5 classic Austin restaurants inducted into our new Austin360 Restaurant Hall of Fame
Our inaugural class is a collection of restaurants that capture the spirit, personality and flavor of Austin
We said "goodbye" to countless restaurants over the last 20 months. Some of those restaurants had just found their stride, and others had operated for decades. Losing some beloved establishments reinforced an idea we had been considering for a couple of years. We wanted to honor long-running restaurants that have made a significant contribution to the culinary scene and culture of Austin. So we decided to create the Austin360 Restaurant Hall of Fame.
Each of the five inaugural inductees have been in business for at least 20 years and have come to help define Austin as a food city. We will induct several each year, as we continue to honor our past, celebrate our present and dream about our future.
Matt's El Rancho
Matt Martinez would stand outside of his El Rancho restaurant on East First Street (now Cesar Chavez Street) in downtown Austin hoping to attract potential diners with an irresistible offer: If they didn’t like their meal, Martinez would give them their money back.
Almost 70 years later, arguably Austin’s most famous Tex-Mex restaurant has no trouble drawing customers. The massive restaurant on South Lamar could have its own ZIP code, and weekend waits for one of the more than 500 seats often spill from the restaurant’s polished wooden doors.
Martinez and his wife, Janie, opened their original 40-seat restaurant in 1952, moving it a few years later across the street to the current site of the Four Seasons before moving it to it to South Lamar in 1986. Janie prepared the dishes she learned from her mother and grandmother and Matt patrolled the front of the house, greeting newcomers and regular customers like family.
Janie was initially intimidated to cook for paying customers, according to the couple’s three daughters, but, “Dad said, ‘Cook just like you do at home for me and the children,’” daughter Cathy Kreitz said.
The original menu included plate lunches with dishes like chicken fried steak, meatloaf, mashed potatoes, black-eyed peas and cornbread. Initially there were only a few Tex-Mex dishes, but those offerings grew as customer demand increased.
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 in the family restaurant and spent time working there, officially and unofficially — continue their parents’ legacy as owners, along with their sister-in-law Estella Martinez, widow of their late brother, Matt Jr.
The sisters credit their excellent team of about 200 employees and the lessons they learned about hospitality from their parents as the main reasons for their success.
Matt Martinez told the American-Statesman in 1984 that people who came to his restaurant as kids were bringing in their kids. Those people are likely now bringing in their grandchildren, as the restaurant thrives like few others in 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 said.
(2613 S. Lamar Blvd. 512-462-9333, mattselrancho.com)
Saying Ronald Cheng grew up in restaurants is not a figure of speech. The founder of Chinatown was raised in a cramped house on Burnet Road that his mother, Linda Cheng, converted into a restaurant called Sisters in 1970.
Sisters was the definition of home cooking. Linda Cheng transformed the master bedroom into a five-table dining room and cooked from the family kitchen, where Ronald and his sister, Freda, who now owns Freda's Seafood Grille in Cedar Park, washed dishes. Those early years were formative for young Ronald, who would watch his mother walk to the store daily to procure groceries for her restaurant and family.
"To see her walk every day and to carry two big bags full of groceries every day, to climb that hill, and then go home by herself every day to cook, and then take care of three kids and get up in the morning and work all day and all night, it taught me the lesson about working hard," Cheng said.
Ronald eventually made his way from dishwasher to server to fry cook. By 19, he was working the line at Sisters and cooking with his mother's wok. His mother was not his only teacher. Some of the Chinese immigrants who came to Austin after arriving on ships in the Houston port, according to Ronald Cheng, were “master chefs.”
As a teenager, Ronald slowly gleaned information from these masters. But they were reluctant to share all of their knowledge. In an early sign of his business savvy, Ronald said he would serve as a de facto tour guide to some of the more notorious aspects of '70s Austin nightlife in exchange for learning the deepest secrets of these men’s sauces and uses of spice to build flavor.
After graduating from the University of Texas with a degree in international business, Ronald Cheng briefly ran the Sisters before a sojourn to Houston, where he studied under the tutelage of legendary chef Peng Chang-kuei, the man credited with creating General Tso's chicken.
Ronald Cheng returned to Austin with several of Peng's chefs and opened the original Chinatown on Bee Cave Road in 1983, serving dishes like beef and broccoli and moo goo gai pan while continually adjusting to what Cheng describes as a “stagnate American palate.” That restaurant later changed hands before Cheng rebooted it in 2014.
Following the opening of his original restaurant and driven by an ambition he credits to his mother, Cheng operated multiple traditional and fusion restaurants around town under the Chinatown brand, including 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 health concerns is a regular presence at his restaurants, credits 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 lessons he says he learned from his 90-year-old mother, who remains a vocal presence in her son’s life, never shy to give her opinion but always understanding of the drive to deliver hospitality.
