Mi Cocina in Klyde Warren Park opens Oct. 18, 2021.

published by Sarah Blaskovich, Dallas Morning News

Edgar Guevara wishes he could have stood in Mi Cocina’s kitchen in Dallas in June 1991, some 30 years ago, watching the chefs cook the restaurant’s first Tex-Mex dishes.

Guevara has been the CEO of the Dallas company for just under four years, but in that time, he’s gone through every menu item to try to re-create recipes that “lost their way” while the restaurant grew to more than 20 restaurants over three decades. He’s deep in the details, despite his job at the top.

Diana Goicoechea, a 21-year employee of the company, says Guevara’s dedication was right on time.

“I felt Mi Cocina was losing its soul,” she said. That couldn’t happen — not to a restaurant where she’s watched kids grow into adults. Not to a restaurant that has hosted celebrities like Elizabeth Hurley, Luke Wilson, Liv Tyler and Laura Bush. Not to the place Troy Aikman visits three times a week.

“People will say it’s just Tex-Mex. And it’s not just Tex-Mex,” Guevara says.

It’s “family,” as Goicoechea puts it.

As Mi Cocina celebrates its 30th birthday, Guevara reflects on its past. Mi Cocina was built by Dallas brothers Ray Washburne and Dick Washburne, their friend Bob McNutt, and chef Michael “Mico” Rodriguez, who is no longer involved.

Two significant milestones are fast approaching for the Dallas-bred company: On Oct. 18, 2021, Mi Cocina will open a new restaurant inside one of Dallas’ most iconic spots, Klyde Warren Park. And in early 2022, the company will relocate its Uptown Dallas restaurant to a new address on McKinney Avenue.

The two restaurants are just a mile apart, but Guevara is convinced that there are enough Mambo Taxi fans in Dallas to keep both afloat.

Mi Cocina, from the beginning

I really try to behave like we’re this little, local place — a collection of neighborhood restaurants,” Guevara says.

But Mi Cocina isn’t a little, local place. It’s a 30-year-old Tex-Mex company that has had a wealthy following since nearly the beginning.

The first Mi Cocina opened in summer 1991 at Preston Road and Forest Lane. It served the “potent” frozen margarita-sangria swirl we now call the Mambo Taxi, and its servers boldly accepted credit cards — Visa only — as noted in a 1991 restaurant review in The Dallas Morning News. The original restaurant in Preston Hollow is still in operation today.

By 1993, Mi Cocina had opened in Highland Park Village and was lauded for its skirt-steak fajitas, though our critic balked at the price: $9.95.

“Let it be said, these are Highland Park fajitas — and worthy of the title,” the story quipped. (Today, they cost $21.45.)

As Tex-Mex restaurants continued to blossom across the state, Mi Cocina kept up. The late Alan Peppard, a society reporter at The Dallas Morning News, called Mi Cocina “Tex-Mex gone big-time.”

By 1999, the restaurant in Highland Park Village was “the most popular ‘see and be seen’ Tex-Mex restaurant in the state,” another reporter wrote.

Highland Park remains one of the most lucrative Mi Cocinas — a place where regulars will often spot business owners and Dallas Cowboys players. Aikman is frequently there, eating an off-the-menu plate of healthy grilled chicken fajitas called the Larry North, named after the fitness exec.

“My girls grew up going there. They’ve been going since they were babies,” Aikman says. “For us, it’s part of the fabric of our family.”

No reservations

CEO Guevara has a tight grip on his vision for Mi Cocina.

When third-party delivery services started offering to deliver food for a hefty fee, Guevara avoided them. When restaurants launched ghost kitchens during the pandemic to stay afloat, he didn’t bite.

“That’s not who we are,” he says.

Said another way: He thinks Mi Cocina will retain its regulars without all that extra stuff.

Catering accounts for a small 2 to 3% of the business — but it’s at some of those events where heads of state and business leaders have met up to talk behind closed doors, all while eating tacos, fajitas and enchiladas that are special to Texas.

Mi Cocina still does not accept reservations at any of its restaurants. It’s a bit of an inconvenience for customers, but it’s part of the charm, Guevara says.

“Part of the experience is, you go drink a Mambo and chat,” he says. “If you want to eat at 7, maybe you come at 6.”

And people really do it. The Highland Park restaurant sees the longest waits during the week, but nearly every Mi Cocina has a wait list on a typical Friday or Saturday night.

“Most people don’t even look at a menu,” Goicoechea says. They’ve been here before.

Why Mi Cocina is going green

When Mi Cocina on the Park opens at Klyde Warren Park, it’ll be the most unique one so far, says co-founder Dick Washburne.

Even before Mi Cocina moved in, the glassed-wall restaurant cost $10 million to build. It was home to Savor, a restaurant that never brought enough attention to the park. Klyde Warren Park’s Chairman of the Board Jody Grant and his team believe locally-made fajitas and margaritas are a surer bet. And that’s important, because 8% of sales go back to the privately-funded Klyde Warren Park.

If Mi Cocina succeeds, the park does, too.

Guevara wouldn’t specify how much they spent on renovations to morph the iconic building created by architect Thomas Phifer into a more useful space. The front door will now be the main restaurant and patio area, where customers can order all the typical Mi Cocina dishes and drinks found at other locations. In the middle of the restaurant, a bar begs to be found, almost as if it were a hideout. At the back, a separate patio and restaurant will serve grab and go food from an area called La Parada.

At La Parada, parkgoers can buy canned margaritas and picnic-style lunches and dinners — each which can be taken out on the lawn. Guevara is also using La Parada as an “incubator” for new menu items like brisket taquitos and the double double cheeseburger from sibling restaurant Taco Diner.

All but one Taco Diner has closed, and for now, Guevara’s focus is on Mi Cocina.

The next four months will be notable. Guevara is intent upon cooking like they did when it all started, 30 years ago.

“It’s really about the love you put in the food,” he says, “because everyone around here makes Tex-Mex food.”

Mi Cocina on the Park, expected to open Oct. 18, 2021, will be at 2000 Woodall Rodgers Freeway, Dallas.

Mi Cocina’s new Uptown Dallas restaurant, expected to open in January 2022, will be at 3232 McKinney Ave., Dallas. The existing Mi Cocina in Uptown, at 3699 McKinney Ave. in West Village, will remain open until late 2021.