I’m sorry to hear about the recent closing of the original Amigos restaurant in Altamonte Springs. I had a close affinity with it. We both came to Central Florida about the same time, in 1988, Amigos’ owners came from Texas; I moved here from Phoenix.
During my six or so years in Arizona, I developed an affinity for Tex-Mex and didn’t realize that I had taken it for granted until I moved to Orlando and couldn’t find any. At least not any good Tex-Mex. It seemed that most of the restaurants around here were doing what they thought Tex-Mex should be. The result was something I dubbed Flori-Mex. It made me sad.
It wasn’t just me who thought that. When Texan Andy Hyltin was 14 he came to visit his father in Orlando and the two went out to eat at a Mexican restaurant. But later that night, Andy called his mother, Nell, and whispered into the phone, “It wasn’t Mexican; I don’t know what it was.”
And over the next several years, Andy would occasionally say, “Mom, we ought to move to Orlando and open a Tex-Mex restaurant,” to which Nell would say, “No, you go to school and get an education.”
He did. He got a master’s degree in banking and became a vice president at a large bank in Amarillo. But he found that unsatisfying. And in 1988 finally convinced Nell to move to Central Florida to help him open the restaurant he’d been dreaming about for so many years. It opened that year on Dec. 14.
But the location they had chosen, on Westmonte Drive in Altamonte Springs, was across the street from two chain restaurants, El Torito and Casa Gallardo. They figured the people who frequented the two Tex-Mex pretenders would much prefer the real thing.
But the crowds kept going to the chains, even waiting in line to get in.
So one night, Nell put together a plateful of tacos, walked over to the people waiting in line at El Torito and asked if anyone wanted a sample. “Then,” as I wrote in a 2002 profile of Nell for the Orlando Sentinel, “she pointed across the street and said, ‘That’s our restaurant, and we’re open and there’s no wait,’ and like a Pied Piper of Amarillo led what was to become a steady stream of customers over to Amigos.”
In the early days, Nell made the tamales that were wildly in demand at Amigos herself, dozens every day. But as the restaurant became more popular, and as the family opened more locations, the tamale-making was farmed out to a company in Texas. Eventually the quality began to flag – even the family came to admit it. The last time I visited an Amigos was when a location opened in Waterford Lakes. I remember being sad once again.
Nell was 68 when I profiled her and had already survived cancer and a stroke. She died at the age of 78 of complications from heart disease.
Andy and his brother, John, who eventually moved to Central Florida to become involved in the restaurant, sold their interests years ago. The current owner, Mark Follett, announced the closing last week.
Click this link to read my profile of Nell Hyltin, one of the most fascinating women I’ve met in this business, and this link to her obituary from the Sentinel with comments from Jake Vest, who illustrated her self-published cookbook, “If ya ain’t a little fat, ya momma didn’t love ya!,” seen at top.