We mentioned “goodbye” to numerous restaurants over the past 20 months. Some of these restaurants had simply discovered their stride, and others had operated for many years. Losing some beloved institutions bolstered an thought we had been contemplating for a pair of years. We needed to honor long-running restaurants which have made a major contribution to the culinary scene and tradition of Austin. So we determined to create the Austin360 Restaurant Hall of Fame.
Each of the 5 inaugural inductees have been in enterprise for at the least 20 years and have come to assist outline Austin as a meals metropolis. We will induct a number of annually, as we proceed to honor our previous, have fun our current and dream about our future.
Matt’s El Rancho
Matt Martinez would stand exterior of his El Rancho restaurant on East First Street (now Cesar Chavez Street) in downtown Austin hoping to draw potential diners with an irresistible provide: If they didn’t like their meal, Martinez would give them their a reimbursement.
Almost 70 years later, arguably Austin’s most well-known Tex-Mex restaurant has no bother drawing clients. The huge restaurant on South Lamar might have its personal ZIP code, and weekend waits for one of the greater than 500 seats usually spill from the restaurant’s polished picket doorways.
Martinez and his spouse, Janie, opened their unique 40-seat restaurant in 1952, shifting it just a few years later throughout the road to the present web site of the Four Seasons earlier than shifting it to it to South Lamar in 1986. Janie ready the dishes she discovered from her mom and grandmother and Matt patrolled the entrance of the home, greeting newcomers and common clients like household.
Janie was initially intimidated to prepare dinner for paying clients, in line with the couple’s three daughters, however, “Dad said, ‘Cook just like you do at home for me and the children,’” daughter Cathy Kreitz mentioned.
The unique menu included plate lunches with dishes like rooster fried steak, meatloaf, mashed potatoes, black-eyed peas and cornbread. Initially there have been only some Tex-Mex dishes, however these choices grew as buyer demand elevated.
Matt, an Army veteran and former Golden Gloves champion, died in 2003, and Janie died 10 years later. Their three daughters, Kreitz, Gloria Reyna and Cecilia Muela — who grew up within the household restaurant and hung out working there, formally and unofficially — proceed their dad and mom’ legacy as homeowners, together with their sister-in-law Estella Martinez, widow of their late brother, Matt Jr.
The sisters credit score their wonderful staff of about 200 staff and the teachings they discovered about hospitality from their dad and mom as the principle causes for his or her success.
Matt Martinez instructed the American-Statesman in 1984 that individuals who got here to his restaurant as youngsters had been bringing of their youngsters. Those individuals are probably now bringing of their grandchildren, because the restaurant thrives like few others on the town on a multigenerational clientele.
“I feel very blessed to have been here and seen two or three generations of families who have been eating with us. It’s incredible to see and to experience. As you’re walking around and people are talking to you, you can just feel the love they have for this place,” Reyna mentioned.
(2613 S. Lamar Blvd. 512-462-9333, mattselrancho.com)
Saying Ronald Cheng grew up in restaurants shouldn’t be a determine of speech. The founder of Chinatown was raised in a cramped home on Burnet Road that his mom, Linda Cheng, transformed into a restaurant known as Sisters in 1970.
Sisters was the definition of house cooking. Linda Cheng reworked the master suite into a five-table eating room and cooked from the household kitchen, the place Ronald and his sister, Freda, who now owns Freda’s Seafood Grille in Cedar Park, washed dishes. Those early years had been formative for younger Ronald, who would watch his mom stroll to the shop day by day to obtain groceries for her restaurant and household.
“To see her stroll on daily basis and to hold two massive luggage full of groceries on daily basis, to climb that hill, after which go house by herself on daily basis to prepare dinner, after which take care of three youngsters and rise up within the morning and work all day and all evening, it taught me the lesson about working arduous,” Cheng mentioned.
Ronald finally made his approach from dishwasher to server to fry prepare dinner. By 19, he was working the road at Sisters and cooking together with his mom’s wok. His mom was not his solely trainer. Some of the Chinese immigrants who got here to Austin after arriving on ships within the Houston port, in line with Ronald Cheng, had been “master chefs.”
As a teen, Ronald slowly gleaned info from these masters. But they had been reluctant to share all of their data. In an early signal of his enterprise savvy, Ronald mentioned he would function a de facto tour information to some of the extra infamous points of ’70s Austin nightlife in change for studying the deepest secrets and techniques of these males’s sauces and makes use of of spice to construct taste.
