On the Border South Texas Cafe, as it was known then opened in 1982 in the Knox Park area of Dallas. To give some context, this was an area that was at the time, not exactly the trendiest part of town, but was beginning to turn. This “yuppie” appeal helped to bolster the chain into quite a bit of popularity. By 1987 On the Border had grown to three locations in the Dallas area, and one outside.
This marked the first entrance of On the Border South-Texas Cafe, as it was known back to the Houston area. They opened their first Houston Restaurant in Mid-1987. One of the first references I can find to this location is a review from the June 1987 Edition of Texas Monthly.
On the Border Cafe, 4608 Westheimer (961-4494). With brick walls, pressed tin ceilings, and bare floors, this cafe borders on the deafening – all the more reason to give up on conversation and concentrate on the food. A combo for two of beef fajitas and shrimp (five, though six would have been easier to divide) comes on a sizzling platter with grilled onions, tortillas, guacamole, sour cream, pico de gallo, refrieds, and rice – not bad for about $18. Chicken parrilla, nicely moist and offered with the same extras, also provides a good value at $7.50. Not exactly Juárez – but what do you expect of this Dallas import? Bar (til 1, til 2 Weekends). Open Sun thru Thur 11-midnight, Fri & Sat til 1.
-Texas Monthly June 1987
This first location was received relatively well by Houstonians. Although, they were far from having Ninfa’s shaking in their boots. This decent reception, along with decent income from Dallas locations helped to quickly support the idea for a second Houston location. Their first location had been, in what was at the time Houston’s own burgeoning part of town. The corner of Westcreek Lane, and Westheimer. The area had been known throughout the 70s as “Acid Lane” and featured a variety of smoke shops, among other less savory things, but had recently been re-imagined as trendy shops and restaurants, like Le Peep.
The area was on an upswing with the gentrification and continued development of the Galleria.The low quality, and small buildings in the area, helped necessitate the building out their first location. The second location was in an already trendy part of town. At the corner of Gessner and Westheimer, the new location took over an another Tex-Mex restaurant named, Caliente which had operated there since at least 1988. A third location was mentioned in the Houston Chronicle, however I cannot find an address, or any other information to support this. Chances are this was quickly abandoned before any development, or just a typo.
|4608 Westheimer Rd, Houston, TX 77027||Demolished|
|9705 Westheimer Rd Houston, TX 77042||Churrascos|
In 1996 Brinker International, the company which is most famous for owning Chili’s among many other brands, purchased the On the Border chain. At the time of the acquisition On the Border had 23 locations.
Both Houston locations were closed the same year. They were either closed prior to the Brinker sale, or immediately after. To either make the chain more attractive for sale, or immediately reduce spending. The original location would be converted a year later into Sullivan’s Steakhouse. A very upmarket chain who completely remodeled the building. This lasted until 2017 when the building was abandoned and later demolished pending future development.
The second location, already reborn by On The Border, fared a brighter fate. It was almost immediately converted into Churrascos, who specialize in South American cuisine. It is still open to this day, and was recently renovated.
As Brinker closed the Houston locations, this were able to focus on successfully building the concept out not unlike the way they had built out Chili’s. The food would be mass made off of a relatively simple menu. They would also focus on towns in which they were the “only game” in terms of Tex-Mex selection. This mass market appeal worked quite well, in areas with little competition.
This idea eventually brought On the Border back into the Houston area. About 10 years later, with most locations opening in 2006.
|25686 Northwest Fwy, Cypress, TX 77429||Demolished for PDQ|
|7215 FM 1960 Humble, TX 77346||Lupe Tortilla|
|2728 Smith Ranch Rd Pearland, TX 77584||Lupe Tortilla|
|9313-A Katy Fwy, Houston, TX 77024||Lupe Tortilla|
|24108 Southwest Fwy, Rosenberg, TX 77471||Gringo’s Mexican Kitchen|
|8765 Spring Cypress Rd Ste I Spring, TX 77379||Rico’s Mexican Grill|
Upon their return, On the Border was accused of having generic, and bland Mexican food. When comparing our local options this is undeniably true. These locations would last until about 2011, after which Brinker sold On the Border to a Capital Firm. Again likely a victim of under performance the restaurants were shuttered and sold off to competitors.
While not a culinary treasure by any stretch of the imagination, it creates a curious comparison to the old adage. If a first you fail, try again.