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John McBride: The Last of the El Fenix Line

The El Vecino founder has learned from three generations of restaurateurs, but the legacy may end with him.
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John McBride
McBride once toyed with the idea of pursuing journalism, before returning to restaurants. Sean Berry

John McBride couldn’t outrun his roots. The fourth-generation leader descends from El Fenix founder Miguel Martinez, but as a young adult, he wanted to be a journalist. “That pen sitting next to that blank piece of paper; it was so stressful, and I just couldn’t do it,” he says. The founder of El Vecino, a Tex-Mex restaurant near White Rock, eventually married and moved to New York. There, he ran his first eatery, drawing on years of watching his grandmother, Irene Martinez Garcia, lead of marketing for Dallas’ oldest Tex-Mex chain. “She was ahead of her time,” McBride says. 

Martinez Garcia oversaw El Fenix’s NorthPark location in the 1960s. McBride remembers spending the night at her home, where she would rise early and grab the newspaper and El Fenix stationery. She would scan the paper for clips announcing promotions, nuptials, and relocations and write people congratulator letters signed, “The Martinez Family.” 

“It was primitive marketing back then,” McBride says. “Years later, when I was working in the stores, people would hear from the waiter or the manager that I was Irene’s grandson, and they’d say, ‘The next time we come, we are going to bring you the letter that your grandmother wrote us years ago.’” He also watched his father, a third-generation restaurateur, rise at 5 a.m. to work in El Fenix’s food prep warehouse. “You learn early on that it is a full-time job,” McBride says. “So, I wasn’t blind going into it.”

After El Fenix, he worked for Andrews Restaurants, the group behind Chelsea’s Corner in Uptown, and realized his true calling. He always dreamed of opening a Tex-Mex restaurant in New York City, so a few years later, he and his wife sold their cars and made the jump. He started as a nightshift manager at an American restaurant, where he met a 19-year-old chef from Guerrero, Mexico, Charley Cid, who became his career-long business partner (see sidebar). The duo’s first concept was a Tex-Mex joint called Enchilada Johnny’s. “I was the second-biggest user of Velveeta cheese in New York City in 1993,” McBride says with a laugh. He also sold a lot of Dr Pepper, drawing a large Texan following. 

He opened a second Tex-Mex concept in 1997, before returning to Dallas in 2004. By then, El Fenix had grown to 15 locations, and his relatives were looking to sell. McBride interviewed 16 suitors and found a match in Mike Karns of Firebird Restaurant Group, in 2008. “It was time,” McBride says. He signed a five-year noncompete but knew he would one day return to Tex-Mex.

When his noncompete expired, McBride opened El Vecino in 2017, blending what he calls “comfortable Mexican” décor with affordable prices and a solid menu. “Those are the things that you can do, and then you’ve got to cross your fingers,” he says. “You can take this same concept, and you could put it on Travis and Knox, or you could put it in Frisco, and it might not work, but it works really well here.”

McBride found out the hard way. He opened an El Vecino on Travis and Knox in 2018, but it did not resonate with neighborhood customers and eventually shuttered. “The hardest thing is to either sell a restaurant or to walk out on a restaurant, because you believe, and you put all your money into it,” he says. He knows he has a good thing going at his remaining restaurant, and says it will be his last. Although he loves the business, it’s not easy. McBride says he doesn’t want the industry challenges and lack of work-life balance for his two daughters, so the El Fenix family legacy likely will end with him. “There’s a lot of personal sacrifice you have to make if you live the restaurant industry,” he says.

A Collaboration Born In NYC

In a perfect Tex-Mex match, John McBride (second from right, above with his family) met his head chef, Charley Cid, when they both worked at a fine-dining restaurant in New York City. “It didn’t take me long to say, ‘If I ever get my Mexican restaurant off the ground, this is the guy I’m going to take with me,” McBride says. The duo opened two concepts together in New York and three in Dallas. Hard times and a fierce work ethic have cemented the partnership. “The bottom line is we are both workers,” McBride says. “We have a lot of war stories—when people hadn’t shown up for work, when we’ve had to handle opening up on New Year’s Day because all our cooks were still drunk, when we were 10 times busier than we thought we would be, and he had to go to the front to help or I had to go to the back to help.”

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Kelsey Vanderschoot

Kelsey Vanderschoot

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Kelsey J. Vanderschoot came to Dallas by way of Napa, Los Angeles, and Madrid, Spain. A former teacher, she joined…
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