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Texas History: She grew up at the Cadillac Bar in Nuevo Laredo

Michael Barnes
Austin American-Statesman
Makings for a New Orleans Ramos Gin Fizz, as served at the Cadillac Bar in Nuevo Laredo.

Wait long enough and almost any Texan of a certain age will break out with a tale about good times at the Cadillac Bar.

My stories are pretty plain, if a little woozy. They involve copious amounts of Tex-Mex food and frozen margaritas at a large, funky eatery called "The Original Cadillac Bar" on North Shepherd Drive in Houston.

Now owned by the Landry's restaurant group, it was not, however, the first Cadillac Bar, despite its registered trademark. The original by that name was founded by Achille Mehault "Mayo" Bessan, a former Louisiana resident who opened a dirt-floor cantina with a top-shelf name in Nuevo Laredo, Tamaulipas, in 1924.

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Why Nuevo Laredo in 1924? During the American Prohibition, the Mexican side of the border — frequently and easily crossed — was a good place to serve New Orleans-style cocktails, some adapted to local ingredients. 

That Cadillac Bar did not at first specialize in Tex-Mex or border cuisine, but rather in dishes more familiar to diners in early 20th-century New Orleans, where the colorful Bessan had enjoyed a measure of the good life.

The real story of the legendary eatery has now been told — accompanied by cherished recipes — by veteran reporter and editor Wanda Garner Cash in "Pancho Villa's Saddle at the Cadillac Bar." Besides the literary title, this book published by the Texas A&M University Press is a slender treasure trove of Texan and Mexican history, including an account of the devastating 1954 flood that is still remembered on both sides of the Rio Grande. 

Wanda Garner Cash's "Pancho Villa's Saddle at the Cadillac Bar" came out in 2020 from the Texas A&M University Press.

Cash is the daughter of Porter Garner Jr., a proud 1945 graduate of Texas A&M, who married Bessan's only daughter and ran the Cadillac Bar from 1946 to 1979. At that point, the Garner family sold the spot to the employees and the name was picked up by restaurants across the U.S.

The Nuevo Laredo eatery fizzled out in 2010.

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Yet Texans still talk about the caged parrots and monkeys in the parking lot, the reputed Pancho Villa saddle in the dining area, the chicken envueltos, and 40-cent tequila sours. It appealed to celebrities, adventurous tourists, extended families, thirsty American teens and everyday citizens of Laredo and Nuevo Laredo. For years, gamblers flocked to the dark backroom of the Cadillac Bar.

"I grew up behind the bar: first child and first grandchild," writes Cash, who is the former president of the Texas Press Association and current fellow of the S. Griffin Singer Professorship in Journalism at the University of Texas. "I spoke Spanish before I spoke English and I learned my numbers counting coins at my grandfather's desk. ... I rode Pancho Villa's saddle on a sawhorse in the main dining room, with a toy six-shooter in my holster."

Wanda Garner Cash makes gumbo.

'He thought it sounded rich'

Fascinated by the book, I asked if we could publish a few of the signature recipes. Cash also answered a few questions about a singular life associated with the Cadillac Bar.

American-Statesman: Tell me more about your grandfather. He seems like quite a character. Please share some memories about him.

Wanda Garner Cash: We called my grandfather "Big Daddy," although he was of slight stature. As the first grandchild, I was spoiled. When I was about 5, I used to accompany him to the Cadillac on Saturday mornings when he went in to check the receipts. He would let me sit behind his desk in the kitchen and count coins. He loved cars and bought a new one every three years, including the first air-conditioned Cadillac in Laredo. He called his business the Cadillac because he thought it sounded rich.

Your father seems to have picked up where your grandfather left off. Yet his personality was quite different from your grandfather’s. How did their styles of management differ?

They were an odd couple: one educated, sober and a decorated war veteran, and the other, who left school in eighth grade and made his living with fighting cocks, gambling and bartending. But in their own ways, they loved each other and they loved making people happy.

Before the 1954 flood, my grandfather ran gambling in the back room of the Cadillac — crap tables, poker and slot machines. He would play cards and drink with the customers.

My father never took a drink at the Cadillac while he worked there. He enjoyed a drink now and then, but his father told him when he went to work at the Cadillac that he would have to decide which side of the bar to stand on.

Mayo and Porter were genial hosts, stopping at each table throughout the night, ensuring the customers were satisfied.

Nuevo Laredo’s Cadillac Bar, before the July 1954 flooding of the Rio Grande that devastated the border cities.

Why do you think that New Orleans cuisine went down so well with the folks of Nuevo Laredo and Laredo?

