This list is a transcription of notes I took about Mexican restaurants in Oklahoma City in 1983. The full list includes restaurants I copied from the telephone directory (and which were listed as “Mexican restaurants” in the yellow pages). Star ratings are for the ones I visited.
Oklahoma City had a much greater percentage of one-star and two-star restaurants than other cities included in this series of historical posts. In this respect I think Oklahoma City was actually representative of most cities in the United States at the time. It had more Mexican restaurants than most cities, but to me the quality seemed much lower than in Texas and New Mexico cities.
Some of the one-star restaurants had pure Anglo style food that did not even rise to the level of the Tex-Mex served at the majority of restaurants. There is term which is now used called “Okie-Mex,” and I think this also would describe most of the Mexican food in 1983. I did find some restaurants on the south side (Capitol Hill) that served more authentic Mexican food, either exclusively or in addition to the Tex-Mex menu. I remember Las Rositas as having some dishes I had found in El Paso at some of the better restaurants there.
I remember A&T Garcia’s as being the best Mexican restaurant in town, and this seemed to be a combination of California and New Mexico style Mexican food (with red and green chile used in place of the brown gravy-like “chili” used in Tex-Mex restaurants). Mostly, though, I thought they just had better quality food.
The difference between 1983 and today for Mexican food in Oklahoma City is striking, and I would say authentic styles of food are prevalent in the central and south areas of the city. A large number of restaurants serve Aguascalientes (Calvillo) style food, although many also offer American style dishes on the menu. You are probably more likely to find truly authentic food if you go to a take-out restaurant, taco truck, etc. than in a sit-down restaurant where they serve you at the table.
In the lists I made for Austin and Albuquerque, I could see how the regional Mexican styles which had developed in the area (Tex-Mex and New Mexican cuisine, respectively) had seemed to make the population more accepting of authentic Mexican food which came along later. Oklahoma City did not have its own regional style of Mexican food, but early restaurants such as El Charrito made Tex-Mex the preferred style here.
The more authentic Mexican food served in a number of restaurants now may be largely due to an influx of immigrants from Mexico, but a large number of long time residents have become fans of this food as well. In these and other ways I think Oklahoma City is very representative of a number of U.S. cities.
My goal for this article is not only to provide nostalgia but also to allow trends to be observed about how Mexican food has changed in the U.S. over a relatively short period of time.
I was a waitress at JC Garcia’s on Britton rd in 81/82. In fact I was the waitress in the one and only commercial they had and it only ran on the Mexican TV station late at night in OKC which I thought was strange since only white people came to eat there. That place was always busy lunch and dinner. The cooks were from El Paso or Laredo I can’t remember which. My favorite meal they had there was the chicken enchiladas otherwise you can get beans and tacos anywhere.
I remember the bartender had come back from a trip to Florida and started making barrels of margaritas which was something new I guess but then again I was only 19 at the time and could only get into the beer bars back then. Also he brought back kamakazies I didn’t like them then either. It was a great place to work for the times.
Before it was a Mexican restaurant it was a steak house same owner. The building didn’t change just the uniforms. It had been set up to look like train cars lots of wood and dim lighting.
These are great stories about the restaurant. I think at the time all the Mexican restaurants in this part of town catered to white people, and I am sure this is why I gave it one star on my rating scale (although I do not remember what I ate there). I wonder if the cooks from Laredo or El Paso cooked their style of food for their own meals. If so I would have liked to have tried it.
I think I remember that JC Garcia’s was in the building that Ranch Steakhouse took over in 1999 (according to Ranch Steakhouse’s web site this is the year they began). If so, it is interesting that this building was a steakhouse before and after JC Garcia’s was there. It is a large building and I can definitely envision large crowds at the restaurant because Mexican food has always been popular in OKC.
I don’t remember the train car decor but it sounds interesting. Were they used to make individual dining rooms? At the time I was always interested in having a separate space from the smoking area, and this would have been an important amenity for the restaurant (along with the margaritas and the other features they had).
