From January 2023
Take a San Antonio native to a Dallas Tex-Mex restaurant if you ever want to have a contentious dinner debate. You will hear all their pet theories: the ways our city’s Tex-Mex is not the same, how strange it is that a cuisine can be so much better only a few hours down the road. Have enough of these meals, and your social life will become a catalog of other people’s disappointments: bland or dry rice, timid salsas, mushy and mysterious enchilada fillings, guacamole overcrowded with ingredients, pico de gallo wilting on scalding-hot plates.
Any San Antonian will be happy to detail her demands: an atmosphere that’s more about tradition than flash, unabashedly full-flavor sauces, attention to culinary details, and a sense of the history that has entwined Texan and Mexican cultures for 200 years. Put another way: “I’ve always felt that Dallas Tex-Mex food needed a little more San Antonio,” one of my South Texan friends said as we walked into Casa Rosa, an eight-month-old Lemmon Avenue spot from the Cuellar family, Tex-Mex royalty who have been in the Dallas-area restaurant business for almost a century.
The Cuellars’ latest venture has emerged in the middle of a Tex-Mex boom in Dallas. After years in which the cuisine was beloved but unfashionable, restaurateurs of all sorts are jumping into the guacamole game. But if you ask a San Antonian—and I have—the result is too much investment in wagyu and Instagrammable decor and too little in making a good cup of charro beans.
Casa Rosa changes that.
To be clear, it is not an explicitly South Texan restaurant. It doesn’t have carne guisada, for example. But the Cuellars’ new restaurant is Tex-Mex done right by any standard. It is good but not cheffy, elegant but not stuffy, and old-school but not tired.
For one thing, it doesn’t try too hard. The decorative showpiece in this former El Fenix space is the coat of pink paint on its textured walls. (The pink napkins match.) The main dining room resembles a courtyard, with a large central skylight over a lush collection of tropical plants. Only two dishes, both steaks, top the $25 mark.
If you’ve ever felt hemmed in by the combination plates at other Tex-Mex restaurants, wishing that No. 3 came with a chicken enchilada instead of cheese, you’ll love the menu at Casa Rosa. Its combos are fully customizable. Pick two options for $16, three for $18, or four for $20, and you also get to choose any two of the nine sides.
This wouldn’t mean anything, of course, if the food wasn’t top of its class. But nearly everything is textbook: the crisp bean-and-cheese chalupa piled high with shredded veg, the vivid green cilantro rice, the cup of charro beans with generous hunks of bacon, the sprinkling of shredded cheese on refried beans cooked in bacon fat. Grilled veggies are tossed with so much black pepper that they come out darker than they did before. Both kinds of rice feature fluffy short grains. Cheese-and-onion enchiladas with chili con carne sauce prompted this review from one San Antonio native at my table: “This is so super old-school.”
Only slightly less traditional, but still delightful, is the house queso, which starts with a base of New Mexican green chile sauce. The small portion is a bowl as wide as my hand.
It’s a pleasure to tuck into sour cream enchiladas and find pickled jalapeño slices on top and seasoned chicken inside. It is even more of a pleasure to meet seafood enchiladas containing recognizable seafood—in this case, grilled shrimp and sizable chunks of redfish. It’s a delight when sizzling fajitas arrive in their trademark cloud of steam, served with house-made flour tortillas and all the fixings. The beef fajitas use tenderloin, cut against the grain for tenderness and full of the flavor of the grill. The rest of the pan is loaded up with caramelizing red and white onions and at least three colors of pepper.
Not everything is perfect in the pink house. The tortilla soup is a miss. You’ll want to dump in all the sour cream and cheese for flavor and avoid the squishy cubes of chicken. Flautitas can get greasy. Cocktails are outclassed by more modern spots like Revolver Gastro Cantina. One San Antonian who dined with me quibbled with the smoky bite of the salsa, made with fire-roasted tomatoes, onions, and garlic. I like the smoke, but it’s served cold rather than warm, in skinny jars you have to pat like an old ketchup bottle.
As for the desserts, my dinner portions were so generous that I never got to try them. There are buñuelos instead of sopaipillas, if that helps.
It’s not surprising that the Cuellars in charge here—Gilbert Jr. and his wife, Ann—have the skill to pull off some of Dallas’ most honest Tex-Mex food. They represent a family dynasty that dates back to Cuellar’s Cafe in Kaufman, Texas, which opened in 1928. Gilbert Sr. and his brothers opened the first El Chico in Dallas in 1940. Many years later, El Chico’s new corporate owners fired Gilbert Jr., and he struck out on his own, maintaining the integrity of his family’s culinary heritage. One of his most recent restaurants, El Corazón de Tejas, was a beloved staple of Oak Cliff before it was bulldozed to make way for a hideous chain pharmacy. The executive chef of El Corazón, José López, is back at Casa Rosa.
The Cuellars have done this before. Casa Rosa first opened in 1981, in the Inwood Village shopping center space now occupied by Trader Joe’s. It was Gilbert’s repudiation of what he saw even then as the corporatization of Tex-Mex. The new Casa Rosa is a full-on replica, created because the new landlord’s wife had been a regular at the original. The Cuellars agreed to re-create Casa Rosa on the condition that the building owner replicate—exactly—the skylight, the pink paint, the plants, and the two enormous paintings that once hung on the former restaurant’s wall. A construction team had to raise the ceiling to accommodate the reproduction artwork. (I asked if the original canvases are still in good shape, and Ann reminded me that people smoked cigarettes in restaurants in the 1980s.)
Gilbert recounted for me the story of his family’s Tex-Mex cooking in Dallas and the standard they have always sought to maintain. “My father had really strict rules about the ingredients that you would use: what kind of chile powder you used, what kind of beef you used for the beef tacos, how you would do the chicken. There are so many shortcuts that have been created by the big processing companies. But for our shredded chicken, we use a whole chicken breast, with the bones in, the skin on, because it has more flavor, it has more fat. It makes a product that you just can’t get elsewhere. That’s what my father took a lot of pride in: making sure that every single ingredient was the best he could get for the price.”
Gilbert told me one more relevant detail. He met Ann while they were students at Trinity University, in San Antonio. Although Casa Rosa’s recipes are time-tested Cuellar family originals, the restaurant’s atmosphere is inspired by that city’s belief that good Tex-Mex deserves an elegant setting and top-notch hospitality. Before they opened this revival, Ann and Gilbert regularly made the drive down I-35 to their longtime favorites, places such as La Fonda, Paloma Blanca, Mi Tierra, and Rosario’s.
“This isn’t just good Tex-Mex—this is good ’90s Tex-Mex. This is absolutely the food I grew up eating.”
No wonder one of my South Texan experts told me, “This isn’t just good Tex-Mex—this is good ’90s Tex-Mex. This is absolutely the food I grew up eating.”
Many Dallasites who loved the 1980s Casa Rosa will feel the same way. Like the landlord’s wife, quite a few of the new restaurant’s customers were regulars at the original.
“We are not trying to be the new darling,” Gilbert says. “There’s plenty of places that can do that.” It’s true. Dallas has a dozen Tex-Mex restaurants that are trendier, livelier, more stylish, or more luxurious. That doesn’t mean they’re better.
But you don’t need to trust me on that. I’m from the Midwest. Ask a native instead. At the end of one night’s dinner at Casa Rosa, my guest, a born and bred San Antonian, rendered the fullest judgment possible on a restaurant’s worth: “If I’m ever full of sadness and spiritual ennui, take me here.”
This story originally appeared in the January issue of D Magazine with the headline, “The Holy Enchilada.” Write to [email protected].