Robert “Bobby” Vasquez
A Tale In Three Parts
I first came to Austin in fall of 1975 and managed to live here off and on until I went to work for Santa Fe Railroad in 1978. One of my favorite places back then was the original Tamale House on Congress that Moses & Carmen Vasquez owned and then sold for millions of dollars to downtown developers. They had great basic tamales sold by the dozen and I’m one of those people who can sit and scarf down a dozen good ones with no problem. When I parted ways with Santa Fe and moved back to Austin in 1986 the original location was gone, but there was a new location on Airport Boulevard. I was living in an apartment at I-35 and Airport and driving night cab at the time so after scoping out the new spot I went in for my first visit……
This is how it all began….
Part One: A Cabbie Walks Into A Tamale House
It’s the middle of the afternoon late 1986, and I really have a hankering for some good tamales. Having driven by the closed shop while driving cab I’m now heading in on my own time and am really looking forward to some fresh corn-shucked goodness. So I pull up and go inside, walk up to the counter and suddenly find myself in a Monty Python sketch:
Me: “I’d like a dozen pork tamales to go please.”
Girl behind counter: “Sorry but we don’t sell tamales here.”
Mass confusion/bewilderment on my part. Not helped by the big fatty I had smoked on
the way… But this was a strip center, maybe I had just come in the wrong door. So I turn and try reading the now backwards letters…
Me, pointing back at large sign painted on door: “Isn’t this the Tamale House?”
Girl: ‘Yes, but we don’t sell tamales here.”
Me, confusion reigning: “So, this is the Tamale House? But you don’t sell tamales here? ”
Girl: “That’s right. We sell them around Christmas time but it’s too early to order them yet.”
Me: “Uhh…well….hmm… I guess let me see a menu then.”
Girl: “We don’t have menus either.”
Now to really appreciate the humor of this you would have had to experience the totally
emotionless delivery and the deadpan expression on her face. Michael Palin would have been proud. Over the following years I spoke with her often but can’t recall her name now, one of the members of that wonderful group of gals that worked the kitchen. But I got the distinct impression that they lived for moments like that, and that after I left they probably all fell over on the floor laughing uncontrollably. I did end up ordering something that day just to try and save face, can’t remember what though. But I kept going back, discovered their wonderful breakfast tacos. And those incredible chalupas which were the closest thing to Armadillo Kitchen nachos that you could find. And how can you not love a tamale joint that doesn’t even sell tamales? Keep Austin weird indeed….
Then it became a part of life…..
Part Two: Feeding The Multitudes
It wasn’t too many years after that when I fell in with a bad crowd. You know, the current bunch, these damn Red River punk rockers. At first it was the denizens of the Cavity Club, you could close up the club at night and then see the very same people all bleary eyed a few hours later waiting for their tortilla based hangover cures at Tamale House. Later on it was Emo’s, I can remember going to pick up my order and seeing staff,
customers and band members from the night before all in the same line. Breakfast tacos, the great equalizer….. My good friends, and Rank and Revue scribes, Justin Buzzcrusher and Janet Hammer were renting a house back behind Tamale House in the mid-Nineties. Justin was the jack-of-all-trades at Emo’s then and their house always seemed to be full of musicians passing thru or doing the couch trip. So I decided to post the same question to both of them.
“What are your memories of Tamale House in those days and how many of their tacos do you estimate were consumed by the music community?
The year is 1992, in Austin Texas, East 51st and Airport Blvd. Actually, south of 51st by only one corner lot full of new and used washing machines, dryers, and dishwashers. You know, “all modern conveniences”. In the early 90s the “flight path” wasn’t a coffee shop on Duval Road. And Circle K’s were still a neighborhood staple in Austin. The flight
path back then meant you knew the schedule of planes landing at Robert Mueller Airport because they roared over your head like clockwork. Freaks, geeks, hippies, rockers, and punks could afford to live in northern Hyde Park then because folks like us could endure the noise and window rattling. The reason? Cheaper rent of course. Hell, after a couple of weeks, you learned how to sleep through it all.
Besides the planes there was also the occasional train rumbling down the tracks between Airport Boulevard and Red River. And that’s when the strange breed known as “morning people” congregated with the denizens of the nightlife, meeting in the parking lot and forming lines to the counter of arguably the fastest, fairest, and best migas, tostadas, breakfast tacos, chalupas, and heuvos rancheros north of San Antonio and west of east Austin.
