When Raphael Carreon was hired on as a dishwasher at El Chico’s in 1960, little did he know he was taking the first step up on a ladder of success. He soon rose through the ranks at the restaurant, becoming a waiter before being promoted to manager.
It didn’t, of course, stop there. He knew that by combining what he’d learned about the restaurant business at the venerable El Chico with the basics of what he calls “San Antonio-type” cooking (the Carreon family lived there before moving to Dallas when Raphael was 7) – a style he’d learned from his mother that involves using plenty fresh garlic, cilantro and spices – he could open an establishment of his own.
In 1975, he opened the first of two restaurants, Raphael’s on McKinney. It was what Carreon refers to as a Dallas “institution” until it closed in 1998 when he decided he’d like more free time. But he remains in the business because, in 1994, he opened the “little brother” of Raphael’s, Rafa’s Café Mexicano.
Today, Rafa’s is a thriving establishment, proof that Carreon’s formula for success is on the money. Located on West Lovers, it’s a pinch of paradise in the middle of strip mall central. Scads of potted tropical plants sit outside, and Latin music drifts from outdoor speakers. Close your eyes, listen and take in the aroma of the menu’s many offerings, and you might believe for a second you’re south of the border.
Inside, walls are painted in vibrant colors, and piñatas hang from the ceiling. Some of chef Felix Padron’s most popular dishes include Pechuga Milanesa (see recipe) and Snapper Felix. Try a Fiesta or fresh lime margarita from the bar.
Carreon credits his success to a loyal clientele, fresh ingredients and consistency. His three main chefs have been with him from 10 to 20 years.
There is a children’s menu (Rafa’s is kid-friendly, with butcher paper tablecloths and crayons) a full bar and a happy hour from 3-7 p.m. weekdays. Lunch specials are in the $7 range, and dinner entrees are $7-$15.
Brunch is served Saturdays and Sunday until 3 p.m.
RAFA’S CAFÉ MEXICANO
5617 W. LOVERS LANE
Open Tuesday-Sunday, 10 a.m.-11 p.m., closed Mondays
Breaded chicken breasts with sour cream sauce and fresh pico de gallo / Makes two servings
Two 8-10 oz. chicken breasts
1 to 2 eggs, beaten
2 cups Italian bread crumbs
Salt and pepper to taste
Pound chicken breasts flat and season with salt and pepper. Soak them in egg wash. Combine bread crumbs with a sprinkling of onion powder and garlic powder to taste. Coat egg-washed breasts with breading mixture on both sides, and grill on hot griddle or frying pan with melted butter. Cook on both sides, and let cooked breasts drain a bit on paper towel.
Sour cream sauce
Combine 8 oz. fresh sour cream with two teaspoons of fresh lime juice. Saute with leftover chicken broth in pan, and season with salt and pepper to flavor. Pour over chicken breasts, and top with a fresh sprig of cilantro.
Pico de gallo
1 tomato, diced
1 sweet onion, diced
2 small serrano peppers, chopped
2 tablespoons fresh cilantro, chopped
Combine ingredients, and add salt and pepper to taste. Serve as a side dish.
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