Does Tyler have a food scene?

"El Charro Café, located at 1433 East Erwin, Tyler, Texas," promotional material published by Nationwide Specialty Co. circa 1940

For the first Loop issue of the year, we’re obsessed with food, drink, and farming. And we’re starting with a simple question: why doesn’t Tyler have more?

More restaurants, for one thing — and we don’t mean chains. We mean homegrown offerings, made by Tylerites who help define our city through local produce and regional cuisine. We’ve seen a nice wave of new Latino restaurants and taco joints come out of Tyler’s northeast barrio and beyond in the last few years. But elsewhere in Tyler, we remain far more likely to encounter a new outpost of a national chain. Of course, any new franchise in town means new jobs, and that’s a good thing. But most of the money generated by these businesses flows back to the chains’ corporate headquarters. It doesn’t stay in town.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with chains, and chains play a valuable role in any city’s food landscape. But in conversations I’ve had with Tylerites while preparing for this issue, I heard it again and again: when it comes to chain dining, Tyler feels overstuffed. How did we get that way? Do we have the capital and aspiring talent right here in Tyler to launch more indie enterprises? And do we have enough diners in town who’re willing to pay more—and to try new things—to keep those businesses afloat?What about all the local restos that *have* opened in the last couple years, and failed? Are they a sign that it can’t be done? We’re going to try and find out.

Of course, there are bright stars on Tyler’s food map, and, notably, several have blinked into existence in just the last few years (coinciding, it bears notice, with the loosening of Smith County’s liquor laws). We’ll be talking to folks behind these operations, from small farmers to diverse cooks to optimistic investors. We want to know what excites Tyler’s food professionals, what frustrates them about this city, and whether they feel Tyler has truly developed a local food scene—and if not, what would it take? Got something to say on this issue? Let’s talk.

We also want to investigate the magic behind some of the city’s more established, already thriving venues. For instance, what’s with the awesomely over-the-top decor at Don Juan’s? That’s a longstanding personal fascination of mine, along with the kooky musical mural at Stanley’s I looked into last year. Got other foodie curiosities you’d like us to look into? We’re all ears.

Along the way, we hope to guide you to some of the city’s best cocktails, introduce you to interesting gems you might not know about, and help all of us understand the roles that food, drink, and farming play here in Tyler. I hope you’re hungry.

Thanks for reading this story. Just one more thing. If you believe in the power of local journalism here in Tyler, I'm hoping that you'll help us take The Loop to the next level.

Our readers have told us what they want to better understand about this place we all call home, from Tyler's north-south divide to our city's changing demographics. Power, leadership, and who gets a seat at the table. How Tyler is growing and changing, and how we can all help it improve. Local arts, culture, entertainment, and food.

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Tasneem Raja is the Executive Editor of The Tyler Loop, a nonprofit journalism startup that explores policy, history, and demographics in Tyler, Texas. She is an award-winning journalist who has reported for NPR, The New Yorker, the Atlantic, Mother Jones, and other national outlets. A former senior editor at NPR, she launched a popular podcast exploring issues of identity and race with NPR's Code Switch team. At Mother Jones, she specialized in data visualization and led a team that built the first-ever database of mass shootings in America. She's a pioneer in the field of data-driven digital storytelling, a frequent speaker on issues of digital journalism, and a die-hard fan of alt weeklies, where she got her start as a local reporter. She lives in Tyler with her husband, her stepson, and two imperious terriers.