What can you say when you lose an institution?
El Charro restaurants closed their doors at their original (No. 1) and the Fifth Street and Loop 323 location (No. 2) last week.
For people from the Tyler area, this will mark the end of many El Charro memories.
More importantly, it also will mark the end of many memories for the Ramirez family. My heart is with them, knowing it must have been extremely painful to close the door on 69 years of family tradition.
Textbooks will tell you most family businesses don’t make it past the third generation. We will talk more about that later.
For now, the memories are simply flooding me.
As a child, I didn’t like the place. It had to do with some tacos that just didn’t taste so good. But then something happened, and the place began to grow on me. It wasn’t only because once you had left the place, you could still smell it on your clothes for hours. I fell in love with guacamole. There was something about it that was consistent and flavorful.
Then it was the cheese enchiladas. The onions were proportioned perfectly and the dish was flavorful. Then it was the hot sauce. I couldn’t get enough of the stuff.
Finally, the bean and cheese nachos were my undoing. My routine had become pretty set by age 15 to get a slice of a nacho and jalapeno with a dollop of guacamole and top it all with a spoonful of hot sauce and a dash of salt. It was a wonderful meal.
Once my driver’s license was secured, I can’t recall any place I wished more to get to (other than my grandparents’ homes) so I could fully enjoy my freedom.
My friend Trey Snider and I would go often to enjoy meals there as teens. When we left for college, Trey once brought some of his friends from Houston to enjoy the place. They didn’t get it. In fact, they were deeply critical. We were highly offended.
We pondered the tragedy of the impact on such youths of growing up in a metropolis such as Houston. Could it have tainted their palates and their judgment so deeply they could not appreciate our beloved restaurant? We took great pity upon them.
It was a family affair as well. My extended Clyde family members loved the place. We enjoyed many multi-generational meals there together. We had as many as four generations together at once from time to time.
In the old days, before they served alcohol at the place, some customers were known to bring their scotch in leftover miniature bottles from airline flights. They would go to great lengths to discreetly pour their drinks without making other denizens aware of their schemes.
It was pretty entertaining watching 60-somethings, who ran the town, sneak around with their liquor. Young Gilbert knew the drill and would wink at the patrons with the knowing glance of a doorman at a speakeasy.
It seemed the same people always were there on the same nights. Sunday night always was a big night. I recently asked Angel’s daughter at Don Juan’s what night of the week is their biggest. It’s Sunday.
The biggest insider deal of the whole enchilada was a scheme my grandfather cooked up with the Ramirez boys at the No. 2 restaurant.
They had the best chicken fried steak in town for a long time (although Jerry Loggins and Rick Eltife might rightly take exception to that claim. It may be time for a throw-down). It just stood to reason anything else they fried also would be delicious. Who knows? Maybe they had second-generation oil in the fryer.
My grandfather would bring a mess of quail to the place and get Gus and Gilbert to fry them. When they emerged from the kitchen with the platters of golden fried quail, my grandfather’s eyes would light up, and then he would make sure everyone at the table had more than enough.
It gave him great joy, and I am grateful the guys indulged him even though Brenda Elrod (restaurant inspector at the Smith County Public health district) would have probably had a case of the vapors about the whole thing and shut them down for it.
It was those little things that made the place special.
Family businesses come and go, and it is sad when they move on before we are ready. For the sake of the Ramirez family, it is my hope they all begin new traditions and let the past stay in the past.
A new day is ahead for them, and I wish them the best of what the future offers and thank them for all the times they made my family feel special and my tummy pleased.
My book club members will be happy to know that Jamie only required 12 stitches from his lake accident last week. He is fine.