It‘s Saturday morning, and Tim is doing what Tim does. The coffee is brewing, and he pours the first few drops of coffee into a mug, and steps outside on the porch. He looks up and surveys the day. It’s his favorite day of the week, and his favorite time. Nobody else is awake.
He pets the cat. He gets dressed, fills his coffee to the top, and hops in the car. If there’s a garage sale in the neighborhood, he stops by, picking up objects and examining them closely, glasses on the tip of his nose. He gets back in the car, and depending on the time, listens to Car Talk. He laughs out loud by himself. His driver’s side window is down, the fresh Saturday morning breeze blowing in his face.
Every Saturday, without fail, he drives down Airport and heads for Tamale House.
Tim barges through the screen door, that huge wall fan blowing his hair in all directions. Depending on how late it’s gotten, there may be football fans in line, wearing UT orange and waiting to stock up on tacos. There are tattooed kids looking peaked, waiting patiently for some grease to soak up last night’s booze. There are construction workers in work boots, grabbing up breakfast on the way to work. There are soccer moms, picking up tacos for sweaty little soccer players.
Tim’s smiling his huge smile and saying good morning to the women of Tamale House. Five or six women, on their feet, speaking a mix of English and Spanish, cooking up such delightful goodness that it’s like a church in there. It’s like communion.
The phone is ringing off the wall and someone, usually Robert, is taking orders and writing them down. Cash only. A tip jar for the employees, and sometimes an extra collection for a friend in need. Tim’s walking over to the counter with the salsa on it, and it’s already a mess. Getting salsa there is a ritual. Tim eyes the big metal tray with the soggy paper towels, reaches over and grabs some plastic containers, and picks up one of the regular salsas, squeezing out a few chunky containers full. He fills one with “just the juice” for Stephanie. He pours a few of the hot ones that I am always afraid to try. He waits patiently for our order. Soon, his name is called and he grabs several brown bags. Some Saturdays, he orders so much he brings it home in a box.
Tim loves introducing Tamale House to out of town guests and people who’ve never heard of it. He loves telling the story of how the Chronicle once voted them the “Best Reason to Get Up Before 3pm.” When he works at ACC, Tim’s coworker refuses to go inside Tamale House but she will eat food Tim brings to her. Tim think that’s hilarious. Tamale House isn’t fancy.
Tim drives home, barges in the front door and yells, “Tamale House!”
Tim yells this same thing countless Saturdays. It’s our wake up call. The kids and I stumble into the living room. We gather around the coffee table as Tim goes to the kitchen for silverware, paper towels and plates, and we sit, bleary-eyed and sleepy. Saturday begins.
The order varies depending on who is home, but at least one order of migas with cheese is always in the mix. We’re convinced the migas have crack in them. Every week, the migas are the same, but they are also always different. This is hard to explain. I love them runny with large chunks of fried tortillas floating around. Every time, one of us looks at the other one and says, “Oh my God, the migas are so good today.” They are always good.
It’s the same for the rice. We buy it in pints and call it Crack Rice. Mix that up with the beans and throw some salsa on there, and heat up a leftover tortilla, and Tamale House has fed us breakfast and lunch, and we’ve hardly spent a dime.
Emily Rose eats a bean and cheese tostada, and sometimes half of a second one that I split with her. When my stepdaughter Stephanie is home, she gets a taco plate. For several years I become obesssed with the taco salads. Matthew, my stepson, eats migas. When he gets to high school, he sleeps through breakfast and we save him leftovers.
A few years into Tim’s Tamale House runs, he meets Daniel’s mom. Daniel is around 7 at the time, and he’s there with his mother while she works. He’s fidgety. This morning, we’re all together, planning a trip over to the mall for some school shopping. We ask Daniel’s mom if we can take Daniel with us. His face lights up. He’s shy, but he’s bored, so we spend the morning together. When we drop him off later, Daniel’s mom seems relived he had a place to go with people she trusts. It feels like family. Through the years, Tim keeps up with what’s going on with Daniel. He’s riding a bike, going to middle school, growing up. His mother is gorgeous and I wonder if Tim will run off with her not just because she has a radiant smile, but because she knows the secret to Tamale House migas.
At some point they start selling cupcakes, as if the migas and the crispy potatoes aren’t tempting enough. The cupcakes cost $1. Tim brings Emily Rose a pink cupcake every Saturday morning, the perfect compliment to her bean and cheese tostada. She eats the top off and saves a bite for me and I devour it, deciding not to feel guilty because it’s Tamale House calories which totally don’t count.
About a year ago, Tim stumbles onto to the pico de gallo. I’m not sure how this happens, but this is life-changing. He starts to order it in pints, so we can have the pico several more times during the week. Tim figures out that mixing that pico with mayo is the perfect sauce for fish tacos. Matthew comes home from A&M and loves the pico so much, he takes a pint home when he goes back to school. Just like the migas and the rice, we’re hooked.
Some Saturdays Tim gets busy and doesn’t call ahead. One Saturday, he’s standing in line and looks at his ticket and he’s number 1.
“I’m number 1!” he bellows.
“Oh, Tim,” Daniels mom says, beaming, “You’re ALWAYS number one at Tamale House!”
I tell Tim I’m going to make him a shirt that says that. He laughs and laughs.
A few days ago, we start to see the news about Robert Vasquez’s passing. It doesn’t sink in, so we drive over and see a wreath on the door and hand-written notes about his memorial and rosary, both of which we missed because we got the news too late.
Robert’s spirit must be smiling, knowing how he’s missed, and knowing many lives he touched by owning and operating a place that fed so many for so many years. It’s strange to think that a restaurant can give you so much, but when you eat there every week for more than ten years, it becomes a part of you. I’ve seen local news stories about Tamale House where they show a picture of tamales. Too bad they got that wrong; one of the funniest things about Tamale House was the fact they didn’t make tamales.
This coming Saturday, May 10 will be the first Saturday where Tim won’t walk through the door to announce, “Tamale House!” Sure, we’ve got other options in Austin, but it really is the end of an era.
RIP, Robert Vasquez. RIP, Tamale House #3.