The Rise and Fall of Dallas Restaurateur Mico Rodriguez
How the man behind Mi Cocina built a restaurant empire and destroyed himself in the process.
Sometime during the holiday season last year, Michael “Mico” Rodriguez—the high-profile founder of the Mi Cocina chain, the godfather of Dallas Tex-Mex—secluded himself in his downtown Republic Tower penthouse and began slowly killing himself. His professional and personal worlds were crumbling around him. He felt like a fraud.
He dealt with his demons by drinking as much as a case of Heineken a day. He withdrew from the world. His cellphone voicemail was full, because he refused to answer it. He passed the days sitting in the dark, watching his favorite movies over and over: Citizen Kane, The Godfather, and It’s a Wonderful Life.
As the slow-motion crash stretched into a month, a flower arranger named Ricky McLane was the only person who regularly saw Rodriguez. The friend and former waiter at the Mi Cocina in Highland Park Village brought him groceries and urged him to eat. McLane watched the movies with him, listening as Rodriguez obsessed over the cinematographic elements of each film. Rodriguez drew inspiration from the movies, pointing out detail on wood moldings in one film and saying he’d put that in a restaurant some day.
But Rodriguez knew he wouldn’t be designing a new restaurant anytime soon. In fact, his slide into depression and his self-quarantine were due largely to his career implosion. Months earlier, he had stepped down as CEO of the M Crowd Restaurant Group, the company that emerged from the tiny 12-table Tex-Mex restaurant he founded 18 years ago in a foreclosed strip mall.
It was an ignominious end to a spectacular success story. Penniless and fresh out of rehab, Mico Rodriguez had coaxed three partners to back his fledgling restaurant. Bob McNutt, owner of Collin Street Bakery in Corsicana (maker of the original “DeLuxe” fruit cakes); Ray Washburne, CEO of real estate investment firm Charter Holdings; and Ray’s brother, retired businessman Dick Washburne, backed Rodriguez with $82,500, a tiny investment that ballooned into a portfolio of 22 restaurants and the chic lounge Twenty2. Last year, M Crowd generated an estimated $78 million.
“He really changed the way people look at Tex-Mex,” says Monica Greene, founder of Monica’s Aca Y Alla and a friend of Rodriguez’s. “He was able to create elegant, expensive environments. He was able to convince people that they could spend $14 on enchiladas. That was pretty bold.”
But as his ground-breaking culinary dynasty grew, Rodriguez self-destructed. He whittled away an initial 50 percent stake in the company down to 22 percent by last year, mostly to fuel a high-flying lifestyle that included fine art, designer clothes, luxury cars, and expensive homes. He was in the process of cashing out his remaining shares in M Crowd when he retreated to his penthouse.
And while he watched his three movies, his business partners were gearing up to take legal action against him, alleging he had long been diverting M Crowd revenue into his own pockets. “Mico was really good at hiding things,” says M Crowd partner Dick Washburne. [Editor’s note: Washburne has for years dated D Magazine’s dining critic, Nancy Nichols.]
His problems didn’t end with business. As his partners were hounding him, Rodriguez and his wife were in the thick of a divorce that would be the final chapter in their nearly 20 years of contentious matrimony. He hit bottom days before Christmas, drinking himself into a stupor, his body shuddering with delirium tremens. “His disease had taken over,” says his ex-wife, Carolina Galvan-Rodriguez. “I didn’t think he was going to make it. I thought he was going to die.”
On December 17, Galvan-Rodriguez finally persuaded her ex-husband to check himself into a locked detox unit at Presbyterian Hospital. Her intervention came just in time, according to one source, as his blood alcohol level was so high that it could have killed him. He was released shortly before New Year’s Eve.
McLane says Rodriguez was grateful for his second chance when he returned to his penthouse. He was committed to turning his life around. He vowed to stay sober. “He was humble,” he says. “He felt like he had been given another chance.” McLane says Rodriguez went back to his old self, brainstorming on legal pads, making long lists of ideas, concepts, and new projects. Several Dallas investors approached him with interest in backing Rodriguez in new restaurant ventures. He drafted plans for a pair of Mexican restaurants in New York City.
Then, as this story was being researched, Rodriguez disappeared again, renewing his friends’ concern for his welfare. They wondered, as did the Dallas restaurant community, whether Mico Rodriguez’s long fall from grace was finally complete.
His problems didn’t end with business. As his partners were hounding him, Rodriguez and his wife were in the thick of a divorce that would be the final chapter in their nearly 20 years of contentious matrimony. He hit bottom just days before Christmas, drinking himself into a stupor, his body shuddering with delirium tremens.
