Fashion / Shopping

Historic Fort Worth Space That Housed The Original Mexican Restaurant Is Getting a New Life After Contentious Legal Battle — And It’s a Real Family Story

A PaperCity Exclusive

BY // 09.19.23

With the long drawn-out legal battle over the space that once housed Fort Worth’s oldest restaurant The Original Mexican Eats Cafe, now in the rearview mirror (The Original closed for good at the end of June), the family that owns the property is ready to look forward to its restoration. In fact, Derek and Sara Muzquiz are already breathing new life into the shell of this historic strip along the bricks of Camp Bowie.

While many Fort Worth restaurateurs had their eye on the spot, PaperCity Fort Worth has learned that a new restaurant is not in the cards. Derek Muzquiz tells us there simply aren’t enough parking spaces to support that. Instead, the six spaces in the building (three large and three small) are getting a major update and will be leased as retail spots.

Renovations of the approximately 7,500-square-foot building are expected to cost around $1 million and will take about one year to accomplish, with the three smaller store spaces expected to be ready for lease before year’s end.

Muzquiz has enlisted the expertise of his Chieffalo Americana neighbor Rodger Chieffalo on the updates, which should make them attractive and desirable to retail tenants. After all, Chieffalo has some experience revamping cherished, historic properties in Fort Worth.

If these historic walls could talk. Rodger Chieffalo will be leasing the spaces at The Original Fort Worth restaurant location one by one with owners Sara and Derek Muzquiz. (Photo by Courtney Dabney)
If these historic walls could talk. Rodger Chieffalo will be leasing the spaces at The Original Fort Worth restaurant location one by one with owners Sara and Derek Muzquiz. (Photo by Courtney Dabney)

When Chieffalo’s team purchased both Roy Pope Grocery and Paris Coffee Shop in recent years, Fort Worthians began chewing their nails in worry, unsure of what would happen to those historic businesses. But once the dust settled, many came away not only relieved, but awestruck by the results. Both Roy Pope and Paris Coffee are refreshed, renewed and ready for their next chapter.

When a space is so familiar to so many, and when generations have loved it so deeply like The “Old” Original, Fort Worth locals tend to feel they share some kind of collective ownership of it.

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But bringing someone like Rodger Chieffalo on the team with his proven track record for successfully reimagining historic spaces in the city, may allow Fort Worthians to wipe that scowl off their face, uncross their arms and breathe a collective sigh of relief. The historic, tile-roofed strip along the bricks seems to be in good hands.

The Old Original Mexican Restaurant’s Fate

The family behind the classic Original Mexican restaurant were the Pinedas (Lola San Miguel Pineda, who immigrated from Muzquiz, Mexico, and her husband Geronimo Pineda, who hailed from Barcelona). The couple leased a space at 4713 Camp Bowie Boulevard in what was then a new building (circa 1928), and opened their famous restaurant around 1930. Robert “Butch” Self became the restaurant’s owner in 1999.

The strip, which is now owned by Derek Muzquiz, runs from the back wall of Bluebonnet Bakery on the left (itself a former church) to the end cap containing both Texas Designer Flooring and Fort Worth Coffee Co. on the right. It also brings a fascinating history of its own. Derek’s grandfather Frank Muzquiz was one of the first Mexican immigrants to own property along this section of Camp Bowie.

At that time, Derek Muzquiz says race restrictions were in place barring anyone deemed “non-white” from purchasing property in the district when his grandfather bought the historic strip in the early 1960s.

The actual wording from one of the early property deeds in Muzquiz’s possession, was filed in Tarrant County on July 11, 1941. It reads:

“Said property, nor any portion thereof shall ever be sold, conveyed, transferred or assigned, nor shall it be used, rented, leased, or in any manner occupied by a negro or negroes, nor anyone of African descent, nor to Mexicans. However, this restriction shall not prohibit the use of servant’s houses by negroes when same are used in connection with occupied residences upon any of said lots.”

Muzquiz – The race restrictions as found in the deed which was filed in 1941 reflect the overt racism of the time.
The race restrictions as found in the deed which was filed in 1941 reflect the overt racism of the time.

After the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was passed, all that changed and Frank Muzquiz became one of the first Mexican Americans to realize the dream of owning property in the Chamberlin Arlington Heights area.

“My grandparents told me to never sell it,” Derek Muzquiz recalls.

It was an investment for the family’s future, and a point of pride and accomplishment to be a Mexican immigrant and a property owner at the time. The strip that housed The Original and other retail businesses passed to Muzquiz’s grandmother Leticia Grimaldo upon his grandfather’s death. Then to his father Joe Frank Muzquiz upon his grandmother Leticia’s death in 2014. Finally, this summer, his father passed the deed along to Derek Muzquiz.

Keeping this historic building in the family, where it belongs.

A Contentious Transition

To say that the years-long battle (seven years in the courts officially, but the fight dates back even further to 2010) over the lease of The Original Mexican Eats Cafe was a contentious one is an understatement. It was a battle royale, a litigious nightmare and in many ways, surely a monumental waste of time and money.

In 2003, then-owner Leticia Grimaldo was presented with a new lease, penned by her tenant Robert Self, the owner of The Original Mexican Eats Cafe. It contained wording that most lawyers and commercial real estate brokers have never seen before according to Derek Muzquiz. The unimaginable phrase “and shall be perpetual” was added to the lease. The intention was that the term of the lease would stay the same forever. This lease would be never ending, never altering, unchangeable, iron clad. Grimaldo signed that lease, effectively agreeing to Self’s terms.

