Route 66 in the News
El Rancho Grande: Still Kicking
TULSA, Okla. - Longtime Tulsans remember when 11th Street was as much highway as city thoroughfare. Before the massive interstate highway system was built high above us all atop its spindly concrete columns and earthen mounds, and certainly long before that endless ribbon of concrete and asphalt was but a glimmer in President Eisenhower’s eye, cities like Tulsa had streets running through them that changed from state and federal highways into slow moving currents of hungry travelers and then back again into highways on the city’s outskirts. In the case of 11th Street, the motorists passing through were on the biggest river of all, none other than the mighty “Mother Road” known as Route 66.
It the late 1950s and 1960s, Americans were told to “See the USA in your Chevrolet” on their black and white television sets. And they did, some driving Packards, DeSotos, Studebakers, Pontiacs, Mercurys, Fords and even a few Edsels along with their Chevys. Enterprising folks found ways to divert trickles from the river of a highway into their diners and eateries for a short stopover and some good old American food before proceeding on down the restless road.
El Rancho Grande was just such a place, only the food was decidedly not diner food, or even American for that matter, but just as fast and just as coveted by both travelers and locals. It was called Tex-Mex, a coupling of Mexican and particularly Texas cuisines with an emphasis on chili powder, cumin and garlic seasoning, and with lots of meat and cheese ingredients. Tex-Mex was a hearty workingman’s cuisine. It reached the table quickly, was cheap and “stuck to your ribs.” It had already found a home in the Austin, Texas area from where the restaurant’s original owners Francisco and Guadalupe Rodriquez came. They left the Lone Star State in the 1940s because it had become saturated with small mom and pop restaurants devoted to Tex-Mex.
They apparently were in a hurry to introduce Tulsa to this new hybrid menu because they wasted no time in setting up a tamale wagon in the downtown area. This gave way to a small downtown restaurant. As far as anyone can tell it was the first Tex-Mex food being served in the city. Then in 1953 an ad appears in the city directory confirming El Rancho Grande Tex-Mex restaurant had moved to its current location on 11th Street. Not long after (know one is sure when) the wonderful old neon sign with its flashing bulb-lit arrow appeared on the front of the building pointing motorist to Tulsa’s newly located El Rancho Grande Mexican Food restaurant.
Salvador Gomez has worked in the restaurant since 1977. He left a dishwashing job at the swank Camelot Inn to come work for the Rodriquez family because he liked them, the food and loved to be around people. Thirty-two years later he helps manage the restaurant and has endless stories to tell of longtime, loyal customers who traveled down Route 66 once or twice a week to Tulsa for some good old El Rancho Grande original Tex-Mex. Whole families piled into the car and came to town for dinner and a movie.
Long-standing customers often tell Gomez they’ve tried other Mexican food restaurants, but the food keeps bringing them back. Consequently, the restaurant enjoys patronage from a fiercely loyal group of Tex-Mex aficionados.
“We have many longtime customers. They let us know we’re maintaining the tradition,” says co-owner John Walden. He and brother Jeff took over ownership of the restaurant in 1984 and together have managed it since 2005.
“We’ve tried very hard to maintain all the original Tex-Mex ingredients and recipes. When a long time customer tells us we’ve succeeded in preserving the El Rancho Grande Tex-Mex tradition, nothing could make us happier,” says John Walden.
In the 1970s the great motorist transition from city streets to expressways and interstate travel begin to take its toll on eateries along the city thoroughfares including 11th Street. Franchise chain restaurants sprang up like prairie weeds close to expressway exit ramps dumping cars off from six lanes of traffic and many locally owned, single unit restaurants began to disappear. But while Tulsa continued its relentless march south to the suburbs, low and behold, El Rancho Grande held on to its customer base, stayed open and is today the oldest operating restaurant along the old Route 66 corridor.
Over the years the neon sign beckoning to motorists began to fade. The once bright colors were muted and anemic. The neon tubing flickered spasmodically and the incandescent bulbs in the arrow became erratic and out of sync. The new owners having preserved much of the restaurant ambiance, sans the red and black color scheme and curly wrought iron 1950s look, felt the restoration of the sign would be the icing on the cake and it would once again reach out to passing motorists that a Tulsa tradition is alive and well.
Local sign companies were consulted on how best to proceed with the restoration. First it was determined the sign would need to remain attached to the building during restoration. Taking it down would trigger city sign permit requirements that could render the old sign totally out of compliance for further use. Therefore the sign was restored in place. The neon tubing was recreated and replaced. And the “flashing unit” driving the synchronized bulbs on the arrow was cleaned, repaired and reset to make the incandescent bulbs fire when they are supposed to fire rather than whenever they felt like it.
All along 11th Street there remain remnants of the city’s storied past of the last seven decades. Some remnants tell of a time when the city’s streets were vibrant conduits for motorists on their way to see the USA, stopping off for a short stay to mingle with locals and have a bite. The El Rancho Grande Mexican Food restaurant is one of those places still going strong. Drop by when you’re in the neighborhood and have a little taste of a Tulsa tradition.
~Charles Cantrell, GTRNews.com