Dining With Denise Neil

Without this 50-year-old local restaurant, many others wouldn’t exist

Today, Felipe’s flagship restaurant and the newest one at 119th and Maple are run by founder Felipe Lujano Sr.’s wife and sons: from left, Poncho Lujano, Lucia Lujano and Felipe Lujano Jr.
Today, Felipe’s flagship restaurant and the newest one at 119th and Maple are run by founder Felipe Lujano Sr.’s wife and sons: from left, Poncho Lujano, Lucia Lujano and Felipe Lujano Jr. The Wichita Eagle

After 50 years, you can start to take things for granted.

Things like melty cheese enchiladas, whose leaking, bubbling insides stick to the metal serving tray and form heavenly bits of crispiness that must be – and will be – scraped until they’re freed.

Things like fish-bowl-sized cocktails, set ablaze and slurped though six straws simultaneously.

Things like a local restaurant still run by the sons of the man who started it – sons who work 75-hour weeks to keep their father’s legacy alive.

This week, Wichita Mexican-food staple Felipe’s turns 50, and the family of founder Felipe Lujano Sr., who died in 2003 at age 66 after a 10-month battle with liver cancer, say they don’t take any minute of the past five decades for granted.

Felipe Sr.’s influence can still be tasted all over town, not only at his original restaurant at 3434 W. Central but also at three local Felipe’s offshoots and in restaurants all over town that were started by his family members and employees over the years.

It’s a legacy his sons and widow cherish.

“My dad was the patriarch of the Lujano family,” his son Felipe Lujano Jr. said. “He was loved and admired not only for everything he and my mother accomplished but also for happily helping so many others along the way.”

An immigrant’s story

Felipe Lujano Sr. grew up in Tepatitlan, Mexico – a town outside Guadalajara in the state of Jalisco. As a young man, he would make tortas and sell them at the bus station.

In his 20s, Lujano needed to pay off a loan. He didn’t want to leave Mexico, but starting a life in the United States seemed like a good option, Felipe Lujano Jr. said.

He arrived in California and eventually made his way to Newton, where relatives had a Mexican restaurant. They hired him to wash dishes.

But Lujano had a head for business and wasn’t in the back for long. He opened his first restaurant in the early 1960s with a partner. It was called Tepa, and it operated in the space on North Broadway where La Chinita is now. When the partnership fell apart, Lujano found his own space to rent on West Central. Felipe’s opened the first week of February in 1967.

He developed recipes that were friendly to the American palate – gooey cheese enchiladas, fried flour tacos – and he found an audience quickly.

“It was really popular,” Felipe Jr. said. “A lot of people followed him when he left and opened his own place.”

Felipe Sr.’s young bride, Lucia, had followed him to the United States from Mexico, and in 1970 they had Felipe Jr. She stayed home to raise her son while Felipe Sr. built the family business. He was so successful that, in 1971, he opened a second restaurant near Harry and Rock. He called it Felipe’s Jr. in honor of his baby boy.

“He was a humble man who loved to tell his story and where he came from because he was so proud of what he had achieved,” Felipe Jr. said. “As cliche as it sounds, he is the epitome of the American dream.”

Felipe shared his success with his family. And he shared his knowledge with a huge crop of future Wichita Mexican restaurant entrepreneurs. Restaurants operating all over the Wichita area have their roots at Felipe’s.

Today, Felipe’s Jr. at 9718 E. Harry is owned and operated by Lujano Sr.’s niece and her husband, Chela and Martin Martinez. He sold it to them in 1978. The Felipe’s at 21st and Woodlawn, which opened in 1991, is owned by Lujano’s brother, Roberto Lujano. Lujano Sr.’s sons, Felipe Jr. and Poncho, born in 1980, along with their mother, run the original restaurant along with the slick, modern Felipe’s they opened at 119th and Maple in 2009.

Then there’s Enrique Cortez, whose Cortez Restaurant at 29th and Broadway will close later this month after 32 years in business. He is Felipe Sr.’s nephew and got his start working at Felipe’s. So did the original owners of La Chinita, Fabiola’s in Wellington, Acapulco in Newton and the former Garcia’s restaurant in Wichita.

