by Virginia B. Wood
Ninfa & Jorge D. Guerra, founders of El Azteca.
photograph by John Anderson
For the past 45 years, the most likely enticement for many Austinites to visit the neighborhoods east of downtown has been the promise of delicious homestyle Mexican food at affordable prices. For most of that period, the four major purveyors of the Mexican culinary arts were Matt's El Rancho (originally on East First, now at 2613 S. Lamar, 462-9333), Cisco's Restaurant, Bakery & Bar (1511 E. Sixth, 478-2420), Carmen's La Tapatia (two locations on East Sixth, both now closed) and El Azteca (2600 E. Seventh, 477-4701). They all started small and built loyal followings among politicians and businesspeople, college students and faculty, townsfolk and tourists alike, with good word of mouth about the comida casera (homestyle food).
As the restaurants grew, ancillary businesses such as tortilla factories, produce houses, and beer distributorships sprang up to service them, strengthening the Eastside economy and providing jobs for the residents. While the eateries supported the barrio economy, the business and political relationships developed over plates of migas or enchilada dinners ultimately contributed to the development of a political voice for East Austin's Latino community and long-needed improvements in public services in the neighborhood. Two of those original restaurants are still vital members of the East Austin scene. Although El Azteca and Cisco's are now managed by the second and third generations of the dynasty, their founders, Jorge Guerra Sr. and the late Rudy "Cisco" Cisneros, respectively, are still legends in the close-knit community. Here are the stories behind the legends.
The Cisco Kidder
Rudy Cisneros was the son of a well-known East Austin panadero who operated the popular Sunset Bakery on East Seventh for many years. Elderly barrio residents still recall the old baker hawking pastries door to door, pulling warm, fragrant pan de huevo and flaky empanadas from a big basket over his arm. Rudy opened his shop on Sixth Street in the early Fifties, selling signature buttermilk biscuits, Mexican pastries, and coffee to a hungry clientele. Not a baker like his father, Rudy hired bakers and built the business in the front of the house with his people skills and sense of humor. As the business grew, Rudy added migas and huevos rancheros to the menu, making himself the father of Mexican breakfasts in Austin. Eventually, a few entrees and breakfast tacos filled out the small menu, but Cisco's built its name as a breakfast house with the biscuits and migas, and it remains so today.
Generations of college students, athletes and coaches, movie stars, and visiting dignitaries found their way to Cisco's, and Cisneros welcomed them all. Regulars recount how there was something of a pecking order where seating was concerned; famous people, friends, journalists, and beautiful women were known to get the best tables. "Rudy was intrigued by famous people, and he enjoyed picking up their checks," recalls longtime friend Sam Shanblum. "He also liked seeing his name in Wray Reddell's column in the paper. Wray ate on Rudy's tab for years. Rudy probably gave away as much food as he sold." Cisneros wasn't likely to pick up tabs just for his friends; he was generous in the neighborhood as well. "My dad was a real soft touch," his daughter Ruth Ann remembers. "If a family from the neighborhood needed help or some church was having a benefit, Dad was always willing to help and everybody knew it."
No one knows for sure how Cisco's became the breakfast venue of choice for local, state, and national politicians, but it could have been Cisneros' ardent support for J.J. "Jake" Pickle in his early congressional races or the fact that Lyndon Johnson (and plenty of Texas legislators) enjoyed having a Bloody Mary with breakfast there long before liquor by the drink was ratified in 1971. However it happened, Cisco's became the favorite place for politicos to get away from the office and the phones. Cisneros provided them with a place to cut deals, enjoy their cocktails, and indulge in the occasional wager. Put it this way: Be suspicious of any person who claims to have had an impact on Texas politics during the Fifties, Sixties, or Seventies but says they never ate there.
As Rudy Cisneros became known as a man with political contacts in the Anglo world west of the freeway, members of the Latino community often sought his counsel. Jorge Guerra remembers a time many years ago when some expansion plans at El Azteca were stalled in the city permit process. "I went to my friend Cisco and asked for his advice," Guerra recalls. "He said I should go see (then city councilman) "Uncle" Ben White. I visited with White, and we were able to build the expansion." The information exchange worked both ways. Cisneros was a conduit to political power on the West side, and he was respected by local leaders as a businessman of considerable standing in his neighborhood, as well as someone who could encourage voters at election time. In its heyday, Cisco's was a place where everyone of political consequence in Austin ate. It was one of the restaurants that defined Austin. Local raconteur Cactus Pryor said it best, describing Cisco's as "the Toots Shor's of Austin."
The grand old man passed away in August of 1995 and the crowd at this funeral was a veritable "who's who" of Austin sports, business, and politics. He was eulogized by his friend Pryor, who told the crowd, "Rudy would just love this. There's a full house, and everybody is seated next to someone they wouldn't ordinarily want to sit with." Pryor went on to provoke tears and laughter with tales of Cisneros' exploits, after which he encouraged other longtime friends of Cisneros ñ UT coach Darrell Royal, artist/ad man Windy Winn, former Austin mayor Carole Rylander, and singer Ernie Mae Miller, all Cisco's regulars ñ to take the microphone and share their own stories about the restaurateur. One favorite story recalled the time that Cisneros hurried through a packed dining room, barking at the "token" Anglo waiter named Darrell to refill everyone's coffee cups. Minutes later, Cisneros returned to the dining room to find coaching legend Royal calmly making the rounds of the tables, coffee pot in hand.
