Little did Al Salazar know that a small bait and tackle stand on South Padre Island would become a multimillion-dollar enterprise that keeps growing as time goes by. Today, the family business owns and operates seven restaurants, and is about to open an eighth eatery, Josephine.
Salazar, the family patriarch who wears no fancy outfits and who often advertises himself holding a beer mug, said he opened a fishing stand in the 1980s and began selling tacos for boat captains and fishermen.
After a while, he opened Dirty Al’s, the original eatery that launched a chain of seafood restaurants, including some that now include Mexican food and steaks.
“It all started with the bait and tackle stand,” said Ethan Salazar, one of Al’s sons. “We opened Dirty Al’s in 2002, or after my brother, Cameron, graduated from a culinary school Houston.”
After that, they kept expanding, expanding and expanding. They now operate four restaurants on the Island, one in Port Isabel and one each in Brownsville and McAllen. The Salazars said they are getting ready to open their eighth location on Padre Boulevard. It will be named after their grandmother, Josephine.
The family enterprise employs an average of 400 people, but that number can double during the peak summer season that goes from Memorial Day through Labor Day. The company has monthly payroll in the neighborhood of $400,000.
But how did Dirty Al’s become such as success?
The Salazars said it all began after an offshore trip when their father was asked by a convenience store executive if he could deliver 50 tacos a day to their stores, a chain which became what is known today as Stripes. From then on, the Salazars knew the food they prepared was going to sell like hotcakes.
They bought a shrimp boat to supply the fresh-caught commodity to the restaurants. The tacos quickly became the talk of the town, the Rio Grande Valley and among the Winter Texan community, a customer base that spread the news that caught on like wildfire in the Midwest, a region of the United States that brings the largest numbers of seasonal winter visitors to the Valley.
Just ask Marsha Ackers of Ohio.
“We have been coming down for a number of years, staying in Harlingen,” she said. “We try to be here at least once, maybe twice a week.”
Wisconsin residents Craig and Jane Walkey echoed similar remarks.
Asked how the seafood Dirty Al’s compares to other eateries, Jane Walkey said, “There is nothing to compare with. The shrimp here is the best.”
Cameron Salazar said they use their own breading, recipe and style when it comes to preparing food, though he acknowledges others have tried to copy them. “Our shrimp are what we like to call ‘cowboy style,’” he said. “Each shrimp is opened, deveined and split at the top.”
But being successful is not just about making a profit.
The Salazars said they like to give back to the community by donating money to the local animal shelter and the Boys and Girls Club. They are partners with the Port Isabel and Los Fresnos school districts and offer summer internships, among other local interests.
“We have a passion for helping the community grow,” Ethan said. “We like to give back as much as we can, and are proud to say that we sell Texas wild caught shrimp.”
Al Salazar said they will keep adding more eateries, despite some of the challenges it creates for the company. “Every time we open a new one, we take a hit,” he said. “Our other business revenues decline by some percentage, but we plan to open more restaurants.”