Mando’s: A Marfa love story

Armando Uranga’s father, Jesus, at work on the new Mando’s storefront, which opened in 1963. Photo courtesy of Armando Uranga.

MARFA — Mark met Liz at a concert in Ft. Stockton in 1994. It was a Tejano and country music show, with singer Lee Treviño and the band Culturas headlining. “Before I knew it, we were just getting along,” Liz said. They started dating and, a few years later, they married.

They never went on a honeymoon, though. It was 2000, and Liz’s mother Petranela “Nila” Ramirez had recently passed away. Her father Ambrosio (“Gordo”) was in his late sixties and getting frail. He asked the newlyweds if they wanted to take over Mando’s, the Tex-Mex restaurant on the west side of town that he’d operated for decades.

Mark Rodriguez had experience working in kitchens, including at the Riata Restaurant in Alpine. Liz’s parents had owned Mando’s since she was a teenager, and other relatives had run it long before that. As a kid, she remembered sweeping and mopping the bar and restaurant over the weekends — but only when it was closed. “My parents never let me go into the bar,” she said. “It was unladylike.”

The couple didn’t want to see Mando’s close or leave the family, so they agreed to inherit it. “I think that’s what my mother wanted,” Liz said. Running Mando’s felt like a way to honor her parents even after they were gone.

“We went straight to work,” Mark said. “Duty calls.” They promised each other they’d schedule a honeymoon later but never did.

The Rodriguezes officially took over the restaurant around 2000. They rehabbed the space, removing the bar and making the restaurant more family-friendly. They pared down the menu, introducing a few new dishes, like queso compuesto and a tampiqueño plate, while keeping fan favorites: hamburgers, botanas and roast-beef burritos. But Mando’s stayed Mando’s — the casual Tex-Mex eatery on the west side of town, where Marfans of all stripes came together and out-of-towners stopped by when they were in the area.

As Marfa went from a quiet water stop in Far West Texas to a bustling tourist town, Mando’s, it seemed, was a constant. Stop by almost any time and you might find Mark and Liz working in the kitchen in hairnets and aprons together. They barely had time off. Their big vacation was a three-day break for Christmas.

Current Mando’s owners Mark and Liz Rodriguez at work in the kitchen.

Those days are ending, though. In a social media post in October, the couple announced they were closing for good.

“Believe me when I say, this decision was not an easy one!” Mark wrote. “We would like to thank all of our patrons who came from far and near.”

“A big thank you to our past and present employees for helping us out,” he wrote. “We ask that you all keep us in our prayers as we move forward in life without Mando’s.”

In an interview, Liz stressed how grateful she was for customers and and her employees. “I don’t think our business would have thrived without all the people who have come in to see us,” she said. “We’ve had a lot of people come to see us now that we’re closing. I don’t know how to thank them. It makes me feel sad — but at the same time, I know this has to take place.”

Effective December 31, the couple said they would shut down Mando’s. “It’s a tragedy,” said Marion Hughes, who was eating lunch there with some friends and family one day in December. “A true tragedy.”

Dave Dechambre, a trucker from Flagstaff, Arizona, was eating by himself at a nearby table. He often stopped at Mando’s when passing through town, sometimes even picking up a gallon of salsa. “That’s unfortunate,” he said when told about the closure. He wasn’t sure where he would eat next time.

A few days later, Marion Hughes was back for dinner. “I don’t know what we’ll do without Mando’s,” she said. She liked to come in the evenings, when she often ran into people she knew.

Marfa had lost “other traditions,” she said. When she was younger, she could do all her Christmas shopping on Highland Street. There were stores selling clothes, toys, boots, bicycles — and then they started to disappear. “They’re all sad,” she said of the closures. “But this one is really sad.”

Marion Hughes likes to dine at Mando’s in the evenings, when she often runs into people she knows. “It’s a tragedy,” she said. “A true tragedy.”

Members of the Marfa Volunteer Fire Department were gathering in the back room of Mando’s for their Christmas party. The room was filled with Christmas decorations, including a statue of Santa and figurines of carolers. A buffet-style dinner of beans, rice, and red and green enchiladas was set up on a table.

