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El Fenix in Dallas is 100 Years Old

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Miguel (Mike) Martinez, founder of El Fenix, was born in 1890 in Hacienda del Potrero, Nuevo León, Mexico. He spent his early life in Mexico, where he started working for two cents a day as a silver-mine mule-train driver when he was seven years old to assist his widowed mother, who worked as a maid. In 1911, a year after the Mexican Revolution broke out, Martinez left Mexico for Dallas, Texas, where he found work as a laborer with the Dallas Railway and Terminal Company and as a dishwasher at the Oriental Hotel, a photo of which I posted yesterday. That photo was taken in 1912, when Martinez was working at the Oriental.

Miguel often also held down a third job making ice-cream cones or doing relief work at a local pool hall. He met Faustina Porras, also a Mexican immigrant, in Dallas, and they were married in 1915. They reared eight children. In 1918 they opened the Martinez Cafe, a one-room eatery on McKinney Street in "Little Mexico," the Mexican barrio. With the founding of the restaurant, they were among the first Texas Mexican entrepreneurs in the city. Initially, the cafe served only American dishes, but later Martinez, on the advice of friends, began offering Mexican cuisine; he was possibly the first restaurateur in Dallas to do so. One account notes that Martinez initiated the restaurant's specialization in Mexican food with an enchilada recipe from Mexico and a chili recipe from Texas, thus becoming the original pioneer of Tex-Mex food in Dallas.

In 1922, Miguel enlarged the cafe, renamed it El Fenix, and changed its menu to an exclusively Mexican one. He also painted the restaurant bright red, green, and yellow-El Fenix's trademark colors. The Martinez children worked in the restaurant as soon as they were tall enough to "stand up at the sink." Some sources assert that Martinez pioneered the "Mexican combination plate," with beans, a tamale, an enchilada, and rice. His daughter Irene suggested it was a move to save on dishwashing. El Fenix continued to prosper through the decades, although in 1942 it was closed one day a week due to food shortages caused by wartime rationing. In 1946 Martinez turned El Fenix over to his children. By 1953 they had three restaurants in the city.

Shown here: the Joe Azcona Band plays in the El Fenix ballroom in the 1940s. Photo courtesy the Dallas Mexican American Historical League.


The Joe Azcona band at El Fenix in Dallas 1940s Dallas Mexican American Historical League.jpg

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