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Cuellar Family: Dallas’ Tex-Mex Pioneers

What started at the Kaufman County Fair in the 1920s is now a worldwide restaurant chain.
By Cuellar Family: Dallas' Tex-Mex Pioneers | |Photography courtesy of the Cuellar family and UNT

It all began in 1926 with Adelaida Cuellar’s authentic chili and tamales at the Kaufman County Fair. When she and her husband Marcario weren’t working their North Texas farm, she would earn extra cash by feeding fairgoers who flocked to her stand. The couple immigrated to Texas from Mexico in the early years of the 20th century, but needed more money than their small farm could produce. She soon became famous for her cooking.

The demand for her Mexican fare allowed her to save money and open a permanent café in Kaufman in 1934. Six years later, the couple’s five sons—Frank, Willie Jack, Gilbert, Alfred, and Mack—joined the endeavor, borrowing $500 and their mother’s recipe book to open an El Chico restaurant in Dallas’ Oak Lawn neighborhood. The second El Chico location was established in Lakewood in 1946, and by 1950, the family was expanding the franchise beyond Texas.

After World War II, they opened a canning facility in North Texas to bottle salsa and sauces, allowing those outside the region to enjoy the flavors of “Mama Cuellar.” The canning business was so successful that the family decided to expand the restaurant chain throughout the Southwest.

In 1960, an advertising campaign that helped transition the company to the five sons: “Like Mama-like sons. True Mexican.” The five sons were referred to from then on as “Mama’s Boys.” El Chico quickly became a Dallas tradition, and when Gilbert Cuellar Jr. introduced fajitas to Dallas in 1971, the Tex-Mex classic would go on to become Ronald Reagan’s favorite dish.

When Six Flags opened in the 1960s, families visited the sections of the park dedicated to Spain, France, The Confederacy, Texas, the United States, and Mexico. The eleventh El Chico restaurant was in the Mexico section. Visitors from all over the world visited the part, many partaking in the El Chico buffet line. Many of the ubiquitous items we know today were unknown at the time. You couldn’t find tacos, guacamole, and enchiladas in restaurants at the time.

El Chico laid the foundation of Tex-Mex restaurants in the Dallas region, with a welcoming atmosphere and delicious comfort food. From their humble beginnings working on a cotton farm in 1891, the Cuellar family established a restaurant empire that has venues in six states, plus two locations in the United Arab Emirates.   

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