The Most Important Taco of the Day

Breakfast! A multi-generational history of the breakfast taco, via Austin institution the Tamale House. Excerpted from the new book "Austin Breakfast Tacos."
Thu August 8, 2013 5:15 pm
Breakfast Taco!
Dennis Burnett

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 language. There have been a lot of people who have traveled to Austin and discovered what wonderful tacos we have and have written about it and done stories about it. For the longest time, our own community didn’t know what a gem they had, which was our whole culture and our food. Mexican food is so varied. Every taco is a little piece of art. I get into the kitchen, and a customer might ask me how much are you going to put of that ingredient? And I say, well, put on some music and lemme see. That’s how I personally do it. I’ll remember recipes from my mother or that I’ve seen elsewhere. It’s a creative endeavor. When someone comes in, they can tell that. They can look at a taco, the greens, the reds. It’s colorful like a Mexican flag or a Mexican costume. When people visually see the presentation of the taco, they get excited, and when they put it in their mouth, they say, “Wow, I’ve discovered something.” And every time someone tries it, I can tell people enjoy it. It’s a very rewarding experience to make someone happy. It’s a very basic instinct in all of us that if you satisfy someone’s hunger or a craving for delicious food, you make them happy. And they want to come back. And they want to share that with their friends.

I just want to add that I think it is wonderful that we are finally being recognized as a culture and that we are able to share this wonderful food, and these wonderful tacos, with so many people from Austin and from outside Austin and outside the country.

(Book cover photo by Joel Salcido) 

Robert Vasquez, Tamale House Airport Boulevard

Breakfast Tacos Take Off

I don’t think anyone was selling breakfast tacos when I opened up. I think I was in business for five or six years before I actually started selling breakfast tacos. It means you gotta get up at four o’clock in the morning to make a breakfast taco. When I started in 1985–86, I started selling them. A neighbor down the street was selling them, too. So I started a taco war. My tacos went down to forty-five cents each. So he went out of business, and I kept going. About that time, my mother and my sister started selling breakfast tacos, too. Now, if you look around, everybody’s selling breakfast tacos. Everybody. McDonald’s, Wendy’s, Taco Bell. They never used to do it before. It’s something that’s caught on...I make all my stuff in-house. We don’t have anything imported. It’s all made right here in our kitchens. The only thing we buy are the tortillas, but they’re local.

Eating Tacos, Then and Now

You wanna know what it was like as a kid eating tacos? If I took tacos to school, everyone would say shame on you. There was a lot of shame eating a taco back then. You had to hide them. You couldn’t eat them in front of nobody. And this was among a school that was 80 to 90 percent Anglo and very few Mexicans. So I had to hide my food. But now, 80 to 90 percent of Anglos eat tacos! I would say 80 to 90 percent of my customers are Anglo. And they eat tacos like they’ve never had anything before in their life! So things have changed. I think to myself, I remember a time when I would get made fun of. And now everybody’s eating tacos. It’s not just Mexicans anymore.

Carmen Valera, Tamale House East

(Pictured at left, Robert Valera, Diana Valera, Juan Valera and Carmen Valera. Photo by Dennis Burnett)

Tell us your story.

It all started in 1912, when our great-grandfather Antonio Villasana escaped the turmoil of the Mexican Revolution with his parents and siblings and settled in Austin, Texas. He was only thirteen years old at the time. By the 1920s, he had opened a small restaurant in what used to be a Mexican-American neighborhood located near present-day Austin City Hall. He called it Tony’s Café.

By 1935, Antonio was the owner and operator of Tony’s Tortillas in the Guadalupe Church neighborhood of East Austin. He quickly established a second tortilla factory in Houston. Tony’s Tortillas was one of the very first tortilla factories in the state of Texas. His products were distributed to supermarkets and restaurants across Texas and throughout the Southwest.

Combining the tried-and-true traditions of family values and hard work, all of our great-grandfather’s children worked at Tony’s Tortillas. His oldest child, Carmen, our grandmother, started working at a very early age alongside her mother.

Carmen made candies and tortillas. In 1961, our grandmother Carmen and her husband, Moses Vasquez, opened up the Original Tamale House at the corner of Cesar Chavez Street and Congress Avenue. This take-out business soon became a successful and iconic Austin staple. Rumor has it that President Lyndon Baines Johnson used to have Grandma’s tamales flown to the White House. A fact is that he would send his limo driver to pick them up for him when she was in town. They sold the restaurant in 1988, making history in Austin real estate and even making national news.

Then, in 1977, Carmen’s oldest child, our uncle Robert Vasquez, opened the Tamale House #3 on Airport Boulevard. His place was soon to become one of Austin’s best-known Mexican food take-out restaurants with a nationwide reputation. He made the New York Times for being one of the first to sell breakfast tacos. A musician friend once said that the Tamale House has fed more musicians and starving artists (literally) in Austin than any other place.