After graduating from the University of Texas with a level in worldwide enterprise, Ronald Cheng briefly ran the Sisters earlier than a sojourn to Houston, the place he studied beneath the tutelage of legendary chef Peng Chang-kuei, the person credited with creating General Tso’s rooster.
Ronald Cheng returned to Austin with a number of of Peng’s cooks and opened the unique Chinatown on Bee Cave Road in 1983, serving dishes like beef and broccoli and moo goo gai pan whereas frequently adjusting to what Cheng describes as a “stagnate American palate.” That restaurant later modified fingers earlier than Cheng rebooted it in 2014.
Following the opening of his unique restaurant and pushed by an ambition he credit to his mom, Cheng operated a number of conventional and fusion restaurants round city beneath the Chinatown model, together with Chinatown Grill, Chinatown Café, El Chino and Chinois. Cheng says the flagship location he opened off MoPac in 1987 is the longest-running Chinese restaurant in Austin.
Cheng, who even when battling well being considerations is a daily presence at his restaurants, credit his success to “diligence of details, everything from how you manage the property, to how you manage your food, and how you take care of your guests.”
They are classes he says he discovered from his 90-year-old mom, who stays a vocal presence in her son’s life, by no means shy to offer her opinion however all the time understanding of the drive to ship hospitality.
“I believe he is loopy. Restaurants are such arduous work. Our household can not help it although — it is what we do,” mentioned Linda Cheng. “In our tradition, feeding individuals is an providing of love and respect.”
(3407 Greystone Drive. 512-343-9307; 2712 Bee Cave Road, Suite 124, austinchinatown.com)
Mark Nemir cracks sensible and paints his phrases with self-effacement in a twangy, Central Texas drawl when requested why he purchased iconic campus-area restaurant Dirty Martin’s in 1989.
“I was stupid,” the frosty-haired Nemir says with half a chuckle.
The reply, of course, is extra difficult than that. And extra deeply rooted.
The native Austinite’s grandfather, Stuart Nemir Sr., purchased the property in 1936 and ran a burger joint there from 1944 to 1954.
John Martin initially opened the restaurant then generally known as Martin’s KumBack in 1928, the phonetic spelling a bit of folksy advertising. The restaurant had a mud ground, inspiring the nickname Dirty’s, till concrete was lastly poured within the Nineteen Fifties.
The identify mutated just a few occasions, and KumBack even stays on the outside.
Is it Dirty’s? Dirty Martin’s? Martin’s KumBack?
“We don’t even know the name of the place to be honest with you,” Nemir says, once more shading his wit with the reality.
The Anderson High School and Southwest Texas State University graduate determined to stroll away from his small excavation enterprise and buy the restaurant from longtime proprietor Cecil Pickens in 1989. More than a decade later, Nemir purchased the land from his household, a purchase order that has helped guarantee Dirty Martin’s survival throughout lean financial occasions and the coronavirus pandemic.
Nemir was sensible sufficient to not mess with a great factor. The juicy burgers are nonetheless cooked on a flattop and served on a bun toasted shortly by that grill. Produce arrives recent and is lower in home. And not solely has the menu barely modified — although rooster wings and queso had been added 16 years in the past and a chargrilled rooster breast sandwich in 2013 — Nemir saved the identical laidback, pleasant vibe that made the place beloved for many years. Even some of the faces didn’t change for ages.
Margie Alexander labored at Dirty Martin’s for many years till she turned 80 in 2003; Wesley Hughes served from 1956 to 2009, and his brother and fellow longtime worker, J.T., allegedly created Austin’s first bacon cheeseburger; and automotive hop Doc Mallard was a fixture on the restaurant from 1947 to 1993. His tenure spanned three homeowners. All of their photos nonetheless line the partitions of the restaurant.
Those individuals, as a lot because the burgers and fries, gave the restaurant its character and attraction. And that custom of a family-like employees continues with staff like Valentine Franco, who has labored at Dirty Martin’s for 23 years.
“People like working here and they’re proud to work here,” Nemir mentioned.
People additionally like going there, together with University of Texas college students and alumni each well-known and not-so. Earl Campbell has been a Dirty’s fan because the Nineteen Seventies, even elevating cash for Mallard throughout a time of want. The late Cedric Benson and present star Bijan Robinson adopted within the legendary operating again’s footsteps as regulars. And members of the 1969 nationwide championship staff nonetheless are available collectively a pair of occasions a yr.
