Someone’s been tinkering with classic Tex-Mex. No need to panic, though; it’s the Cuellars.
After all, their role in defining the cuisine began when a young couple named Macario and Adelaida Cuellar emigrated to the cotton farms of North Texas from Nuevo Leon, Mexico in 1893. The couple had 12 children and—after opening a few cafes in Kaufman County—established street cred as the pioneers of Tex-Mex in Dallas after launching the first El Chico in Oak Lawn in 1940.
Later, they created and sold dozens of subsequent dining concepts around Texas fueled by a growing population’s appetite for fresh tortillas and heaping portions. One of the family’s heirlooms—a traditional Mexican dress once worn by family member Julia Flores Cuellar at grand openings—is on display at the Smithsonian through December in an exhibit representing the “Mexican food revolution” from 1950 to 2000. The Cuellars’ history also includes serving dinner at two White House celebrations and for Princess Grace Kelly at her mansion in Monaco.
Seven decades into its legacy, the family is now promoting what it calls a “progressive” vision of Tex-Mex at El Corazon de Tejas, a longtime fixture in Bishop Arts District that’s the only restaurant still under the Cuellars’ ownership. It opened as El Chico No. 8 in 1955, was rechristened as Tejano Restaurant in 1977, and just months ago underwent a full transformation—from the menu to the sign outside.
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“Some of the ingredients we’re using in these new dishes weren’t commonplace 10 years ago,” said Gilbert Cuellar Jr., the restaurant’s owner and chief consultant. “Our tastes are evolving as the world gets smaller.”
At first glance, the menu, prepared by Costa Rican chef Jose Lopez, seems conventional. Fajitas. Enchiladas. Rice. Refried beans. But most of the changes are in the details.
The tortillas are pressed not by machines but by the hands of two sisters. There’s no chili powder in the enchilada sauce, just slow-roasted toasted peppers. Even the salsa recipes compensate for the seasonal heat of the chiles.
The neighborhood’s vegans can finally get delicious Tex-Mex right in their own backyard. One popular dish at El Corazon is a savory mushroom-and-calabaza-stuffed enchilada topped with ranchera sauce and served on a bed of cilantro rice and greaseless charra beans. Laura Cuellar Haney, the daughter of co-owners John and Susan Cuellar, says the dish is inspiring some vegans to become regulars, and some other regulars to adopt a “meatless Monday” dinner.
Portobello mushrooms are prepared fajita-style for vegans, but they’re also served in a queso blanco topped with chorizo. I could eat this every day.
Another entree I’ll never forget is a weekend-only delicacy: an avocado stuffed with cheese and shredded chicken that’s battered and deep-fried. It easily beats anything ever eaten on a stick at the State Fair of Texas.
Also new are fish tacos topped with chipotle mayo and cabbage lime slaw, as well as the chef’s signature pastelitos—a puffy, fried turnover stuffed with cheese and chicken or beef. There’s a dessert called the chocoflan that’s half flan, half chocolate Bundt cake and drizzled with caramel.
“It’s an impossible cake,” Haney said. However, it’s her cousin Mariana’s recipe, and she apparently has no problem making it.
Now, let’s talk about those notoriously famous margaritas.
“People loved them because they were a dollar,” Haney jokes.
They’re not a dollar anymore, and that’s okay. They’re also not that Dayglo green swill that once dominated Tejano’s online reviews. El Corazon makes them with premium tequila and fresh limes or—to the delight of local-minded eaters—with seasonal fruit from Urban Acres, such as mangos, peaches, and watermelons.
Gilbert Cuellar said the restaurant isn’t trying to reinvent Tex-Mex; it’s aiming to please a discerning consumer palate that more than ever is exposed to flavors from the far reaches of Mexico.
All this while staying affordable and keeping bellies full.
“These are all new things, but they fit into the concept of what the Cuellar family is,” he said. “But we also innovate and adapt to our customers’ tastes.”
Follow Rick Lopez on Twitter: @buzzdfw