Determining the oldest Mexican restaurant in the United States requires some investigation into the history of Mexican cuisine in America. Mexican restaurants first started appearing in the US in the late 1800s as Mexican immigrants moved north looking for work. These early establishments were modest cantinas and tamale stands run by immigrant families. It wasn’t until the early 1900s that more formal Mexican restaurants began to open, eventually growing in popularity across the country thanks to Tex-Mex cuisine. So which of these pioneering restaurants lays claim to being the oldest still in operation today?
When did the first Mexican restaurants open in America?
The first Mexican restaurants and tamale stands appeared predominantly in Texas and California in the late 19th century as these states became home to the largest populations of Mexican immigrants. Cities like San Antonio and Los Angeles saw some of the earliest examples. In 1897, the famous chili queens of San Antonio were licensed to sell their spicy chili con carne from outdoor stands, which became popular dining spots. In 1905, an immigrant named Pancho opened Pancho’s Mexican Restaurant in San Antonio, believed to be the first sit-down Mexican restaurant in the area. Around the same time, Canton Mexican Cafe opened its doors in Chinatown in Los Angeles in 1887, created by immigrants from Mexico and China.
What was Tex-Mex cuisine and how did it spread?
In the early 1900s, Mexican restaurants and chili stands were still modest, small family-run operations. The concept of Tex-Mex cuisine began to take hold and popularize Mexican flavors for a wider audience. Tex-Mex incorporated aspects of Mexican food like chilies, rice, beans, and tortillas but often used ingredients like beef, cheddar cheese, and wheat flour tortillas that were more common in Texas at the time. Combinations like chili con carne, tacos, enchiladas, and nachos became Tex-Mex staples. Restaurants like El Fenix in Dallas, founded in 1918, helped make Tex-Mex mainstream. Its popularity spread beyond Texas and across the country in the mid-1900s.
When did Mexican restaurants expand across America?
Following World War II, Mexican restaurants began to expand beyond the Southwest, spearheaded by restaurant chains and entrepreneurs who introduced Mexican cuisine to new parts of the country. Larry Cano founded El Torito in 1954 in Los Angeles, growing it into a chain. Glen Bell launched Taco Bell in 1962 in California, while brothers Bill and Frank Carney brought Tex-Mex to the Midwest when they opened the first Taco John’s in Cheyenne, Wyoming in 1969. Mexican fast food and casual dining chains made the cuisine ubiquitous across America by the 1970s and 1980s. During this time period, fine dining establishments like Rick Bayless’ Frontera Grill also emerged, earning Mexican food recognition in the culinary world.
Which pioneering Mexican restaurants may contend for oldest?
Given this history, which specific Mexican restaurants have a credible claim on being the oldest still operating today? Here are some of the top contenders based on opening year:
- El Charro Cafe (Tucson, AZ) – 1922
- Casa Gallardo (San Antonio, TX) – 1932
- El Cholo Spanish Cafe (Los Angeles, CA) – 1934
- Mico’s Hot Tacos (San Antonio, TX) – 1936
- Mitla Cafe (San Bernadino, CA) – 1937
- El Fenix (Dallas, TX) – 1918
These restaurants opened their doors between the early 1900s to the 1930s and still continue operating today, nearly a century later. They laid the groundwork for Mexican cuisine’s popularity across the country.
Which restaurant has strongest claim as the oldest?
Based on the evidence, El Charro Cafe in Tucson, Arizona has the strongest credibility for being the oldest Mexican restaurant in the United States that is still in business.
Key facts supporting its status:
- El Charro was opened in 1922 by Monica Flin, an immigrant from Northern Mexico.
- It is said to be the first Mexican restaurant in Tucson and pioneered the chimichanga.
- The cafe has operated continuously at its original downtown location since its founding.
- Monica’s daughter Carlotta Flores continued expanding the business over decades.
- El Charro remains family-owned by the fourth generation of the Flores family.
With its nearly 100 year history spanning four generations, El Charro Cafe appears to have the strongest case and documentation as being the continuously operating Mexican restaurant in America.
How El Charro revolutionized Mexican cuisine
Beyond its history and longevity, El Charro was influential and innovative in shaping Mexican food culture in America through contributions like:
- Creating the chimichanga – Monica Flin is credited with accidentally inventing the now iconic deep-fried chimichanga burrito at the cafe.
- Popularizing Mexican food outside the Southwest – Its expansion helped introduce Mexican cuisine to diners across the country over time.
- Family-style dining – Its large platters for sharing paved the way for Mexican food as a communal, family dining experience.
- Upscale ambiance – Its expansive hacienda decor elevated Mexican dining to be finer and more sophisticated.
El Charro brought together the traditional recipes of its Mexican founder with American influences to create an iconic Southwestern food culture that became beloved nation-wide.
How El Charro Cafe carries on today
Now almost 100 years later, El Charro continues building on its long legacy as the oldest Mexican eatery in America:
- The cafe remains in operation at its original downtown Tucson location.
- It has expanded to multiple locations across Arizona but is still family-owned and run.
- The menu features classic Mexican and Southwest fare like tacos, enchiladas, tamales, and of course chimichangas.
- Its expansive hacienda-style decor and aura of history remain unchanged.
For both locals and tourists alike, El Charro is a culinary and cultural institution in Tucson that stands as a testament to the long journey of Mexican food in America.
Other pioneering old Mexican restaurants
While El Charro has the earliest founding date, it’s worth noting a few other pioneering Mexican eateries that also contend for oldest restaurant:
Casa Gallardo (San Antonio, TX)
- Founded in 1932 by Mexican immigrants Enrique and Tootsie Gallardo.
- Originally a small taco shop, it grew to a San Antonio Tex-Mex chain.
- Claims to have popularized puffy tacos in the area.
- Still has two original branch locations operating today.
El Cholo Spanish Cafe (Los Angeles, CA)
- First opened in 1926 by Salvador and Soledad Rodriquez.
- Expanded across LA and claims to be the area’s oldest Mexican restaurant.
- Known for early menu items like chile rellenos and guacamole prepared tableside.
- Remains popular today with its classic Mexican-American dishes.
Both Casa Gallardo and El Cholo have nearly a century of history delivering Tex-Mex cuisine in their local communities as early pioneers in the restaurant industry.
In conclusion, while many excellent Mexican restaurants across America have lengthy histories, El Charro Cafe in Tucson, Arizona has the strongest case for being considered the country’s oldest, continuously-operating Mexican restaurant.
Founded in 1922 by Monica Flin, an immigrant who invented the chimichanga, El Charro brought Mexican cuisine to Arizona diners and popularized it across the country. Now entering its second century, the cafe remains family-owned and continues upholding its legacy as a culinary and cultural institution.
Other venerable restaurants like Casa Gallardo and El Cholo also represent important milestones in Mexican-American cuisine. But none quite match El Charro’s tenure and long-standing impact. When seeking out an authentic taste of history, El Charro’s original downtown Tucson location offers customers a uniquely time-honored dining experience drawing on generations of traditions.