Grandchildren of original Tamale House owners carry on tradition with Tamale House East
Many of Carmen Valera's early memories come from the original Tamale House, which her grandparents ran from 1959 to 1988. "We grew up on top of the potatoes and rice bags," says Valera, the eldest of five siblings.
Her grandparents, particularly her grandmother, Carmen Vasquez, watched as other business owners downtown sold their properties to developers for increasingly large sums of money. "She was the last holdout," Valera says, selling her "little shack" at Congress Avenue and what is now Cesar Chavez Street downtown in 1984 for $200 per square foot, an amount that at the time was the highest price paid per square foot in the city's history. "My grandmother was in the restaurant business, but in the end of the day, she was in the real estate business," Valera says. "She was really ahead of the curve."
As with most restaurant families, Moses and Carmen Vasquez's children inherited the restaurant gene. Bobby Vasquez opened Tamale House on Airport Boulevard in 1977, and Peggy Vasquez ran a Tamale House near the University of Texas campus until the mid-1990s. But Valera's mom, Diane Vasquez-Valera, wanted to create a slightly different restaurant that incorporated her husband's Peruvian roots.
Vasquez-Valera was pregnant with her youngest son, Robert, when she opened a restaurant on Montopolis Drive called Mexico Tipico on Mother's Day 1984.
After a few years, her real estate instinct, another gift from her mother, led her to buy a piece of property at 1707 E. Sixth St., despite its proximity to the railroad line and a pocket of the city that was still a decade away from revitalization. "Everyone told her she was crazy to buy this place," Valera says. "But she was very ambitious and foresighted."
In the years that followed, Vasquez-Valera closed the restaurant but kept the building to focus her energy on real estate. She helped forge key real estate deals throughout East Austin and was influential in persuading the city to create a neighborhood hub in Plaza Saltillo.
Vasquez-Valera and her husband, Juan, who works for the Texas Department of Transportation, kept the East Sixth Street property long after the restaurant closed. They lived in the house upstairs, and each of the kids took a turn living in the restaurant-turned-apartment downstairs.
However, having grown up, literally, in restaurants owned by their grandmother, mother, uncle and aunt, Vasquez-Valera's five children — Carmen, Juan, Jose, Robert and Colombina — set out on alternative routes.
Most of them graduated from college, studying art or law or engineering or the joys of worldly travel, but earlier this year, they teamed up to do something their mother had hoped they always would: open Tamale House East, an extension of the Tamale House brand that their grandparents established more than 50 years ago. (The pioneering family matriarch died in 2001, but her husband, Moses, who is now 88, still enjoys the limelight his brood brings in.)
As the oldest, 42-year-old Carmen Valera is the natural leader of the project, but everyone plays a different role. Juan, a structural engineer, and Jose, a patent attorney, keep track of the small details and legal work. Colombina and Robert have given their artistic and creative talents to make a unique, vibrant space that reflects the quickly changing neighborhood. (Colombina, who works at an art gallery in New York City, is the only sibling who doesn't live in Austin.)
"It's heartwarming that they are doing it together," says Vasquez-Valera. "As a mother, you want your kids to bond in many ways. They were very close anyway, but running a business has a way of bringing them together." She relishes her advisory role, but she tries to stay out of her kids' way. "I can give them my shortcuts and detours that I learned along the way," she says. "But it's only going to work if they work together."
The siblings considered just opening a trailer on the property, but they realized the kitchen and the restaurant space was too good to pass up. They cleared the patio, renovated the kitchen and created a space that feels funky and laid-back.
The dining space is outside only for the time being. They are working to update the inside of the restaurant, but two beautiful, shaded patios entice customers to flock to the restaurant for breakfast tacos, chalupas, traditional Tex-Mex dinner plates and some of the best migas in the city.
"We don't want to just do it to do it," says Carmen Valera, adding that they want to add vegan dishes, a Sunday brunch and, as soon as they get a beer and liquor license, dinner. (Now that Hatch peppers are in season, they are roasting them daily to make a special sauce to serve with chilaquiles, enchiladas, sopes and quesadillas.)
Juan Valera says that working the cash register is a refreshing change from his engineering work. "People are always happy to see a taco," he says. "They aren't always happy to see an engineering or structural plan. Feeding someone is always a happy event."
Bobby Vasquez, who runs the Tamale House on Airport Boulevard, has been supportive of his nieces and nephews from the beginning, Carmen Valera says. "He's been the most kind, giving and valuable resource," she says. "We asked for his blessing with the name and got his input. It would have been impossible without him." They all went to "taco boot camp" by working at their uncle's restaurant. When they first opened, right during the South by Southwest rush, they ran out of taco meat, and he let them come and restock from his restaurant.
Now that the Valera siblings have a few months of running a restaurant under their belts, Bobby Vasquez often stops by Tamale House East, even if just to sit and chat with customers.
In recent weeks, they have been hosting a number of events, including a play from a local theater company, in the space, and this fall, they have a wedding and several quinceañeras lined up.
Carmen Valera says they are trying to take what each of their family members has learned in running their respective businesses to create a restaurant that they can call their own.
"I watched (our mom) work so hard," Juan Valera says. "I was the one that liked it the least." But going through this process with his siblings has changed his perspective on running a restaurant. "A lot of good things came together for this to happen."
"Everyone is good at something different," his sister adds. "You don't want to be successful for yourself, but it's a way to bind everyone together. Everything is done with love because it's yours."
Contact Addie Broyles at 912-2054. Twitter: @broylesa
Tamale House East