Rudy Cisneros left the restaurant in the capable hands of his younger son, Clovis. "He put me to work washing dishes when I was just a kid," Clovis says. "I learned the business working and living with him." In the last years before the elder Cisneros' death, it had been his dream to spruce up the place, and Clovis is proud of the new paint job and other improvements he's been able to make. He presides over many of the same staff people who worked for his father for years, describing them as an important part of his family. Cisneros' older son, Johnny, inherited the baking talents of his grandfather and operates Johnny Cisco's Sunset Bakery(Spicewood Springs Road & Hwy183, 219-1600). He has a full line of wholesale and retail baked goods, including buttermilk biscuits made from the old family recipe. Though it seems that Mexican breakfasts are available on nearly every corner in Austin these days, and political activism is alive in many parts of the barrio, the restaurant built by Rudy "Cisco" Cisneros remains an East Austin landmark as it approaches 50 years in business.
Clovis Cisneros of Cisco's
photograph by John Anderson
Since Cisco's, Matt's, and La Tapatia can all claim opening dates in the Fifties, El Azteca is the latecomer among the Eastside's influential eateries. It began when Jorge and Ninfa Guerra finished a series of air force postings from Anchorage to Harlingen, Japan and Korea to Camp LeJeune and Bergstrom AFB, and chose Austin as the place to establish their home. They opened a little five-table eatery on East Seventh in May of 1963. As the business grew and neighbors were willing to sell property, the Guerras added onto the building and surrounding parking areas until the restaurant reached its current configuration with a full bar and dining patio sometime in the Eighties.
However, getting started a few years after his fellow East Austin restaurant pioneers didn't prevent Jorge Guerra from being able to make several additions to the local culinary table. "When I first put cabrito (kid goat) on my menu, no one else was selling it in Austin," he recalls. "I drove around to ranches in this area to get the goat and then take it to be butchered." He even started a goat-raising operation on his acreage near Red Rock in the Eighties, but he ruefully admits that it wasn't particularly cost-effective. "All I did was show other people that there was a market for cabrito," he says with a wry laugh. He also introduced Austinites to the taste of imported Mexican beers. "Nobody here was distributing Mexican beer," he says, "so I drove to San Antonio twice a week to get other ingredients I couldn't find in Austin and brought back cases of Corona, Dos Equis, and Tecate to sell in the restaurant." Once he'd developed the market, distributorships began bringing the imported beers to him.
Guerra was also one of the first in his business to recognize the need for vegetarian menu items. "I knew if the vegetarians had a place to get good Mexican food, they wouldn't be asking me for it," he remembers. "So we fixed things for them." All El Azteca regulars are familiar with the section on the old placemat menus dedicated "to our vegetarian customers and friends" dating back to the early Seventies. Guerra's willingness to make everyone welcome at his table attracted a diverse clientele of lawyers, businessmen, vegetarians, environmental and human rights activists, and UT students fascinated with the Aztec myths depicted on the signature calendars. When a local group organized to fight Austin's participation in the South Texas Nuclear Project, Jorge Guerra was glad to provide them with a meeting room. When his neighbors banded together to demand that the city solve Boggy Creek's annual flooding problems, they knew that they could count on his help and advice. Guerra fed them all, making the business and personal contacts that soon provided him with the reputation as a man who could get things done in the neighborhood.
Like many of the Hispanic men of his generation, Jorge Guerra was concerned with making improvements in his community. Following his military service, he joined the American GI Forum and the League of United Latin American Citizens. Participation in those two national political organizations inspired the building of alliances on the local level. Guerra was instrumental in founding the Mexican American Chamber of Commerce, and he was first treasurer and then director of the first community-wide Human Rights Commission. The position on the Human Rights Commission could have provided Guerra with the launching pad to a political career, had he been so inclined. (In fact, the next man who held the position was future city councilman Gus Garcia.) But while Guerra chose not to seek elected office, his high profile in the East Austin business community inspired Mayor Roy Butler to appoint him to a stint on the Brackenridge Hospital Board of Directors. "You see, in those days, there weren't many social work agencies, no clinic cards, almost no public services for people over here," he explains. "There was important work to do." With hard work, a commitment to volunteerism, and good Mexican food, Jorge Guerra was always willing to do what he could to make positive changes in his community.
These days, Jorge and Ninfa Guerra are semi-retired. "It was time to let the next generation take over," he explains, and they have, he adds with pride. Sons George and Daniel and daughter Dolores are now in charge, and assorted grandchildren do part-time work after school and in the summer. Guerra makes regular trips to check on the livestock at his Red Rock property, but he still spends plenty of time in El Azteca and is available to lend customers a hand or volunteer his problem-solving expertise if it's needed.
I reminded Guerra of one of my first visits to El Azteca in the early Seventies. I brought a vegetarian friend and her new baby with me to eat dinner one Saturday evening. When we returned to the parking lot, we found that my car had a flat. I was having trouble changing the tire, and Señor Guerra noticed our predicament and came to our assistance. Once the tire was changed, he instructed us to get in the car, lock the doors, and go straight home. It was just such a "dad" thing to do. I knew that I'd always be safe and welcome in his establishment, just like a member of his family. Guerra has helped so many people over the years that he didn't remember the incident. "At my age, I don't do that kind of thing much anymore," he says with a laugh. "But if it's an emergency, I'll do the best I can."