It is the time of day when there is a lull at Chelino’s Meat Market, between nearby construction workers and manual laborers coming in for their breakfast and the busy lunch rush. The shop is quiet, hiding the bustle behind the scenes. Two glass cases glisten under the fluorescent lights, one full of marinating steak, carnitas, and chicken, the other with various cuts of fresh meat. A full-service taco bar is right in the middle, where the friendly woman running the counter can make you fresh tacos or a hot burrito.
Perfectly fresh produce is sold cheap, as are dried chiles, specialty Mexican grocery items, and an array of obscure spices and herbs that would stump even the most hardcore culinary types. Towards the back of the shop, the aroma of fresh tortillas wafts from a side door. Racks containing hundreds of them crowd the floor.
The front door quietly opens, and Marcelino “Chelino” Garcia enters the building. At many workplaces, the presence of the big boss is enough to send the employees into an anxious flutter, but it is only smiles and high-fives here. Chelino takes the time to greet every one of the workers behind the counter before inspecting the hot bar for quality. It is immediately clear that he is both a businessman and a family man.
Although he now presides over something approximating an Okie- Mex empire, with thirteen locations and two meat markets, Chelino came from very humble beginnings. He considers himself a farm boy, having grown up in a rural part of central Mexico where his parents were subsistence farmers. He immigrated to America via California in the late 1970s, but didn’t like the pace of life in California. Soon, he came out to Oklahoma, where he found work at Nino’s, the now defunct restaurant that helped to pave the way for the particular style of Mexican food served in Texas and Oklahoma.
Starting as a dishwasher when he was fifteen, Chelino worked his way through every position at the restaurant, bussing tables, cooking on the line, waiting tables, and eventually managing. Ten years later, he took that experience and opened his own restaurant, the first Chelino’s on Southwest 36th.
Since then, Chelino has not only opened many more locations, but he has also opened a tortilla factory, an ice cream factory, a bakery, and a specialty grocery store. Apart from his work in the food industry, he helped found the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce to support and empower the local community. When he first moved to Oklahoma City, there weren’t many Latino residents.
“I used to work at Furr’s Cafeteria, and anytime we see some Spanish-looking people, we’re all, ‘Oh how are you, where are you from?’” Chelino explains. “Now, anywhere you go there’s lots of Spanish people.”
These days, much of the metro Mexican restaurant community relies on his business operations. He has personal relationships with most of the local Mexican food establishments, many of whom are owned, run, or staffed by his former employees who continue to do business with him via supplies and food purchase orders. Many of the taquerias and other south-of-the-border style restaurants get their tortillas and meats from Chelino on a daily basis.
The behind-the-scenes operations of this little local chain are incredible to witness. In the back of the old meat market in Capitol Hill is a large scale industrial undertaking. 100,000 pounds of corn and flour are trucked into the factory each week to produce enough tortillas for Oklahoma City. The grains are pounded into dough before being flattened out and sent through the rest of the machinery.
After being punched into perfect flat discs, a super hot oven flash cooks the dough. When the tortillas pop out of the oven, you can watch them puff and bubble up before running through several conveyor racks, where they cool down and are subsequently packaged.
These fresh tortillas are then chilled overnight in coolers so they don’t stick together and sent out to restaurants the next morning. Because of Chelino’s emphasis on freshness and quality, the factory runs seven days a week all year long, closing only on Christmas and Thanksgiving.
Plenty of newer places rooted in Tex-Mex/Okie-Mex/high-end Mexican have opened in the nearly thirty years Chelino has made his name known in this town, but chances are that most can trace roots back to him. Pay your tribute by visiting the restaurant and trying the Don Rogelio Especial, a delectable dish of carne asada tacos named for Chelino’s father. Specials, such as menudo or posole, are often available on the weekends!
> Chelino's Tortilla Factory, 2101 S Robinson Avenue, Oklahoma City