One year after the onset of the Mexican Revolution, Miguel leaves his beloved town in Mexico and arrives in Dallas.
The creation of El Fenix began in the 1890s with the birth of Miguel (Mike) Martinez. Over time, the El Fenix menu evolved into a new innovative style, now dubbed Tex-Mex.
Scroll down for our full story, below.
“Best Tex-Mex in Dallas”D Magazine Readers Choice (2011, 2012, 2014-2016)
One year after the onset of the Mexican Revolution, Miguel leaves his beloved town in Mexico and arrives in Dallas.
Miguel meets and marries fellow emigré, Faustina Porras, and together, they raised eight children.
Confident he understands what type of food Dallasites really enjoy, Miguel decides to go into business for himself. He opens a small restaurant called the "Martinez Café", on the corner of Griffin Street and McKinney Avenue, in a part of Dallas then known as "Little Mexico." He is truly a one-man show. He greets, seats, waits on, cooks and washes all of the dishes himself.
When Miguel Martinez opens "Martinez Café," he offers only Anglo-American dishes. He develops a new style integrating Mexican flare and offers these dishes to guests, asking for their feedback. Their input was instrumental in perfecting his culinary experimentation and Tex-Mex was born.
On the eve of the important Mexican holiday, Diez y Seis, Miguel decides to make his modest café a Mexican restaurant. The name chosen is El Fenix, meaning "The Phoenix", which appealed to his dearly held philosophy of turning setbacks into assets. And the Tex-Mex revolution begins.
Miguel Martinez sells a tortilla machine, his own invention, to Herman Lay for $200.00. Miguel thought he had been the winner in that deal but little did he know, Herman Lay would later go on to create Frito-Lay. Miguel's heirs wish he had bartered for two shares in Herman's young company.
When Miguel's menu and friendly atmosphere drew more and more customers from all parts of Dallas, a move to a larger space became necessary. He purchased a grocery store building at 1608 McKinney, now known as Uptown, and moved the restaurant.
In the mid '30s, Miguel Martinez purchased the building next door to his now thriving café and created the "El Fenix Ballroom", serving up live music and dancing with the "El Fenix Orchestra". Even though this was the time of the Great Depression, it was also an era of sophistication. Miguel offered guests lively night time entertainment, making El Fenix and the Ballroom a Dallas hotspot and a place to be seen. Live Saturday night radio broadcasts were also transmitted from the El Fenix Ballroom.
World-renowned musicians from the swing era such as Glenn Miller, Gene Kruppa, Kay Kaiser and their big bands would finish their sets at the Adolphus and Baker Hotels, then head to El Fenix for Mexican food and beer. Afterwards, these artists would jam with the El Fenix Orchestra until the early morning hours.
El Fenix takes the lead in innovative thinking in the 1930s. The decision was made to install air conditioning, giving customers a comfortable establishment to enjoy both Tex-Mex cuisine and ballroom dancing.
Back then, El Fenix was open 24-hours a day, 7 days a week. During WWII, a city-wide curfew was instituted, forcing El Fenix to close between midnight and 6:00 a.m.. The first night of the curfew, no one can find a key to the front door and a locksmith had to be called to install new locks.
In 1941, Faustina Martinez, wife of Miguel Martinez, became a citizen of the United States. Six years later, in 1947, Miguel followed suit and also became a citizen.
Following the safe return of his four sons from World War II, Miguel Martinez decided to retire from El Fenix, giving controlling interest of the restaurant to his children. Calling a family meeting, he entrusted them to continue his unique vision for El Fenix.
Miguel retired to his boyhood home of Hacienda Del Potrero, Mexico, where he shared his new found wealth with the poor townspeople, bringing them electricity and water. He had a central plaza built and landscaped, creating a ring around the plaza. This included cement benches that had the names of his children and grandchildren hand painted on the backrests. The benches remain there today.
With the opening of a second location, the tradition of El Fenix continued. El Fenix Oak Cliff opened its doors in March, 1948. The new location highlighted Spanish and Mexican influences in both décor and menu items.
In the Mid-1950's, the famous Enchilada Wednesday Special was born. The dish featured two hand-rolled Enchiladas made with Wisconsin Cheddar, rice & beans - all for only 65 cents, or half-price, staying that price all the way through the 1960's. The special went away during the 1970's, but returned in the 1980's and has been a staple at every El Fenix, every Wednesday, ever since.
Miguel Martinez passed away in his boyhood home of El Potrero. Miguel spent the last ten years of his life sharing his wealth and kindness with the townspeople. After his death, a clipping was found in his wallet describing the words that Miguel Martinez always lived by: "There are rich men that are poor and poor that are rich. A poor rich man is one who does not know how to make use of his riches and accumulates them in such form as if he thinks he is going to live forever."
A new location is opened in Casa Linda Shopping Center. The floor plan, and modern equipment, ensured the highest efficiency and made the huge kitchen one of the finest in the Southwest, if not the entire nation. The stoves, counters, and refrigerators, built by Huey and Philip of Dallas, were all made of stainless steel. The use of stainless steel throughout the kitchen assured a degree of sanitation that had seldom been reached before in restaurant kitchen design.
The first miniature El Fenix opens...
At New Orleans' Mardi Gras, during the Fourteenth Annual Ball Masque, Mrs. Miguel Martinez is crowned Queen of the Krewe of Niobeans. Mrs. Martinez wore a princess gown of gold cloth, with a heavily-jeweled front panel, and court train.