First, it was unusual, so different from the border fare of Mexican specialties and meat-and-potatoes. And mainly because it was delicious. Seafood was hard to come by on the border, but my grandfather imported fish, shrimp and crabmeat from Bagille's Seafood in Louisiana. He got the frog legs from Rayne, La., and the turtle meat from Veracruz.

What was the secret mystique of the Cadillac Bar? I remember hearing about it when I was young, but your father had already turned it over by the time I walked into one.

It was never fancy, but it did have cloth tablecloths and napkins. The food was consistently good and the drinks were strong. And either Mayo or Porter was always there to make sure everything went right. For decades, it was destination dining.

You grew up in the bar. I loved your stores about your own adventures there. Please share a few.

I would roam downtown Nuevo Laredo with my friends whose families had businesses there. We would eat elote and coco con chile and drink sugary Mexican Cokes. Our parents didn't worry because there were so many friendly "eyes" on the street watching out for us.

Later, when I would come home with college friends wearing either miniskirts or long hair, my father would make us stand in line with everyone else. No preferential treatment for his daughter and her hippie friends.

The Cadillac Bar in Nuevo Laredo in 1926.

The flood of 1954 sounds horrific. How did your family overcome that?

At first, my grandfather said he would close the business permanently, but the family prevailed. The Longoria family, who were the landlords, rebuilt the structure, but my family had to pay for everything else: tables, chairs, pots, pans, glassware, stoves, refrigerator. Imagine starting a restaurant from scratch. The Cadillac reopened about nine months after the flood, with the most welcome innovation: central air conditioning.

What do you think about the Cadillac Bar imitators in other cities?

The Cadillac in Houston was started by George O. Jackson, a family friend from Laredo. It was the only location where my father collaborated with recipes, menus and logos. George did an authentic job while he had it. The Houston location is now owned by Tilman Fertitta, of the Landry's chain.

Pretty amazing that you ended up with the Pancho Villa saddle in your own home. How did it get there?

The last night of the Cadillac Bar, my father, my husband, Richard, and I went to the restaurant and selected keepsakes: big cook pots, napkins, tablecloths, plastic spoons, and Pancho Villa's saddle. The saddle lived at my father's house until he died, and then I inherited it. It sits in my library and my guests love to climb up and have a picture taken.

This china and linen were salvaged from the Cadillac Bar in Nuevo Laredo. It shut down in 2010.

It wasn’t that long ago that one could go back and forth across the border with almost no trouble. Please talk about culture.

(Cash refers to what she wrote in the book's afterword:) When we were children and into middle adulthood, my Laredo friends and I crossed the Rio Grande into Nuevo Laredo as though we were walking across a street in our neighborhood. No thoughts of danger, no fears beyond being caught with a smuggled bottle of Bacardi we didn’t want to pay duty on. 

The river was not a boundary; it was just geography.

The people in Nuevo Laredo, the merchants, the artists and musicians were our classmates, our friends, our family. Anyone born and reared in los dos Laredos will tell you that growing up on the border nurtured us in a porous cultural paradise of shared rich heritages. We endured the poverty, the unpaved streets and the heat. We bought elote from a cart and fresh flowers and chanclas — flip-flops — at the mercado. We were one people, living on two sides of a river. 

Today, venturing across that river is strictly business, a quick trip to a doctor or a butcher shop. The tourists who are driving to interior locales like Monterrey or San Miguel de Allende do so in haste — no lingering lunches in Nuevo Laredo, no Ramos gin fizzes.

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What’s your favorite recipe from the book and why?

Shrimp gumbo is my favorite recipe, although it was never served at the Cadillac. I love it best because it reminds me of my grandparents, great-grandfather and my Louisiana heritage. Second favorite is the chicken guacamole because it's easy and delicious.

Michael Barnes writes about the people, places, culture and history of Austin and Texas. He can be reached at mbarnes@statesman.com.

Chicken envueltos

Makes four servings (three tortillas per serving)

This was a favorite dish of Pat Knight, my father's friend from San Antonio. After a professional football career, Knight owned Allen & Allen Company and was a partner in "Camp Had It" hunting lodge in Webb County. — Wanda Garner Cash

1 pound shredded cooked chicken

2 medium white onions

4 cloves garlic, minced

1 green bell pepper, julienned

1 serrano chile, seeded and chopped (more to your taste)

1 15-ounce can of tomatoes

3 chicken bouillon cubes, dissolved in water

1 tablespoon ground cumin

Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

1 dozen thin white corn tortillas

Finely shredded cheddar cheese

Oil for cooking

Finely chop one onion. Cut second onion into quarters, separate the sections and set aside.

