John Tom Browning opened Browning’s Mexican Food in 1946, as victorious Arkansas soldiers were rushing home to their wives and the baby boom was beginning.
In her Tie Dye Travels blog (see arkansasonline.com/88plato), food researcher Kat Robinson describes this Ark-Mex pioneer’s 1949 menu, which included questionable Mexican dishes, from egg enchiladas to spaghetti or with rice “con chicken”. The kitchen also served club sandwiches, chili cheese, ham, steak, fried chicken, fried oysters, fried White River catfish…lobster….
Also on that 1949 menu was the Plato de Saltillo, father of the Saltillo plate that six decades of Arkansans have come to love and despise: a heavy china platter carrying a meat taco, a cheese taco and an enchilada soaked in chili sauce with tortillas, grilled or plain. In some years, these landmarks have emerged from a sea of melted pinto beans…chilli? It was a semi-fluid that froze as it cooled. Shaved icebergs and chopped tomatoes were there somewhere, and maybe a garnish of sliced onions. It went down with the fruity red punch.
Browning’s daughter, Bette, and her husband, Boyd Montgomery, took over in 1959. In 1968, Donald and Janell Phelan bought them out.
Over the years, Browning’s expanded, opening El Patio and other locations, including take-out outlets for which food was prepared at the original location: 5805 Kavanaugh Blvd.
There were big cinnamon rolls for breakfast; the chicken was fried to order.
They announced, with a jingle: “We have what people like, what people like to eat.”
Once, Don Phelan was near the register when a mother came in with her 5-year-old child. Phelan noticed that the boy’s moccasins were upside down. He said, “You got them on the wrong footing.” The boy thought about that, then looked up and said, “Those are the only feet I have.”
The staff stayed for decades. Two kitchen hands and a “front” person who started in 1946 remained until 1985. Mabelvale’s Alma Lee Deason served tables over 30, Barbara Lee Schay over 15.
Familiar waitresses have taken to wearing orthopedic shoes; the back room was getting more and more shabby and dark. The nearby Heights Theater closed, reducing traffic.
In 2008, David Ashmore and his partners staged a doomed revival; When their Browning’s Mexican Grill reopened in 2011, the bright back room with a big-screen TV and changes to the Saltillo Plate appalled former customers.
In 2014, Yellow Rocket Concepts bought the failing company. In 2015, Heights Taco & Tamale opened at 5805 Kavanaugh Blvd. The menu is very different in its focus on fresh ingredients, but one item – Plato 1947 – pays homage to the old Saltillo plate.