When news spread of South Austin landmark El Gallo’s impending closure, crowds flocked to the restaurant and happily waited up to an hour in line Tuesday evening to say goodbye to the beloved establishment.
Customers squeezed into the waiting areas and spilled outside into the packed parking lot. Friends and strangers alike swapped stories about their connection to the nearly 60-year-old dining institution, which will close Sunday, while the busy staff ping-ponged across the restaurant floor.
“We always came here to avoid the crowds, but not today,” said Bruce Hutchison, 63, who drove from Bastrop for a plate of fish tacos. He even called his ex-wife, Suzanne, to share the news. The two decided to dine at El Gallo one last time.
“I heard the news on KLBJ, and it broke my heart,” Bruce Hutchison, a native Austinite, said. Emotion washed over Suzanne Hutchison when she thought about what El Gallo has meant to her over the years. “It’s just a part of old Austin,” she said as her eyes began to tear up. “When I walk in here, I’m hit with nostalgia.”
Shortly after 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, restaurant management announced that they’d run out of food. They weren’t ready for the overwhelming response, they said, but thanked the crowd for their support. A grateful dining room full of patrons broke into applause.
Family leader Abel Kennedy explained in a televised interview that property taxes had gone up on the large, prime corner lot with its spacious surface parking lot on South Congress Avenue across from St. Edward’s University.
Also, with the death of the family matriarch, Maria Kennedy, in 2015, some of the original passion had slipped from the business.
Abel’s father, Abraham Kennedy, immigrated from Linares, Nuevo León, Mexico, and met his future wife in Harlingen. Longtime hospitality workers, they opened El Gallo Restaurant in a little pink house in April 1957. The current building opened in the 1960s. Additions and a patio followed through the 1990s.
“Austin has grown over the past 59 years into an incredibly busy and vibrant city,” Abel Kennedy wrote on the restaurant’s website before the closure was announced this week. “It has been my family’s pleasure to serve fellow Austinites for all these years. We are incredibly proud that our customers consider themselves part of the El Gallo family.”
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Last year, another Tex-Mex landmark, El Azteca, closed after 53 years. Founder Jorge de Jesus Duron Guerra also cited the rising cost of doing business in Austin.
Mortgage expert Adam Merrill remembers how El Gallo saved his family.
“My sister and I were very young — 6 and 7 years old — when our dad deserted his family in Austin to go be with another woman,” Merrill said. “My mom went around town, visiting restaurant after restaurant, begging for an opportunity to work there so she could support her two kids.”
At El Gallo, general manager Catarino Almanza, Jr., was at first was very reluctant to give her an opportunity due to the fast-paced environment and because of her lack of experience.
“After speaking to ‘Cat’ for some time, he finally agreed to give her an opportunity, but only during lunch,” Merrill recalled. “She started at lunch with just a few tables, working her way into having a room with 22 tables, and eventually getting to the point where she was training incoming staff. Of course, as kids we were in school and had to go with her to El Gallo when we were not. We spent so much time there in the back rooms and sneaking some pralines off of the counter to eat.”
Over the years, fans of Tejano music legend Manuel Cowboy Donley, 89, knew that if they wanted to find him, they could drop by El Gallo on Tuesday evenings to hear the classic boleros of yesteryear like “Solamente Una Vez.” He’s been playing on and off at El Gallo for more than 40 years.
“The Donleys, El Gallo and the Kennedys all went hand-in-hand,” said Cowboy Donley’s son, Lupe. Over the years the veteran musician and winner of the National Endowment of the Arts’ lifetime achievement award would bring his daughters to El Gallo to perform with him. Cowboy Donley’s daughter, Sylvia, still performs with him and has fond memories of playing with her father and sisters as an 11-year-old girl and getting to stay at the restaurant late on school nights with the family band.
“We were not just performers,” Sylvia Donley said. “We were family.”
The Kennedys served as wedding godparents for Cowboy Donley’s oldest son, Phillip. From then on, “they were my compadre and comadre,” Cowboy Donley said.
“(El Gallo) is like home to me, and I always felt at peace here,” Sylvia Donley said. During tough times, she found herself at the restaurant turning to its matriarch, Maria Kennedy, for comfort. “Mrs. Kennedy always validated every single person, and I think that was a big reason why this place succeeded. She and Abraham were so warm. They treated you like family.”
Cowboy Donley is now looking for another Tuesday night gig where his award-winning tunes can continue to connect with music lovers.
“I can’t believe it,” Donley, 89, said. “I guess everything has to come to an end.”