Put oil in a large sauté pan or skillet and add the garlic, bell pepper and a third of the chopped onion. Add serrano and tomatoes. Stir well, breaking up the tomatoes. Let it stew for a while and blend together. Add bouillon mixture.

Add cumin, salt and pepper to taste. Cook four to five minutes over medium heat. Add chicken and remaining onion and enough hot water to cover. Cook for about 20 minutes.

Make individual servings: Lay a tortilla on a plate. Cover with a small amount of the remaining chopped onion, the cheese and a spoonful of the chicken mixture. Roll tortilla. Repeat. Garnish with more chopped onions and an ample amount of the chicken mixture and cheese.

Put one plate at a time in the microwave to melt the cheese slightly.

(Note: I used more serrano chiles and cumin, then I substituted Central Market organic chicken broth for the bouillon mixture. Came out great. This recipe is a keeper. — Michael Barnes)

Italian salad

8 servings

Two salads on the menu carried names that are considered derogatory terms for Italian Americans, but when Mayo was working in New Orleans, they were popular choices at most of the white-tablecloth restaurants in New Orleans. The salads were served on chilled plates and were showy and fun, with boiled shrimp, anchovies and asparagus crisscrossed atop the mounded lettuce. — Wanda Garner Cash

For the dressing

3/4 cup olive oil

1/4 cup red wine vinegar

1 tablespoon Italian seasoning

1 tablespoon Lea & Perrins Worchestershire sauce

For the salad

Three heads of lettuce — romaine, iceberg and butter (Bibb) — torn into bite-sized pieces.

1 1/2 to 2 cups olive salad (ready-made or hand-made)

2 tomatoes, cut into wedges

6 to 8 cloves of garlic, minced

16 flat anchovies, packed in oil

8 extra-large shrimp, boiled in the shell, then peeled and chilled

8 asparagus spears, steamed and chilled (large spears hold up better

Shave fresh Parmesan cheese

In a small bowl, whisk together all the ingredients for the dressing. In a large bowl, combine the lettuce, olive salad, tomatoes and dressing and toss well to coat the lettuce evenly. Distribute salad evenly on chilled salad plate. Top each mound of lettuce with crisscrossed anchovies, a shrimp and an asparagus spear. Finish with Parmesan shavings.

(I loved this salad and have made it several times now. Since this much salad will last the two of us more than one day, I don't add the dressing to the meal's units until right before serving. I made my own olive salad with selections from Central Market's olive bar. Instead of packaged Italian seasoning, I used fresh Mediterranean herbs from the garden along with a little salt and black pepper. — Michael Barnes)

Pico de gallo or salsa cruda

Makes 2 cups of pico de gallo

Long before America took chips and hot sauce for granted at Mexican restaurants, the Cadillac had its own standard gustatory greeting. Waiters delivered a basket of bolillos and saltine crackers and a bowl of this hot sauce to your table while you were still scooting your chairs closer in.

My grandfather emptied two or three servings during a meal. His favorite approach was to scoop out the center of the bolillo and fill the crusty bread with spoons full of the salsa and sometimes with guacamole. At the end of a meal, Mayo had an array of balls of the bread itself next to his plate.

When the parking lot zoo still existed, he would let me feed the bolillo leftovers to whatever critter I favored. — Wanda Garner Cash

4 very ripe tomatoes, unpeeled, finely chopped (Roma or plum tomatoes are best)

1 white onion, finely chopped

9 serrano chiles, minced

8 to 10 cilantro leaves, chopped

Juice of 1 lime

Salt

Mix the tomatoes, serranos and cilantro, mashing slightly. Use a large molcajete if you have one. Add lime juice and salt to taste. If you prefer a smoother, more homogenous salsa, you can puree it in a blender or food processor.

(I tend to err on the side of extra heat. I don't know how many serranos I ended up adding to my salsa cruda, but the heat made it unpalatable for simple chip dipping. It was excellent, however, added in small amounts to blander dishes, such as eggs. And it remained crunchy and clean-tasting after many days in the fridge. — Michael Barnes)

New Orleans Gin Fizz

Serves 1

Warning: These sweet concoctions pack an unsuspecting punch and can be lethal on a hot summer day. Customers at the Cadillac would wander in from the July heat, toss back two or three of these, then wilt on the street when they went back outside. — Wanda Garner Cash

1 tablespoon confectioner's sugar (sifted)

1 ounce gin

2 ounces cold milk

10 drops orange flower water (look in specialty liquor stores for this ingredient)

Juice of one lime

1 egg white

Ice

Mix ingredients in order. Shake in a cocktail shaker until you think your arms will surely drop off. Strain. Serve. Mix up more.