Uncle Bobby has operated his business for thirty-five years and has been a mentor and supporter of the Tamale House East. He is also one of the last remaining veterans of the 1980s’ infamous Austin Taco Wars. Without his support and help, the Tamale House East would not be possible. He is usually seen at Tamale House East on Sundays, providing advice and encouragement to us, his nieces and nephews. Throughout the years, other locations of the Tamale House have included one at the intersection of Guadalupe and Twenty-ninth Street operated by our Aunt Peggy and another one at College Avenue in South Austin, operated by our grandmother Carmen.

In 1982, our mother, Diane Vasquez-Valera, who had worked with her mom, Carmen, at the original Tamale House on Congress since the age of thirteen, opened her own place, México Típico Restaurant. After two years in Montopolis, she moved the restaurant to the current Tamale House East location at 1707 East Sixth Street. Our father, Juan Valera, who emigrated from Peru in 1963, designed and constructed the building that we currently occupy. In 1984, an apartment was added to the second floor of the restaurant, and that is where we grew up. So, yes, we can say we actually grew up in the restaurant business!

México Típico quickly developed its own following and was widely recognized as one of the fifty best Hispanic restaurants in the United States. It was at this location that our great-aunt Betty, Antonio’s daughter, came to help our mom. She not only helped operate the restaurant but also helped raise the five Valera children. After over forty years of working in the restaurant business while raising five children, our parents closed México Típico in 2000. Since that time, we have continued to make this place our family home.

During the years following México Típico’s closing, our mom, Diane, and our aunt Cathy Vasquez-Revilla, who was a City of Austin planning commissioner and owner of La Prensa newspaper, decided to start a movement. They organized east side business owners and residents to develop the Plaza Saltillo Concept. Together, they convinced Capital Metro to donate land and secured federal funds for the plaza’s construction. Plaza Saltillo is now not only a light rail stop but also a testament to the families who settled and preserved the rich cultural heritage of our beautiful east side community for everyone to enjoy.

Many of México Típico’s customers tell us they remember it fondly. They like to tell us which booth they sat in and request that we bring their favorite dishes back. We are happy to oblige. Another generation remembers the famous tamales at the original Tamale House on Congress. Some were only children at the time and now return with their own children and grandchildren.

Now, as it often does, life has come full circle. There’s still a Carmen, Roberto, Juan and Antonio (José) in the kitchen, but now we’ve added a Colombina. The scenery is a little different these days, but the family recipes and traditions remain the same. And yes, we serve breakfast tacos all day long.

Why do you think Austin loves breakfast tacos so much?

I think the breakfast taco is just so embedded in the culture if Austin. I mean, our family has been making and selling them since at least 1961! They may have even been served in downtown Austin at Tony’s Café in 1912. They have withstood the test of time. We sell breakfast tacos at four in the morning and eleven at night. Austin is such a creative place, and yes there are actual starving artists here. Breakfast tacos help sustain them, and in return, they feed our hearts and souls.

What is your most popular breakfast taco and why? What makes it stand out?

The potato, bacon, egg and cheese is our most popular breakfast taco. We write it as the PEBKCHZ just as our grandmother did and our uncle still does. It is a simple taco but a tried-and-true one. It stands out because of its taste. The hickory- smoked bacon and grated cheddar cheese bring just the right amount of salt to the mix. It is a complete meal in and of itself. What makes it extra special is our grilled tomatillo salsa.

POTATO EGG, BACON AND CHEESE BREAKFAST TACOS (makes 6)

6 eggs
1 pat of butter (optional)
1⁄2 cup heavy whipping cream (optional)
1⁄2 pound cheddar cheese
2 medium potatoes
Onion
1⁄2 pound hickory-smoked bacon
6 tortillas

In a mixing bowl, scramble 6 eggs with a hand mixer. You can add a pat of butter or 1⁄2 cup heavy whipping cream for super-rich eggs. You don’t want to, just crack the egg and scramble the eggs in the pan because then the white and the yolk will remain separate.

Take your cheddar cheese and grate it. Set aside. Cube your potatoes and sprinkle them with salt and pepper. Using 1⁄2 cup vegetable or canola oil, heat up your saucepan, getting the oil nice and hot before you cook your potatoes so they don’t get soggy. Add a bit of onion for flavor and cook your potatoes. Strain the oil out and put your potatoes back in the pan. Lower your heat, and slowly cook your eggs for a classic potato and egg combination.

In a separate pan, fry your bacon. We like a nice hickory bacon. While we prefer a firm, not completely cripsy bacon, you can make yours to your preference. Strain your bacon and place on a plate with a paper towel to soak up the excess oil.

Warm your tortillas on either a comal, if you have one, or a cast-iron skillet to simulate a flattop grill.

Fill your tortilla with your potato and egg, add your bacon and sprinkle on your cheese. Eat your taco and enjoy!

(Excerpted from Austin BREAKFAST TACOS: The Story of the Most Important Taco of the Day, by Mando Rayo and Jarod Neece, The History Press. For more by the two authors, visit Taco Journalism.)

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