Happy 30th, Los Vaqueros

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Posted August 23, 2013 by LAURIE BARKER JAMES in Blotch
Like most Los Vaqueros entrees, the Don Juan Coco Von is named after a Cisneros family member. Photo by Lee Chastain.Like most Los Vaqueros entrees, the Don Juan Coco Von is named after a Cisneros family member. Photo by Lee Chastain.

To celebrate the 30th anniversary of Los Vaqueros, all three locations –– the Stockyards, TCU, and Weatherford –– are offering “throwback specials,” entrées and drinks priced as they were back when the restaurant started in Fort Worth in ’83. Back then, most of the entrées were under $5, and beer was less than a buck.

The Los Vaqueros empire began in 1979, when Johnny Cisneros Jr. and wife Kiki Cisneros decided they were tired of working for other people. Armed with a few family recipes and the Cisneroses’ two decades of experience cooking in various restaurants, they started their first eatery, Mi Casa. Sons Johnny III and Michael worked at the family business after school and on weekends, said Vicki Cisneros, who married high school sweetheart Johnny III around the time Jr. decided they needed a bigger restaurant. The original Los Vaqueros opened at 2609 Main St., not too far from the current location.

“Everyone knows it as ‘the Mexican restaurant across from Billy Bob’s,’ ” Vicki said.

Newlyweds Johnny III and Vicki became the general managers, with younger Cisneroses also working the kitchen. The kitchen, Vicki said, crafts “whole-food Mexican, made from scratch.” Many of the entrées are named for family members.

“To get your name on the menu, you have to marry a Cisneros or be a Cisneros brother or sister or best friend,” she said.

One of the dishes, the Don Juan Coco Von, is a reflection of Johnny Jr.’s sense of humor. “That’s my father-in-law’s dish,” Vicki said.

On the original menu, the dish was spelled correctly –– coq au vin, chicken steeped in mushrooms and burgundy. But Jr. objected to the name, saying it was “too French” and not Mexican enough. Thus was born the Don Juan Coco Von, a chicken with ranchero sauce and sautéed fresh mushrooms with burgundy on top.

By1993, the Cisneros family was on the hunt for bigger property. Ultimately, they bought the historic D. Hart building in the Stockyards from a local developer. Without a lot of ready cash, Vicki said the renovation of the building was a DIY effort, with a small contracting company and a small army of the Cisneroses’ family and friends.

“It was 34,000 feet of a shell that couldn’t really be changed externally,” Vicki said.

The family completed renovation a few years later, and Los Vaqueros-Stockyards is one of the few places in town where a party of 30 can eat on a Saturday night and request separate checks without a problem.

Expansion came naturally. In 2007, the family assumed a lease on the former Jubilee Trail House near Weatherford. Vicki’s brother William Wright came on board to run the new restaurant, which relocated to its current home at the Crown Valley Golf Club in 2011.

In 2009, the family opened a third restaurant, this one in the TCU area. At first, it seemed like a great fit. The family invested a lot of time and personal capital in the building, which was on the ground floor of the GrandMarc at Westberry Place apartments. Cisneros called the location her “dream store.”

First came the ripples from the economic recession, and then there were the parking issues. As the first-floor tenant, the restaurant had a designated set of parking spaces in the adjacent high-rise garage –– spaces often taken by TCU students and other GrandMarc residents or guests. Non-TCU customers were hampered by lack of available parking and the ongoing construction on West Berry Street. Vicki said the family asked GrandMarc management to address the parking violators or allow valet parking.

The conversation was a nonstarter, unfortunately, and being the first restaurant in a new building without enough freestanding parking did the restaurant in.

“The kinks hadn’t been worked out, and we did not have enough retained earnings to wait another year,” she said. “That was the worst year in all our locations.”

Los Vaqueros’ University location closed in 2010.

The family regrouped. When the current space on Cockrell Avenue became available in 2012 (formerly home to Ol’ Rips), Los Vaqueros-University was reborn. Michael manages the restaurant, which, fortunately, has a much better parking arrangement. And the University location now has delivery service for the TCU area, run with what Vicki calls The Enchilada Mobile.

Vicki said Los Vaqueros really is a family affair, and that’s what has kept customers returning. On any day in any location, a Cisneros family member will be onsite. Vicki and Johnny III’s three daughters and Michael’s son have all pitched in at some point or another.

“Without all of us, it doesn’t happen,” she said.

Today (Friday) is customer appreciation day. Appetizers are free 5-7pm at all three locations, and there’s live entertainment all day long.

Today also marks the launch of Los Vaqueros’ specialty cocktail menu, shot menu, and tequila flights.

And tomorrow night will be the big bash, with the Steve Helms Band from 9 p.m. ’til midnight and a free buffet and cash bar.


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