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.
“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.