By: Courtney Dabney
Christie Rodriguez just thought she had a second to sit down for a quick break. No sooner had she slid into a seat at her and her husband’s newly opened burger spot, the super-small Fuego Burger on Benbrook Highway, than a mob of hungry burger-lovers came barreling through the door.
Minutes later, Christie and her son, Alex, were flipping patties in the tiny kitchen, smoke billowing, grease popping, the sights and smells of sizzling meat filling the air. When the burgers were delivered, diners marveled at what they ordered: the restaurant’s signature burger, a greasy, messy beauty dressed with green chiles and encircled by a halo of melted cheese; it looked like Saturn’s rings.
Talk about déjà vu: This very scene unfolded, time and time again, just a few years ago, just a few blocks away, at the couple’s first restaurant, Salsa Fuego, on the Benbrook traffic circle; it was once considered one of the city’s best restaurants. But at the height of their popularity, the couple disappeared, taking their burgers and the rest of their absolutely incredible food with them.
Second chances in the restaurant business are given out sparingly — and are often reserved for those with deep pockets or deep-pocketed investors. With neither, though, Carlos and Christie have returned, in a double-feature sort of way, running not one but two restaurants — the brand-new location of Fuego Burger on Benbrook Highway and an even smaller Fuego Burger nestled in the unlikeliest of places: in a Rendon gas station.
“After we closed Salsa Fuego, we thought about other things we could do besides running a restaurant,” Carlos says. “We couldn’t think of anything.”
That’s not surprising, considering they were both practically raised in restaurants. Originally from Taiwan, Christie grew up in White Settlement, working in her family’s many Chinese restaurants, from Azle to Euless to Graham.
Likewise, Carlos — who grew up in El Paso — has been in the restaurant business since he was a teen. “I came to Fort Worth when I was 17,” he says. “When I turned 18, I started working at Peony.”
“He actually waited on me at Peony,” Christie laughs. “He just doesn’t remember.” The restaurant in which they met, ironically, would someday become their own.
After they married and started a family, the couple decided to open their own spot. They’d raised enough money to take over a tiny ramshackle building on the Benbrook traffic circle that was originally a Kentucky Fried Chicken.
Salsa Fuego opened in 2009 to little fanfare. Texas Monthly eventually took notice, though, then everyone else, creating a huge buzz for the tiny spot. People piled in for Carlos’ distinctive fusions of New Mexico, Tex-Mex and American flavors. Especially popular was the Fuego Burger, with its ring of cheese that melted around the bottom bun.
Burgers were so hot, the two came up with what seemed like a grand idea: Move into a bigger location but keep the original spot and turn it into a burger joint. They’d call it “Fuego Burger.”
They moved Salsa Fuego to the old Peony spot, but the plan to convert the smaller building into Fuego Burger never materialized. Carlos kept having problems with the new location. Money coming in from the restaurant went right back into it. Not long after Salsa Fuego came in second place in a citywide burger battle sponsored by the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, it closed.
“It was going to kill us,” Carlos says. “I would get there at 6 in the morning, and sometimes I’d be there so late, I’d just sleep there. That place just had too many problems. It’s hard to swallow your pride when you have a successful business, but we had no choice but to close.”
And that seemed like the end of their story. Out of the blue, though, the couple turned up, a few months later, in a restaurant tucked inside a gas station in the country community of Rendon.
“I just did a search on the internet and found this place,” Christie says. “We didn’t even know where Rendon was. But we did know that we wanted to try again. Carlos’ food is too good for people not to know about it.”
Social media took it from there. After a fan posted their new location, crowds returned, as did the Star-Telegram, which had just begun a new burger battle competition. Once again, the couple came in second.
“Before the burger battle, I was selling 400 burgers a week,” Carlos says. “After the battle, it shot up to 1,500 a week.”
Back on their feet, Carlos and Christie have returned to Fort Worth’s west side, with the second location of Fuego Burger on Benbrook Highway.
“I guess it’s in our blood,” Christie says. “It’s a hard life, working 12, 14 hours a day. But when we make people happy, when we have people follow us from place to place, it’s worth it. We know we’re doing something right.”
Locations: 4400 Benbrook Highway; and 5595 E. FM 1187, Rendon
By: Courtney Dabney