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Tamale House owner Robert ‘Bobby’ Vasquez dies

Addie Broyles

Robert “Bobby” Vasquez, the longtime owner of the Tamale House on Airport Boulevard, has died.

His niece, Carmen Valera, who runs Tamale House East, said that he had a heart attack a few years ago and had been in hospice in recent months. He died either late Sunday or early Monday, Valera said.

“He was the one who literally kept (the restaurant) together,” Valera said. With his death, the Airport Boulevard restaurant has closed, but Valera says it’s possible that Vasquez’s children will take over management. Valera, who is the daughter of Vasquez’s sister Diane Vasquez-Valera, operates the restaurant on East Sixth Street with her siblings. “He gave us his blessing to open (Tamale House East) and keep the name,” she says. “It’s whatever they want to do. None of us really knows what’s going to happen.”

Vasquez’s parents, Carmen and Moses, opened Austin’s original Tamale House downtown in 1959. Bobby Vasquez opened Tamale House on Airport Boulevard in 1977, and his sister Peggy Vasquez ran a Tamale House near the University of Texas campus until the mid-1990s. You can read this 2012 story about the history of the family’s restaurants in Austin.

For more than 35 years, Vasquez served tacos based on his mother’s recipes, and many of them cost less than a dollar. He never added air conditioning and only accepted cash, but the line to order would often extend out the door on weekend mornings, a mix of slackers, hipsters, students, longtime Austinites and newcomers filing into the cramped eatery. Some came in looking for tamales, which he stopped selling about 20 years ago, but stayed for breakfast tacos, huevos rancheros, chalupas and migas. Customers would fill multiple, tiny plastic containers with the house red salsa and pico de gallo as they waited for their orders.

Last year, food television personality Anthony Bourdain visited the Tamale House with Aaron and Stacy Franklin, of Franklin Barbecue, to eat breakfast tacos in a segment for his show “No Reservations.”

Jarod Neece, co-author of the 2013 book, “Austin Breakfast Tacos,” said that he first fell in love with the Tamale House when he was a student at UT. He worked nights and would set his alarm for 2:30 p.m. so he could make it in for migas with cheese before the restaurant closed at 3 p.m.

Vasquez was as much a fixture in the space as the historical photos and handwritten signs on the walls.

Keeping a taco restaurant open decade after decade was simply in his blood, Neece said. “He was keeping that tradition alive,” Neece said. “It felt like a holdout from another time.”

The viewing and rosary will take place from 7 to 9 p.m. Thursday at Angel Funeral Home, 1600 S. First St., followed by a mass at noon on Friday at Our Lady’s Maronite Catholic Church, 1320 E. 51st St., with the burial to follow.

Vasquez is survived by two daughters and a son.