Chelino's proves you can go home again

Marcelino Garcia recently moved his empire of Chelino's Mexican Restaurants into a new Oklahoma City location — the last building he ever worked in where he didn't write the checks.
by Dave Cathey Published: March 6, 2013

When Marcelino Garcia opened his newest Chelino's Mexican Restaurant last month, his career in the restaurant business literally came full circle.

Garcia arrived in Oklahoma City in 1979 at 15-years-old with 36 cents to his name. Last month he celebrated 24 years as an independent operator of multiple units, which might not have happened had he not supplemented his first job at Furr's Cafeteria with a part-time gig at a new south Oklahoma City Mexican cafe owned by Cesar Aita, better known by the name his restaurants bore: Nino.

Garcia's newest Chelino's, 6509 NW Expressway, is in the last building he worked in where he wasn't signing the checks, and it was one of the last Nino's Mexican Restaurants Nino Aita, who died in June at the age of 69, ever opened.

“Nino gave me a chance,” Garcia said. “Whether he is living or not, Nino is my hero. He taught me everything.”

Garcia climbed the ladder at Nino's, washing dishes and learning to make enchiladas by watching the cooks. Garcia pitched in to help cook one day when the kitchen was short-handed and pretty soon he was learning the whole menu and his dishwashing days were over. When the kitchen manager's health failed, Garcia found himself the new boss of the stove.

As Nino's grew to five restaurants across Oklahoma City, Garcia made his way out of the kitchen and into management, first as assistant and eventually general manager of two stores including the one at 6509 NW Expressway.

After 10 years of learning from Nino, Garcia approached his boss about starting his own place. He had an idea for a place to use the flavors of his birthplace in Calvillo, Mexico, to complement the menu Nino learned from his days at El Charrito.

“When I told Nino I wanted to open my own place, he didn't say anything, he just handed me a key,” Garcia said, the memory fresh as one of the tortillas coming off a conveyor belt in his new dining room. “The key was to his warehouse. He said, ‘Take whatever you need: tables, chairs equipment — anything.'”

Garcia said he took his mentor up on the offer, making a list of things he'd taken on spec.

“He told me, ‘If it doesn't work out, you can always come back home. You will always have a home here.'”

And Garcia has returned home — not as a failure, but as the owner of 13 restaurants, two import stores, an ice cream factory, a bakery, a meat market, an event center, a banquet hall and a produce distribution company — not to mention a founding member of the Latino Development Agency.

When he wasn't starting new restaurants and businesses, Garcia was raising five children with his wife Esperanta — small papas fritas compared with the nine brothers and five sisters Garcia grew up with in Calvillo.

The newest Chelino's moved from a spot down NW Expressway on the corner of Council Road, now occupied by Abuelita's. The new Chelino's is second in size only the Bricktown location.

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by Dave Cathey
Food Editor
The Oklahoman's food editor, Dave Cathey, keeps his eye on culinary arts and serves up news and reviews from Oklahoma’s booming food scene.
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