It is not hyperbole to say the Flower Mound location of El Chico has been very important in my life and that of my family. I have been going there since before my children were born. The first time Kelly and I ate there, we hadn’t yet bought a house in Flower Mound. We stopped in for dinner while driving around the town, getting a feel for it as we started the house-hunting process in the fall of 2001.
It cannot be understated how it affected me and the boys when it closed over a month ago, while we were in Colorado. “Where are we going to go on Thursday nights now?” our youngest asked. (More on that in a moment.) It was something Kelly and I figured was coming—again, more on that in a moment—but it still surprised me when it finally happened.
In the beginning
What cemented my relationship with the restaurant was an incident that occurred in 2003, before our oldest was born. We had been coming to get our Tex-Mex fix there often, but not yet to the point where I would consider us “regulars”. The fact was, it was the closet Tex-Mex restaurant to our then still-new house, and was easy to get to. But on that night in 2003, we walked in, and one of the cooks was turning over chicken breasts on the grill. This location had an open-to-the-public kitchen. You could literally walk right up to one of the grills, separated from it only by an eight-inch thick counter, and watch them work. The smoke generated by the turning of the chicken wafted out and over the waiting area, and my pregnant wife turned to me and said, “We have to go. Now.” And she turned around and left. I followed.
It would be months, maybe even years, before she set foot in there again. Whatever pregnancy-hormone weirdness had affected her that night imprinted a feeling of nausea on her whenever she thought about El Chico.
So I started going by myself.
Shortly after our oldest was born, I lost my job. It was the first of many rounds of layoffs to hit the newly-formed Verizon, and it was, from a financial and incentive standpoint, the best round to have been in. I miss the people I worked with, though I have managed to remain friends with a few. I don’t regret getting laid off.
For one, I became a stay-at-home dad. And that allowed me to start going to lunch at El Chico whenever I liked, which shortly became a weekly occurrence. Through the vagaries of restaurant seating priorities, I eventually came to have a regular server, Kim. It reached the point where I would either ask to be seated in her section, or she would see me walk in and seat me herself or inform the hostess to put me at one of her tables. Some times, I would be seated in her section, and the first time I would see her, she would be bringing me an iced tea and informing me she’d already put my order in. In those days, I tended to get the same dish every time I came in. The dish was called the Manzanillo on the menu. It was a crispy taco with ground beef, a cheese and onion enchilada, a chicken enchilada, and sides of Mexican rice and refried beans. This was my staple.
Years went by, and as is the case in the restaurant business, changes ensued. One was that the Manzanillo disappeared from the menu. Fear not, Kim told me, for it’s still in the computer, and the kitchen staff all still know what it is. I continued ordering it, even after Kim moved on to (hopefully) bigger and better things, and new servers were hired. “What’s that?” they would ask, confused when I ordered it. “Don’t worry,” I’d reply, “it’s in the computer.” Sure enough, they’d come back confirming it was so, and I kept getting my favorite dish.
The long-term relationship
Eventually, our oldest outgrew baby and toddler food, and we began ordering off the kids menus when we went out. It was no different at El Chico, except that on Thursdays, kids meals—the $4.99 ones—were 99 cents. Not just at night, but all day. So Thursdays became the day we ate at El Chico. My boy could get a quesadilla, rice and beans, and a beverage, all for a buck. Oh that this same child could eat so cheaply today; he’s sixteen, and has all of the appetite such an age entails for the male of the species.
This continued as Boy2 was added to the family, and because of our regularity, we got to know James, the assistant manager, and Tonya, the general manager. They celebrated birthdays with us, and the adoption and homecoming of Boy3 when that happened in 2011. The first place I wanted to go the day after we got back from Rwanda, after being on the African continent for nearly a month, was El Chico. The salsa content of my bloodstream had gotten dangerously low. Our youngest, who had had mushed avocado first in his home country, then again in Kenya while we awaited his U.S. visa, continued to eat it when we got slices at El Chico. He’s not so much into it today, at age eight, as then, but it remains, to me at least, a reminder that it was the first food I associate with Tex-Mex he ate both at his first home and his current one.
The boys grew older, started school, but every Thursday night, if we were in town and didn’t have any other engagements, we were at El Chico, where I could feed all three boys for three dollars. “Miss Tonya” would spoil them on occasion, bringing, instead of the cherry Jell-O included with their kids meals, vanilla ice cream with chocolate syrup, and not charging us extra. James would always stop by our table and check on us if he was working. We had a bevy of servers, male and female, who recognized our family on sight, and even if we weren’t in their section, would stop by to say hi. They would go out of their way to help new servers with us. It was a place of comfort for us. Tonya and James helped our Cub Scout pack sell popcorn at the car show event the restaurant sponsored. We talked about partnering on a school backpack drive for underprivileged kids, but our pack—and I take full responsibility for this—never got it off the ground.
I first met in person Paul and Greg, creators of Tweetbot and Drafts, respectively, two apps I use daily, at El Chico. Both were local to me, Paul moreso, living in the same town but on the south side while we were on the north. I invited them to lunch and to watch a WWDC keynote together, and they accepted. While not a developer myself, I was keenly interested in their take on such announcements, they having a different perspective of such than a regular user like me. This became at the least a yearly occurrence, at times one of them being unable to make it, and our being joined by other Mac nerds or developers in the area, including once or twice my friend Patrick, before he went to work for Apple, and Dave, before he went to work for Amazon.
