A rich history
Martinez family turned tiny restaurant into an Austin institution

Austin American Statesman July 7, 2002

By Gordon Davies

XXXWhen Matt’s El Rancho first opened its doors in 1952, the menu featured only blue-plate specials, such as chicken fried steak. I was the occasional enchilada special, however, that ultimately garnered the most attention and it wasn’t long afterward that Mexican food began to take over the menu.

XXXSome of the early patrons may have remembered Matt Martinez as the little boy on Congress Avenue with a wooden pushcart selling tamales from his father’s restaurant, El Original. More recent memories would have been on Matt’s Golden Gloves boxing championship and following professional career. Most likely, however the customers were preoccupied with the food and service that would later take Matt’s El Rancho to national fame.

XXXMatt’s El Rancho started with about 10 tables at a tiny location at 302 East First Street. Matt worked the front, while his wife Janie worked the kitchen. Already an excellent cook, Janie provided all the recipes and insisted on cooking from scratch with only fresh ingredients. Matt was host and waiter, making sure everyone felt like a regular customer. He promoted the restaurant by passing out business cards and even promised passersby, “If you don’t like it, you don’t have to pay for it.”

XXXNot surprisingly, 10 tables were never enough, and despite four expansions the Martinez family soon needed to open another location in a small house across the street. In 1983, during the downtown expansion boom, the Southland Financial Corporation of Dallas offered to purchase the Matt Martinez property on East First. Matt accepted the offer (although not immediately) and opened the current location on South Lamar in 1986. Today, the Four Seasons Hotel stands in the former location.

XXXFrom 1952 to the present, Matt’s El Rancho has gained legendary status as “The King of Mexican Food.” The food and service brought the customers, and the customers brought fame and celebrity to the little Mexican food restaurant that treats food like art and patrons like family.

XXXFormer longtime University of Texas Sports Publicist, Jones Ramsey (1960s through the early ‘80s) has been one of El Rancho’s biggest fans. He introduced so many sportswriters and editors to the El Rancho experience that they, in turn, asked the Martinez family to handle catering at the press box of UT’s home football games.

XXXPresident Lyndon Johnson had a soft spot for Matt’s famous chile rellenos and often sent a jet from Washington D.C. to pick up his El Rancho favorites.

XXXLooking at a 1952 menu, you’ll find it very similar to today’s, with the exception of the prices, of course. The older menu lists the Number 1 Diner for $1.35, and the Combination Plate for eighty-five cents. Beer on tap was a quarter.

XXXWe can never enjoy those prices again, but the family restaurant still adheres to the same made-from-scratch cooking philosophy based on fresh ingredients.

XXXAccording to the founding family, many items we now take for granted in almost any Tex-Mex restaurant, were in fact, El Rancho introductions. Among them are fresh lime juice margaritas, Mexican seafood dishes, and Bob Armstrong dip, to name a few.

XXXAt the center of it all is the Martinez family. Until recently, when advanced Parkinson’s disease limited his involvement, Matt always seemed to be at the front door, greeting old friends and new customers alike.