El Chico Foods/Cuellar Foods
by Paula Bosse
El Chico’s Enchimales with Gravy, ca. 1968
by Paula Bosse
I give you the “Enchimale,” a product introduced under the El Chico label in 1968. A news release described the delicacy thusly: “Wedding bells are ringing at El Chico for the marriage of the enchilada and the tamale, and the new product is called the Enchimale. […] This food is in the shape of a tamale, filled with fresh meat, with a mild enchilada sauce over it” (Dallas Morning News, Oct. 31, 1968). (So… a tamale?) I gather this was a short-lived product. (See the “Sources & Notes” section at the bottom of this page for an unusual and unrelated — I hope — recipe for enchimales which appeared in a newspaper in Spokane, Washington in 1950.)
This photo caught my eye while I was looking into the history of El Chico’s manufactured foods. Especially their canned foods, which I was unaware of. I’m not surprised they existed — I remember their frozen food line — I just have no memories of canned foods from El Chico.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. You’ve probably heard the story of Mama Cuellar and the Cuellar brothers and their El Chico empire (if not, a good article is here). As far as their Dallas restaurants, the Cuellar brothers opened their first El Chico restaurant in 1940 at 3514 Oak Lawn (next door-ish to Lucas B & B, which opened in Oak Lawn in 1953). This location closed in either 1954 or 1955.
El Chico No. 1, Oak Lawn, via D Magazine
El Chico No. 1, Oak Lawn, via Portal to Texas History
Six years later, they opened their second location in Lakewood at 2031 Abrams.
El Chico No. 2, Lakewood, via Portal to Texas History
Their third Dallas location opened near the Inwood Theater in 1949 at 5526 Lovers Lane.
El Chico No. 5, via Inwood Village website
When that location opened, the family was operating 11 restaurants in Texas, Oklahoma, Louisiana, and Kansas. Things were good in Cuellar-land.
At the end of 1949, the Cuellars decided to begin manufacturing canned food products, with the aim to sell Tex-Mex staples nationally under the label “El Chico Foods.” The new factory was located at 162 Leslie St., in the then-pretty-new Trinity Industrial District. (They later moved waaaaaaaaaaay up north, to 1925 Valley View Lane.)
El Chico Canning Co., 162 Leslie St., Dallas
El Chico canned foods began to show up in DFW grocery stores in March 1950. Make way for canned chili, enchiladas, tamales (in corn husks), enchilada sauce, and hot sauce.
Fort Worth Star-Telegram, Mar. 17, 1950
Soon to follow were other foods, including the mystifying canned tortillas — thanks to the photo below, I now know that it was possible to buy tortillas in a can, which was opened with a key. Just like Spam, or a canned ham. (Not sure what the “El Chico Show” was, but apparently it was broadcast on Channel 5 — at least in October 1950.)
October 1950, via Portal to Texas History
Business boomed! After only 9 months, production tripled. After 2 years El Chico canned foods were in more than 30 states.
But in March 1953, the Cuellar family was sued in federal court for copyright infringement by a man named Benito Collada who owned a well-known nightclub in Greenwich Village called “El Chico,” a name he copyrighted in 1931. He demanded that the Cuellars change the name of their restaurants and their canned foods. The judge handed down an unusual verdict in which both sides were able to claim partial victory (or partial loss): the Cuellars were allowed to keep “El Chico” as the name of their restaurants, but they had to bid adios to the name on their canned foods.
The company regrouped and rebranded. The name of their Tex-Mex products became “Cuellar’s,” and the label even came with a pronunciation guide: “QUAY-YAR.”
Apparently, sales dropped. Steeply. The Cuellars fought their way through the appeals process, determined to retain the “El Chico” name on their manufactured foods, and, in September 1954 they won the right to once again sell canned foods under the El Chico brand.
Sales really increased when they added frozen dinners to their line — their factory on Leslie Street installed a huge freezing system — they were able to freeze 6,000 frozen dinners at a time in 90 minutes.
Along with the typical frozen dinners you’d expect, El Chico also sold frozen tortillas. In the photo above, there is a box of frozen tortillas in the shopping cart and in the freezer case. As I recall, I think I liked the frozen Mexican dinners as a kid, but frozen tortillas and tortillas in a can sound equally unappealing.
The frozen dinners ultimately took over the manufacturing side of Cuellar foods, and at some point, the canned products eventually faded away. As I said, I remember the frozen dinners, but I don’t remember the canned foods at all. But I find them so interesting that that they are going to get their very own post — check out that post here.
Sources & Notes
Top (cropped) image is from the Frank Cuellar Sr. Collection, University of North Texas Special Libraries Collection, Portal of Texas History, and can be found here (the full collection may be browsed here).
Several images in this post are from the Smithsonian Institution’s “Guide to the El Chico Restaurants Collection.”
Read a good history of the Cuellar empire in “The Family Who Sold Tex-Mex to America” by Nancy Nichols, D Magazine (Nov. 2013).
So. “enchimales.” I did a quick search on the word and found mentions back to 1934 for a cafe selling something with this name in Shreveport. For all I know, this is a traditional Mexican dish which I’ve just never heard of. BUT, I wonder whether any actual Mexican-related dish would bear any resemblance to the enchimales recipe devised by Mrs. Vincent Katzenberger of Garfield, Washington which appeared in Spokane’s Spokesman-Review newspaper? It was the 14th-place (!) winner in the “Meltin’ Pot” international cooking competition. Here’s a short synopsis of Mrs. Katzenberger’s dish, which is made like enchiladas: in a tortilla, place a filling of onions, cheddar cheese, and a can of olives (all of which has been passed through a meat grinder) — on top of that filling, plop one canned tamale; roll up this filled tortilla and place it in a baking dish; repeat a dozen or so times; cover everything with tamale sauce; bake; when done, serve on a lettuce leaf and top with sprinkles of Parmesan cheese. The recipe is here. If you make this, please let me know how it came out.
Copyright © 2023 Paula Bosse. All Rights Reserved.
Thanks for researching this thorough review of every aspect of our decades-long story. We have enjoyed being part of Dallas history since 1940 & Texas history since 1891.
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Thanks, John! And thank you, Cuellar family. I miss the Lakewood restaurant.
I too remember their enchilada dinners fondly but don’t remember their canned foods at all.
Sounds like enchimales was just an attention getting name made up by some Mad Man for tamales with enchilada sauce and then they americanized it by calling the enchilada sauce gravy on the can.
If it was still around it could be used for two of the main ingredients of this tamale casserole:
Looking forward to part 2!
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What more does one need than “shaped like a tamale”? Part 2 is on its way!
I ate many a meal at El Chico’s. I do remember the canned products. My mother pulled some of them on us in the 50s. I believe it was their beans. The frozen dinners were a big deal and considered as much a treat as going to a restaurant. Love the local history.
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Thanks, Phil! Those frozen dinners were surprisingly tasty.
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The ones now are’nt near as good.
[…] to using “El Chico.” (Read more about this manufacturing business in my previous post, “El Chico Foods/Cuellar Foods.”) Initially, the company produced only canned goods. Including, yes, tortillas in a can. TORTILLAS. […]