Austin Landmarks on the Menu
2938 Guadalupe, 476-5955, Monday-Saturday, 11am-9:30pm
It is impossible to walk into the El Patio dining room without feeling the comfortable, established quality of the place. The well-built wooden chairs are cheerfully scuffed, and the Formica tables haven't significantly changed position in decades. Signed photos of El Patio "celebrity" regulars, from Lady Bird Johnson to Walter Cronkite, are hung in the spaces not occupied by heroic murals of Pancho Villa. The bunkerlike stone building hearkens back to a time when air-conditioning was a novel luxury and a reason in itself to patronize an establishment.
Opened by Paul and Mary Ann Joseph in January 1954, El Patio has remained a single-location family business. Though Paul has passed away, Mary Ann is still involved in El Patio's day-to-day operations, along with her children Michelle, David, Roseann, and Renee. There's always a Joseph family member present in the dining room, and service is noticeably swift, thorough, and attentive.
There has been no unwarranted innovation in El Patio's classic Tex-Mex dinners. Tex-Mex at its purest is largely combinations and recombinations of a few basic ingredients – tortillas, jalapeños, beans, rice, seasoned ground meat, cheese, lettuce, and tomatoes – and El Patio is nothing if not purist. Its signature dinners feature hand-rolled enchiladas; open-face, freshly puffed crispy tacos and chalupas; tamales; rice; and beans, and the price includes coffee or tea and a dessert of either sherbet or praline candy. In fact, the unchanged, 1950s-era cuisine is what keeps generations of staunch El Patio regulars coming back.
According to Tex-Mex authority Robb Walsh, "In the 1950s, Tex-Mex restaurants all over the state served saltines and hot sauce when you sat down at the table, usually with a bowl of butter." El Patio alone, of all Austin restaurants, preserved this Texas tradition and served their smooth, mild hot sauce with a sleeve of saltines and butter well into the 1990s – and you can still get them if you ask.