“I’ve been coming here since I was like this tall,” said Agustin Gonzalez, a firefighter. He held his hand a foot or two above the ground. “Just a little kid.”

“It’s sad to see it closing,” he said. “It’s the last of the Mohicans — the last of old Marfa.”

And the chili rellenos were “very close to how my grandmother used to make them.”

“It’s the second year we’ve done our gathering here,” said Gary Mitchke, fire chief. “We thought, ‘We’ll do it one last time.’” He and his wife Mary had been eating at Mando’s since they moved here 25 years ago and were sad to see it go.

At another table was Paul Van Tine, another firefighter. “I’m going to miss the wait staff more than anything,” he said. “Nancy, Rosa, Belen — all of them. They’ve been a part of my life.”

In the main restaurant was one of those servers, Rosa Melendez. She looked like she might cry.

“It’s been my home for 16 years,” she said of the restaurant.

On a rainy and dreary afternoon in December, the Rodriguezes sat down with The Big Bend Sentinel and explained their reasons for shutting down. Like many in Marfa, they were upset by the news. “We’re sad to see it go,” Mark said. “But every good thing must come to an end.”

They were getting older. Mark is 46 and Liz is 57. They have no children of their own and don’t want to see the restaurant leave the family. And times are changing.

“This is my opinion,” Liz explained later. “I feel like Mando’s has run its course and now it’s time for somebody else. There’s a lot of new, innovative ways of serving people. We have a lot of people coming from out of town, and they want certain foods.”

In their social-media post, the couple alluded to health problems. But there were other factors, too. After almost two decades running the restaurant, they were tired of the stress and long hours.

Liz plans to retire. To support themselves, “my husband has gotten a job,” she said, erupting in laughter. Mark will be starting as a cook at the Hotel Saint George, working the breakfast shift. “I’m ready for the change,” he said.

“I’d rather go clock in and clock out like everybody else,” he added. “We’ve been here for so many years now. We’re kind of burned out.”

And so Mando’s, that mainstay of Marfa, is closing. On a recent evening, a group of friends and former co-workers from Sandy’s — yet another Marfa business to close in recent years — were gathered at a table for a reunion party.

When Sandy’s was still open, the group used to gather here for Christmas parties and other celebrations. Seven years ago, they even had their retirement party at the restaurant.

This year has seen multiple Marfa businesses close. In October, Ironheart Gym closed after its owner, Paulo Vargas, said he was struggling to keep the business afloat. The NAPA Auto Parts store on West El Paso Street also shuttered.

Then, in November, Mateo Quintana retired from the barber shop on Highland Avenue that he’d run for decades, as The Big Bend Sentinel previously reported. Mando’s is at least the fourth longstanding Mafa business to close this year.

“I don’t know what we’re going to do after Mando’s closes,” said Hazel Martinez, the former owner of Sandy’s. The whole group was sad to see it go.

Mando’s was a family business — mostly.

It started with Armando “Mando” Uranga, who in 1960 opened a burger and Tex-Mex food counter along U.S. 90. He called the place Mando’s Drive Inn. There was a big Coca-Cola sign on the wall, and young Marfans were soon swarming the place for the 30 cent hamburgers and milkshakes, Uranga recalled in a recent phone interview from El Paso.

Armando “Mando” Uranga at the original Mando’s, which opened in 1960. Photo courtesy of Armando Uranga

At first, Uranga says, the place was so bare-bones that he didn’t even have a refrigerator. “I had a washtub and filled it with ice,” he said. A Coca-Cola representative lent him a cooler on credit, but it too filled up. And then a salesman from Pecos offered to sell him a larger cooler.

Uranga told the salesman he didn’t have the money. “Don’t worry about it,” he recalled him saying. The cooler had a meter. At the end of each day, Urange put six quarters into the machine, to keep it running all night. And when the man from Pecos made his monthly rounds through Marfa, he’d stop by to pick up the change.

In 1962, a lot came up for sale a couple blocks away. Uranga decided to buy it and enlisted locals to help him build the new structure.

