Dining With Denise Neil

Cortez Mexican Restaurant to celebrate 30th anniversary

Enrique and Mary Cortez opened their Cortex Mexican Restaurant in 1985.
Enrique and Mary Cortez opened their Cortex Mexican Restaurant in 1985. The Wichita Eagle

It was spring 1985, and Mary Cortez was nine months pregnant. One night, her husband, Enrique – whom she’d met while both were working in his uncle’s Mexican restaurant – came home with some news.

He bought a restaurant.

“We opened on June 4, and the baby was born on June 17,” Mary says with a laugh.

She can laugh because 30 years have passed. And this weekend, Enrique and Mary Cortez and their two daughters, Veronica and Victoria, will celebrate three decades of their family business – Cortez Mexican Restaurant at 344 W. 29th St. North.

The celebration will include mariachi music, food and drink specials and a party with dancing that will last until the wee hours on Saturday. But it will be somewhat of a bittersweet celebration, the couple admits, because even though the restaurant has given them a good life, business is not at all what it was back when Cortez was one of the most popular restaurants in town. The decline started after Sept. 11, 2001, and has only worsened over the years as the number of chain restaurants and nearby competitors has grown, they say.

Cortez, which still has a bit of a mid-1980s vibe inside – complete with a video game arcade in the waiting area – still breaks even, but that’s about it, its owners say. As recently as January, the couple considered closing.

But as long as the restaurant is paying its own bills, they say, they can’t let it go. They’d miss their customers too much.

“If our customers have a party or a graduation or a wedding, we get invited,” Mary said. “If they go into the hospital, we go visit them. They always feel at home here. We’re family.”

Enrique was born in Tepatitan, Mexico. His uncle Felipe Lujano moved to the United States in 1965 and opened Felipe’s, the local Mexican chain that endures today with several Wichita locations. The Cortez family eventually followed Uncle Felipe to Wichita, and from the time Enrique was 10 until he was 18, he worked in the Felipe’s restaurants. That’s where he met Mary, whose mother also had worked as a server for Lujano.

“He was like a godfather,” Enrique said. “When he was alive, he kept everyone together. At Thanksgiving, we would all get together at his restaurant. He was a lot of fun.”

Enrique eventually went to work for Excel, and in 1982, his brother-in-law opened a Mexican restaurant in the former Ken’s Club spot at 306 W. 29th St. North. Enrique, who had cooking experience that his brother-in-law lacked, volunteered to help out in the kitchen.

Three years later, in 1985, the brother-in-law offered to sell the place to Enrique. He bought it, told his pregnant wife, and changed the name to Cortez.

Business was good, and the Cortezes grew into a comfortable rhythm that suited their restaurant and their marriage: Enrique was in charge of the kitchen. Mary was in charge of the dining room.

On March 30, 1989, the couple got a middle-of-the-night phone call informing them that their restaurant was on fire. Lightning had struck, and the place was a loss. The only thing left standing, Mary remembers, was a “K” made from tile that had adorned a wall in the former Ken’s Club.

The couple rebuilt right next door, and when they reopened the following November, their fans were waiting for them. The line to get in stretched around the building, and on opening day, they ran out of food at 7 p.m. and had to lock the doors. Business was so good, Enrique said, that they were regularly clearing $35,000 in one week. When their next-door neighbor, who owned Nance Speed Equipment, offered to sell them his cavernous building, the couple took it. They moved Cortez again in 1995, turning the building into a restaurant with a giant entryway, a separate bar, a huge dining room and two separate party spaces. Soon, both Cortez girls started working for their parents, and they still do today.

The restaurant has kept its core customers, and its twice-a-week all-you-can-eat buffet has helped keep it afloat, the Cortezes say. People love the beans, rice, carnitas, mole and chile verde that fill it on Wednesdays and Saturdays.

The biggest seller at Cortez is still the Chris Special, added to the menu 15 years ago and named for beloved food rep Chris Vandervort, who died of a sudden heart attack. It features a beef enchilada smothered with chile verde and queso and served with beans and rice. The rest of the menu is filled with standards like tacos, tostadas, burritos, fajitas and a few American dinners, including pork chops, steaks and fried shrimp.

This weekend’s party will have a 1980s theme, Mary said, and at 8 p.m., they’ll move tables out of the way and turn a section of the dining room into a dance club. They’ll offer drink specials and invite customers to visit their 30th birthday shrine, set up at the entrance with Polaroid pictures, old menus, old waiter uniforms and framed photos of famous visitors over the years, including the bands Kansas and Steppenwolf.

The party, which will double as a 30th birthday party for daughter Victoria, will last until 2 a.m.

If you go

Cortez Mexican Restaurant’s 30th birthday party

What: A weekend of specials and events celebrating the restaurant’s birthday

When: Friday and Saturday

Where: Cortez Mexican Restaurant, 344 W. 29th St. North

What: The celebration includes a mariachi band from 6 to 7 p.m. on Friday. Also, the buffet, which usually is offered only on Wednesdays and Saturdays, will be served from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. and 5 to 9 p.m. on Friday.

The buffet also will be served from 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. on Saturday. Free slices of tres leches cake will be served starting at 5 p.m. on Saturday. From 9 p.m. to 2 a.m., the restaurant will offer a dance party with music and drink specials. Appetizers will be half-price and margaritas will be $2 all weekend.

Information: Call 316-832-0640.

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