Nemir was sensible sufficient to ask for assist when he wanted it. A number of years in the past, Nemir introduced on Daniel Young, a veteran of the polished AT&T Executive Education and Conference Center who has been going to Dirty Martin’s since he was a child within the Eighties. Young oversaw the addition of a full bar — an grownup cherry limeade seems to be the right beverage to take pleasure in with a bacon cheeseburger — and the enclosure of the again room, which has turn out to be a well-liked internet hosting area for big teams, catered occasions, events and climate-controlled soccer watching. Those modifications have seen Dirty Martin’s gross sales double since Young arrived and set the course for the restaurant to be round for many years to come back.
“He has the passion and the skill set I never had,” Nemir mentioned, his self-effacement and humility popping up as soon as extra.
(2808 Guadalupe St. 512-477-3173, dirtymartins.com)
Fonda San Miguel
To put a twist on a Texcentric phrase, Tom Gilliland wasn’t born in Mexico, however he received there as quick as he might. Actually, the Nebraskan was conceived in Texas’ neighbor to the south, however that’s one other story for an additional day.
Gilliland’s decades-long love affair with the artwork, delicacies and tradition of Mexico started when he first visited Mexico City as a University of Texas regulation pupil in 1967.
Before he helped revolutionize Austinites’ understanding of Mexican delicacies, Gilliland and his good friend, the late chef Miguel Ravago, operated San Angel in Houston. That restaurant lasted only some years, but it surely did introduce the enterprise companions to Mexican culinary professional Diana Kennedy, who visited San Angel the yr it opened, 1972, which occurred to coincide with the yr she launched her seminal ebook “The Cuisines of Mexico.” The authority on Mexican cooking would go on to be a mentor and good friend of Gilliland and Ravago for many years.
Given how arduous it may well generally be to snag a reservation on the Allandale temple to Mexican artwork and gastronomy, it’s arduous to think about individuals getting up and strolling away from their tables, however that’s precisely what occurred within the early days of Fonda San Miguel, which the companions named after the Mexican metropolis of San Miguel de Allende.
When Austinites thought of Mexican meals within the Nineteen Seventies, they often thought of the shredded lettuce, orange cheese and refried beans related to Tex-Mex. That’s not what Gilliland and Ravago, who died of most cancers in 2017, had in thoughts.
They had been set on introducing diners to the regional cuisines of Puebla, Oaxaca, Veracruz and Yucatan. That meant cochinita pibil, moles and chile rellenos. It additionally meant no chips and salsa. The homeowners would quickly bend to the financial realities of their setting and made a concession on the chips and salsa.
The early years had been a battle not simply to persuade locals to broaden their minds and palates; even discovering components like black beans and chilies required work, with Fonda San Miguel having to import many of their very own Mexican components. But Gilliland and Ravago refused to take shortcuts.
“I’ve always wanted to do things authentically,” Gilliland mentioned.
Fonda San Miguel broke floor in some ways. In a culinary world more and more obsessive about “modern Mexican cuisine,” it could be arduous to think about now, however there was a time when even professed lovers of Mexican delicacies did not know what huitlacoche or hoja santa had been. Ravago and Gilliland did. And they’d finally develop their very own backyard on web site so they might supply their very own hoja santa, amongst different herbs and greens.
The companions additionally opened the restaurant in what was on the time a far-flung half of city not generally known as a eating vacation spot. And they utilized a stage of care to their inside design, full with carved picket doorways, hand-painted tiles, unique vegetation and murals, that was unheard of for a restaurant serving Mexican meals in Texas.
Gilliland, who factors to an extremely loyal buyer base, superb employees and the teachings Ravago handed on that dwell on by means of the restaurant’s present staff because the keys to his restaurant’s success, sees his position at Fonda San Miguel as that of a head coach. The native Nebraskan, whose restaurant in all probability hosts as many well-heeled UT alumni as any restaurant on the town, cites the faculty teaching titans of his house state and adopted house state as inspirations.
