Chester Martin Remembers Mexican Restaurants

Sunday, February 21, 2016 - by Chester Martin

It seems like ages since Chattanoogans got their first Mexican restaurants. It took forever to get our first one, but then the dam broke and they are now everywhere. For a long time there was a tiny hole-in-the-wall restaurant on the northeast corner of Market Street and 9th (now MLK), called "Mex Chili King." It only sold chili, and was only open at lunchtime. No tacos, burritos, nachos, or etc., which Taco Bell brought us years later. Mex Chili King's most interesting feature was the neon sign outside which showed a dark-skinned man wearing a big sombrero and eating a bowl of chili.

The man's hand (including spoon) moved up and down to look like he was eating. When you entered and took a seat, no one rushed over with a bowl of chips; you only placed your order for chili and waited. (It was excellent chili, by the way - always served with the little oyster crackers).

My own first experience with authentic Mexican food, however, was in the little border town of Matamoros, in Old Mexico, across from Brownsville, Tex. The year was 1946 and my uncle had invited us down to his home in the Lower Rio Grande Valley of Texas. He had left a clothing store business on Main Street to join in on a drive-in theater venture with his brother in law at the end of World War II. When the business was up and running, he invited my parents and me down for a visit. For an 11-year-old boy, the "Valley" was a magic place. Port Isabel with its old lighthouse was nearby on the Gulf of Mexico, Padre Island was off-shore (reached then only by small motor-launches),  there were free movies to watch at his theater, and there was MEXICO! First stop we made in that exotic country was a restaurant with the not-so-exotic name of "The Drive-In"! That is a Gringo name, indeed, but it was compellingly Mexican inside, filled with authentic Mexican decor - the food was top-notch, the servers all smilingly gracious.

I had never met a Mexican-style corn chip at the time, and the first one I tried hooked me for life! That restaurant was more like European restaurants than the ones we have today. We were served a meal of many courses which included "cabrito" (baby goat), roasted to perfection, white-wing pheasant, and everything was served with a special "mole" (sauce) to bring out the best of the flavor. The meal took forever, but we enjoyed the cool interior as we ate. My mother, my aunt and I ordered lime-ade over shaved ice from the bar. I was totally smitten by the experience - and never forgot the taste of those corn chips which started the meal.

As we left the Lower Rio Grande Valley to return home, we stopped at a drug store for some reason and I found 5-cent packs of corn chips which I bought for all my friends back home. I had no idea such were packaged for sale, but knew for certain they had not yet reached the Gringo markets of Tennessee.

On future trips to the Valley I grew aware that there was also a goodly number of Mexican restaurants on the American side of the border which I also liked to frequent. Later, In my Air Force years while stationed in San Antonio, Tex., I found the "Mexican" part of town right away, where I enjoyed Mexican food every time I got to town. We would be warned in advance "not" to go into the Mexican districts, but I always went there first. (I even took in some of those Mexican films now considered "Classics", even though I understood but little of the language). I should maybe point out here that my "Minor" subject at the University had been Spanish, and I liked all thing "Spanish" or "Latino".

Twenty years after discovering the beauties of Mexican food we still had no Mexican restaurant in Chattanooga. My wife and I liked the Gulf Coast area around Biloxi, Mississippi. I had been stationed there at Keesler AFB for a long while, and was familiar with all the good places. So we would drive there on occasion, and on one such trip while stopped at a traffic light in Montgomery, Ala., I looked down the street to the east and saw, lo-and-behold, a sign reading "Mexican Restaurant"! There was no time to stop, but as we continued, I kept asking myself why Chattanooga could not have one of those!

Years passed again, and then suddenly we got a "fast food" place called "Taco Bell". Its popularity was so great that it paved the way for hundreds more such restaurants to be started by immigrants throughout the country. These all hit just as the first great wave of "Latinos"  were getting a foothold in the U.S., meaning that there was plenty of "authentic" talent to operate them. This worked much like the "Greek" restaurants of an earlier day - where mom and pop would come to the U.S. and start a restaurant - then send money for other family to join them here - and then in a few years all the family would be driving Cadillacs.

(Chester Martin is a native Chattanoogan who is a talented painter as well as local historian. He and his wife, Pat, live in Brainerd. Mr. Martin can be reached at )

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