The New Nuevo Leon
How One Restaurant Family Weathered the Busts and Booms of the Austin Economy
When Rachel and Dan Davila went into the restaurant business 18 years ago, they had little more than determination and a tireless work ethic between them. They also faced a major obstacle. A string of restaurants had already failed in the East Seventh Street house they leased for their venture, but they hoped that the word "nuevo" in their restaurant's name, Nuevo Leon, would set their place apart from the past. But with no money for advertising, attracting customers was going to require more than a new name. So, Rachel Davila came up with a novel approach: She willed them to come.
"In those early days, I would say to my husband, 'Okay, 10 people. We're going to have 10 people for lunch,' and I would make up 10 tortilla warmers, and places for 10 people," she says. "And pretty soon, they started coming. He said I must have willed them to come, because how would they know about us otherwise?"
Today, Nuevo Leon is an East Austin institution, one of several family-owned restaurants that have weathered the boom and bust periods of Austin's economy, surviving largely by word of mouth and the patronage of loyal customers. Sadly, Dan Davila passed away in 1995, but Mrs. Davila continues to run the restaurant, recently leading it through a major development -- the move from its original Seventh Street location into a brand new building where the former La Tapatia Restaurant stood at 1501 E. Sixth. La Tapatia was another family-run restaurant, operating for 30 years before it closed in the early Nineties.
Davila had been looking for a new location for the restaurant for six years. As a native East Austinite, she pledged to keep Nuevo Leon on the Eastside. She always had her eye on the old La Tapatia location, just around the corner from Nuevo Leon. Unfortunately, someone else bought the building from the previous owners and was unwilling to sell. She inquired from time to time, but no deal. She finally gave up and bought a lot on Cesar Chavez, and had contractors signed and ready to break ground for construction of a new building, when a friend called her. The old Tapatia building had a "For Sale" sign in front of it.
"I thought she must have made a mistake, but when I went to check, there it was."
That news changed everything. Construction at the Cesar Chavez lot was abandoned, and in a whirlwind of activity, Mrs. Davila found herself the owner of the location she'd always wanted. She acquired the La Tapatia building in October of 1999, and work began on the new property. But what started as a renovation project turned out to be more.
"Once they got in there, the only thing that was any good was the slab and a part of a wall. Everything else just fell apart." So, with the help of her son Terry Ortiz, a structural engineer, plans for the construction of a new building began. The old Nuevo Leon closed its doors on July 31, and opened in the new location Sept. 8 -- or, as Mrs. Davila says, recalling the anxiety of those down days, "We were closed for 37 days, two hours, and 10 minutes."
The closing of the restaurant was traumatic for the small eatery; it was the longest period the restaurant had ever been closed. While Davila is now happy with the outcome, she admits that up to the opening of the new restaurant, "There were nightmares everywhere."
As a small-business woman, there were city development funds available for her. "But I'm just too strong," she says, referring to her determination to open the restaurant on her own. In the process, she maxed out her personal credit cards and did whatever else necessary to not only move the restaurant to its opening but to keep her employees working.
"The closing meant no income for me and it could have meant no income for them, but I kept most of them on, helping with cleaning up and moving things," she says. "There's so much work to get a new building open," she says. "Things you don't even think of."
The new Nuevo Leon more than doubles the previous restaurant space at 8,000 square feet. It is divided into two dining areas, one restaurant/bar area, and a party room. The dining areas are large and airy, washed in natural light. The front dining area has a vaulted ceiling with walls tinted a sunny yellow. The rear dining room has soothing, light plum walls outlined with mossy green baseboards and door frames. Occasional pale, white sconces give off a gentle light. Perhaps the most interesting feature of the rear dining area are the double glass doors that invite natural light to spill into the area, and allow diners a view of the Plaza Saltillo at the bottom of a gentle hill. Periodically, a train lumbers by on the tracks that pass near the Plaza.
Although Nuevo Leon's location and atmosphere has changed, little else has. The menu still features customer favorites like shrimp saltillo, old fashioned tacos, chicken quesadillas, and homemade tamales. Caldo and menudo are weekend specials. And though it's lost its mom-and-pop appearance, it's still very much a family operation.
"When we had trouble getting the tamales right, I said to my mother, 'You know, they just don't taste like yours. What do you do?' And she said, 'I'll come show you,' and there we all were, in the kitchen, making tamales until we got them right,'" Davila says. Other family members working in the restaurant include chef Fred Gonzales, Davila's brother. Her son Kevin Ortiz is the restaurant's general manager. He will take over operation of the entire restaurant when Davila retires -- but who knows when that will be.
"You know, Dan was the one with the real restaurant experience, but he said I took to it like a duck to water," Davila says. "I just love this business and seeing our loyal customers. I was afraid we'd lose some of them when we were closed. But they waited. They would call to find out if we were open, and when we finally were, they came back. Without them, we don't have anything," she says. Her son agrees, adding that Nuevo Leon's customer service is the key to its longevity.
"Customer service is our number one asset. We've worked very hard to make everyone -- whether it's our daily customers or the Mexican family who makes a monthly visit here -- feel welcome and happy to be here," Ortiz says.
Now that the dust has settled, regular customers return, and new customers discover Nuevo Leon, Davila looks around the new restaurant with a satisfied sigh, taking a moment to consider all that's been accomplished.
"I think Dan would like this place," she says.
Plans for a grand opening celebration are in the works for early to mid-November. Call Nuevo Leon for more information at 479-0097.
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