Growing up Lujano

Lujano’s sons stayed at home with their mom when they were small, and their dad ran the restaurant. But Felipe Jr. and Poncho have many boyhood memories from the restaurant.

They both remember Sundays at Felipe’s. The entire family was there.

“Half of the dining room would be family every Sunday,” Poncho said.

They remember how, back before tortillas were an easily obtainable item in Wichita, their parents used to make their own every Tuesday. The boys would get one hot off the press and smother it with a pat of butter that had been wrapped in waxed paper.

Both of the boys, at about age 14, started busing tables. They remember watching their father with customers. He was particularly fond of his tiniest diners.

“He was always here, and he was always smiling,” Felipe Jr. said. “He would always go up to people and say hello. He loved kids. He would always give kids bubble gum. You can ask people in their 40s now. They remember coming here and running up and hugging my dad and getting bubble gum on the way out.”

Poncho Lujano remembers how his father had a magic touch with crying babies.

“If a couple or a family were having dinner and the baby was fussy, he’d just walk over and grab the baby and walk away with them, and the baby would stop crying immediately,” he said. “Customers remember that and, of course, now that’s something you would never do.”

The boys’ parents gave them the option of staying with the business or choosing their own path, but Felipe Sr. could never understand why they wouldn’t want to take over the restaurants.

When he finished high school, Felipe Jr. decided he wanted to go to college.

“When I told him I was going to college, Dad said, ‘Why are you going to college? You have the restaurant,’ ” he said. “They paid for my college and were happy that I decided to go, but he didn’t understand at first why I wanted to because this was mine.”

The brothers, who switch off lunch and dinner shifts at their two restaurants each day, say they’ve settled into their places in the family business. They get to work with their mother, who staffs the original restaurant every day. And they’ve been able to experience the challenge of building something new. When the brothers decided to open the fancy new restaurant in 2009 – a place so modern and eye-catching that it’s featured in its architect’s catalogs – their mother had one request.

“My mom’s concern was, ‘You guys do it. It’s fine. You have my blessing. But this is still the original restaurant. You still have to take care of this place,’ ” Felipe Jr. said.

The next 50

Fifty years later, people still love Felipe’s.

The menu has stayed mostly the same over the years, the brothers say, though it’s been interesting to watch their customers’ desires change. When Felipe Sr. first opened his restaurant, back when Connie’s and El Patio were the only other games in town, people wanted less authentic, more mild versions of famous Mexican dishes.

Today, many crave a more authentic meal. Though the fried flour taco is still a top seller, the brothers also added street-style tacos to the menu in recent years.

But customers still demand the recipes Lujano first invented in the 1960s, and diners who move away frequently return and beg the brothers to expand to Oklahoma City, Kansas City, Tulsa – even Miami.

Customers also still love the drink that Felipe Sr. introduced in the 1980s, back before liquor by the drink, when people who wanted adult beverages had to have memberships to private clubs. He had remodeled and opened a space next door to the restaurant as his club, and the Felipe’s Flaming Cazuela was born. It’s a fruity cocktail served in a giant glass, and just before it’s served, the staff lights an alcohol-soaked grapefruit peel on fire. Customers gasp, giggle, then plunge multiple straws into the glass and sip away.

The brothers haven’t ruled out future expansion, though they like to see their customers and already feel stretched between the two properties they oversee.

They like the feeling of carrying on their father’s legacy, the brothers said. And both have found things they love about the business they inherited.

Growing up in a restaurant family isn’t always easy, the brothers said, but they’re grateful for the decisions their father made.

“As a child I remember my dad working so many hours, and I wondered why he wasn’t at home more,” Felipe Jr. said. “I soon realized his sacrifice allowed him to give us what he did not have growing up. I am the proud son of immigrant parents who through hard work and sacrifice gave my family a life I wouldn’t change for the world.”

A look at ten of the Wichita restaurants that closed in 2016. (video by Jaime Green)

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