When waiter Daniel Barrientos proudly tells his customers that Mi Tierra Café has been open since 1951, he means that quite literally. No matter what the time, day or holiday, lovers of authentic Tex-Mex food can count on the landmark San Antonio restaurant to serve up chilaquiles famosos at 2 a.m., carnitas de puerco on Christmas Day, and freshly baked tortillas any day of the week.
“It’s like a little place from Mexico,” says Barrientos, who’s worked at Mi Tierra since arriving from Monterey, Mexico, five years ago. “You have the food. You have the music. And you have a very festive atmosphere that is like a museum of culture.”
Festooned with Christmas lights year-round, Mi Tierra (which translates “my home”) is a treasure of sights, sounds and smells for more than 2 million hungry customers who visit each year in San Antonio’s touristy El Mercado (Market Square). The 550-seat, family-owned eatery beckons diners to feast on its famous fajitas, sip margaritas, listen to strolling mariachis, and soak up a festive atmosphere created by Mexican immigrant Pete Cortez, who came to Texas in search of the American Dream.
He found it, and today that dream is alive and well as three generations of the Cortez family carry on a legacy of welcoming customers to the restaurant that never sleeps.
Sleepless in San Antonio
When Cortez opened his 26-by-50-foot restaurant in Market Square in 1951, he decided to stay open 24 hours a day to accommodate the lifestyles of the city’s residents. A nearby produce market operated around the clock, and farmers hungry for breakfast would arrive with their crops around 5 a.m. Employees of downtown businesses came later in the day and kept the then-50-seat restaurant busy during lunch and dinner hours. Downtown nightlife followed and, in the wee hours, the restaurant fed musicians, maintenance workers and anyone else with an early-morning Tex-Mex craving.
In fact, since Cortez hung up his “open” sign 55 years ago, Mi Tierra’s has closed only three times: a half day when President Kennedy was assassinated in 1963, one day “sometime in the 1960s” when fire knocked out the electricity, and another half day after Cortez died in 1984 so employees could attend his funeral.
Otherwise, the doors have been open, encouraging customers to visit day and night for decades. “To me, it’s comfort food,” says Robert Rodriquez, 64, who was a college student when he first ate at Mi Terra’s 46 years ago during the wee hours of the morning. Now once a week, he and friends stop by for breakfast. “I grew up on the Mexican border and I was overjoyed to see that a restaurant in town had piedras (cookies with raisins, nuts and icing). Like the other food on the menu, it is authentic. To me, it’s like home.”
Chasing the American Dream
After migrating from Guadalajara, Cortez lived with an aunt and uncle and worked in their grocery store in San Antonio, where he cut, processed and delivered meat. Then in 1941, while he was delivering meat to a small restaurant, the owner offered to sell him the three-table operation for $150. Cortez borrowed the money from his uncle and opened his first restaurant.
In 1951, Cortez purchased a second eatery in Market Square that he named Mi Tierra Café. Four years later, he expanded the place, including the addition of a Mexican bakery. In 1961, he convinced landlords and bankers to let him buy the whole block, and became a community advocate for restoring the historic district.
“My father was ambitious and a hard worker,” says David Cortez, 61, who with brothers George, 63, and Ruben, 46, have operated the sprawling restaurant since their father died. “He had the spirit of an entrepreneur and the passion to get things done. When the city was about to bulldoze Market (Square) for urban renewal, he became an activist. It took him nearly 10 years to get the market area recognized as an important part of San Antonio’s culture and heritage, but eventually the area was renovated rather than destroyed.”
Today, Mi Tierra is the crown jewel of Market Square, which features more than 125 shops. With more than 500 employees, the Cortez family also owns La Margarita, another Tex-Mex restaurant in the market, along with Pico De Gallo a few blocks away.
Pete Cortez’s devotion to his family and Hispanic tradition remains evident inside Mi Tierra’s. Adorning its walls are hundreds of photographs of family and Mexican celebrities, including a photo of Pete receiving a small business award from President Ronald Reagan. In a second dining area, a festive mural chronicles San Antonio’s history, while the bar’s décor includes mariachi costumes, instruments and Hispanic memorabilia.
When Cortez died, his children were left with the memory of a soft-spoken man determined both to preserve his culture and make America a better place. Besides the revitalization of Market Square, Pete was a prominent figure in the redevelopment of Alamo Plaza and the San Antonio Riverwalk, now favorites of tourists.
His children have continued that legacy, contributing to the beautification of a children’s park next to the nearby Santa Rosa Children’s Hospital and fund-raising efforts for the local Alameda Theater and Museo Americano Smithsonian, a Latin Museum affiliated with the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C.
David recalls his father saying that he was an American citizen by choice, not chance. “He wanted to be a citizen, not just a resident. For him it was the American Dream,” David says. “Where else could he come with nothing and build a business and leave a legacy for us?”
Almost 70 years after Cortez came to Texas in search of that dream, his legacy is alive and well. Working in the family business are three of his five children, eight of his 23 grandchildren and one of his 14 great-grandchildren.
All agree the Mi Tierra name is appropriate because the restaurant is like a second home for them. “The restaurants go beyond a business—it is familia,” George says. “Family and business was all together and still is.”
Visit www.mitierracafe.com to learn more.