It sounds as if you enjoyed working there, and this says a lot about the restaurant.
I understand what you’re saying. I’m pretty sure I visited 1492 on February 14th a few years ago and I wasn’t particularly impressed but they must be proud of their place because the tab destroyed the $100 bill I had on me. Not literally but I’m glad my date offered to get the tip and if I had left the tip she left I would’ve had to get out my credit card. Back in the 90s there was a place on SW 44th between Western and Penn but closer to Western than Penn if I remember correctly that was really good as far as tacos, beans and the basics but I only tried it once because I got the idea that I was out of my place because everyone else there spoke fluent Spanish so I never returned. Taco Cabana is pretty good too but rather pricey for what’s essentially a fast food chain. In fact you may not know this but Taco Cabana sued Two Pesos to the point where they basically just bought them out and closed all their restaurants. I really liked Two Pesos too because I thought they were a fairly large step-up from the typical fast food Mexican restaurant without the corresponding step-up in price. Yes they were slightly more expensive than the other fast food Mexican restaurants but they were substantially better also.
Yes, you point out many of the problems I have also found with Oklahoma City Mexican restaurants (except that for me Spanish is not an issue). I have rarely gone to Taco Cabana in El Paso because it really does taste like fast food compared to most local restaurants (I have not gone to TC in Oklahoma City and I believe it is now gone). If I remember correctly it did have decent food including the rice and beans. In the street food category I believe Oklahoma City is doing pretty well right now (this was not really the case in the past although it may have been on the south side). One of the best things at Abel’s is their street food style meals. When I first got to El Paso what I got used to eating were the full plate meals that included rice and beans and sometimes soup (which they many times have at lunch on the “comida corrida” plates). Another thing common in El Paso is a combination plate which I do not see much in Oklahoma City. Where I do see the plate dinners in OKC it tends to be much too expensive and/or the rice, beans, and setups are not very good. I remember A&T Garcia’s as doing a pretty good job with the full plates but I honestly do not remember a whole lot about them. They had a different style of Mexican food than is served in El Paso and that is all right because it was also good.
A & T Garcia was my go to place for Mexican food. I have yet to find a Mexican restaurant that holds a candle to them. La Roca to the best of my recollection was what I would consider the most authentic Mexican food you could get in Oklahoma City at the time. The only place I really like today as of January 2021 is Abel’s Mexican restaurant in northwest Oklahoma City but it is far from my house so I rarely visit. If you know of a Mexican restaurant on the level of A & T Garcia I’d love to hear about it.
The short answer is no, but there are a multitude of places (both old and new) that I have not tried. This is partly because I keep getting disappointed so I stop trying new places. A bigger problem is that I try places that are good but when I go back they have changed the menu (such as 1492) or they are no longer open (such as Gloria’s in Warr Acres). Gloria’s, and Ricardo’s which was in this space before Gloria’s, were the Mexican restaurants that I considered to have the best food overall. I think both of these were better than A & T Garcia’s, although Garcia’s was better in the sense that they had a larger menu and all of it seemed to be good.
I think Abel’s has many menu items that are better and certainly more authentic than the food that was served at Garcia’s. At the same time, though, they have a lot of items that I have found disappointing. This gets into the problem of rating a restaurant because do I say Garcia’s was the best because I liked everything, or do I say Abel’s is better based on certain items (and they do have a number of very good items)?
Several restaurants have certain items that I think are very good but they usually disappoint me on the things like rice, beans, chips, salsa, etc. Another restaurant that is very good overall is Birrieria Diaz in Bethany, but it is in the same area of town as Abel’s and thus probably very far for you. I would think there would be some good ones on the south side but I have not tried any of them recently. Carnitas Michoacan in Edmond had good tacos when I tried it, and made me think the Mexican food scene in Edmond is improving (so there might be some other good choices in that part of town).