For generations of South Texans, the Cadillac Bar in Nuevo Laredo was the can’t-miss stop for fine dining south of the border.
With New Orleans-tinged specialties such as shrimp gumbo, frog legs and turtle soup, plus a good selection of Tex-Mex, all chased with classic cocktails like the Ramos Gin Fizz, the Cadillac offered linen tablecloth service impeccably delivered by white-suited waiters.
Founded in 1924 as a dirt-floored saloon and gambling house by Mayo Bessan, who was later joined by his son-in-law Porter S. Garner Jr., the Cadillac was an oasis of gentility that, for more than half a century, attracted celebrities, politicians and ranchers as well as busloads of tourists to los dos Laredos.
Wanda Garner Cash, 71, had a front-row seat to all the excitement. As Bessan’s granddaughter and Garner’s daughter, she grew up in the Cadillac, eating maraschino cherries and drinking virgin daiquiris while witnessing or hearing stories about the legendary goings on there.
Cash’s tells many of these tales in her recently published “Pancho Villa’s Saddle at the Cadillac Bar” (Texas A&M University Press, $19.95). The book includes stories about how the “Little” Cadillac Bar became the “Big” Cadillac when construction of the Pan-American Highway forced Bessan to move two blocks away; the flood of 1954, which almost put Bessan and Garner out of business; and how the saddle of the book’s title was bought on a whim in 1932 for the then-outrageous price of 800 pesos when Bessan traveled to Mexico City.
Cash also includes plenty of the Cadillac’s classic food and drink recipes — some she has in her father’s own handwriting — so former patrons, and those who wish they’d been, can re-create a little of the bar’s magic at home.
Mayo Bessan died in 1969, and Cash’s father Porter ran the Cadillac until 1979, when he gave the business to his employees; they eventually sold out to the building’s owners. The Cadillac stumbled on until 2010, when it closed for good, in large measure a victim of drug-war violence and a precipitous drop in over-the-border tourism.
After retiring from a long career as a journalist and the associate director of the University of Texas School of Journalism, Cash is now event director of the Texas Arts & Crafts Fair. She recently talked about the book, the bar and its legacy, how her father once became an unwitting drug mule and more. This interview has been edited for clarity.
You grew up in the Cadillac Bar. What was that like?
It was so much a part of my life that I didn’t think about it as anything special. It was what my family did.
I had all my birthday parties there, and the waiters took care of us. My sister and I never wanted for bowls of maraschino cherries or alcohol-free daiquiris. When I got to college and it would come up, people would say, “Wow, the Cadillac Bar.” And I started thinking, “OK, maybe it is cool.”
Why do you think the Cadillac Bar is remembered so fondly, even, it seems, by those who are too young to have ever gone there?
The food was great, undeniably, and the drinks were strong and inexpensive. But it was the ambiance that made it so popular. There were other good places in Nuevo Laredo at the time, like the Alma Latina and the C.O.D. But what made the Cadillac so consistently popular was the atmosphere my father and grandfather created. They were the ultimate hosts. My dad never forgot a name. It would be years since he’d seen you and he’d say, “Rich, how are you? How’s your wife?” And he’d call her by her name. People said Porter Garner made them feel like they were the only customer in the room.
Women from San Antonio, Houston, Victoria, all over would charter buses and come to Laredo for the weekend. They’d stay at La Posada Hotel on the American side, eat at the Cadillac and then go shopping.
A lot of famous people came through the Cadillac doors.
I remember sitting on (comedian) Cantinflas’ lap when I was little and him feeding me maraschino cherries. He came frequently with his wife, and he would do comedic exhibitions at the bullfights. The bullfights would start at 4 p.m. Sunday afternoons, so they’d come beforehand for lunch. I really didn’t know who he was at the time, but it was exciting.
When the movie “Viva Zapata” was filmed in nearby San Ygnacio in 1951, the actors visited the Cadillac for dinner several times, including Anthony Quinn and Marlon Brando, who mumbled his order in terrible Spanish. The waiters, ever polite, always answered Brando in perfect English.
I never hung around with him, but Billy Gibbons of ZZ Top is a big fan of the Cadillac. He would fly in and go to Marti’s and then come back to the Cadillac and spend the afternoon drinking. He’s a big collector of Cadillac memorabilia, so when the band was in San Antonio the last time, we went backstage and visited with him. Gave him stuff for his collection. He’s cool.
In addition to the drinks, the Cadillac Bar was renowned for its New Orleans-influenced cuisine. How did that come about?