"I think he's crazy. Restaurants are such hard work. Our family can't help it though — it's what we do," said Linda Cheng. "In our culture, feeding people is an offering of love and respect."
(3407 Greystone Drive. 512-343-9307; 2712 Bee Cave Road, Suite 124, austinchinatown.com)
Mark Nemir cracks wise and paints his words with self-effacement in a twangy, Central Texas drawl when asked why he bought iconic campus-area restaurant Dirty Martin’s in 1989.
“I was stupid,” the frosty-haired Nemir says with half a chuckle.
The answer, of course, is more complicated than that. And more deeply rooted.
The native Austinite’s grandfather, Stuart Nemir Sr., bought the property in 1936 and ran a burger joint there from 1944 to 1954.
John Martin originally opened the restaurant then known as Martin’s KumBack in 1928, the phonetic spelling a bit of folksy marketing. The restaurant had a dirt floor, inspiring the nickname Dirty’s, until concrete was finally poured in the 1950s.
The name mutated a few times, and KumBack even remains on the exterior.
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, again shading his wit with the truth.
The Anderson High School and Southwest Texas State University graduate decided to walk away from his small excavation business and purchase the restaurant from longtime owner Cecil Pickens in 1989. More than a decade later, Nemir bought the land from his family, a purchase that has helped ensure Dirty Martin’s survival during lean economic times and the coronavirus pandemic.
Nemir was wise enough not to mess with a good thing. The juicy burgers are still cooked on a flattop and served on a bun toasted quickly by that grill. Produce arrives fresh and is cut in house. And not only has the menu barely changed — though chicken wings and queso were added 16 years ago and a chargrilled chicken breast sandwich in 2013 — Nemir kept the same laidback, friendly vibe that made the place beloved for decades. Even some of the faces didn’t change for ages.
Margie Alexander worked at Dirty Martin’s for decades until she turned 80 in 2003; Wesley Hughes served from 1956 to 2009, and his brother and fellow longtime employee, J.T., allegedly created Austin’s first bacon cheeseburger; and car hop Doc Mallard was a fixture at the restaurant from 1947 to 1993. His tenure spanned three owners. All of their pictures still line the walls of the restaurant.
Those people, as much as the burgers and fries, gave the restaurant its character and charm. And that tradition of a family-like staff continues with employees like Valentine Franco, who has worked at Dirty Martin’s for 23 years.
“People like working here and they’re proud to work here,” Nemir said.
People also like going there, including University of Texas students and alumni both famous and not-so. Earl Campbell has been a Dirty’s fan since the 1970s, even raising money for Mallard during a time of need. The late Cedric Benson and current star Bijan Robinson followed in the legendary running back’s footsteps as regulars. And members of the 1969 national championship team still come in together a couple of times a year.
Nemir was smart enough to ask for help when he needed it. A few years ago, Nemir brought 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 kid in the 1980s. Young oversaw the addition of a full bar — an adult cherry limeade turns out to be the perfect beverage to enjoy with a bacon cheeseburger — and the enclosure of the back room, which has become a popular hosting space for large groups, catered events, parties and climate-controlled football watching. Those changes have seen Dirty Martin’s sales double since Young arrived and set the course for the restaurant to be around for decades to come.
“He has the passion and the skill set I never had,” Nemir said, his self-effacement and humility popping up once more.
(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, but he got there as fast as he could. Actually, the Nebraskan was conceived in Texas’ neighbor to the south, but that’s another story for another day.
Gilliland’s decades-long love affair with the art, cuisine and culture of Mexico began when he first visited Mexico City as a University of Texas law student in 1967.
Before he helped revolutionize Austinites’ understanding of Mexican cuisine, Gilliland and his friend, the late chef Miguel Ravago, operated San Angel in Houston. That restaurant lasted only a few years, but it did introduce the business partners to Mexican culinary expert Diana Kennedy, who visited San Angel the year it opened, 1972, which happened to coincide with the year she released her seminal book “The Cuisines of Mexico.” The authority on Mexican cooking would go on to be a mentor and friend of Gilliland and Ravago for decades.
Given how hard it can sometimes be to snag a reservation at the Allandale temple to Mexican art and gastronomy, it’s hard to imagine people getting up and walking away from their tables, but that’s exactly what happened in the early days of Fonda San Miguel, which the partners named after the Mexican city of San Miguel de Allende.
When Austinites thought of Mexican food in the 1970s, they generally thought of the shredded lettuce, orange cheese and refried beans associated with Tex-Mex. That’s not what Gilliland and Ravago, who died of cancer in 2017, had in mind.
