Back in the 20th Century, most Texans enjoyed four basic food groups: home-cooking, burgers, barbecue and Mexican food. Burgers and barbecue were usually brought home, but the family typically went out for Mexican food. This is when important familial bonds formed by way of tortilla chips, red salsa and Number 2 Dinners. After the meal, following the puffy tacos, enchiladas and refried beans, there would be the choice of a praline or frozen concoction for dessert. As the waiter refilled the last iced tea glass, he (or she) would inevitably ask the time-honored question: “Candy or sherbet?”
Some time in the 1980s, with the appearance of cuisines from the interior of Mexico, and with a welcome proliferation of Latin American places, Mexican food in Texas diversified. These establishments have their virtues, but it is the old-school Tex-Mex restaurants that we celebrate here.
When you’re talking Tex-Mex, one of the best ways to start a good argument is to brag about how the Mexican food in your town is the best. (Some friendly ad-vice: Don’t argue with people from San Antonio—theirs really is the best.) Every town has its favorite, from Galveston (The Original Mexican Café) to Marfa (Borunda’s Bar & Grill) and from Amarillo (Jorge’s Tacos Garcia) to San Marcos (Herbert’s Taco Hut). In the cities, the old loyalties lie with El Fenix and El Chico in Dallas, Joe T. Garcia’s in Fort Worth, Molina’s and the original Ninfa’s on Navigation in Houston, Avila’s in El Paso, and El Mirador and Mi Tierra in San Antonio.
Austin has its own scene with good food in all categories, and I recently visited three long-established, family-owned Tex-Mex restaurants to see how they were doing. I stopped in at Matt’s El Rancho on South Lamar; El Patio on Guadalupe, close to the University of Texas; and El Azteca on East 7th.
To fully appreciate the current Matt’s El Rancho, you need a little history on the early life of its founder, Matt Martinez, one of Austin’s most dynamic restaurateurs. When Martinez was a boy, he traipsed up and down Congress Avenue, pulling a wooden cart from which he sold tamales from his father’s café, El Original (the original El Original was in San Antonio). Later, Matt fought his way to the championship level of featherweight boxing, and some of the restaurant’s promotional material presents a youthful Matt Martinez with the gloves on.
When Matt and his wife, Janie, opened their restaurant on East 1st Street (now Cesar Chavez) between Congress Avenue and I-35, Janie worked in the kitchen and Matt waited tables, often running out to San Jacinto Street to give samples to passers-by. Janie cooked chicken-fried steaks, black-eyed peas, collard greens, and cornbread. She added an enchilada plate to the menu, and that caught on. The restaurant’s popularity led to room-by-room expansion, and before long, the family purchased land across the street for even more growth.
“Number 2,” as the family still calls the newer place, included a separate take-out building that brought in a torrent of customers. By the early 1980s, both buildings were bulging with business. In 1983, The South-land Corporation bought the Martinez property, and Matt’s El Rancho was on the move again.
Matt’s current incarnation on South Lamar opened in 1988. The spacious build-ing offers more than 100 tables, if you count the handsome patio in back, and on a busy weekend, you’ll have to wait an hour to get one of them. But there is lots of space around the bar and interesting photographs of the old days on the wall—one shows Matt Martinez posed with the Budweiser Clydesdales on East 1st Street.
Matt’s El Rancho is a happy place, full of regulars who know what to expect. They choose from the famous chile relleno, several popular fish and shrimp dishes, vegetarian options, and the delicious Mexican pizza. Look for the Bob Armstrong dip, a rich and delectable combination of chile con queso with guacamole and taco meat, named after its inventor, Austin lawyer and former Texas Land Commissioner Bob Armstrong. Just say, “We’ll start with a small Bob.”
In addition to Bob Armstrong, Matt’s lays claim to a loyal contingent of Austin-style celebrities: politicians, football coaches, golfers, actors, writers, and musicians. Lyndon Johnson was known to enter Number 1 through the back door and shake hands with all of the cooks. As President, LBJ ordered chiles rellenos and combination dinners flown to the White House for special events. But it is the regular folks, and many generations of them, who keep the place humming.
A similar demographic mix frequents El Patio, which has occupied the same stone building on Guadalupe, with the neon sombrero in front, since 1954, when Paul and Mary Ann Joseph opened it. Mary Ann is still in charge, along with four of her six children: David, Michelle, Roseann, and Renee. A family member is always present, and all of them speak warmly of patriarch Paul Joseph, whose family immigrated to Texas from Lebanon. He was particularly attentive to children—when he saw one who was acting up or didn’t want to eat, he would take the tyke back to the kitchen and instruct the cook to make a special plate with whatever the child wanted. The only catch was that the plate had to be clean at the end of the meal. Hundreds of grateful parents became regular customers.
When El Patio comes up in conversation, long-timers respond, “Oh, the place with the crackers.” In his authoritative The Tex-Mex Cookbook, Robb Walsh says that crackers and butter were a feature of many early Mexican restaurants. Both Mary Ann and David Joseph told me that back when El Patio stayed open until 2:00 a.m., unruly UT students would start chip fights. To stop these shenanigans, Paul substituted half-sleeves of saltine crackers. The ruse was effective, and soon regulars came to expect it. El Patio now serves chips with salsa, but crackers are available by request.
El Patio presents an unchanging menu, beloved waiters, and its own set of celebrities, including Earl Campbell, Walter Cronkite, and the late Lady Bird Johnson, who brought her daughters and later, her granddaughters. The waiter everyone remembers is Benny Rodriguez, who worked at El Patio for more than 40 years, knew regulars by name, and often placed their orders by the time they took a seat.
The food at this venerable café is old-school. Beef tamales, beef-and-cheese enchiladas, the crunchy beef taco, and chile con queso. Many of the combination dinners (my favorite is the Number 3 with queso), result in a taco plate followed by a plate that features an enchilada or tamale covered with chili gravy, Proust’s madeleine to the Tex-Mex enthusiast.
As I finished my Number 3, the attentive waiter, right on cue, appeared to ask, “Candy or sherbet, sir?”
From the University area, the trip over to East 7th Street, where you find Jorge and Daniel Guerra’s El Azteca, might seem like a long one, and, in a sense, it is a long way both culturally and in the history of the city. Jorge Guerra grew up in Monterrey and Reynosa, Mexican cities known for distinctive cuisine that originated on the ranches of northern Mexico. Guerra was stationed at Austin’s Bergstrom Air Force Base when he married, and in 1963, he bought the stone building on East 7th.
Guerra grew up with the Norteño style that specializes in grilled meat and frijoles a la charra. El Azteca became known as one of the early Austin restaurants to feature mole dishes and one of the only that served cabrito, or baby goat. I asked Guerra who supplied the kid goats and he said that for several years, he raised them himself in East Austin.
As his restaurant became popular with the UT crowd, Guerra developed a very successful group of vegetarian combination plates, a true innovation at that time.( El Azteca tweaks the longstanding “candy or sherbet” tradition, too, offering delicate, cinnamon-dusted cookies instead of pralines.) El Azteca may have the most inventive combination plates in town—my favorite features cabrito flautas.
Each fall, customers flock to the restaurant to pick up the next year’s El Azteca calendar. A selection of designs come from Monterrey, and many Texans wouldn’t know what day it was without these colorful reminders. Other highlights of El Azteca’s interior elaborate on the theme established by the calendar: framed portraits of Aztec figures, and side-by-side portraits of Benito Juárez and Abraham Lincoln. These artifacts, combined with bright colors and attentive service—not to mention your choice of dessert—are relics of Tex-Mex authenticity that still wait for new devotees.