“Osborne and Royal constructed packages based mostly on greater than successful. That was my aim with Fonda San Miguel, too,” Gilliland mentioned. “I needed our concepts to be sustainable, forward-thinking and out of doors the field — issues Texas had by no means seen earlier than. Under Osborne’s and Royal’s route, the Nebraska and UT sports activities packages achieved exceptional success, however they had been solely a small half of it. That’s precisely how I really feel about Fonda San Miguel. All I do is present instruments, assist the crew uncover their passions, instill values, and, then, allow them to race towards their personal targets.”
The restaurant, which has hosted internationally well-known cooks like Enrique Olvera of Mexico City’s Pujol and produced cooks who’ve gone on to open their very own Mexican restaurants (Ahmad Modoni of Manuel’s and Alma Alcocer-Thomas of El Alma), has been acknowledged nationally as one of the innovators in altering the notion of Mexican meals not simply in Texas, however throughout the nation. And a metropolis that was as soon as skeptical of the restaurant now treasures it as one of its exemplary gems.
Austin didn’t initially get Fonda San Miguel, but it surely received there as quick because it might.
(2330 W. North Loop Blvd. 512-459-4121, fondasanmiguel.com)
“Grateful, hopeful, prayerful.”
Text or electronic mail Hoover Alexander and people are the phrases you’ll nearly definitely hear on the finish of his message in response. He additionally usually turns to that trinity of descriptors in informal dialog.
“I think it’s an accumulation of living and an evolution of really appreciating life,” Hoover says of his conversational valediction. “Appreciating the moment, living in the now. Appreciating the road I’ve traveled and looking in the rearview mirror just long enough to appreciate and remember where you come from, but don’t get stuck in the rearview mirror too long; look forward, so you don’t make the wrong turn.”
The lifelong Austinite and graduate of Austin High brings that very same expansiveness and soulfulness to his understanding of meals and what it may well do to deliver individuals collectively.
“My mission goes beyond preparing food. It’s about creating memories,” Hoover mentioned. “That gives me joy in an indescribable way.”
Hoover grew up in East Austin on an unpaved Maple Avenue, lower than a mile from his restaurant on Manor Road. The first in his rural household born within the metropolis, Hoover’s earliest meals reminiscences had been standing by the range watching his mom prepare dinner.
“I didn’t know the boy was paying attention,” Hoover says his mom, Dorothy Winston, likes to joke.
Hoover wasn’t simply conscious of the tip product. He additionally fondly remembers going to the household farm in Utley about 25 miles away and choosing peas, melons and greens. Farm-to-table was merely a approach of life for him and his household.
“I just grew up with good cooking and thought that’s what everybody was exposed to,” Hoover mentioned.
Hoover was a 19-year-old pupil on the University of Texas in 1973 when he started his restaurant profession on the legendary Night Hawk working for Harry Akin, the primary Austinite to combine each the client and staffing sides of a restaurant. Hoover began washing dishes and labored his approach up by means of each place, finally rising to administration throughout his 10 years on the restaurant.
His profession would take him to Toulouse, Chez Fred and Good Eats Café over the subsequent 16 years earlier than fellow Night Hawk alumni Vernon O’Rourke instructed Hoover that he would associate with him to assist Hoover understand his longtime dream of opening Hoover’s Cooking.
The Texas consolation meals restaurant served as a group of Hoover’s life and profession, pulling from the meat tradition of West Texas, seafood of the Gulf coast, smoking traditions of Central Texas, Cajun flavors of East Texas, and the soul meals and Tex-Mex of his youth.
The companions had appeared all over the place for a possible area, from Hutto to Corpus Christi, when the situation on Manor Road, which lengthy served as a dividing line between white and Black neighborhoods, fell into their laps in 1998. Hoover, whose expertise with racial stress in Austin included a senior yr of highschool when one-way busing started in 1971, attributed the chance to what he calls “the Divine Stirring of the Pudding.”
“When I realized the meaningfulness of ending up on Manor Road, this dividing line, and an opportunity to bring people together, I couldn’t have drawn the script any better,” Hoover mentioned. “Our restaurant on Manor Road was one of the truly integrated eating places. To bring people together — Democrats, Republicans, all the different races. For me it’s a continuation from the legacy of Night Hawk and what I witnessed in my years at Good Eats Café and to continue that piece of Austin and the meaningfulness of bringing disparate folks together to break bread and hopefully appreciate each other for what we have in common. I’m doing what I’m supposed to be doing.”
Hoover stays grateful, hopeful and prayerful.
(2002 Manor Road. 512-479-5006, hooverscooking.com)