Las Palomas at 25
When I first moved to Austin in 1984, I was 19 and didn't know anybody. I thought I spoke the language, only to find that speaking it – and, even worse, understanding it – was a completely different ball game here. Luckily, I befriended a fellow Mexico City native who showed me the ropes around town, taking me to Sixth Street, Antone's, and Liberty Lunch. And when I started getting very homesick for the food of my country, she took me to Las Palomas.
I fondly remember the warmth of the hardworking, friendly family that ran it and the familiarity of the food. No globs of yellow cheese food product, no overspiced, overcooked rice. No cumin on everything. There were no piñatas, serapes, sombreros, or neon beer signs on any of the walls. The simple yet tasteful decor and the homey ambience reminded me of a true Mexican restaurant. I don't mean because of the cuisine but because this is what a restaurant in Mexico is like. I walked into Las Palomas recently and found that, thankfully, not much has changed. I was overcome by a sense of nostalgia that is hard to describe. I was truly transported back to my hometown, expecting to walk outside and find myself hailing a cab on a neighborhood street in Mexico City.
The late Javier Corona – a retired diplomat who worked as a cultural attaché at the U.S. Embassy in Mexico City – and his wife, Amelia, moved their family to Austin in 1982, hoping to retire peacefully and send the kids to college. After the collapse of the Mexican peso and the recession that followed, the Coronas were unable to get their financial assets out of the country and suddenly found themselves in a new place with nothing but the shirts on their backs. Always the unbreakable stalwart, Mr. Corona stood firmly on his feet and made a plan. After all those years of world-traveling and entertaining, they sure knew how to throw a party. "We can open a restaurant," he told the family. "It will be like all those parties we had at home." On Feb. 14, 1983, Las Palomas opened with Amelia and Javier in the kitchen cooking Amelia's tried and true recipes and their four children helping out as waitstaff and bartenders. This year, the family will celebrate the restaurant's 25th anniversary.
Las Palomas is now owned and operated by only one of the Corona siblings, MariCarmen Corona Dale, who wrestled the restaurant out of her parents' hands "because I could not stand to see them chopping tomatoes in the kitchen," she confides. "It became my goal, my obsession, to get them to finally retire and quit working so hard." But her parents' traditions and presence are felt from the moment one walks through the door, where a portrait of Mr. Corona sits in the foyer next to a vase of beautiful, fresh flowers. An accomplished artist for more than 40 years, his art can be seen hanging on walls throughout the restaurant. I remember Mr. Corona very well, a wonderful host and a true gentleman, greeting customers at every table as if they were friends and family. Indeed, their business succeeded thanks to the legions of regular customers who kept returning for the charm, warmth, and fabulous food the Coronas offered. Mr. Corona passed away in 2003 after a long illness, and more than 500 people attended his memorial service.
The road of the last 25 years was anything but smooth. "It's like having a third child," says Corona Dale, who is a mother of two and is now serving their third generation of customers. A passionate, enthusiastic woman who wears her emotions a flor de piel – an English equivalent may be "wearing your heart on your sleeve" – she recalls how hard it was for the family in the early days. "You know how they say the key is location, location, location? Well, we had everything except location," she says of the tiny property tucked away in an impossible corner of a shopping center in West Lake. Like me, the family struggled with the language and the culture: "We thought we were bilingual when we left Mexico, but once here, you realize you're not even close. I couldn't understand the Texas accent, and they couldn't understand ours. It was really a culture shock." Becoming not only bilingual but also bicultural is a process that takes time and effort. Had we met then, we would have become friends immediately. We were both the same age, from the same city, in a foreign place where we had to fight for everything we got. At least she had her family near her.
After taking over the restaurant, knowing that they had completely outgrown the original space, Corona Dale realized her dream of expansion. She surprised her parents with an opening party of the new space on her mother's birthday in 2002. It offers a larger dining area and a lovely private dining room for rehearsal dinners, bridal luncheons, and other special events. And through it all, it is the spirit of her father that has carried her through. Family ties are very strong in Mexican culture. Her eyes well when she speaks of the respect and love that everyone – especially she – felt for her father. Like me, she is a fighter, an accomplisher, and above all, her father's daughter. And Las Palomas is her success story, indeed.
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