Customers helped install electrical and plumbing lines. Uranga offered a group of friends from Rio Grande Electric a case of Lone Star beer to help him move his sign. The sign didn’t survive — wind smashed it into a pole during installation — but the friends replaced it and still got their case of beer.

Uranga’s father Jesus also helped with construction, including building the walls the new restaurant. “My father worked for the highway department,” Uranga said. “He said: ‘Mando, you get me 30 cinder blocks a week, and on the weekends I’ll put them up for you.’”

His father hand-sawed the wooden countertops, he said. No power tools. “How in the world was he able to do that?” Uranga said. “Now, I feel sorry for him.” At the time, he wasn’t as conscious of how much manual labor was going into the place.

It took around a year to build the new Mando’s. In 1963, Uranga opened the new eatery.

In keeping with trends from the era — and just like the old location — you could order food and eat it in your car in the parking lot. At noon, the place filled up with Marfa High School students. Many eating on credit and running tabs.

Curbside service was “how Mando’s really got famous,” Uranga said. Meanwhile, the bar inside often had just a few customers. “It was not appropriate for families to come into a bar,” he said. He remembers local police asking him not to hire female bartenders, for fear it’d be “no good for the reputation of the town.”

In 1964, as the United States headed towards war with Vietnam, Uranga re-enlisted in the military. He was stationed at the United States Disciplinary Barracks at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. He worked with the prison chaplains to help the military inmates, which included drug addicts and conscientious objectors.

Uranga kept a foothold in Marfa but leased out the restaurant to friends. “I knew them well, and I felt comfortable leasing to them,” he said of the people who ran the restaurant during that period. Among them were Mando Lujan (“I knew him as a little kid”); Mercedes Cordero and his wife Mary (“I knew him for, gosh, all my life”); and Tino Tarango and his wife Faye (“He sold me first car I ever bought, so I knew he was a good salesman”).

Armando Garcia, who ran Mando’s for around a year in the 1970s. On left: His wife, Lucy

In the late ‘70s, he decided it was time to move on. He had earned a master’s degree while serving, and he realized he “could not apply my education in Marfa.” He sold the place to Nila and Ambrosio “Gordo” Ramirez. The couple had a daughter named Liz who would eventually marry a man from Sanderson named Mark.

Uranga had a long career after that, including running schools for DWI offenders and working as a management consultant at White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico. Now 82, he’s settled in El Paso but still has rentals in Marfa and nearby towns. He tries to visit when he can.

“Marfa and Mando’s is always in my heart,” he said. “Physically, I’m in El Paso, but I’m a Marfan by heart.” For a while, he ran El Paso’s branch of the Marfa Ex-Shorthorns, where he helped raise scholarships for seniors at Marfa High.

These days, he’s mostly retired. He competes in triathlons and has gotten active with El Paso Parks and Recreation — even earning a spot in the agency’s hall of fame, he says, “because I participate in every event I can think of.” During his interview with The Big Bend Sentinel, he’d just come back from a swim and was getting ready to grill some Mando’s-style hamburgers with green chile sauce.

He had something he wanted to say about Mando’s hamburgers. The recipe actually came from an even earlier restaurant: Mike’s Place, a Marfa establishment from the 1950s. “You would order a hamburger, and they would make it right in front of you,” he said. “Almost everybody in Marfa can make good hamburgers because of that.”

Like many Marfans, Uranga seemed stuck in the denial stage of grieving Mando’s and hoped for a plot twist that would keep the place open. “I’m still hoping at the last minute something might develop,” he said. Maybe Mark and Liz would find someone they trusted to run the restaurant? Or maybe — as some in Marfa have suggested — the bank would somehow get involved and save the day?

The Rodriguezes, though, insist that Mando’s is closing. They aren’t selling the brand. The didn’t want to say much about who specifically is looking into buying the property — those details are still to-be-determined — but are happy to share thoughts on what they hope it becomes.

“I’d go for a steakhouse,” Mark said, laughing. “I think Marfa needs a steakhouse.”

What’s next for the couple? They want to relax in Marfa and they want to travel — neither are things they got to do much over the last couple decades. Mark has always wanted to see New York City, especially during the holidays when the city is decked out in lights. And maybe they’ll finally get that honeymoon.