They held the annual CEDIA Expo in Dallas in October of last year - later than usual due to scheduling conflicts. Our company had initially decided not to attend the Expo because of the lateness in the calendar year for the show. When my boss tried to get his deposit back for the booth space that we reserved, the CEDIA people said, "Uh, no. We don't give refunds on deposits." Being a smart businessman, he decided to not just give the CEDIA people money for nothing, but to find a smaller booth than what we usually get and go ahead with a skeleton crew to man the show. I arrived early in Dallas and met up with our company's marketing guy who was also coming in early from Montreal to help set up the booth that he designed for us. We had time for lunch and I asked what he was up for. He said, "Let's get some Tex-Mex, but not the kind of 'Tex-Mex' they have in Montreal." With some help from one of the valet guys at our hotel, we were directed to a place called Avila's north and east of downtown Dallas.
I grew up with a family by the name of Avila and they pronounced their name as "ah-VEE-la". I have a friend in the Quad Cities with the last name of Avila and he pronounces it as "AH-vee-la". The Avila family that owns the restaurant in Dallas pronounces it as "ah-vee-LA" - at least that's how the lady who I asked at the restaurant as to how they pronounced the name. Avila's in Dallas has been open for 30 years and has a somewhat interesting story, complete with family drama.
Anita Martinez was a hair dresser and had a shop next to her father's Mexican grocery store on McKinnon Street in Dallas. But she also was a cook, making delicious Mexican foods for her family, friends and clients. When someone she knew was sick, she'd make food and deliver it to their homes.
Anita Martinez met Octavio Avila toward the end of World War II and they eventually married in 1946. The couple moved to a house on Maple Ave. near the Oak Lawn neighborhood to start a family. The Avila's eventually had four children - two boys and two girls. While Octavio ran a shoe repair business, Anita continued her hairdressing career by having a small shop in the front of the duplex that the family owned. She sometimes got paid by her clients in the form of groceries that she used to help feed her family.
As their family grew, Octavio and Anita had always hoped to work in the same building. When a spot opened up next Octavio's shoe repair shop, Anita thought about moving her salon there. But then she realized - what if something were to happen to Octavio and she had to take over the business? She didn't know the first thing about shoe repair. And Octavio was no hair dresser, either, if something were to happen to her. The two decided to close their respective businesses - Anita had been a hair dresser for over 30 years - and with absolutely no prior experience in the restaurant business they turned both sides of the duplex they owned - including Anita's small two room hair salon - into a restaurant in January of 1986.
It was Anita and Octavio who were working in the restaurant - the other children were grown and gone from the nest. But younger son Ricardo - also known as Ricky - came back to help with the restaurant in 1987. He quickly became the face of the place and was fully running the restaurant for his mother after Octavio Avila passed away in 2005. In 2009, Avila's was featured on Diners, Drive-ins and Dives with Ricky making his mother's special brisket tacos and pork tamales. Suddenly, business began to boom after the episode was aired on the Food Network.
And this is where the family drama ensued.
Sometime just before or just after the "Triple D" episode ran, Ricky Avila secretly filed papers that showed him as the owner of the restaurant. Once Anita Avila and her other children found that Ricky had filed the paper work, they filed a lawsuit in January of 2010 to re-assert Anita as the owner of the restaurant. A full-fledged legal war to oust Ricky from the family restaurant was now underway.
In February of 2010, Ricky had decided to take a vacation to Hawaii with his girlfriend to get away from all the legal proceedings. It would have been the first vacation he'd had in 20 years. When he got off the flight in Los Angeles, he had an urgent message to contact his lawyer in Dallas. It appeared that his mother and siblings were in the midst of taking control of the restaurant. Anita Avila was not in good health, but she still owned the building that housed the restaurant. Her older son, Octavio, Jr., had gone into the restaurant and fired much of the staff.
When Ricky came back, he filed a restraining order to keep his family members from taking over the restaurant. He said he had been planning either a renovation of the restaurant, or even a full-scale move to a new location. One night, Ricky went in with some helpers and they completely gutted the restaurant, even putting a hole in the wall where the Diners, Drive-ins and Dives plaque was hung. They took out everything, furniture, fixtures and even the walk-in cooler in the kitchen.
Once Octavio, Jr. got back into the gutted building, he decided to rebuild the restaurant, but not before more lawsuits and countersuits flew back and forth between family members. Octavio, Jr. was in building trades and he built out the new Anita's, while his sister Anna Maria Martinez came in to run the kitchen using the same recipes her mom had given her over the years. They reopened in April of 2010.
