El Chico

A sign company employee finishes up removal of the signs at El Chico on the traffic circle in Waco. The I-35 frontage road will pass through the restaurant’s space once the highway is widened.

Staff photo — Jerry Larson

The El Chico Cafe on Waco’s traffic circle has closed after more than 50 years of serving Tex-Mex food because of the planned widening of Interstate 35 and construction of a frontage road where the restaurant now stands.

“We have been honored to serve Waco for more than five decades,” Vice President of marketing Bill Watson wrote in an email. “Our restaurant has closed to make way for the expansion of Interstate 35.”

He asked residents to “please dine with us in Temple” but made no mention of a new El Chico in Waco. The Dallas-based chain did not return calls for additional comment.

The closure caught the attention of longtime customer Cathy Ward, 61, who said in an email she “has been dining there since high school or maybe even before that.”

“They had such a wide variety of food to choose from, and it was always delicious.” Ward wrote. “We’ve never had any problems with the food. I would love a plate of brisket tacos right now.”

Ward said the number of diners appeared to remain steady at Waco’s El Chico, which opened in 1963, about the time the growing chain was popularizing a television commercial with the words, “Like Mama, Like Son, True Mexican,” which showcased company founders, the Cuellar brothers.

Today, El Chico operates as one of several concepts under the Consolidated Restaurant Operations umbrella. It has 91 full-service locations, including 24 franchised restaurants, and operates in 17 states, the United Kingdom, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates.

Texas Department of Transportation spokeswoman Jodi Wheatley said the proposed expansion of I-35 from three to four lanes in both directions between North Loop 340 and South Loop 340 would “clip the corner” of the El Chico building if it remained standing.

Demolition of the restaurant will accommodate construction of a continuous frontage road near the traffic circle, Wheatley said.

“We are acquiring 176 properties to secure right-of-way, a process that has been ongoing for about two years,” she said.

The parking lot of Texas Roadhouse near El Chico will lose a handful of spaces because of construction, but the building will remain intact.

The project will not affect Magnolia Table, which is taking shape in the historic former Elite Cafe building.

“The former Elite Cafe space should see no changes that would limit access,” Wheatley said. “LaSalle Avenue provides the main access, and that will not change. The addition of a frontage road to the north of the building should make it easy to enter and leave the site.”

Waco real estate agent Jim Peevey said he wonders about parking next to Magnolia Table, “considering how big of a draw it likely will become.”

“I’ve heard in meetings that officials with the city of Waco envision two- to three-hour waits for seating,” Peevey said.

Kyle Citrano, managing partner of the George’s Restaurant on Hewitt Drive and president of the Waco Restaurant Association, said he regrets the loss of a local dining institution such as El Chico.

“But if there is any category that can absorb such an occurrence, it is Tex-Mex,” Citrano said. “We have 70 to 80 Mexican restaurants in Greater Waco, including several chains that have arrived in the recent past, Chuy’s and On The Border, just to name a couple.”

Citrano said Waco remains a competitive restaurant market.

Several other businesses along the path of I-35’s widening either have been or will be affected.

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