Restaurant Review: This Crispy Taco Brought to You by 50 Years of Tradition
Tamale House East has the Midas touch
Reviewed by Kate Thornberry, Fri., April 18, 2014
Tue.-Fri., 7am-3pm; Sat.-Sun., 8am-3pm
It is difficult to find a longtime Austinite without fond Tamale House memories. Tamale House No. 1 opened on Congress Avenue in 1959; by the mid-Eighties, it had been joined by Tamale House No. 2 on Guadalupe and No. 3 on Airport Boulevard. All three locations were run by members of the Vasquez family, and all three continued the culinary traditions of Carmen Vasquez, the family matriarch, using unaltered recipes handed down from her.
Carmen was ahead of her time, insisting on fresh ingredients, painstakingly prepared, and no shortcuts. Throughout the Sixties and Seventies, while the rest of the country headed toward convenience and increased industrial processing, Carmen insisted on making her food by hand. She also insisted on making her wares accessible to everyone, via extremely economical pricing. Generations of University of Texas students, as well as artists and musicians, dined often and well on the famed Tamale House "3-tacos-for-a-dollar" special.
Carmen's altruism paid off in a roundabout way: She and her husband were able to sell the original Tamale House location at First and Congress for millions of dollars in 1988. By 2011, the only Tamale House location still in operation was Tamale House No. 3 on Airport, helmed by Robert Vasquez (in fact, the Airport location has now been open longer than the original location on Congress). Last year, however, Robert's sister, Diana Vasquez-Valera, and her five children – Carmen, Juan Mariano, Jose, Robert, and Colombina – decided to re-enter the restaurant business and open Tamale House East.
After deliberation, they decided to house the new location at 1707 E. Sixth, where Diana and her husband Juan Valera had operated their restaurant Mexico Tipico. Starting out with a limited menu and patio seating, the new business has expanded over the past year to utilize the whole building. The patios are beautiful and painstakingly tended; the indoor dining room has a more haphazard quality, seeming like a table storage area when business is slow. As before, Tamale House's business model is superior handmade Mexican food for low prices; other considerations are clearly secondary.
As at an outdoor taco stand, you order, pay, and take a number to your table. A rushed kitchen worker delivers your food when it is ready. The classic Tex-Mex tacos, chalupas, and burritos that have always been Tamale House staples are served, as are many of the Interior dishes for which Mexico Tipico was renowned, such as mole, cochinita pibil, and enchiladas. The quality is phenomenal, and the prices are so low that many customers urge the family to raise them. "They want us to stay in business," says Diana, "I'm sure we will have to, eventually. After all, the kids get my labor for free right now. I tell them, when I stop helping out, you know you'll have to hire three people to replace me."
Tamale House East's most popular item is the breakfast taco. All the favorite combinations are offered, and they are so very good. The eggs are fluffy and tender; the potatoes are crisply hot, with a hint of onion; the refried beans are creamy and flavorful; the bacon smoky and crunchy; and the organic tortillas are hot from the comal. The potato, bacon, egg, and cheese is their most popular breakfast taco, and at $2.10 it is an amazing deal.
Tamale House still makes crispy tacos ($1.50), despite their unfashionable status. Their version is unforgettable: a thin shell filled with just the right amount of spicy ground beef, tomatoes, lettuce, and grated cheese. After a long hiatus, they are also back in the tamale business, serving three kinds: pork, chicken, and a vegetarian bean, cheese, and jalapeño ($2 each, add mole sauce and cheese for $1.50). They are every bit as good as in the past, with a pale, creamy masa and spicy fillings. Vasquez-Valera is justly proud of her mole sauce, which is composed mainly of dried chiles, with a mere trace of chocolate.
While the weekday lunch rush is enthusiastic, it is manageable; not so on the weekend. Brunch is wildly popular, with lines that go out of the building into the parking lot. Breakfast plates include migas ($7.95), huevos rancheros ($6.95), and chilaquiles ($6.95), all of which are rendered masterfully. A range of unusually good drinks are also served, including fresh orange juice, Mexican Coke, iced tea, and iced coffee "toddies" made with either milk or horchata. On weekends, fresh lemonade and other aguas frescas are available on a first come, first served basis.
With Tamale House East, the Vasquez-Valera family doesn't seem to be running a money-making business so much as happily sharing their culinary legacy with the whole city. If we are lucky, Tamale Houses could flourish citywide once again; certainly, Tamale House East is a welcome step in that direction.