Hector and Linda Gonzales wouldn’t dare get rid of their red booths, green paneling, checkered curtains or wagon-wheel chandeliers. Customers would throw a fit.
That’s because many have been eating at the Chuck Wagon in Fairview Heights for 40 years. They like the nostalgic feeling they get when they walk in the door.
“We live in Glen Carbon now, but just about every time I come through Fairview, I stop in here,” said Ellen Knopik, 56, who was finishing a late lunch with her husband, Rick, on a recent Friday.
Ellen became a customer in the mid-’70s, when she was a student at Belleville East. She even went to the restaurant on dates.
“I like the food,” she said. “It’s my favorite Mexican place. I like that it’s family-owned, and it’s a nice family. I actually went to school with Hector’s sister, Vicky.”
The Gonzaleses put their food in the Tex-Mex category, serving tacos, enchiladas, nachos and chimichangas along with barbecue, burgers, chili and homemade vegetable-beef soup.
People rave about the hard-shell tacos ($1.39), stuffed with seasoned ground beef, shredded Cheddar cheese, lettuce and tomato.
“No one has our meat recipe, and we use the thinnest tortillas that we can find to make the shells,” said Hector, 57, of Belleville. “That gives them a brighter flavor, and they’re easier to eat.”
The same meat and shells are used for enchiladas, except the shells aren’t deep-fried. They’re smothered in tomato sauce and melted cheese.
We live in Glen Carbon now, but just about every time I come through Fairview, I stop in here. I like the food. It’s my favorite Mexican place.
Ellen Knopik on the Chuck Wagon
The popular Super Mex plate includes two tacos, an enchilada, a tostada, Spanish rice and frijoles for $8.79.
“We also sell a lot of burgers and fries because people have kids or they just want something different,” said Linda, 56. “As much as we would like it, you can’t eat tacos every day.”
The restaurant’s food is roughly based on recipes that Hector’s uncle, Bert Gonzales, developed for his Bert’s Chuck Wagon chain in the mid-’60s.
The family had moved to the metro-east from southern Texas after Hector’s father, also named Hector, got stationed at Scott Air Force Base.
“The original restaurant was on West Main Street in Belleville,” the younger Hector said. “It was literally a shack. There’s no other word to describe it.
“It had an open-pit barbecue in the back, where I would occasionally help my grandfather cook the meat. That was my introduction to the restaurant business.”
We also sell a lot of burgers and fries because people have kids or they just want something different. As much as we would like it, you can’t eat tacos every day.
Linda Gonzales on Chuck Wagon menu
Bert started letting others use the name if they bought his food. At one time, there were about 10 metro-east locations. The only one left is owned by Hector’s uncle in Collinsville.
Darrell Smith, a friend of Hector’s father, opened the Chuck Wagon in Fairview Heights about 1970. He served Bert’s food but never used his name.
“He wanted a more upscale version,” Hector said, noting Darrell also was a contractor who built the brick building on Lincoln Trail.
Hector’s father and mother, Sandra, bought the business about five years later and operated it with help from their four children, Hector, Vicky, Debbie and Lita.
“On Sunday nights, our church college group would hang out here, and (Hector) would be working,” Linda said.
Hector and Linda married in 1980 and took over the Chuck Wagon four years later, before having their children, Lacey, now 28, Amanda, 26, and Grant, 24.
All three Gonzales kids went to college at Yale University. Today, the daughters are back working at the restaurant.
“We had this dream that our kids would go to college and not have to work in the restaurant business,” Linda said. “But it hasn’t quite worked out that way.
At one time, the Chuck Wagon offered all-you-can-eat Mexican food and guitar music two nights a week, but that became overwhelming and ended in the mid-’90s.
Customers still order at the counter. Children 12 and under can get Smiley Meals with a main item, smiley fries, a small drink and a toy for $5.49.
“We make hand-dipped milkshakes,” Linda said. “But we’re probably most famous for our flaked ice and our cherry Cokes. We make them here with cherry syrup.”
The Chuck Wagon has special meaning for Drew Jett, 29, of Belleville, who recently stopped in with his niece, Skylar Shanks, and girlfriend, Ashleigh Kerce.
Drew’s father lived nearby as a boy and used to ride his bike to the restaurant to eat 50-cent tacos and play pinball. He later brought Drew’s mother on dates.
On this day, Drew and Ashleigh had taken 11-year-old Skylar shopping, and they let her pick a lunch spot.
“It’s my favorite restaurant,” she said.
At a glance
- What: The Chuck Wagon
- Where: 10212 Lincoln Trail, Fairview Heights
- Hours: 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Mondays through Saturdays and noon to 10 p.m. Sundays
- Seating: 116
- Handicap-accessible: Yes
- Carry-outs: Yes
- Information: Call 618-398-0230 or visit www.chuckwagonfvh.com or the Facebook page