A new interpretation of the same charm and style of authentic Mexican dining is presented and three new El Fenix restaurants open; one at Lemmon and Inwood in 1960, one at Northwest Highway and Hillcrest in 1967, and one on Ridglea, in Fort Worth, in 1967. Even though the interpretation changed to keep up with current design trends, the recipes remained the same. People came from miles around to experience authentic El Fenix Tex-Mex.
Mrs. Miguel Martinez, Sr., is named Chairman of the Board, of El Fenix Restaurants. Her five sons and three daughters, who operated the family restaurants, elect Faustina to govern the direction of the company.
In the mid 1930s,when Miguel began to expand, he purchased a parking lot directly across the street from the El Fenix Café and Ballroom. Twenty-five years later, in 1965, that parking lot would become the present day location of the downtown El Fenix. El Fenix Café and Ballroom are sold to the city and demolished to make way for the Woodall Rodgers Freeway.
At 50 years of age, after the meager beginnings of the one restaurant, opened in 1918, El Fenix has flourished to 11 restaurants. Now serving the Dallas/Fort Worth metroplex, El Fenix is a living legend of modern day food operations. Miguel Martinez once told his children, "To succeed you must work hard." Living proof of Miguel's wisdom, the family is proud of the fact that they are the oldest Mexican restaurant chain in the United States. Bob Lilly, of Dallas Cowboys fame, is the emcee for the 50th Anniversary Celebration, where the family raffled-off a brand new Cadillac to this gentleman from Longview, TX.
Anita N. Martinez, wife of Miguel's son, Alfred, makes her mark in the Dallas community by becoming the first Hispanic woman ever elected to a major U.S. city's governing body. While on the council, Anita asked residents to write down 10 things they wanted done in their community. Four years later, all of 10 things had been accomplished.
In the '70s, Dallas is buzzing with growth and publicity. DFW airport opened as the world's largest airport, the Dallas Cowboys won two Super Bowls, and the record-setting TV series, "Dallas", debuts. Keeping in step with the growth, the El Fenix Corporation opened a new restaurant at Webb Chapel and Forest Lane.
Anita Martinez negotiates a trade with President Richard Nixon during a meeting of the National Board, in Washington D.C., in return for a Dallas All-American City patch. The President autographed a sombrero for Mrs. Martinez and "It caused a sensation in the White House receiving line," said Mrs. Martinez.
During the rise of El Fenix, Faustina Martinez began making a name for herself in a different arena. Three or four times a week, Mrs. Martinez would go dancing, visiting as many as three clubs on some nights. She earned the nickname, "Mama Cha-Cha", and stated, "You name it, I dance it... as long as I have a partner who knows what he's doing."
In 1981, El Fenix opened a new restaurant in Addison, conveniently located right off the tollway, at Beltline and Montfort. In 1989, the Plano location arrived just in time to witness the small farming community transform into a thriving commercial, financial and educational hub for Collin County. Both stores still draw record crowds.
In 1985, El Fenix produced two TV commercials. One won a prestigious film award, some say from the New York Film Critics Association, while others insisted it was from the Cannes Film Festival, in France. Unfortunately, there is no paper trail to prove which award El Fenix won.
The popularity of El Fenix's Hot Sauce grew and is shipped all over the world. The retail sales of the Hot Sauce rival those of any El Fenix restaurant.
Moving further into the suburbs, El Fenix opened new restaurants in Mesquite in 1992, Grapevine in 1995, Skillman in 1996, and Arlington in 1997.
In the 1996 Olympic Torch Relay, as it passed through Dallas, Anita Martinez is chosen to be a Torchbearer; one of the greatest honors a person can be granted. Her torch run further solidified her mark on the community.
In 2006, El Fenix is featured on Food Network's weekly series, "The Secret Life of Tex-Mex", aired to an international audience. The episode followed host, Jim O'Connor, as he ventured to the Lone Star State, stopping by El Fenix for a taste of history.
On September 16, 2008, in celebration of their milestone 90th anniversary, El Fenix Mexican Restaurant offered their world famous Cheese Enchilada Platter for only 90 cents, at its flagship restaurant in Downtown Dallas. Patrons lined up out the door, along side the restaurant, before it opened at 11:00 a.m.. The offer was so popular that it is now an annual event.
Dallas Mayor, Tom Leppert, Police Chief, David Kunkle, new owner, Mike Karns, and local media join a crowd of El Fenix guests to celebrate and honor Alfred Martinez, the last surviving son of Miguel and Faustina. Alfred is honored with a replica of a Hollywood "Walk of Fame" Star, authorized and licensed in perpetuity by the Hollywood Chamber of Commerce and built into the sidewalk in front of the downtown El Fenix location.
In 2009, El Fenix, the oldest Mexican Restaurant chain in the United States, marked another milestone of 91 years of service in the Dallas/Fort Worth community. To end the decade, El Fenix opened four more stores: Lewisville in 2000, McKinney in 2001, Irving in 2009, and Denton 2010.
On August 8, 2015, Dallas Mayor, Mike Rawlings saved a guest's life at the downtown El Fenix by administering the Heimlich maneuver. Shortly thereafter, El Fenix Executives presented the Mayor with a special "Gold Sombrero" plaque, signifying that forevermore, August 8th, shall be known as, "Mayor Mike Rawlings Day" at El Fenix. Additionally, they presented the Mayor with a check for $1,000 for the GrowSouth Fund, via Communities Foundation, in the Mayor's honor.
Join The E-Fenix Club and Get A Free Bag of El Fenix Famous Tostada Chips!