The rise of Mico Rodriguez is a classic story of hard work and ambition overcoming long odds. In published reports—Rodriguez refused to comment for this article—he has said his work ethic and his passion for the restaurant business were instilled in him by his mother and stepfather, Ana and Butch Enriquez, who managed several El Chico restaurants and founded Mia’s Tex-Mex Restaurant on Lemmon Avenue in 1981. Rodriguez remembers working as a water boy at an old El Chico on Lovers Lane. He scooped guacamole. He made iced tea. At the age of 9, he graduated to chopping and dicing.
In 1976, he dropped out of Thomas Jefferson High School and plunged headlong into the nightlife on Greenville Avenue, earning money as a doorman, waiter, and bartender. “I would see him, and he always had a lot of girlfriends,” says his ex-wife, Galvan-Rodriguez, who has known him since they were both young children. “He always worked hard, and he always had money and a car.”
He took the helm of Mia’s in 1983 as general manager, logging long hours. He learned to cope with the endless nights and weekends with the rush of drugs and alcohol. “I [was] having a good time,” Rodriguez told the Dallas Morning News in 2001. “I’m sniffing here and drinking there. But I got to the end of my rope when I figured it’s either death or jail.”
In an episode that would repeat itself years later, Rodriguez checked himself into a lockdown rehab program in January 1989 after one final drink: a 7 am Bloody Mary served at the Melrose Hotel. Rodriguez stayed sober for 15 years.
But soon after his release, his stint at Mia’s ended over a dispute with his mother and other members of his family. According to former M Crowd public relations man Wayne Broadwell, there was friction between Mico and his brother Paul, then co-owner of Mia’s and a driving force behind the Greater Dallas Restaurant Association. “He and Paul were estranged,” Broadwell says. “I don’t know if it was a competitive thing. Probably.”
From the beginning of his post-Mia’s career, what Mico Rodriguez lacked in formal education or resources, he made up for with chutzpah. Real estate investor Ray Washburne, a regular at Mia’s who was served by Rodriguez, recalls the day in late 1990 that he got a call from Rodriguez at his office. “He said, ‘Hey, Ray, this is Michael Rodriguez. I’d like to come see you to talk about a restaurant,’ ” Washburne says. “And my response was, ‘Well, who are you?’ ”
IT TAKES A VILLAGE: Mi Cocina took off when the wife of real estate mogul Henry S. Miller took a liking to the margaritas and convinced him to open a location in Highland Park Village.photography by Kevin Hunter Marple
Washburne agreed to meet Rodriguez for lunch at a Chinese restaurant on Motor Street, near Stemmons Freeway. There, Rodriguez showed Washburne a list of celebrities that were regulars at Mia’s, including Dallas Cowboys legends Chuck Howley and Roger Staubach. Rodriguez told him that he had planned to call each of them but decided to call Washburne first. Washburne asked him why. “He says, ‘Well, because I see your name in the society pages all the time, so you must have a lot of money,’ ” Washburne says.
Broke and just a year out of rehab, Rodriguez asked Washburne for $25,000. Washburne agreed on the spot. “He was a sincere guy,” Washburne says. “I observed him working at Mia’s, and he was a very hard-working guy. He was a popular person. People were attracted to him.”
Washburne drove around Dallas with his girlfriend, scouting restaurant locations. They eventually settled on a site in Preston Forest Village, on the southwest corner of Preston Road and Forest Lane, a property in foreclosure. Washburne negotiated a lease on a space at an end of the strip that was deserted. It was, he would later discover, a sweet spot. “There was no Mexican restaurant anywhere for miles in any direction,” he says. His $25,000 investment quickly became $77,500. “That’s when I went to get my brother Dick to come in and Bob McNutt, who was my old college roommate,” Washburne says. The total investment crept up to $82,500, which included last-minute expenses on opening night. Carolina Galvan-Rodriguez says they paid their partners back in four and a half months. “Band of brothers, they called themselves,” she says.
Rodriguez and his wife worked doggedly in their 12-table restaurant with nine employees, she in the front of the house, he in the kitchen. Their concept received a powerful boost when Juanita Miller, wife of real estate mogul Henry S. Miller, took a liking to Mi Cocina’s margaritas. In 1993, she convinced her husband to slip a Mi Cocina into Highland Park Village after Miller let the lease lapse for Los Vaqueros, a restaurant that had been in the shopping center for 20 years. “She’s the one who put us on the map,” says Galvan-Rodriguez. “That’s when developers started looking at us, and a lot of opportunities opened up. We got a lot of ‘A’ locations. We were blessed.” Whole chapters of Dallas restaurant culture would soon be rewritten.
Rodriguez instilled Mi Cocina with contemporary styling that used clear forms, soft curves, and bright colors discharged with precision and understatement. “Whatever the industry’s doing, I’m not doing,” Rodriguez said in 1993. “I don’t do loud tablecloths and neon beer signs. I can’t handle colored walls. Good taste is good taste.” Rodriguez’s chain expanded to locations in Lake Highlands, Bent Tree in North Dallas, and the Dallas Galleria. His ascension to local restaurateur legend was nearly complete.