I like to say my grandfather escaped Prohibition. He was a bartender at the St. Charles Hotel in New Orleans, and when Prohibition was passed, bartending became a criminal act, so he was suddenly out of a job. In 1924, he found himself in Nuevo Laredo where he lived until he died in 1970. My grandfather was never a cook, so when he opened the Cadillac, he brought in some buddies from south Louisiana who were cooks. They came and ran the kitchen and trained the cooks.
That’s how the Cadillac came to have such a strong New Orleans influence, with the sauces and the salads and lots of seafood. The seafood came in by train every day. A lot of it came from the Gulf. The turtle meat, for example, came from Vera Cruz, and people came to the Cadillac because they knew they could get good, fresh seafood.
Bowing to local taste, the menu also included Mexican dishes, what we’d call Tex-Mex food. The guacamole was delicious, the enchiladas, the envueltos.
In an interview you did with your father before he died, he tells an interesting story about the bolillos the restaurant served.
Well, my dad wanted to serve small bolillos, maybe 4 inches long. So he went to a fellow named Amanza who was the local baker. But he made only regular-size bolillos, maybe 7 inches long. He said it was too much trouble to make them smaller. So dad said, “What if I pay the same price for the small ones as you charge for the big ones?” And suddenly it wasn’t too much trouble to make the small bolillos!
In the late ’60s, my father learned he had become an unwitting drug mule when customs agents and other law enforcement authorities appeared at our house in Laredo one afternoon. They said Mexican smugglers had been stashing bricks of marijuana in the undercarriage of his pickup truck while it was parked at the Cadillac. The smugglers knew he would cross the bridge without scrutiny and so, late at night, after my father was back home on the American side, they’d retrieve the dope. The police said they monitored the operation for several weeks until they finally arrested the kingpin.
In the book you write about how the kitchen and wait staff often stayed at the restaurant for years and years.
The staff was well taken care of. They made a good salary in addition to tips. There were no health benefits at that time, but if anybody got sick or their family or kids got sick, my dad took care of them. There was very little turnover. Typically, my father would hire somebody as a busboy, then they’d get to be a waiter. Or if they had a talent, they went to the kitchen and chopped limes and onions and then they’d be trained as a cook. For many of the staff, this was their career.
The flood of 1954 almost put an end to the Cadillac. What do you remember about that time?
I was 4½ years old, and I remember quite a bit. It didn’t rain in Laredo, but it dumped 38 inches on the Hill Country. When that water made its way down the Rio Grande, the city was devastated and so was the Cadillac. The backroom was ruined, because it was wood construction, while the front of the restaurant was cinder block and plaster, so it was better able to withstand the flood waters.
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I remember the bad smell because the water treatment plants was inundated and there was raw sewage everywhere.
We thought we’d lost Pancho Villa’s silver-studded saddle, which had been the centerpiece of the dining room. Fortunately, we found it just around the corner from the bar, wedged against a utility pole.
Did they consider closing the business?
My grandfather did. He was 69 at the time and he said he just didn’t feel like messing with it any more. But my father, who joined the business in 1947, prevailed and said he could handle it. And indeed he did.
And he did something pretty progressive for the time.
Air conditioning! He installed air conditioning. It was pretty revolutionary in 1955. Back then almost nobody had air conditioning.
Your grandfather died in 1969, and your father ran the Cadillac until 1979, when he turned over the business to the employees. Why did he do that?
My father was tired of dealing with the Mexican government, which was filled with crooked bureaucrats who always wanted the mordida, the bribe. If you didn’t pay, they wouldn’t renew your license.
Then there was the tax bureau. They’d send an auditor in on the Monday after Thanksgiving and do an audit of the receipts from Thursday through Sunday, which was my father’s biggest weekend of the year. And that was what they’d base his tax bill on the the rest of the year.
And they taxed everything. They taxed my grandfather for having a zoo because he kept parrots in the back room.
How did you decide that now was the time to write a book about the Cadillac Bar?
Actually, I started the book in 1999, doing oral histories and interviews with my father and others, gathering information. I was doing it for my parents and then my father and mother both became ill and died. So I lost all my motivations. But I had all this material, and all these photos, so when I retired from the University of Texas in 2016, I resurrected the manuscript and started working on it again.
I reached out to family and friends, started the Friends of the Cadillac Bar Facebook group and started collecting more stories, more anecdotes.
I’ve been really surprised at all the emails I get and the comments online and on social media from so many people who say things like, “I used to go there with my grandparents,” or “I remember going there with my dad.” A lot of people have such fond memories of the Cadillac Bar.
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