Since Janet Hammer and I had the Emo’s Austin band party houses/motels on east 48 ½ AND east 49th Street (same faces, same debauchery, just different houses) the old Tamale House on Airport was a morning must. Especially when the morning was still the night before that wasn’t ready to “give up the ghost” in some futile effort to end the after hour tomfoolery. Honestly, we dragged (insert name of touring band here) to the Tamale House with us because we didn’t want to leave any of those musician miscreants in our house when we weren’t there.
The first part of every trip for the uninitiated was having to explain why it was called the Tamale House, but the ONLY thing they didn’t serve was tamales. Any kind of confusion that might have remained was dispelled in an instant when whatever we ordered hit their taste buds and sent the culinary endorphins racing through their mouths, causing gastrophiles of every gender, color, size, and human orientation to utter “Mmmmm” and “Wow” in unison and otherwise grunt their approval through full mouths and thankful stomachs.
I came to the party late, it was 1992, and many were enjoying and touting the best Tex-Mex breakfast fare for miles around years before I was. But like moving to Texas from California in the early 80’s, I got here /there as fast as I could. I miss the days of taking the Cows, the Supersuckers, Steel Pole Bathtub, and Rocket From the Crypt to have breakfast and catch up with hometown heroes like Ed Hall, Drain, the Motards, Agony Column, and the Cherubs. To watch Crust, Mule and Tenderloin asking if their number was called yet, this was before they started calling out ready orders on the outside speaker.
Regulars and die-hards from Austin, Houston, and Dallas– as well as thousands of back water burghs between here and there–were the “Texas Hosts” to the untold millions of bands/friends/family that were on the road from places far and wide not only in the country, but also from distant places all around this blue rock hurtling through space. Folks that had been in that Econoline van on the road for so long it seemed like the road was on them! The Tamale House was just what you needed, whether you had road rash from the drive in to Austin from El Paso, or you were nursing a Bloody Mary that you made before you stumbled up the two blocks from your house displaying what is more like morning somnolence than anything deliberate or graceful.
My personal favorite? My favorite was that thing on the menu that ended with a vowel or had an “s” in the name. Yeah, you know the one. Seriously, though, the migas were the bizzomb, the chalupas, yeah! But the thing I ordered the most? Beans, rice, and cheese– and bacon, egg, and cheese—all on wheat tortillas. Because I am such a health nut….. Snicker Snicker. Chortle Chortle. Haven’t been there often enough since I have moved out of Austin, but there was a soothing comfort in knowing that the Tamale House was still there, dishing out traditional Tex-Mex from dawn till 3 pm on Monday-Saturday and NEVER on Sunday, with the humble consistency that only a family run business can provide. Like a well-oiled and deliciously efficient machine, the Tamale House welcomed and sated the multitudes of hungers and cravings, sending them home with the only regret being wishing they had ordered more.
As a grateful and adoring patron of that magic taco shack at 5003 Airport Boulevard, I wish Bobby Vazquez Godspeed, and my loving thanks to Bobby and his family for making Austin legendary for so many reasons. The jewel near the corner of 51st and Airport in Austin, Texas, before, during, and after Austin was hip, South Congress became So Co, and the city turned into one large condo/parking garage/ coffee shop/ fitness club. When Liberty Lunch was in the “Warehouse District,” because that is all there was around it, dirt parking lots, warehouses, and empty buildings. But I digress; I will cherish the good memories of the Tamale House, as it is the only force that can match my dysphonia of another landmark Austin tradition released to the ages.
~ Justin Buzzcrusher~
” Tamale House on Airport, so long to one of the last cheap eats places in Austin……
I lived by Tamale House on one street for several years and then moved a street down and lived there for several more. Roommates came and went, cats ran away, we got a dog but there was always Tamale House. Over my lifespan I have probably put down more food from Tamale House than any other restaurant on Earth. The key to that equation is low cost into the amount of food you got (along with the fact that it was really tasty) equaled repeat customers. Everyone from the multitude of bands who stayed with us to friends just coming to visit got a Tamale House breakfast. You would always run into your
friends there and could compare differing degrees of hangovers. You would meet new friends just standing in line on a Saturday morning. When you were flying into Austin you could see it from the airplane window. There are a million good things about Tamale House, but sadly along with a lot of the other things that made Austin a great place to live, it’s gone. I hope that the family of Robert Vazquez knows how much that their establishment meant to the people of Austin. How many people got to go there and get a good affordable meal that probably didn’t get much of a chance to otherwise, and loved it each and every time they did. I will miss Tamale House and the people who worked there, many of whom had worked there since I was a kid. I hope the Robert Vazquez was happy with his accomplishment, and I hope that the people of Austin realize that they didn’t have to keep food so cheap there; they did it because they knew how much we needed it. All respect and condolences to the family, friends and employees of Robert Vazquez he was a much loved figure in Austin.”
