Sen. Kevin Eltife remembers eating at Gilbert's El Charro restaurant when he was in grade school.
When he learned Friday the locally owned restaurant had closed its doors for good after nearly seven decades in business, Eltife said he would miss what had become a "Tyler tradition."
A sign on the door of the restaurant on Fifth Street Friday read, "We would like to thank you for 69.5 years and three days of wonderful memories. We love yall. Gilbert's El Charro Rest. are now officially closed."
Although a sign on the original Gilbert's El Charro Restaurant on Erwin Street has said it was temporarily closed for kitchen remodeling and repairs since May 6, a co-owner of the company confirmed Friday the permanent closure of both restaurants, but said they were unable to comment further.
El Charro was one of the oldest family-owned restaurants in the area.
The late Gilberto Ramirez came to Texas from Reynosa, Mexico, at age 17 to look for work. In 1939, a restaurateur named Luis Diaz sold part of his Mexican café to Gilberto for $600. He bought out Diaz's share of the East Erwin Street business in 1943 and built a new restaurant farther east on Erwin in 1952. A decade later, he opened El Charro's No. 2 on Fifth Street. The family rebuilt No. 2 in 1997 after it was ravaged by a fire that started in the kitchen, according to earlier reports. Gilbert Sr.'s wife, Arabelia Ramirez, and their children have operated the restaurants since Gilbert Sr. died in 1975. All of the Ramirez children grew up around the restaurants and have had a hand in running the business.
Gus Ramirez recently retired from the family business to open his own restaurant, Gus' in Gresham. His youngest brother, Rudy, owns the Ramirez Family Restaurant in New Chapel Hill, while Gilbert Ramirez also retired and is working in real estate. Their sisters, Anna and Rosa, still were running El Charro, while Martha Ramirez is an elementary school teacher.
END OF ERA
Eltife, 54, said he grew up eating at El Charro and has continued to eat at both restaurants his entire life. His favorite dish was the crispy beef tacos.
"There's something about local, home-owned restaurants, where everybody knows everybody and you know the owners," Eltife said, adding that he tries to support locally owned restaurants whenever he can. Eltife served for six years on the Tyler City Council with Gus Ramirez, he added.
Gini Rainey, 64, of Tyler, recalls the night she became engaged to her husband at El Charro No. 2. In 1962, the restaurant was in an old converted house before it was rebuilt after a fire in 1997. Randy Rainey asked her to close her eyes and when she opened them back up, the ring was sitting on the table.
"I said, hmm, OK I suppose," she said, of the proposal.
When she started crying, one of the young Ramirez boys, she couldn't remember which one, asked her if something was wrong with her food, she said.
Mrs. Rainey, who owns Fire Station Auto Center, and her husband of 46 years, who is retired from Tyler Pipe, have been eating there almost weekly since 1966. While Rainey grew up eating at El Charro, Mrs. Rainey was raised in Minnesota and didn't know anything about Mexican food when she moved to Tyler in high school, she said. She wasn't a big fan at first, but her husband loved it, she said.
"No telling how many meals we've eaten there," she said, adding that her favorite meal was just about anything on the menu. She enjoyed the cheese enchilada dinner but said what she ordered depended on what she was in the mood for.
"It was all good to me," she said.
Mrs. Rainey, who was planning on going to El Charro Friday night before discovering it had closed, will miss everything about the restaurant. She said she enjoyed its convenience, ambiance and the people there.
"It's an end of an era really," she said. "They've been there so long … I just think it's sad."
Chad Chadwick, of Flint, said El Charro was his favorite place in Tyler to eat Tex-Mex.
"I celebrated birthdays, weddings, anniversaries and family gatherings there many times," he said. "If I had known they where shutting down, I would have gone in once more for an enchilada plate with a crispy taco a la carte and a margarita. Good Tex-Mex is hard to find."
He said the restaurant closing is almost like the passing of an old friend — "someone who was always there to comfort you and make you feel good; and now they're gone. I was lucky to have been able to enjoy their food as long as I did."
Nathan "Dwain" Hare, 58, who recently retired from FedEx, said he hated to hear of El Charro's closing.
"Monday is traditionally a nasty day at work, so my wife and I have for many years gone to El Charro on Erwin and treated ourselves with a mess of Mexican food and margaritas. When we would leave, Monday didn't seem so bad after all."
Hare said his wife of 20 years, Bobbie, ordered all sorts of things off the menu, but he stuck to the El Benavides just about every week.
"I am going to miss the special hot sauce as much as anything," he said. "We would many times go through two or three baskets of chips before we had our meal.
"It was not a fancy restaurant but just somewhere comfortable to get some good food at a good price and to walk out full."
Cathy Hirt said her family went to El Charro for lunch after church on Sundays for years. Her son, who is now 23, once called the restaurant "McCharro's" when he was little, she said.
"We will not find orange sauce at any other restaurant," Ms. Hirt said. It's "a sad day in Tyler."