Ricky Avila eventually opened a new restaurant - Ricky Avila's Mextopia - also in April of 2010, not too far from the Avila's location. However, for a myriad of reasons it didn't last more than a couple three years before he eventually closed up the restaurant in January of 2013 and eventually moved to Hawaii with his girlfriend to run a bed and breakfast on the big island.
Anita Avila passed away in early January of 2014 at the age of 91. Anna Marie Martinez continues to run the restaurant today.
We found Avila's on Maple Avenue, about a 10 minute drive from our hotel. (see map) There's some parking off to the side of the building and more available in a lot next door. We got there around 12:30 in the midst of the lunch rush. We got what was the last table in the small front room with the corrugated metal bar front. Our server, Anna, came over with a couple of menus for us to look through. I got a margarita while my co-worker, Mitch, got a Negra Modelo beer.
The first thing we got on the table were a basket of fresh chips and some salsa. Now, the salsa had a major kick to it. It was spicy, but not so much that you couldn't get the fresh tomato flavor of the salsa. The chips had a nice crispness to them.
While Anita Avila grew up in Texas, her husband had family roots in Mexico. She learned to make many traditional Mexican foods that her husband grew up with, but turned them into her own with a Texas twist. The Avila family is famous for their tamales, brisket tacos, enchiladas, and grilled entrees such as a grilled marinated steak or chicken breast, and fajitas.
I had to try a little bit of everything. I was really interested in getting a beef-filled chile relleno, but I went with a couple of brisket enchiladas topped with the tomatillo sauce. A side of Mexican rice and beans came with the enchiladas. And they weren't refried beans, which I don't care for all that much.
Mitch went with the Triple D Special - a brisket gordita, a pork tamale, and a bean and beef soup. He really didn't know what to get because - well, as he said Tex-Mex in Montreal is completely different from Tex-Mex in Dallas. It, too, came with a side of rice and beans.
I have to say that the brisket enchiladas were spectacular. The beef was moist and tender. With the cheese and tomatillo sauce on top, there were a lot of great taste sensations going on all at once. They weren't big, but they were excellent.
The brisket taco was equally excellent. Once again, the brisket was moist, tender and flavorful. I had a couple of bites of the brisket taco to see how the seasoned beef tasted before I doctored it up with some of the fresh guacamole, pico de gallo, rice and beans. There was a lot of stuff going on, taste wise, with the taco after that.
And now, let me talk about the beans - they were out of this world. These were whole beans in a broth that had a slight spicy taste to them. I would crawl back to Avila's just for the beans, they were that good. I'd never had Mexican beans that tasted that fresh and that good.
Now, Mitch wasn't sure at first that he liked his lunch. He'd never had a gordita before and he had never had a tamale. I had to show him that you had to take off the corn husk before eating the tamale. The beef and bean soup looked like it was basically the beans they had on the side with ground beef mixed in. While he was eating, he didn't seem to enjoy the meal all that much. Had I known that he REALLY didn't know what Tex-Mex food really was, I would have helped him figure out what he wanted for lunch.
As we were leaving, I went out front to take a picture of the front of the small restaurant. There's an outdoor patio area and off to the side were a line of cactus. I tried to squeeze around a table and promptly ran my left side into a cactus. Oh my GOD!!! I was pulling little needles out of my side for the next four hours. It doesn't take much for them to jump off the cactus and into your skin under your shirt.
I double checked with Mitch to make sure that he liked what he got. He had a few moments to decipher what he had and he said, "Yeah, I liked it. I thought it was interesting." I wasn't certain that he was saying that to make me feel better about our choice for lunch.
While I felt bad that Mitch didn't appear to like his lunch while he was eating, he's since assured me that he's had time to figure that he really liked what he had to eat that day. I have to say that my lunch at Avila's was simply outstanding. It was one of the more interesting and great tasting Mexican restaurants I've ever visited. Everything was so fresh and authentic, so much unlike chain restaurants that "American-ize" Mexican food most of the time. The brisket enchiladas and the brisket tacos were tremendous. I love little family restaurants like Avila's and even with the turmoil that ensued a few years back, this was one of the best Mexican meals I've ever had. CEDIA will be back in Dallas in September and I will definitely be going back to Avila's - even if it's just for the beans!