Long live the King. As Austin's food culture continues to grow with new restaurants opening monthly and more behemoth chains moving in, it's comforting to have the legacy and tradition of Matt's Famous El Rancho holding down the foundation upon which much of Austin culture has been built. This weekend Matt's celebrated its 60th Anniversary with a day-long party including mariachis, good friends and drink specials.
It was 1952 when Matt Martinez, a Texas golden gloves boxing champion and Cross-country Olympic winner, and his wife Janie opened up their tiny restaurant in a small house on the corner of First Street (now Cesar Chavez) and San Jacinto, across the street from where the Four Seasons now is.
Before Matt Martinez, Sr. even dreamed of opening a restaurant, his father, Delfino was selling tamales and pralines from a push cart on the steps of the State Capital.
Janie Martinez, matriarch of the family, did the cooking, always dressed in white according to her daughter Gloria Martinez Reyna who wistfully remembers those days when she was just a small girl.
"It was a small house, my Mom was in the kitchen, my Dad was out front. Every birthday that I ever had was there at the restaurant. I remember getting my first bike. It was a big green bike and my Daddy brought it in through the back door."
Matt quickly earned his nickname as the King of Mexican food by creating the culture of hospitality Matt's El Rancho is known for to go with the spectacular food his wife was cooking up.
"A customer was just telling me, 'When he first opened up the restaurant, I remember your Daddy coming to my car at the red light at First and San Jacinto, and he said 'Hi, I'm Matt Martinez, this is my restaurant. My wife is a great cook, come and eat with us.''"
For all his hospitality though, Martinez knew he was in a competitive business. "Every Tuesday," remembers Reyna, "the store was closed on Tuesday, we'd go out to eat to all the wonderful restaurants in town and my Dad would see what the competition was and we'd come back and he'd say, 'We have nothing to worry about.'"
The restaurant is still closed on Tuesdays, but in 1985 Martinez moved the restaurant to its present location on South Lamar.
Food and service run in the blood of the Martinez family. Before Matt Martinez, Sr. even dreamed of opening a restaurant, his father, Delfino was selling tamales and pralines from a push cart on the steps of the State Capital. And in 1925 it was Delfino Martinez who began Austin's Tex-Mex restaurant tradition when he opened “El Original” at Second and Congress.
Matt Martinez, Sr. passed away in 2003, but not before watching his son, Matt, Jr. open his own "Rancho Martinez" in Dallas. Today, Dallas boasts four Martinez restaurants.
Both father and son are now enshrined in the Texas Restaurant Hall of Fame. The first father and son to be so honored. Matt, Jr. passed away in 2009. His wife Estella and his son Matt Martinez III, carry on the tradition in Dallas.
"We want our customers, when you come to El Rancho, this is your home. We want to treat you like our special guest. That's what we carry as the heritage that's been handed down."
Janie Martinez turned 90 just last Monday and joined her daughter and daughter-in-law, Estella, at the restaurant for the festivities. "She always looks immaculate," said Reyna, "and back then customers would come in the back door, into the kitchen and say 'Hi Janie, whatcha got cooking today?' She's such a gracious host, and she's still cooking a lot."
The sisters now form a board that runs "El Rancho" and maintains its amazing tradition.
"It was his hospitality," remembers Estella Martinez, the widow of Matt, Jr. "One thing I'll always remember about Matt, Sr. is that he was always at the front door shaking hands when you came in, and he was at the front door when you left to shake your hand and to thank you. We want our customers to feel, when you come to El Rancho, this is your home. We want to treat you like our special guest. That's what we carry as the heritage that's been handed down."
There are more choices for great food in Austin, Texas, than ever before, but there is only one King — Matt's Famous El Rancho. And that's the only way many Austinites would have it — coming home to Matt's El Rancho, with a large Bob and a frozen margarita with salt for another 60 years. Long live the King!