The scene: In 1935, butcher Joe T. Garcia opened a barbecue stand selling smoked meats in front of his house near the stockyards in Ft. Worth, Texas. His wife made enchiladas, and the plates become very popular with local workers. But when Garcia passed away in 1953, his widow, Jessie (better known as “Mamasuez”) knew nothing about the smoker, so she abandoned meats and pressed on with her signature cheese enchilada plate.
As the restaurant’s popularity grew, so did its size, and from one small room with a handful of tables, it took over the family home, then swallowed up the backyard. Their swimming pool became a courtyard fountain, the house behind it became another courtyard, outdoor bars, private function rooms and event spaces were added, and in the 84 years since they smoked their first ribs, the Garcias’ eponymous eatery has gone from 16 seats to over 1,000. Today, the massive complex feels more like a village, and even the storage buildings in the back of the lot are painted pastel colors to look like little homes. It’s such a popular venue for birthdays, anniversaries, rehearsal dinners and weddings that the restaurant – now run by second and third-generation relatives – even bought the church across the street and turned it into Esperanza’s Bakery and Cafe, named for the founding couple’s daughter.
To call Joe T. Garcia’s iconic is a massive understatement. It is one of the most beloved, successful and colorful eateries in the nation, a must for visitors to the Fort Worth/Dallas area, while locals eat here so regularly that despite its enormous size there are often two-hour waits on weekends. You can eat inside, but the courtyard gardens, with over a thousand potted plants (they have dedicated greenhouses and a garden staff of four) are the main draw. They’re misted in summer, heated in winter, making them the perfect place to drink margaritas.
Presidents and politicians who have walked through the door include both Bushes,Bill Clinton and Henry Kissinger, while actor guests include Martin Sheen, Bill Murray, Hugh Jackman and Gwyneth Paltrow. Visiting professional athletes come in droves, especially golfers playing in Ft. Worth’s annual Colonial tournament (now called the Charles Schwab Challenge), including Tiger Woods. Visiting music acts all stop in, including Fleetwood Mac and Bob Dylan.
Reason to visit: Enchilada plate, fajita plate, margaritas
The food: The real charm of Joe T. Garcia is how frozen in time it feels, despite its near-constant evolution over the past eight decades. There are no trendy craft cocktails, just the wildly popular basic margaritas, cold beer and lots of Mexican sodas. But while the physical space has changed dramatically, the menu has not. For 27 years after Mrs. Garcia took the helm, she served only her enchilada plate, finally adding fajitas (beef, chicken or mixed) in 1980, the last major update. Waitstaff ask if you’ve been before, and if not, roll off a rehearsed welcome spiel describing the two dinner entrees.
The massive enchilada platter – listed in the menu as the family-style dinner – includes the main event, two cheese enchiladas, plus two cheese nacho appetizers, two small beef tacos, rice, beans, guacamole, corn tortillas, and a side of chips and salsa. It’s large and varied and quite tasty, especially the enchiladas. The fajitas are even better: you get delicious, large chunks of real meat, not afterthought shreds (they butcher large cuts in-house), with a luscious crispy crustiness that holds up well when rolled. But the thick, fluffy and light flour tortillas are the real stars and are made fresh daily.
Everything is plated tableside from trays and served family-style. Because Mrs. Garcia had no formal training and the menu predates the spread of Tex-Mex cuisine, she winged it, including Asian sauces in the fajita marinade, which adds to their richness and makes them notably different – and better – than most you will ever taste.
The “nachos” are also quirky: two tostadas, round, fried tortillas circles about six inches in diameter, topped with melted cheese – that’s it. Most first-time visitors used to chips heaped with cheese, meat and other toppings have never seen nachos like these.
The lunch menu is actually quite a bit broader, including flautas, tamales, chile Rellenos and a plate of five mini-beefchimichangas. Here is a secret worth knowing: while not listed, you can order most of these as appetizers at dinner too, along with extra beef tacos and more of the round nachos that come on the enchilada platter.
Pilgrimage-worthy? Yes – one of the most fun and storied restaurants in the entire country.
Rating: Yum! (Scale: Blah, OK, Mmmm, Yum!, OMG!)
Price: $-$$ ($ cheap, $$ moderate, $$$ expensive)
Details: 2201 N. Commerce Street, Ft. Worth; 817-626-4356