Martinez handed operations over to his children after World War II, and the family expanded the chain to a total of 15 units during their tenure at the helm of El Fenix.
Some things changed, of course. The construction of Woodall Rodgers Freeway in 1965 shuttered the original location (and the adjacent ballroom) on McKinney Avenue, and the introduction of a discounted plate with two cheese enchiladas, rice, and beans catapulted El Fenix from burgeoning brand to Dallas icon, forever changing how the city ate on Wednesdays. And in 2008, Dallas-based Firebird Restaurant Group acquired America's oldest continuously operating Tex-Mex chain in a $30 million, all-cash deal—but promised not to mess with their fellow Texans’ favorite foods.
But, as Firebird’s senior vice president of operations Tim Schroder will attest, the new management team did attempt a few alterations. They added new food items like carnitas and brisket and tested different drinks to attract the next generation of diners, but when recipes were changed even slightly, Dallas responded swiftly and clearly.
“There were one or two recipes where we thought we were being clever, and we made a couple small tweaks to get the product out quicker. We heard our customers loud and clear and changed it right back,” Schroder says. “So since then we’ve done everything we can to stay true to the roots and the heritage of the original El Fenix. We’re still serving the same recipes today that they did 100 years ago.“
To El Fenix and its fans, the centennial and the history behind it mean as much as the tacos. Schroder estimates that 20 percent of customers that send feedback to the restaurant say they’ve been eating at El Fenix for more than half a century. He says it’s not uncommon for sexagenarian loyalists to dine at one of the 22 locations.