Janet E Hammer
And this is how it ended…..
In the summer of 1993 my mother’s husband suddenly died and she decided to move to Austin and share a house with me. This was good news for me; Mom and I had always got along, and had lived as roommates before. She stayed out of my business and paid her own way, what more could you ask of a roomie? But there was one possible problem, she had a dog now. And it was one of them little lap dogs, a Pomeranian. Now I’ve never been a dog person and definitely not a little dog person so I had some doubts. But those didn’t last, “Pomeranius Rex “as mom laughingly called him was a long ways from being an ankle biter. He was absolutely fearless, had no manners whatsoever and defended his turf ferociously. So naturally we hit it right off…. And he was smart too, he figured out what “Saturdays” were pretty quickly. Those were the days when my alarm didn’t go off and instead I got up and phoned in my order to Tamale House. He would stay in the back with Mom until he heard me on the phone then he would come running in, dancing around on his hind legs and waving his front paws in the air. I would place our order (six potato and rice with cheese and two regular chalupas please!), scoop up the dancing dog and go get our food. When we would get back Mom would be up and we would bring in Rex’s dish, set his two tacos out flat on it and all dig in. Rex would pretty much inhale his first one, then lay down in front of his dish and dare us or the cats to get anywhere close to it. All I had to do was look at him and say “ Rex, can I have your taco ? “ and he would have a snarling, barking fit, no way I would have put my hand down there. We would have to wait until he was distracted by something then grab his leftovers; it was the highlight of his week.
But then came the day that we lost him, heart failure with him dying in my arms. Mom and I waited a couple of weeks to try and get over the loss until one Saturday when I called in our Tamale House order, minus Rex’s parts. I drove by myself to pick it up, no dancing dog beside me, and then Mom and I ate our tacos in silence. That was ten years ago and I haven’t been back to Tamale House since…. I eventually found other places with good food, minus the sad memories and brought that home. Then Alzheimer’s sent Mom to a nursing home and I started waking up to Saturdays alone. So I began going out, driving around looking for the ultimate plate of migas and trying hard not to live in the past.
I lost my Mom a couple of years ago, now hers and Rex’s ashes are splashing around together in the waters down by Auditorium Shores. And this week I found out that the smiling patriarch of Tamale House, Robert “Bobby” Vasquez, passed away from heart failure, same as Pomeranius Rex. So, almost twenty eight years after that young cabbie first walked into the Tamale House that didn’t sell tamales, their doors are locked, the sign on the door says no deliveries until further notice. The fate of the old place now lies with another generation of the Vasquez family; I can only hope that they decide as wisely as Moses Vasquez did back when he held those developers up for the big bucks so long ago now.
I’m not a religious person and I don’t particularly believe in the concept of Heaven or Hell, whether for humans or animals. But I do like leaving the door open for the possibility of there being Magick in the world. And it makes me smile to think that somewhere, maybe in a more perfect universe, there is a bright Saturday morning. And a grinning Bobby Vasquez has just arrived, bringing Mom and Rex their tacos, sack after sack never ending. Save one for me guys, I’ll try to join you later……
Post Script: After the writing of this, but before publication, the Vasquez family announced they would not re-open Tamale House. But they decided to go out with class, opening up
for two days of free food and asking only for donations to local charities. All of us here totally respect that decision. And while we will miss the place I guess it is time to let it join the roster of Old Austin landmarks, places like The Armadillo, Soap Creek Saloon, The Stallion Drive In and The Nighthawk. So I’d like to close with their announcement, and the words of one of Bobby Vasquez’ children:
“It saddens me to announce that the Tamale House will be closing its doors after 36 wonderful years. The restaurant was my father’s baby, and that’s how I want to remember it. It will never be my baby. I will be forever grateful to what his baby did for me, my daughter, and my siblings. I would like to give out a HUGE loving thank you to all the women who worked in that hot kitchen 6 days a week so my father could put food on our table and money in our pockets. Without those girls, we wouldn’t have had anything. My father loved his employees and his customers and they loved him, and he was at peace with that. He will never be forgotten. We will miss you and love you forever Daddy.”
And thank you to the Vasquez clan from all of us….
So long, and thanks for all the tacos!
with assist from Justin Buzzcrusher & Janet E Hammer