I couldn’t tell you how many meals the hetero life mate, Brent, and I had there. When he was working at the nearby church we attended, we were easily meeting for lunch a couple of times a month. Or when he was getting a vehicle serviced at the Driver’s Edge franchise two doors down. A lot of our friendship was cemented at the tables of El Chico. Frustrations shared, advice offered (mostly by him), lots of laughter and talk of music, bands, concerts. Would the Rangers ever get a pitching staff to complement the offense? (Yes, for two glorious seasons, though they fell short of the ultimate prize.) The similarities and differences of our college experiences (LSU for me, Auburn for him, and four years before mine), mutual hatred for the Crimson Tide. Can the Stars get back to the Stanley Cup Finals? Prayers for our marriages, prayers for our kids, sharing of our children’s triumphs and failures, our spouses’ ups and downs. The two of us had great times there for the better part of a decade.
And every Thursday night, if we were in town and not otherwise engaged, the family was there for kids’ night.
The decline, and the end
When the teenager asked the other day why the restaurant closed, one of the things I told him was, “The only constants are death and change.” Nowhere is this more true than the restaurant business.
I’ll be honest: when it comes to Tex-Mex food, El Chico’s hasn’t been the tops. It’s good, but not great. I like Blue Goose’s quesadillas and brisket tacos better. I like Cristina’s salsa and rice way, way, way better. I like El Fenix’s enchiladas better. But because of its proximity, compared to all of the others, it was where we landed first and most often. At some point, the Manzanillo was removed from the computer, too. Not to worry, I was assured. I could basically order the same dish, just order a two-enchilada plate and add a taco a la carte. It was slightly more expensive than the Manzanillo had been on its own, but it was worth it to keep my dining experience the same.
About four years ago, the first signs of trouble began. The staff turnover was tremendous. They couldn’t keep anyone for long. There were a couple who stuck, like Felipe, who became one of our favorites, and was with the restaurant until the very end. (More on him in a moment, too.) There was the young lady, whose name I cannot remember, but wish I could, whose first language was Spanish, not English, though you wouldn’t know it to listen to her. She was delighted to find out Boy2 was learning Spanish in elementary school, and would work with him on pronunciation during her trips to our table. Finally, there was Sam, a friendly, affable young man who shared a first name with one of our kids. We became regulars of his, too, and our kids loved interacting with him.
Tonya told us James was in an auto accident, and the next week he was back at work, in a walking boot. The boys asked him how he was feeling every time they saw him after that. James told me stories about going out to eat with his friends, and how he more and more didn’t like going out to other restaurants. He felt he and Tonya had a great system working at this El Chico location, that that was one of the reasons it had survived for so long when other locations had closed. He could feel out how things were set up and working at other restaurants, and it wasn’t like what they had going. After those conversations with him, I could tell what he meant when we went other places.
Tonya had shoulder surgery, and our kids would ask about her and fuss over her when she came back with her arm in a sling. She asked our oldest about hockey, Boy2 about swimming, Boy3 about basketball and hip-hop. Kelly and I would ask her about her physical therapy, and getting back to “normal”. Tonya was very frustrated that she wasn’t personally operating at peak efficiency. She really cared about her restaurant, and the staff she’d been entrusted with.
It was Tonya who told us about the sale, and that she was losing her job. Corporate had decided to divest itself of underperforming locations, turning them into franchises rather than close them outright. The owner of the Cantina Laredo in nearly Lewisville bought our El Chico, and brought in a friend in the business to run it, ousting Tonya. James had seen the writing on the wall months earlier and left for greener pastures. That was two years ago.
Last year, when Patrick was in town from California, he was trying to eat out at all the places he missed from living here. One of those places was El Chico, and we met up at the Flower Mound location for a late dinner. We closed the place down, and the gracious staff allowed us some extra time to visit and catch up.
In the end, whatever had ailed our location for so long proved to be insurmountable. Sam left, and we learned from a close friend that he ended up at another restaurant, one that isn’t in danger of folding any time soon. It should allow him a steady income while he finishes school. I ran into Felipe at Cantina Laredo when I stopped in for a solo dinner after a meeting. I wasn’t put at one of his tables, but after learning we had a relationship, my server turned me over to him. He had been on his way to work the week before when the owner had called him, told him he was closing our El Chico location. But he didn’t want to lose him as a worker, and he should go to Cantina Laredo instead. Two days of training on the different menu and systems, and he was back on the floor full time.
The weekend we returned from Colorado, Paul asked me on Twitter: “Did El Chico shut down?” I told him yes, and that I was overwhelmed with grief. He replied that this had totally ruined his lunch plans. I may have used some hyperbole about being overwhelmed with grief, but the sense of loss was and remains real.
We moved two and a half years ago, a mile and a half from our old house, and there’s a year-old Tex-Mex place within walking distance we really like. The boys haven’t eaten there nearly as much as Kelly and I have. They have a kids menu, but not a kids night, and with the teenager off kids menus anyway, we have to save our pennies when it comes to going out.
I have James and Tonya’s phone numbers, back from when we were planning stuff with our old Cub Scout pack. I’ve texted with them since they each left, but it’s been months since the last communication, and I’m not sure what any of us would say now about the closing that wasn’t already said between us.
It didn’t take long for the landlord to take down the El Chico sign. It was there the weekend we got back from Colorado, and before the week was out, it was gone. Only those of us who have lived here for a certain amount of time will remember what was there.
I cannot speak for anyone else in our town, but our family will always have fond memories of it. Not because it was the closest, or the food, but because of the people who worked there, and the relationships we had with them, even if was only for an hour a week. Some will say it was just a restaurant, but for a long time it wasn’t just that for us. It was an extension of our home.