Like Chipotle but for North Texan Enchilada Lovers

Like Chipotle but for North Texan Enchilada Lovers

By Rob Curran

Mary Perez’s first act was to raise three sons single handedly in Fort Worth while working full-time in the nonprofit world. Her second act was to open her own restaurant. For her third act, she’s building the Chipotle of enchiladas.

She’s off to a good start. Her restaurant, Enchiladas Ole, now has three locations, and it has sat in the top five of TripAdvisor’s highest rated restaurants in Cowtown since she opened the first location in 2013. It was recently named as the readers’ choice of Fort Worth Magazine’s Best of TexMex 2024, unseating, at least temporarily, Joe T. Garcia’s, a nationally renowned institution (Enchiladas Ole has also attracted national attention, with a mention in one of USA Today’s Reader’s Choice Awards).

I heard about Enchiladas Ole from my father-in-law (or one of my fathers-in-law…I am blessed with two of them), Terry Moore. Terry, trained as an engineer, googled “best restaurant in Fort Worth” and was pointed by the review websites to Enchiladas Ole.  He became an enthusiastic regular, and volunteered in the kitchen so he could learn Perez’s secret sauce. Now he’s an investor.

Perez had worked for the Boys and Girls Clubs of America and the County Hospital in Fort Worth for more than 20 years when she finally gave in to one of her co-workers' appeals to jar the enchilada sauce she sometimes served at company events. For a couple of years, she just handed the jars out for free around the office. In 2011, her colleagues persuaded her to make a go of the food business.

Perez’s mother and father came from Spain and Mexico, respectively.  Her father had met her mother while he was doing military service overseas. She grew up in humble circumstances in Fort Worth.

“We didn’t go out,” she said. “My parents cooked all our meals at home.”

Her mother put some European twists on TexMex staples, and it was from her that Perez learned the sauces that she cooks today. In Perez’s mole, for example, she adds star anise to traditional Mexican ingredients, including cinnamon, pumpkin seeds, sesame seeds, and chocolate. Perez claims the star of anise means her mole is less likely to cause indigestion. 

Perez’s executive testers and staff have always been her sons. Once she became a single mom, “my paychecks only went so far,” she said. Like her parents, she had to sacrifice the kind of restaurant trips that most American families take, but refused to sacrifice quality or flavor, cooking restaurant-standard food at home.

After her colleagues persuaded her to make the food a business, in 2011, Perez focused on jarring her sauce. At that time, the only enchilada sauces she ever saw on shelves were Old El Paso cans. She and her sons jarred some of her sauces and she took them to the headquarters of Central Market. The supermarket chain made an order on the spot.

Mary Perez

Once she had jumped through all the health-and-safety hoops, Perez started bringing her  sauce to a distributor for labeling. At one stage, a man at the distribution warehouse insisted on helping her carry jars to her car. He introduced himself as Jerry Brockett, the chairman of the distributor, National Food. He admitted he was a big fan of the sauce, and promised to back her if she opened a restaurant.

A few days later, “I was visiting my mother at the cemetery, [it was] in a really bad part town,” said Perez. “I was driving down Sylvania, and saw a little building, a restaurant for lease.”

The staff was principally her sons and their girlfriends (it’s still a family business, but now the girlfriends are spouses, she says.)

Soon after the Sylvania location opened, Bud Kennedy, an “eats beat” writer for the “Startlegram,” as the Star Telegram is known in Fort Worth, dropped by.

The location was terrible, Kennedy said. There was no parking, and it was a sketchy part of town.

But the food? Kennedy could not get enough of it. The Yelp reviews soon flooded in corroborating sentiments.

The focus was enchiladas from the start.

Famously, Steve Ells, the founder of Chipotle, maintained a tight focus on burritos so that he could deliver fresh ingredients in a way that diverse customers could understand and trust. Perez has thrown in her lot with enchiladas.

“We don’t offer any shrimp dishes; we don't offer beef fajitas even,” said Perez. “We do enchiladas, and we do them super well, with these gourmet enchilada sauces. It’s just like Chipotle: you take one concept do it extremely well…instead of these giant menus, where four or five things are exceptional, and the rest is just mediocre. I did not want that.”

While many aficionados of Mexican food consider the enchilada a premium order, the dish has never received the hype in popular culture that other Mexican staples are celebrated with.

“I believe enchiladas have never gotten a fair shake…it’s always about the ‘mighty taco’ or the ‘supreme burrito,’” said Perez.

 “Because I come from the nonprofit world, all police officers, all homeless, all cancer patients, all widows, always eat on the house,” said Perez. This is not a publicity stunt: word quickly got around these groups, and she has always honored it.

Perez’s current Enchiladas Ole locations are the headquarters on Forest Park, near the zoo just  south of town, where Mary cooks; a location in North Richlands Hills (The only one I’ve never visited); and a former brew pub on Camp Bowie, west of town around Ridglea, which is decorated with a giant mural of Nicholas Cage for those who like a side of bonkers with their enchiladas-and-borracho beans. (It also has a Marti and Terry Moore room, my father-in-law’s proudest hour since the bathroom he renovated at another relative’s house was dubbed the Terry Moore Memorial Rest Room). Two new leases, one in Weatherford and one in Dallas, are under advanced negotiation. Perez also has arranged talks with an investment firm that specializes in expanding small chains into mid-sized chains. That firm’s goal would be to expand Enchiladas Ole concept to 50 locations, which is the level at which food businesses emerge as a beep on the radar of Big Money investors.

She has two trusted lieutenant chefs Rodrigo Solis and Alberto Alvarez. Either Perez or one of these lieutenants must train a new cook for four-to-six months in order for this person to learn the finer points of the menu and rise to Solis and Alvarez’s level. Perez currently has several students under her supervision at the Forest Park location.

Each chef learns the same system. Rice is cooked in a skillet on demand so that it’s fluffy; Perez said she sometimes makes 30 skillets of rice a day. No packaged sauces! The chefs cook the sauces from scratch every morning, each in a large pot. This freshness is clear to the taste. I bolted down the dishes on all occasions I ate Mary’s food, twice at the River Forest location and once at the Camp Bowie location. The combination of her smoked brisket (she’s considering opening a barbecue joint next to one of the Fort Worth restaurants) and the smoky hatch sauce in the New Mexico-style enchiladas is particularly distinctive. There’s a traditional Texan red ancho chili enchilada. Many of the reviews on TripAdvisor and Yelp rave about the brisket enchiladas. Mary says the creamy cheese-and-onion enchilada sauce is an old-school El Paso recipe that starts with a roux. 

Denton is one of the North Texas towns Perez is considering for expansion. Hopefully, she’ll do for the enchilada what Ells did for the burrito.