The 2003 lease effectively locked in the price at $3.85 per square foot, while similar properties nearby lease for more than $20 per square foot today. Fort Worth property values and tax rates have been climbing rapidly in recent years.

“The landlord is responsible for the taxes, insurance and maintenance, including maintaining the roof, exterior walls and parking lot,” Derek Muzquiz tells PaperCity Fort Worth. “We were making zero dollars on this. What The Original was paying for their lease didn’t even cover the taxes.”

So at age 87, Letitia Grimaldo approached Self back in 2010 to explain the issue and attempt to renegotiate. Self held up his so-called “perpetual” lease document and told her she’d never be able to raise the rent, according to Muzquiz. So began a 13-year legal battle — one Grimaldo would not live to see the end of. She died four years later in April of 2014.

“During that time, our family lost almost $2 million in unrealized revenues from the property that we inherited,” Muzquiz claims. “Not to mention the quarter of a million we spent in attorney’s fees just to preserve it.”

As the case wound its way through the court system for years, all the way to the 8th Texas Court of Appeals in El Paso, which ultimately ruled that the lease was not “perpetual” and could end, the Muzquiz family tells PaperCity it continued to try to negotiate a way for The Original Mexican restaurant to remain in its space.

The Original Mexican Eats Cafe on Camp Bowie was the oldest remaining Fort Worth restaurant, having held sway there since 1926. In fact, it’s the only business to have ever called that address home.

The $1 million dollar renovations are already underway along the famous Camp Bowie bricks. (Photo by Courtney Dabney)
The $1 million dollar renovations are already underway along the famous Camp Bowie bricks. (Photo by Courtney Dabney)

When Jordan Johnson, who is a commercial real estate broker and senior vice president of NAI Robert Lynn, first got wind that The Original was losing its lease in February of this year, he attempted to broker a compromise. Having 25-plus years of commercial real estate experience, Johnson figured it was worth a try. He was a neighbor and a big fan of The Original restaurant. Johnson says he wanted to see the historic Fort Worth restaurant stay open.

While Johnson did work out a three-month extension (adding a little more time to negotiate), as he became more familiar with the legal battle and the issues involved, he says it soon became apparent to him that no agreement would be reached.

“Derek literally offered him a lease to stay for $4000 a month, which is half of what it’s worth,” Johnson tells PaperCity Fort Worth. “While it is disappointing for the neighborhood to lose a longtime restaurant, I want Derek and his family to realize a benefit from their inheritance.

“Despite all the abuse and bullying, Derek was willing to give Robert a great deal to keep The Original open, which is incredible. And Butch could’ve ended up selling that business for well over $1 million to another restauranteur. But he chose to close and put barricades up out of spite. Because his plan to force the sale of that property failed.”

Three attempts to get Robert Self to comment on this story proved to be unsuccessful. Self did not return phone calls when given a chance to tell his side of this legal battle. And there is always another side to every story.

When The Original finally chose to move last June, consolidating its business at its other remaining restaurant — The Original Del Norte, Johnson introduced Derek Muzquiz to his friend Roger Chieffalo to move the retail restorations and leasing phase along.

The Camp Bowie Boulevard Future

“The wheels of justice turn so slowly,” Derek Muzquiz says. “It was a long road. . . to finally have it back in our possession. . . I’m so happy with where we are now.”

But last February, while Fort Worth restaurant lovers were lamenting over the fact that The Original restaurant would be closing its Camp Bowie spot, the Muzquiz family dealt with a far more significant tragedy.

Derek and Sara Muzquiz’s 21-year-old son was killed in a motorcycle accident. He was a promising student who was scheduled to resume his college coursework this fall at TCU, after taking some time off school to join the Army Reserves. The Muzquiz family is still reeling from the loss of their eldest son.

“It’s been a really long road,” Sara Muzquiz says. “We simply had to let go and let God. But we know that God is in control.”

“This year has been very challenging, with a lot of emotion. And, then to have to continue dealing with this mess,” Derek Muzquiz says, choking back tears, and pointing to the padlocked gate and barricades installed by Robert Self. Those barricades still delineate Self’s grip on the back parking lot (which he owns), along with the now presumably useless covered patio addition that Self had installed there in recent years.

There is no word on what Self plans to do with the parking lot and its structure (which was first home to The No Name Bar before Self changed it to The Original Bar).

According to Tarrant Appraisal District records the parking lot was purchased by The Original Mexican Eats Cafe in 1985, which is prior to Self’s ownership of the restaurant. The two parties could not agree on a price satisfactory to both in order for the Muzquiz family to purchase the parking lot portion of the property.

Crisp new paint is just the start of the transformation, they'll be restoring plumbing and electrical while keeping the historic charm in tact. (Photo by Courtney Dabney)
Crisp new paint is just the start of the transformation, they’ll be restoring plumbing and electrical while keeping the historic charm in tact. (Photo by Courtney Dabney)

“This is a challenge,” Derek Muzquiz says. “But I think about my son every day. This is nothing. Losing my son is hard. We’re going to get through this.”

Derek Muzquiz and Rodger Chieffalo say that the three smaller retail spaces will be ready to lease before the end of the year. The existing Parlor E11evin Beauty and Barber Salon is already planning to take over one of the larger spaces, what used to be the upper dining room of the old restaurant, to further expand its business.

Meanwhile, Derek Muzquiz is hard at work, restoring the property that he inherited ― upgrading its electrical, plumbing and flooring inside, while giving its exterior a much-needed facelift with paint and replacing rotted fascia and roofing. The historic strip is looking better than ever.

It has certainly been through a lot.

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