Working at El Chico was a life-changing experience. I was only 5 years old—a little 3-foot-3 brown boy in an apron—when I started as a buser and dishwasher in 1962. My mom was a cashier, and my dad was an assistant manager. I could barely reach the glasses on the table, but nobody seemed to mind.
Mama Cuellar made her mark by selling tamales at the Kaufman County Fair. She saved up her money and opened a tiny spot in town. She had five sons: Frank Sr., Mack, Alfred, Gilbert, and Willie Jack. By the time I was working there, they were pretty famous in Dallas. Everybody knew them as “Mama’s Boys.” They didn’t have to work in their restaurants anymore, and they spent all of their time just going from El Chico to El Chico and doing quality control. I remember all five of them coming into the restaurant when I was working. They were larger than life. They all wore tall cowboy hats and boots. They were saints to me. I was shaking in my shoes.
But everyone adored them because they treated us like family. They spent time talking to all of us, and they encouraged us to be brave and learn English. I felt like I belonged and could move up as I grew older.
Mi Cocina and Mesero are based on El Chico—the culture, not the food. In fact, El Chico and Mama Cuellar created the blueprint for the Tex-Mex business in Dallas. That’s because so many restaurant owners worked there at one time in their life. Because of the nurturing culture at El Chico back then, customers today expect good food and warm, ingratiating service when they eat at a Tex-Mex restaurant in Dallas.