Meet the Lake Highlands native behind the infamous El Arroyo sign

El Arroyo’s Tex-Mex cuisine comes with a mixture of comedy, absurdity and an occasional dash of controversy — all served daily on a parking lot sign.

If it’s on the internet, it’s probably appeared on the Austin staple’s marquee and vice versa. The restaurant has cleverly crafted thousands of messages since the early 1990s.

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More than 150,000 people follow El Arroyo on social media. The signs have spurred quarrels among British vegans, transformed into a wedding photo destination and circulated websites like Reddit, who once accused El Arroyo of stealing their jokes.

El Arroyo may be an Austin institution, but its owner Ellis Winstanley is a Lake Highlands native who grew up near Merriman Park Elementary.

“It’s kind of a world of its own,” he says. “It doesn’t feel like it’s part of Dallas. It feels like its own town called Lake Highlands.”

Winstanley — who moved to Austin as a college student — compiled the restaurant’s favorites into the book “El Arroyo’s Big Book of Signs.” It not only sold out, but thousands also were placed on back order.

“You think a couple people will get a kick out of it, and then it just takes off and is the real deal,” Winstanley says.

Winstanley bought El Arroyo from Clay McPhail, who started the marquee tradition. They closed the deal in a hospital cafeteria while Winstanley’s wife, Paige, pregnant with twins, was on bed rest.

“Maybe having twins and buying a restaurant wasn’t the best idea,” he says.

The severe loss of sleep didn’t interrupt Winstanley’s creativity. He and a team collaborate to create the comical phrases and puns.

“If you look at what’s going on in the world, there’s no shortage of ridiculous things to talk about,” he says.

Winstanley is adamant that the signs are nonpartisan. El Arroyo pokes fun at everyone equally, he says, hence one of his personal favorites: “Sorry to anyone we haven’t offended. Be patient. We’ll get to you shortly.”

Oddly enough, the political signs aren’t what have caused the most ruckus. El Arroyo used a joke found on Reddit, and the company retaliated. The website photoshopped the restaurant’s sign to read, “El Arroyo steals unimaginative jokes from Reddit.”

Users, though, defended the eatery with quips such as, “El Arroyo appears on Reddit more than Reddit appears on El Arroyo.”

Perhaps the most controversial joke was “Dear vegans, if you are trying to save the animals, stop eating their food.” A man living in England found it anything but amusing and accused the restaurant of being insensitive.

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“It ended up in a battle royale,” Winstanley says. “We watched our Facebook rating go up and down all day as these people are arguing about this stuff.”

The obscure internet wars, however bizarre, showcase the popularity of the signs worldwide. People from Denmark to New Zealand comment regularly, and Winstanley’s team is putting together the book’s second edition.

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“It’s a funny sign in front of a restaurant,” he says. “You don’t think it’s going to turn into something like this.”

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