There were certain dilemmas that my mom, a single parent in her twenties living in 1980s Dallas, had to contend with. Should we live in a “good” neighborhood or buy a cheap house? Should I let my son ride on the back of my boyfriend’s Yamaha or undermine a boy’s natural desire to take risks? And, perhaps most consequentially, where are we going tonight: El Chico or El Fenix?

Two factors made it a tough call: each had multiple locations in the Metroplex, and each served roughly the same menu items. Decades later, they still do. But today, when I’m back in Dallas, there is no dilemma. Going to “get some Tex-Mex” means only one place.

In my earliest years, the decision was entirely dependent on whether we were making our almost weekly journey to Red Bird Mall, a few miles up Hampton Road in the Oak Cliff section of the city. Tucked between the north entrance and the strange, colorful mosaic above the Sanger-Harris entrance, El Chico was always the first stop.

There were endless corn tortillas, on which I’d spread butter and “hot sauce,” which is what white people called salsa back then. Endless chips, which were salty even before we salted them. Then some combination of hard-shell ground beef taco, cheese enchilada, puffy taco, chalupa, or maybe a flauta if I was feeling adventurous. We’d top it all off with a sopaipilla and honey, then head to the Gap and the Limited. El Chico had a certain languid atmosphere. The lights were dim. The decor was subdued. Each booth felt like a confessional. You didn’t hit the mall after El Chico. You eased into it.

El Fenix, on the other hand, was intense. 

Our go-to location was the recently closed standalone building at Colorado and Beckley, just west of Lake Cliff. You’d walk in out of a 90-degree evening into the chill of a windowless restaurant that evoked some combination of diner and hacienda. Thinking about it now, it felt like a theme restaurant. There were fake-brick arches demarcating the seating zones. There was blue-and-white Mexican tile everywhere. There were waitresses in ruffled white blouses and long brown skirts. There was air-conditioning set to around 67. It was an exotic North Texas paradise.

Everything felt sped up. “Two?” Two. “Smoking or nonsmoking?” Nonsmoking. “I’ll have an iced tea. He’ll have a Coke.” Then, for my mom, a Taxco Plate, without exception (beef taco, cheese enchilada with chili con carne, regular cheese enchilada, guacamole tostada), and for me, either a Maxmilian’s Delight (beef enchilada, sour cream chicken enchilada, and a puffy crispy beef taco with guacamole) or, during any growth spurt, the king of all combo plates, the Special Mexican Dinner.

Everything was fast-moving: The waitstaff. The hosts. The cashiers. And, presumably, the kitchen staff. Your order appeared in front of you in . . . four minutes? Two minutes? Ninety seconds? Negative time? And always with a warning: “The plate is hot.” This was an understatement. The plate was a health hazard. You touch it, you quite literally get burned. Even as a child, I thought, This has to violate some kind of ordinance.

I bet we were out of there and back into our orange Gremlin in about thirty minutes.

But here’s the thing: we never felt rushed. El Fenix had figured out a certain balance of service and welcome. It infused every moment. You were never wanting, but you were never moved along.

Everyone in Texas keeps track of a local Tex-Mex hierarchy in their mind. For me, it was El Fenix and El Chico (tie), then Tachito’s and Tejano. We started demoting El Chico after fried ice cream popped up on the menu. Even to my adolescent mind, it seemed like a trick, a gimmick, a betrayal, a corruption of physics. Worse is what it meant for the El Chico brand: It was becoming something unacceptable for an eighties Tex-Mex chain. It was becoming (gasp) fancy.

(Also, Red Bird was going downhill. Foley’s? Foley’s?! But that freaky ice cream had something to do with it, I’m sure.)

Today, when I’m visiting my mom, we always make a pilgrimage to the 58-year-old downtown Dallas El Fenix. It’s the flagship location of the oldest Tex-Mex restaurant chain in the state, and it’s the beating heart of a certain style of Tex-Mex that is as much a part of growing up in Dallas as the Cowboys logo. It’s food, sure. But it’s also an uncanny-valley decor and a consistency of flavor and service that hasn’t wavered over my lifetime, even after the founding Martinez family sold the business a few years back. Just as important as all that is a gracious intensity that defies the natural laws of restaurants.

El Fenix wins