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Tripadvisor.com ranks El Tio Tex-Mex Grill among the top three dining destinations in Gainesville. Photo by Tamar Wilsher

El Tio Tex-Mex Grill

The Spice of Life

By Lauren Jackson, Contributing Writer

A pinch of heat, a dash of spice and a whole lot of flavor—that’s how El Tio Tex-Mex Grill combines classic “South of the Border” specialties with a Texas twist to serve up authentic, tasty dishes at its three locations— Gainesville, Falls Church and McLean.

Owner and manager Armando Mejia oversees every detail of the restaurants to enable guests to experience true Tex-Mex dining. From the Spanish music gently playing in the background to green ivy plants dangling from the ceiling, every element enhances the ambiance.

“We are very careful with the quality,” Mejia said of his restaurants. The Gainesville location, which was the first to open, is now in its eighth year. His wife, Elsy, and their three grown children, Oscar, Kaery and Mercy, work alongside him there.

The history of El Tio (Spanish for “Uncle”) and Mejia’s efforts to build his business is a story of fulfilling the American dream.

Mejia was only 17 years old when he came to the United States in 1983 from his home country of El Salvador. Starting as a dishwasher in Washington, D.C., Mejia slowly worked his way through the ranks of the restaurant business. He became a kitchen helper, then a sous-chef and soon ran the kitchen of the Mexican restaurant where he worked.

After decades of learning every aspect of managing a restaurant, Mejia sought his own establishment. “I thought, ‘It’s time to open my own restaurant,’” he said. He began with a small take-out eatery in what once was a Wendy’s before opening the permanent, dine-in establishment off Linton Hall Road in 2005. El Tio Tex- Mex Grill was officially in business.

Just the Right Taste

El Tio’s diverse menu reflects Mejia’s years as a chef, as well as the recipes he gathered from his home country and from Texas, where he lived for a short while. Over time and with just the right blend of spices, he has perfected the recipes.

“Little by little we added things that we liked,” Mejia said. “We made things better [with] better seasonings.” Today, the restaurant menu only includes dishes that Mejia personally approved.

He said that El Tio is best known for its sizzling fajitas. Brought out on large skillets and still crackling with heat, the dish includes sautéed onions and green peppers mixed with the customer’s choice of meat. Mejia himself prefers either the chicken and steak combo or seafood fajita, he said.

He added that quesadillas and burritos are also especially popular with customers. The enchiladas are another favorite, and, like the fajita, can be filled with steak, chicken, seafood or even spinach.

Whichever dish diners select from the El Tio menu, they can expect an authentic Tex-Mex dining experience, all the way down to the fluffy homemade flour tortillas.

Creating an Atmosphere

Waitress Xenia Cantarero is among El Tio's friendly staff. - Photo by Tamar WilsherLike the food, the décor, bar and special events never stray from the restaurant’s Tex-Mex roots.

“I [decorated] everything myself,” Mejia said. The paintings and pictures lining the walls were purchased in Mexico and depict the lifestyle there. Acting as a chandelier, a wagon wheel from Texas is suspended over the dining room. Colorful and intricate pottery holds several plants around the restaurant.

Mejia said that the bar is a major attraction, where margaritas are a popular choice. Bartenders shake up strawberry, mango or lime margaritas with the customer’s choice of tequila. Other drink options include Piña Coladas, Mojitos and more than a dozen varieties of beer. The bar offers food and drink specials daily from 3 p.m. to 7 p.m.

El Tio also hosts celebrations for traditional Mexican holidays, such as Cinco de Mayo. In keeping with the restaurant’s Tex-Mex theme, festivities include playing mariachi music, a traditional Mexican folk music.

Continuing the El Tio Experience

El Tio staff provides customers with great food and quality dining, allowing the Gainesville restaurant to thrive. While the economy has taken a downturn that has hurt some small business owners, Mejia has expanded the Prince William location, he said. A few years ago, he bought an adjacent building and knocked down the wall between it and the eatery to double the restaurant’s size.

Mejia also added locations to reach a wider range of customers. The restaurant in Falls Church opened four years ago, and the location in McLean opened this year. All locations are doing well, Mejia said.

TripAdvisor®, the world’s largest travel site, ranks the original El Tio among the top three best dining options in Gainesville. Site members posted reviews online praising El Tio’s timely service, friendly staff and savory foods.

“Some of the best Tex-Mex I’ve tasted since leaving Texas,” wrote Lisa Ake from Bristow. Ake noted that she and her family have returned several times to the restaurant.

While his franchise has grown, Mejia said he is careful to remember how far he has come. “I came [to the U.S.] with … maybe $2 in my pocket. If you want to have the American Dream, you can do it.”

El Tio Tex-Mex Grill in Gainesville is located at 7527 Linton Hall Road. For more information, call 703-753-0826 or visit www.eltiogrill.com.

Lauren Jackson is a student at Liberty University in Lynchburg, Va., where she is pursuing a degree in English and journalism. She lives in Prince  William.   Contact   her   at   ljacks[email protected].

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