Why People Treat El Fenix Downtown like Mecca for Mexican Food?

Why do some people treat the El Fenix in downtown Dallas like it’s Mecca of Mexican food?  I mean it’s okay but I’ve had far better Mexican throughout Dallas? – JE

The El Fenix downtown, the “original one” has to do with the notion of Tex-Mex cuisine and being out in front of trends, being a trend setter not a follower. Let me explain.

el-fenixThe “Original” Downtown One, though not actually the original(thedallassocials.com)

See first of all, you’re not talking about “Mexican food.”  Places like El Fenix, and the majority of establishment like it serve Tex-Mex and not traditional Mexican food.  Burritos, fajitas, and nachos are not traditional Mexican food, but are more Tex-Mex.  For Tex-Mex, you take traditional Mexican food and blend traditional southern style comfort food.  So you get an enchilada filled with spiced meat and topped with chili and cheese.

Mexican Food-Tamales                                                  TexMex-enchiladas with rice and beans

tamales-1-wordpress-edit  (Clementina llanes) flick dave hansley (el Fenix)

Or perhaps, a Matt’s Rancho Mexican’s cowboy style chicken fried steak (pan-fried of course) with chili, onions, and cheese on top.

cowboy style

Pure Delicious (Matt’s Rancho)

I’d like to stop a moment and point out that, Matt’s Cowboy Style Chicken Fried Steak was Julia Child’s first chicken fried steak she ever tried.  Which is kinda like saying Dean Martin had his first beer at a bar in your home city.  Think about it, really.


Julia with Matt Martinez (founder of Matt’s) in Dallas drinking wine and eating chicken fried steak with chilli on top, naturally. (dallasnews.com)

But on to El Fenix.  Miguel Martinez, the founder of El Fenix, claimed to invent Tex-Mex, or at least El Fenix claims he claims he did.  Back in 1918 when he started El Fenix in the area of Dallas known as Little Mexico, he started out making American food, but quickly changed to making a combination of American and Mexican food, or Tex-Mex.

el fenix org The actual original downtown location (elfenix.com)

Much like Italian food before it got popular, Miguel’s restaurant and other Tex-Mex places were local neighborhood joints in immigrant communities where they mixed their traditional food with that of their new homeland.  El Fenix, though one of the more popular early Tex-Mex restaurants was not singularity brilliant, and many claim that El Chico’s is actually a bigger influence on Dallas’s Tex-Mex today.  So why is El Fenix considered the bee’s knees of Tex-Mex for certain crowds?  Well two things happened post WWII that helped it along.

First, Little Mexico got bulldozed to make way for a highway and rich white people development.  Most of thoses living in little Mexico got booted including many restaurants.  El Fenix on the other hand got to stay.  Well kinda, it moved literally across the street.  There’s a park on top of a freeway that seats on top of the original El Fenix across from the current “original downtown location.”

Woodall Rodgers Freeway, Kyle Warren park (not pictured The Real Original El Fenix downtown Location)  (Facebook user CityArchRiver)


So before, when people headed down to Little Mexico for Tex-Mex, they had several choices, among them El Fenix.  After the bulldozing, you had….El Fenix.  So like heading to Chinatown for Chinese, you have a favorite place or two, but there’s plenty options, unless they bulldozed Chinatown and left you only one Chinese restaurant.

Of course the second thing that happened was the explosion of Tex-Mex, both high class and low class.  Taco Bell did to the taco what McDonald’s did for the hamburger.  The Mansion and its Chicken Tortilla Soup happened, the Mariano’s frozen margarita (the first in the world) happened, and soon places like Mi Cocina, or Cantina Laredo, or Mia’s made white table clothed Tex-Mex dining chic.  So part of saying you like the El Fenix downtown is that you want to identify yourself as a trend setter and not trend follower.


Pretty, Expensive and Trend following Tex-Mex (Mi Cocina)

So people clamor about El Fenix in part is because it’s generational, your parents, and your parents parents, and your parents parents parents have been to El Fenix or claim to have after the others got torn down.  But ultimately it’s because you want people to know that you and possibly your family have eaten Tex-Mex long before some drunk Clevelandite transplant stumbled into Mia’s three years ago and discovered their brisket tacos, or the 4,000th Taco Bell restaurant opened serving this….


I assume the Locos means you have to be crazy or drunk to eat this