Tex-Mex News

Classic Dallas Tex-Mex comes back to life in storied El Fenix location

Classic Dallas Tex-Mex comes back to life in storied El Fenix location

Popocatepetl Y Iztaccihuatl mexican romeo juliet
One of the murals depicts Popocatepetl and Iztaccíhuatl, the Aztec Romeo and Juliet. Photo courtesy of Saatchi

A classic Dallas Tex-Mex that's been dormant for more than a decade is ready to rise again. Casa Rosa, which once ruled the Park Cities from its Inwood Village location, is being revived by owner Gilbert Cuellar Jr., who will open at an address with its own storied past: the former El Fenix at 5622 Lemmon Ave., in the Lemmonwood Shopping Center, built in 1961.

A renovation of the space is underway, and Cuellar says his goal is to be open in early 2022.

Casa Rosa was founded in 1981, part of the El Chico family of restaurants, as a slightly more upscale concept than El Chico, though with its same dedication to reliable, well-done Tex-Mex at its core.

In a 1996 review, critic Mary Brown Malouf noted that Casa Rosa was the de facto Tex-Mex for its Park Cities neighborhood, calling it "one of the prettier Mexican restaurants around — with its deep heart-colored walls, heavy carved moldings and furnishings, and giant Spanish paintings," and applauding its well executed food and exciting menu.

After an ownership change, the restaurant was rebranded in 2003 as a Cantina Laredo; by 2013, it was closed to make way for the Trader Joe's.

Gilbert went on to other concepts such as Cuellar's Fajita Ranch, which he co-opened with his cousin John Cuellar in 2016.

"Bringing back Casa Rosa was probably the furthest thing from my mind," Gilbert says. "But I got a call from a real estate person, who asked if I wanted to see this restaurant space that had closed. When we got there, I was amazed it was the El Fenix space. I love old buildings like that, steeped in history. It was a request from the landlord, who asked if we could put Casa Rosa there, because she had enjoyed going to the Inwood Village restaurant all those years."

His goal is to evoke the spirit of Casa Rosa, including bringing back the key elements people reminisce about the most.

"No. 1 is the large murals," he says. "There were two big paintings on the wall, originally done by artist Frank Boerder, and we're replicating those in scale and content. People who went there remember them vividly. One is a depiction of the legend of the Mexican Romeo & Juliet, holding each other in death on a volcano. It was a recreation of traditional Mexican calendar art. The other is of a woman with a letter on a road in Mexico."

"No. 2 is the planter and the skylight," he says. "The original Cast Rosa was designed to create the look of a Mexican courtyard. We had a skylight with a planter underneath, and we're going to recreate that."

"No. 3 is the pink," he says. "The restaurant was named after two houses, side by side, that my father had built. They were called Casa Rosa. So we'll definitely have pink elements. It's about my love of my family and the house we all knew as home."

The food is Tex-Mex, with a little something extra.

"The thing about Casa Rosa, what's special beyond the fact that we do a very good job at what we do, is that we know what people want," he says. "The heart and soul of our menu is our Tex-Mex."

We're talking enchiladas, tamales, quesadillas, fajitas. But they'll also cycle in specials, some of which may achieve permanent status.

"My father and mother would find recipes they liked and recreate them," he says. "We'll bring back those recipes, and run specials for three to six months or longer if people like them. The goal is to always have something new to try."

The other special thing about this revival is his partner.

"I wouldn't do this alone, I knew I wanted to find someone to help me run it and I reached out to my son-in-law, Michael Fleetwood," Gilbert says. "So this represents two things: the return of Casa Rosa back to Dallas and the third generation of the family."