“I was really nervous when we opened,” he said. “Big places like this can be a pain in the butt!”
But the risk was well worth it for Garcia, who relishes this homecoming of sorts.
“When we opened, I felt all of my emotions at once,” he said. “It was like my wedding day.”
The menu at the new spot is mostly the same large array of Tex-Mex mixed with favorites from Calvillo. The menu did expand late in 2012, adding a selection of desserts and appetizers. The menu at the new place also includes an homage to the building's first occupant.
“When I was still cooking, Nino would come into the kitchen and say, ‘Hey, Guero — (that's what he called me because I was young) make me some enchiladas with a couple of fried eggs on top.' That was his favorite thing to eat.”
Within menu, next to a picture of Nino in his cowboy hat, you'll find the Nino's special, which includes the aforementioned customized enchiladas.
Garcia said if one of his children ever do the same for him, the dish would probably be the Burrito Norteno, which is a smothered burrito stuffed with grilled skirt steak.
Among the desserts is a Mexican Apple Pie, which is a hardy slice of apple pie served on a sizzling comal with a scoop of Chelino's house-made ice cream. When it arrives at the table, it's drizzled with brandy butter for a mouthwatering effect. And the flavor doesn't disappoint.
Garcia said his biggest challenge is in maintaining kitchen quality with so many locations. He said each kitchen is outfitted with a manual and each cook is trained to follow it, but equipment and personality bring variables that can be difficult to manage.
“The cook might want to add just a little bit more or less of something, or the heat might be a little too low or a little too high,” Garcia shrugged. “It's tough sometimes, but I have employees that have been with me 10, 15 even the whole 24 years. So I have to trust them.”
The proof of Chelino's quality is in its overwhelming popularity and the restaurants it has borne.
“I count 27 Mexican restaurants that have been opened by people that used to work for me,” Garcia said with conspicuous pride. “People ask me if I worry about the competition, but how can I not be happy for them the way Nino was happy for me?”
Garcia celebrated 24 years in business in February, and timing truly was everything. When he opened his first store in an old Dairy Queen on South Walker back in 1989, the time was right for introducing authentic Mexican flavors into the market. If El Charrito is at the head of the class in the history of Oklahoma City's Mexican food, Chelino's is only a couple of rows behind — seated happily in the shadow of Nino's.
The newest member of the Chelino's family is open daily for lunch and dinner. For more information, including store hours, call 728-2770.