They were set on introducing diners to the regional cuisines of Puebla, Oaxaca, Veracruz and Yucatan. That meant cochinita pibil, moles and chile rellenos. It also meant no chips and salsa. The owners would soon bend to the economic realities of their environment and made a concession on the chips and salsa.
The early years were a struggle not just to convince locals to expand their minds and palates; even finding ingredients like black beans and chilies required work, with Fonda San Miguel having to import many of their own Mexican ingredients. But Gilliland and Ravago refused to take shortcuts.
“I’ve always wanted to do things authentically,” Gilliland said.
Fonda San Miguel broke ground in many ways. In a culinary world increasingly obsessed with “modern Mexican cuisine,” it may be hard to imagine now, but there was a time when even professed lovers of Mexican cuisine didn't know what huitlacoche or hoja santa were. Ravago and Gilliland did. And they would eventually grow their own garden on site so they could source their own hoja santa, among other herbs and vegetables.
The partners also opened the restaurant in what was at the time a far-flung part of town not known as a dining destination. And they applied a level of care to their interior design, complete with carved wooden doors, hand-painted tiles, exotic plants and murals, that was unheard of for a restaurant serving Mexican food in Texas.
Gilliland, who points to an incredibly loyal customer base, amazing staff and the lessons Ravago passed on that live on through the restaurant's current team as the keys to his restaurant's success, sees his role at Fonda San Miguel as that of a head coach. The native Nebraskan, whose restaurant probably hosts as many well-heeled UT alumni as any restaurant in town, cites the college coaching titans of his home state and adopted home state as inspirations.
"Osborne and Royal built programs based on more than winning. That was my goal with Fonda San Miguel, too," Gilliland said. "I wanted our ideas to be sustainable, forward-thinking and outside the box — things Texas had never seen before. Under Osborne's and Royal's direction, the Nebraska and UT sports programs achieved remarkable success, but they were only a small part of it. That's exactly how I feel about Fonda San Miguel. All I do is provide tools, help the crew discover their passions, instill values, and, then, let them race toward their own goals."
The restaurant, which has hosted internationally famous chefs like Enrique Olvera of Mexico City’s Pujol and produced chefs who have gone on to open their own Mexican restaurants (Ahmad Modoni of Manuel’s and Alma Alcocer-Thomas of El Alma), has been recognized nationally as one of the innovators in changing the perception of Mexican food not just in Texas, but across the country. And a city that was once skeptical of the restaurant now treasures it as one of its exemplary gems.
Austin didn’t originally get Fonda San Miguel, but it got there as fast as it could.
(2330 W. North Loop Blvd. 512-459-4121, fondasanmiguel.com)
“Grateful, hopeful, prayerful.”
Text or email Hoover Alexander and those are the words you will almost certainly hear at the end of his message in response. He also regularly turns to that trinity of descriptors in casual conversation.
“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 same expansiveness and soulfulness to his understanding of food and what it can do to bring people together.
“My mission goes beyond preparing food. It’s about creating memories,” Hoover said. “That gives me joy in an indescribable way.”
Hoover grew up in East Austin on an unpaved Maple Avenue, less than a mile from his restaurant on Manor Road. The first in his rural family born in the city, Hoover’s earliest food memories were standing by the stove watching his mother cook.
“I didn’t know the boy was paying attention,” Hoover says his mother, Dorothy Winston, likes to joke.
Hoover wasn’t just aware of the end product. He also fondly remembers going to the family farm in Utley about 25 miles away and picking peas, melons and greens. Farm-to-table was simply a way of life for him and his family.
“I just grew up with good cooking and thought that’s what everybody was exposed to,” Hoover said.
Hoover was a 19-year-old student at the University of Texas in 1973 when he began his restaurant career at the legendary Night Hawk working for Harry Akin, the first Austinite to integrate both the customer and staffing sides of a restaurant. Hoover started washing dishes and worked his way up through every position, eventually rising to management during his 10 years at the restaurant.
His career would take him to Toulouse, Chez Fred and Good Eats Café over the next 16 years before fellow Night Hawk alumni Vernon O’Rourke told Hoover that he would partner with him to help Hoover realize his longtime dream of opening Hoover’s Cooking.
The Texas comfort food restaurant served as a collection of Hoover’s life and career, pulling from the beef culture of West Texas, seafood of the Gulf coast, smoking traditions of Central Texas, Cajun flavors of East Texas, and the soul food and Tex-Mex of his youth.
The partners had looked everywhere for a potential space, from Hutto to Corpus Christi, when the location on Manor Road, which long served as a dividing line between white and Black neighborhoods, fell into their laps in 1998. Hoover, whose experience with racial tension in Austin included a senior year of high school when one-way busing began in 1971, attributed the opportunity 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 said. “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 remains grateful, hopeful and prayerful.
(2002 Manor Road. 512-479-5006, hooverscooking.com)