Miguel (Mike) Martinez, restaurateur, was born in 1890 in Hacienda del Potrero, Nuevo León, Mexico. He spent his early life in Mexico, where he started working for two cents a day as a silver-mine mule-train driver when he was seven years old to assist his widowed mother, who worked as a maid. In 1911, a year after the Mexican Revolution broke out, Martinez left Mexico for Dallas, Texas, where he found work as a laborer with the Dallas Railway and Terminal Company and as a dishwasher at the Oriental Hotel. He often also held down a third job making ice-cream cones or doing relief work at a local pool hall. He met Faustina Porras, also a Mexican immigrant, in Dallas, and they were married in 1915. They reared eight children. In 1918 they opened the Martinez Cafe, a one-room eatery on McKinney Street in "Little Mexico," the Mexican barrio. With the founding of the restaurant, they were among the first Texas Mexican entrepreneurs in the city. Initially, the cafe served only American dishes, but later Martinez, on the advice of friends, began offering Mexican cuisine; he was possibly the first restaurateur in Dallas to do so. One account notes that Martinez initiated the restaurant's specialization in Mexican food with an enchilada recipe from Mexico and a chili recipe from Texas, thus becoming the original pioneer of Tex-Mex food in Dallas. In 1922 he enlarged the cafe, renamed it El Fenix, and changed its menu to an exclusively Mexican one. He also painted the restaurant bright red, green, and yellow-El Fenix's trademark colors. The Martinez children worked in the restaurant as soon as they were tall enough to "stand up at the sink." Some sources assert that Martinez pioneered the "Mexican combination plate," with beans, a tamale, an enchilada, and rice. His daughter Irene suggested it was a move to save on dishwashing. El Fenix continued to prosper through the decades, although in 1942 it was closed one day a week due to food shortages caused by wartime rationing. In 1946 Martinez turned El Fenix over to his children. By 1953 they had three restaurants in the city.
Martinez became a benefactor of his hometown in Mexico. In the last years of his life he rebuilt and improved the village. Several months a year he resided in Hacienda del Potrero, personally supervising various municipal or construction activities. Over a two-year period he helped the village build its first electricity plant, oversaw a major roadway connecting it to the nearest railroad, and organized the drilling of water wells. He was on one of his missions to the village when he died of a heart attack at his home there on February 22, 1956. His family returned his body to Dallas, where he was buried.
El Fenix has remained a family-owned and operated business and has grown to approximately 750 employees. By 1992 Martinez's descendants had expanded the chain to sixteen restaurants in Texas and one in Oklahoma. They also began selling El Fenix hot sauce in supermarkets throughout the state.
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Betty Burtis Babione, Men of Achievement, 1958, Texas ed. (Dallas: Biographical Arts, 1958). Dallas Morning News, June 1, 1955, August 26, 1973. Pam Lange and Mindie Lazarus-Black, Family Business in Dallas: A Matter of Values (Dallas Public Library, 1982).
Dallas/Fort Worth Region
The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this entry.
Teresa Palomo Acosta,
Handbook of Texas Online,
accessed May 17, 2022,
Published by the Texas State Historical Association.
Original Publication Date:
April 1, 1995
This entry belongs to the following Handbook Special Projects: