cuellars spoke very little English and worked on farms in South Texas as they moved north, eventually settling as sharecroppers on a farm outside Kaufman, a town southeast of Dallas. By 1926 Macario worked as a ranch foreman at Star Brand Ranch and the family had grown to twelve children. Mama Cuellar, as Adelaida was known, decided to add to the family income. She set up a stand at the Kaufmann County Fair to sell her homemade chili and tamales while her five sons, known as Mama’s Boys, played guitars. She not only won a prize for her cooking, she sold out. The tamale stand made $300, the family claims that was more than Macario Cuellar made in a year. Thus began the family’s annual trek to the county fair.

Two of her sons soon opened a Mexican restaurant in Kaufman with Mama Cuellar doing the cooking, but the Great Depression forced them to close after a couple of years. Over the next few years her five sons tried unsuccessfully to operate restaurants in several East Texas towns, until 1940 when sons Macario and Gilbert, using Mama Cuellar’s recipes, opened El Charro in the Oak Lawn neighborhood of Dallas. As the restaurant became more profitable, all five sons pooled their resources and expanded to other locations under El Chico Corporation.

In 1961 Angus G. Wynne, Jr. owner of the Star Brand Ranch that had employed Macario Cuellar in the early days, planned to open an amusement park in Arlington to be called “Six Flags Over Texas.” Wynne wanted to serve food representing all the cultures in Texas, and he invited the Cuellars to open a restaurant in the Mexico section of the park. El Chico proved so popular at the opening that it ran out of food and even paper plates and cups.

Mama Cuellar

Mama Cuellar

By the time Mama Cuellar died in 1969, El Chico had expanded into twenty different businesses from canning to restaurant franchising. Over the years the business went public and then returned to the family’s hands several times, each time at considerable profit. Many of the El Chico employees, realizing the growing popularity of Mexican food, opened their own Mexican restaurants. Some facilities were white tablecloth and fine dining establishments, while others served Mexican seafood, and some catered to the post-college boomer crowd.

In 1974 Mariano Martinez, one of Mama Cuellar’s grandsons who owned Mariono’s in Old Town, hit on the idea of refitting a soft-serve ice cream machine to serve frozen margaritas. His invention opened a whole new line of Mexican restaurants and bars and a whole new way to enjoy Mexican food. That original machine is now in the collection of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History.

Original frozen margarita machine on display at the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History

Original frozen margarita machine on display at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History

Today the tiny Mexican immigrant’s dream of using hard work to be successful has expanded into almost one hundred El Chico restaurants in Texas and the surrounding states and twenty-seven El Chico Restaurant franchises.

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13 thoughts on “Immigrant Creates a Food Tradition

  1. How fun. I didn’t know El Chico still existed. I haven’t eaten at once since I left OKC, and never thought about the restaurant having a history. I simply thought of it as a chain. Nice story.

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  2. One of the things I’ve always appreciated about El Chico’s is that they don’t try to gouge you like most of the ‘chic’ or ‘upscale’ Mexican restaurants do there days. Like Pulido’s and Mexican Inn here in Fort Worth, they give you complimentary soft tortillas and butter with your meal. Other restaurants either don’t have soft tortillas or else charge up to 50 cents apiece for them. Total rip-off.

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  3. When I came to Houston for the first time, in 1973, the first Mexican restaurant I visited was an El Chico. I was greatly surprised to discover that what passed for Mexican food in Iowa bore almost no resemblance to what I was served there. Later, of course, I learned the distinction between Mexican, Tex-Mex, and what a friend in the business calls Tourist-Mex. But it all still beats anything I’ve found north of Oklahoma City.

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  4. You amaze me, Myra. Your posts obviously require research, yet you put them out at lightning speed.

    I’ve been a Cuellar fan ever since I was a pre-teen. Lalo Cuellar (I may have misspelled his first name) took his kids to my dad, who was a pediatrician, and we patronized his restaurant on Camp Bowie Blvd in Fort Worth regularly.

    Thanks for this post.

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