3 bites of El Fenix history on the Dallas restaurant's 100th birthday

When Miguel "Mike" Martinez died in 1956, his legacy to Dallas was the gift of Tex-Mex. All these years later, his legacy endures. Today, El Fenix, the restaurant he opened in September 1918, turns 100 years old and anchors a $100 million restaurant portfolio.

"We've been through two world wars, a Depression, Korean War, Vietnam, all of that," says Al Martinez Jr., one of Mike Martinez's grandchildren and the de facto family historian. El Fenix survived.

Miguel "Mike" Martinez and his wife Faustina Porras Martinez smile in an undated photo hanging on the wall of El Fenix. The restaurant group is throwing a 100th birthday party on Sept. 13, 2018.

The restaurant's century of history starts with a Mexican family who helped create Tex-Mex cuisine by selling what Al Martinez Jr. calls "kitchen food" to Dallas folks who had never heard of a cheese enchilada.

"For somebody who looked like my grandfather, it was very easy to look past him. He looked like a laborer," Al Jr. says. But the patriarch — and the four generations of Martinezes after him — built a Tex-Mex empire.

The restaurant is older than the oldest living family member, 94-year-old Alfred Martinez, son of Mike Martinez. He'll join the birthday party on Thursday, Sept. 13, when El Fenix at 1601 McKinney Ave. in Dallas will sell its legendary cheese enchiladas for $1 and sing "happy birthday" to a 100-year-old company that's still cooking.

Here are three bites of El Fenix history.

1. The first El Fenix sold oysters and spaghetti

While the restaurant eventually succeeded in making Tex-Mex a popular style of cuisine in Dallas, El Fenix also sold other food.

Mike Martinez, who was born in Mexico and moved to Dallas in 1911, modeled his early menus off of the recipes he learned to make as a dishwasher-turned-line cook at the Oriental Hotel in the 1910s in downtown Dallas.

A menu at El Fenix from 1937 shows a mismatched personality: trout tenderloin, chicken-fried steak and spaghetti and meatballs on the front; cheese tacos, tamales and beans on the back.

Today, we know El Fenix for its Tex-Mex dishes like cheese enchiladas and tamales. But did you know that more than 70 years ago, El Fenix also sold oysters and spaghetti and meatballs?

"The whole idea was to delight and please his customers," Al Jr. says of his grandfather. He thought they'd be delighted if his restaurant served "their" food — stuff like oysters Rockefeller. But his grandfather also started offering "his" food to customers, by walking around the restaurant with bites of Mexican food for anyone who hadn't eaten it before.

Soon, diners caught on to El Fenix's Mexican plate lunches. The 1937 menu shows a 55-cent Mexican dinner with an enchilada, tamale, chile con carne, fried beans, fried rice, tortillas or bread. For nearly twice as much, $1, diners could order a steak dinner from the other side of the menu.

Mike Martinez's son Alfred still orders a soft cheese taco covered in queso like his dad used to make. When asked if he remembers when they started serving queso in a bowl with chips, he shrugs. Tex-Mex, to him, is the food he ate at home.

2. El Fenix was once a popular live-music venue

The El Fenix ballroom, next door to El Fenix Cafe, in 1938, was a popular social spot in Dallas.

Mike Martinez and his wife, Faustina, loved to dance, says daughter-in-law Anita Martinez. (Anita was the first Hispanic member of the Dallas City Council and the founder of Dallas' Ballet Folklorico.)

Over lunch at El Fenix alongside her husband, Alfred Martinez, Anita explains that her father-in-law loved to jitterbug and slow dance — so much so, that he opened El Fenix Ballroom in the 1930s.

Alfred Martinez, son of original El Fenix restaurant owner Miguel "Mike" Martinez, and his wife Anita Martinez, shared decades of stories over lunch before the 100th birthday.

The venue, on a part of McKinney Avenue long ago bulldozed to make room for Woodall Rodgers Freeway, was busy until 2 or 3 in the morning on weekends. The El Fenix restaurant nearby was open 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, and diners used to come in at all hours before and after events at the ballroom.

Mike Martinez even assembled the El Fenix Orchestra. He loved to entertain, his family members say. That also meant he loved to work.

"He'd come home at 4 a.m.," Alfred remembers of his dad, but he'd be back at the restaurant before lunchtime.

He was "tallish, slender, quiet [and] unpretentious," says a 1947 Dallas Morning News story. "Martinez counts on his fingers, speaks English poorly, yet he has built the biggest Mexican cafe in town, El Fenix, on his novel wage theory: If you can get but $1.50 a day, take it; you will make more than being jobless seeking $1.75. Then, 10 hours is a short day; one should work 12."

3. The original family is no longer involved in El Fenix

Mike Karns (right) bought the El Fenix restaurants from the Martinez family in 2008. Here, in April 2018, Alfred Martinez, then 93, threw out the ceremonial first pitch at a Texas Rangers game with current owner Karns by his side.

Almost exactly 90 years after El Fenix was founded, the family sold the company to a Dallas businessman named Mike Karns. He isn't of Mexican descent, and he didn't operate any restaurants at the time. But he made an offer to buy all the El Fenix restaurants at a time when the surviving family members were ready to pass them on.

Alfred Martinez is the last living son of original El Fenix owners Miguel and Faustina Martinez.

"He's our knight in shining armor," Al Jr. says of Karns. "We were thrilled."

Karns created a company called Firebird Restaurant Group solely to purchase El Fenix. Today, the $100-million company has expanded to include ownership of another storied Dallas company, Snuffer's Restaurant & Bar, which was started by Pat Snuffer, who is no longer involved. Firebird also owns Mexican restaurant group Meso Maya, Village Burger Bar and others.

While some people in Dallas declared that Karns had better not mess with the Dallas treasure, he says that was never his intention. Ten years after buying El Fenix, to commemorate the 100th birthday, a mural on the storied restaurant near Woodall Rodgers says "Don't Mess with Tex-Mex."

"It's very much of a family tradition," Karns says.

You can't miss the new mural on the side of El Fenix near downtown Dallas.

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