A Collinsville, Illinois, stalwart with a history spanning 55 years, Ramon’s El Dorado began with a $5 loan. Founder Raymundo (“Ramon”) Otero, who passed away last year, had suffered an injury while working at the Chevrolet plant and was paralyzed from the waist down. “Doctors said, ‘You’re never going to walk again,’ [and] of course, my dad proved them all wrong and started walking – but he didn’t have any money because he wasn’t working,” says son Raymond Otero, who runs the restaurant with his eldest brother, Carlos. Recalling the legendary story that runs deep in his family, Raymond continues, “I [had] just [been] born, and he borrowed $5 from a neighbor to buy milk for me, and instead of buying milk, he bought this meat, and my mom thought he kind of lost it.” Raymond’s parents cut up the meat and cooked it, and Ramon went to the nearest tavern and got the owner’s permission to sell. He sold out that day, coming back with $18 and some change – and Ramon’s El Dorado’s story began.
“He was way ahead of his time,” Raymond says fondly of his father’s tavern-to-tavern operation. In Ramon’s El Dorado’s early years, the restaurant was part of a former gas station that had been converted to a diner. Ramon approached the diner owners to see if they’d allow him to sell Mexican food. “[Partner] Bob Watts had never heard of or tasted Mexican food until he tried my dad’s,” Raymond says, and upon trying the food, quickly agreed to allow Ramon to join their business. Ramon’s El Dorado ran a counter-service operation in the back with picnic table-style seating out front, and its proximity to the Fairmount Park Race Track made the restaurant an ideal “grab-and-go” food destination, with the Oteros bracing themselves for the great influx each Tuesday for “Horse Hooky” day.
The diner and Ramon’s El Dorado operated side by side for a short time, but within a few years, the partners noticed that Ramon was selling more of his product than they were of theirs. They offered the building to the Otero family, who decided to dive into the opportunity and start an independent business. Ramon’s El Dorado has been housed in the same building since 1967, making additions over the years. By 1972, the operation was gaining notoriety throughout the St. Louis region, with legendary St. Louis Post-Dispatch food critic Joe Pollack giving the restaurant a nod.
Ramon’s menu features family recipes that quickly became local favorites. “Family cooks all the food,” Raymond says. Carlos learned the recipes from Ramon, and two uncles have worked at the restaurant for decades. Each element on the plate – down to the queso dip, guacamole, legendary salsas and even tamales – are made from scratch from Otero family recipes. Signature dishes include Chicken on the Beach – chicken over a bed of rice, topped with queso – and the Durango Plate, with slow-cooked pork in red guajillo sauce. “People mistake it for beef because it’s so tender,” Raymond says.
The Carnitas Plate, unique from most other Mexican restaurant iterations of carnitas, features pork cubes that are marinated and fried in vegetable oil; served with rice and beans; and garnished with onions, cheese, tomatoes and jalapeños. “Most people have never had carnitas like ours,” Raymond says. Many of Ramon’s dishes find themselves in a league of their own stacked against the bevvy of Mexican-food establishments popping up throughout the region, including fajitas made with giant chicken tenders and generous cuts of skirt steak rather than strips, salsas that are known for their flavorful body and satisfying slow burn, and award-winning guacamole and Margaritas. The unofficial tagline Raymond has adopted for the restaurant is: If you want something different, come to Ramon’s.
Unsurprisingly, the restaurant has a lot of repeat clientele. “We’ve had people coming here since my dad first started,” Raymond says. “We’re having third generations of families come in.” Ramon’s catering service has also grown, serving events as far as Chesterfield, Missouri, and Springfield, Illinois. The restaurant provides live mariachi entertainment each Friday at dinnertime.
With a family-owned business, it’s easy to put the family over the business, which is not the case for the Oteros. “We’re only open Monday to Saturday,” Raymond explains, “to be with our family.” The restaurant’s Sunday closure began when Ramon fell ill. “We had to take care of my dad; now that he’s passed away, now we take care of Mom… we basically enjoy the day with family. You can make all the money in the world and try to be happy – you’ll never be happy if you don’t have your family.”
Ramon’s El Dorado, 1711 St. Louis Road, Collinsville, Illinois, 618.344.6435, ramonseldorado.net