30th Annual Taste of Longview

Andres Hernandez and Leenardo Ortez man the Carlitos’ Mexican Restaurant booth, on Tuesday April 3, 2012, during the 30th Annual Taste of Longview in the Maude Cobb Convention Center. (Michael Cavazos/News-Journal Photo)

Carlos Rodriguez said he and his wife, Angeles, returned to work Wednesday after a week off and decided it was time to close the Longview restaurant he’s operated for almost four decades and retire.

“I wasn’t planning (to retire) yet,” Rodriguez — owner of Carlitos’ Mexican Restaurant on Judson Road in the North Loop Plaza — said Friday. “I was planning (to stay open) for two more years.”

But after returning Wednesday, Rodriguez, 66, recalled that he and his wife looked at each other and said, “This is it. We need to retire.”

Rodriguez, who was one month shy of being in business 39 years, said work was “getting stressful,” adding that he was putting in as many as 70 hours a week.

“We figured we needed to do it now,” he said, referring to retirement.

Carlitos’ is the second longtime Mexican restaurant in Longview to close within a year.

Gonzalo Hernandez closed Gonzalo’s Mexican Restaurant on West Loop 281 in September after 39 years, citing a slowdown in business.

Rodriguez, a native of San Luis Potosi, Mexico, who arrived in Dallas at age 15, started in the business as a busboy and moved up to waiter, bartender and general manager.

He opened the original Carlitos’ Restaurant and Cantina on South Green Street in 1980, according to News-Journal archives. He opened a second location six years later in the Oak Forest Shopping Center at Bill Owens Parkway and Loop 281.

Rodriguez said he moved to the Judson Road location 27 years ago.

His late brother, Gerald Rodriguez, worked with him in the former Johnny Cace’s building downtown. Gerald Rodriguez later went on to own and operate the Tyler Street Bistro and Gerald’s Social Club next to each other on Tyler Street until his death in May 2017 from a heart attack.

Since closing Carlitos’ this past week, Rodriguez said he has been removing kitchen equipment and other contents from the restaurant.

“I have to take care of all that and empty everything,” he said.

Despite the long hours and stress, Rodriguez said he enjoyed the long run.

Rodriguez said he has considered his customers to be like family, serving two and three generations of families and seeing children grow up and go to college.

Loyal customers have included Longview native and attorney Andy Khoury and Ryan Polk, tourism manager of the Kilgore Chamber of Commerce.

“It’s certainly the end of an era,” Khoury said Friday evening. “No matter what I ordered on their menu, it was always good. Couldn’t have just one favorite.”

Khoury said he has patronized the restaurant since it was downtown and described Carlitos’ as offering the best Mexican food in Longview. He said he ate there regularly when groups gathered on Wednesday evenings up to 10 years ago but visited less frequently recently.

“There was hardly three seats available on Wednesday nights,” he said.

Polk said in a Facebook message: “I knew it was going to eventually happen, but not this soon... I wish I could eat here just one more time. I would stay for at least 2 hours to enjoy those last moments. They always greeted me and knew exactly what I ordered .

“My first experience was with my grandmother in the mid-’80s when they were in a larger location,” Polk recalled. “Whatever happens, moving forward, I’m forever thankful for the Carlitos’ memories and their devotion to #consistency. ”

Khoury said he will miss seeing the Rodriguez family, and Rodriguez said he will miss his customers and “the satisfaction of making people happy and provide something that they love.”

He said he plans to take a few months off and might seek a part-time job.

“It won’t be in the restaurant business,” he said with a laugh.