BY KATHLEEN FURORE
EDITOR’S NOTE: A few months ago, I received an email from Gloria Reyna, one of four owners of Matt’s El Rancho Restaurant in Austin, Texas. She reminded me that we had met at a Texas Restaurant Association (TRA) Marketplace convention several years ago, and that I had asked her to send me information about the restaurant. “I thought it was time to send you a little information since this year on July 6, 2017, we will celebrate 65 years of doing business,” Reyna wrote. And she ended the letter with an invitation to visit to “experience what thousands of families have for 65 years!” I don’t know when I’ll have time to travel to Austin—but there is time now to share the story of Matt’s El Rancho, in celebration of the restaurant’s milestone anniversary.
“WE MAKE ALL OF OUR MENU ITEMS FROM SCRATCH DAILY, INCLUDING OUR DESSERTS. WE HAVE OUR OWN IN-HOUSE TORTILLA FACTORY WHERE WE COOK AND GRIND OUR NON-GMO CORN TO MAKE OUR TORTILLAS AND CHIPS. IN ADDITION, WE ALSO MAKE OUR FLOUR TORTILLAS, AND SQUEEZE OUR OWN ORANGE, LIME AND GRAPEFRUIT JUICE TO MAKE OUR MARGARITAS AND MARTINI’S.”
–GLORIA REYNA, owner
It’s a story that begins, quite inauspiciously, with a wooden pushcart.
In 1923, a then-6-year-old boy named Matt Martinez began selling tamales from that pushcart at El Original, his father’s restaurant located near the Texas state capitol. It was Matt’s first foray into foodservice—one that would eventually lead him to East 1st Street in downtown Austin, where he and his wife Janie opened El Rancho in 1952.
It wasn’t a big establishment back then: just 40 seats. And the menu wasn’t big, either: mostly just blue-plate specials like chicken fried steak, and maybe an enchilada or two thrown in the menu for good measure. Janie cooked—everything from scratch, of course; Matt worked out front, handing out business cards. According to a 2002 story in the Austin American Statesman, he made a promise to potential customers: “If you don’t like it, you don’t have to pay for it.” The approach worked. The enchiladas caught on, eventually replacing the blue plate specials.
A LONG-TIME LOCAL FAVORITE
Since its debut in 1952, Matt’s El Rancho has gained legendary status as “The King of Mexican Food.” It has earned that title by staying true to tradition. “There haven’t been a lot of changes to our menu because we have so many long-time guests here who have been coming since they were children,” says General Manager Paul Counter, who has been with Matt’s El Rancho for three years.
One of the favorites, which has been served for generations: the Bob Armstrong Dip, which the family created in the early 1970s. “Our Bob Armstrong Dip is trade marked, and I venture to say that there is not a Mexican restaurant in the United States that doesn’t have a version of our famous dip!” Reyna says. So famous is the dip that it was featured in Bon Apetit magazine in January 2017. According to Bon Appetit, “The signature dish at Matt’s El Rancho in Austin, Texas, [is] named after former Texas land commissioner Bob Armstrong, who one day asked them to make him ‘something different.’ What resulted was a now-legendary layered dip of taco meat, queso, guacamole, sour cream, and pico de gallo.” But it is more than that dip that keeps customers coming.
“We make all of our menu items from scratch daily, including our desserts,” Reyna says. “We have our own in-house tortilla factory where we cook and grind our non-GMO corn to make our tortillas and chips. In addition, we also make our ﬂ our tortillas, and squeeze our own orange, lime and grapefruit juice to make our Margaritas and Martinis.”
Matt’s El Rancho has counted (and continues to count) politicians, musicians, and actors among its regular customers. “LBJ [President Lyndon Baines Johnson] was a frequent guest,” says Counter, who notes that restaurant staff frequently cooked for large parties at the president’s ranch. “He would also come into the restaurant—he loved our chiles rellenos,” Counter adds. LBJ even had El Rancho food ﬂown to Washington, D.C. so he could feast on his favorites from the White House! Mark White, governor of Texas from 1983 to 1987 (who passed away Aug. 5) was also a fan. “The ﬁrst thing he had to have when he came to Austin was food from El Rancho,” Counter relates. Other famous customers include actor Dennis Quaid and Billy Gibbons of the band ZZ Top. “You never know who you’ll run into!” Counter laughs.
RECOGNITION AND AWARDS
Not only has Matt’s El Rancho received culinary kudos from its countless famous and not-so-famous customers—it has garnered positive media attention, too. The restaurant recently was one of ﬁve Mexican restaurants on Texas Highway Magazine’s list of Top 20 Comfort Foods in Texas; earned TripAdvisor’s 2017 Certiﬁ cate of Excellence; has been named one of the 13 best places in Austin for queso from FourSquare.com; and in May was featured on BBC Travel’s RSVP Abroad in a segment titled “The Barbecue vs Tex-Mex Debate.” At 65 years and still going strong—and with family members ensuring that quality remains consistent behind the scenes—those kinds of kudos are likely to continue (perhaps for another 65 years!).
“We are very proud of our family-owned business which is truly a one of a kind!” Reyna concludes