It all started with Old Mexican town—what is now Republic Square Park at Guadalupe and Fifth Streets. That’s where the first Mexicans lived—right in downtown Austin. Before condos and the east side, families who emigrated from Mexico settled in Austin in the 1870s. A handful of immigrants came here for a better life and worked as soda jerks, ranch hands and workers in tortilla and chili factories. Those were the early days of Mexican life in Austin.
In the 1890s and early 1900s, the development of Mexican-owned businesses—a meat market (Ben Garza), a doctor’s office (Alberto Garcia), the first tortilla factory (Crescenciano Segovia; Austin Tortilla Manufacturing Company, 1922) in Austin and the predecessor to the taco trailers—sprouted up in the form of tamale and chili stands. In an Austin American-Statesman article from the fifties, writer Hamilton Wright professed, “Back in 1893 on the courthouse square one had no trouble finding a Mexican vendor.” And so began the influence of Mexican culture into what we now know of taco trailers, Mexican and Tex-Mex food and cuisine.
During the Depression and into the thirties and forties, Austin experienced the emergence of Mexican restaurants by the Carlin family (Jose Trujillo Carlin and Elvira Hernandez), including El Charro Restaurant (Red River and Ninth Street) and El Charro #2 (on Speedway by the University of Texas) and La Tapatia. During a time when the Mexican community was establishing itself, the 1928 City Plan for Austin relocated Mexicans to the east side of town to segregate minority communities. Mexicans and Latinos have a culture of being entrepreneurial, and soon more restaurants were established, including El Mat, “home of the crispy taco” (1947); El Matamoros Restaurant (1957); and Matt’s El Rancho (1952). Local east side favorites like Joe’s Bakery (1962), El Azteca (1963) and Cisco’s Restaurant Bakery (1959) settled in East Austin and are still open today.
The basic formula of these restaurants was to serve their customers food just like they would make at home, but there was still no sign of breakfast tacos like we have today.
From the seventies to the nineties, the United States experienced exponential growth in immigration. Austin was no exception. With increased community members from Mexico and Central and South America, and mixed with multigenerational Tejanos, Austin’s food scene started to boom. It was in the early eighties when the commercialization of breakfast tacos began with the Tamale House on Airport Road, Las Manitas on Congress and other established restaurants. In the late eighties and early nineties, Austin experienced a growth of small Latino-owned businesses in the form of taco trucks and trailers. Soon thereafter, chefs and other entrepreneurs followed suit, and today Austin is a mecca for food trailers. In sharing the history of the breakfast taco, I interviewed people I call Los Elders, restaurateurs and Austinites who have longer histories than what’s in libraries and articles. These are some of their stories. - MR
Diana Valera, Tamale House East
A Little History
Let me go back a bit. Our grandfather came from Mexico. He established Tony’s Tortilla Factory right on Seventh and Lydia. My mother managed the business for many, many years.
I guess I was born with a taco in my mouth because we had them from day one. There were always hot tortillas on the table. We would love to put butter and salt and eat tacos just as they were being made. So we had tacos very early on, and we would eat mainly beans, rice and fideo. We didn’t have a lot of meat, and the only meat we would eat was hamburger meat once in a while.
I guess I was about thirteen years old when my parents opened the Tamale House on First and Congress, and it was the new concept of Mexican food to go. My mother and father made the tamales by hand and sold them for about fifty cents a dozen. This was in 1959. After they opened that one, they opened one on South Lamar. I was about fifteen, and I managed that second location for awhile. My brother Robert opened his place up in 1977. I have a sister that opened one on Guadalupe. It’s not operating now. I was the first one who went into the sit-down/ full-service restaurant business. It’s a lot of work, and that was in 1984. I called it Mexico Tipico. I operated that until 2000, when I went into real estate. Now I have been drawn back into this by my children, who decided that they wanted to try their hand at it. As a result, my five children are running Tamale House East. It’s based on the concept of the original Tamale House, my brother’s Tamale House and Mexico Tipico all wrapped into one. So it varies a little bit. It hasa little Latin American influence sometimes. But it’s all the original good food taught to us by my mother.
I was born in 1948. Robert is eight years older than me, so I think that the time when that happened, Mexican food wasn’t really popular food like it is now. Also, this area was separated not only by the physical barrier of I-35 but also a mental barrier. The Hispanic community was more or less on the east side, and there were a lot of family-owned businesses, tortilla factories and panaderias. And as is customary in Hispanic culture, we are usually above our business or behind our business. We lived, breathed and ate our business. In that similar mode, we live above this business. We always have.
On the Breakfast Taco
It’s like a mini home-cooked meal in a tortilla. It takes a lot of effort and love to put the ingredients that go into it. It’s not like flipping burgers. The more ingredients it has, the more care and love it has. But I think in addition to that is the evolution of the appreciation of our culture. And part of a culture is their food, their music, their