At these old-school restaurants in Texas, ‘you feel like it’s an extension of your home’

Joe’s Bakery in Austin has been named a James Beard America’s Classics winner for 2023.

By Kristen Cabrera & Jackie IbarraMarch 3, 2023 11:09 am,

When it comes to food, some may look to national award-winning chefs and expensive restaurants for the latest trend in dining – but don’t count out your local barbecue joint or the panadería.

One man who knows this more than most is taco journalist and podcast host Mando Rayo. He joined the Standard with some suggestions about classic spots to keep on the radar, plus news about a James Beard honoree from Texas. Listen to the interview above or read the transcript below.

This transcript has been edited lightly for clarity:

Texas Standard: You’ve got some news on a few James Beard Award folks who are shaking things up. 

Mando Rayo: Yeah, I would say they’re more like paying maybe respect where it’s due or honoring the old-school restaurants that have been there and done that and you can rely on. So they’re the what James Beard called the America’s Classics – you know, our tried and true. Mostly mom-and-pop shops and they’ve been around for, gosh, some for about 100 years or so. So we got the news that Joe’s Bakery in Austin, Texas, was named one of the winners for Texas for the America’s Classic. And if you’re ever in Austin and you go to Joe’s, it’s where every Tejano knows your name.

Why is it significant to have these these places that so many people know on the list of winners – and nominees, even?  

I think it’s important because it honors our history, right? It honors the way things were at one point where these restaurants, these small restaurants – like, say, Joe’s Bakery or Vera’s Backyard Bar-B-Que in Brownsville – some restaurants change with the times, but these places, they’re timeless. And it’s places that you feel like it’s an extension of your house, of your home. So they make you feel that way. They make you feel that way with the types of foods, but also the interactions that you get, you know.

If you go to Joe’s Bakery, you definitely see like old-school East Siders there, to young people coming into Austin, but also the politicos and the abuelos and the grandmothers and the tias and the tios. So it definitely kind of feels at home. You have like Selena on the soundtrack and man, those fresh flour tortillas to go along with their breakfast taco – what more can you ask for?

Well, what about Vera’s Backyard Bar-B-Que in Brownsville? I’d like to hear more about that. 

Vera’s was named a few years ago, actually, on the America’s Classic. And it’s kind of funny because a lot of these places, they’re just supporting their families; they’re keeping that tradition, and some of them are third-generation restaurateurs. And, you know, they’re not here to pay attention to all these awards. In fact, Armando Vera, the owner, when he got named that, he actually gave me a call. He’s like, ‘What’s this about?’ And he didn’t call them back. That’s a story. The mayor of Brownsville had to call him and say, ‘Hey, you need to return that call because they’re giving you an award.’ So for him, it was just like, ‘Oh, man, it’s a great honor.’

They’re doing beef head barbacoa the old-school rancho way in a pozo, an underground pit. And, you know, they probably churn out 70 cabezas a weekend. And what you do is you go there and you eat there, but you also get it by the pound. And it’s one of those things where you just kind of go there and you just, you know, you hang out. That’s how you do it. It’s not like, ‘hey, you know, next order is coming in.’ You go there, you talk to them, you hang out, and time kind of slows down, if you will. And so that’s the beauty of a lot of these places that you’re able to enjoy and be with community, whether it’s your first time there or you’ve been going there for decades.

Yeah. I mean, and that’s why they’re rewarded. The traditional food, but also a tradition of actually talking to people and spending time together, that’s something we all crave – both the food and that the fellowship. 

Yeah. And then being Mexicanos, you know, I always say, people use the term “we’re breaking bread,” but for us, we tear a tortilla, you know what I mean?

I do know what you mean. You’re making me hungry. Now, these are wonderful traditional places that people love. Is there anything else we should keep on our radar?

I mean, there’s plenty. You just have to look for them in your local community and definitely across Texas. You know, like I mentioned, somos paisonos, right, so we’re from El Paso. My go-to when I go down there is like L&J Cafe, the old place by the graveyard – some good enchiladas; the tacos are tasty, the crispy tacos that they have there. But it’s also like you go there, it’s like, ‘Oh, wow.’ You see all kinds of walks of life there. And I have a personal connection because my abuelo used to work at the cemetery across the street. And I remember just hanging out there and playing there, too.

Or if you go to San Antonio, you know, you got to go to Mi Tierra. It’s just a whole experience when you go to Mi Tierra. And then, you know, definitely being a guy from West Texas: Farolito in Abilene. And so all you have to do is kind of look for these historic places, get on the Google and find the places that maybe your grandparents went to and spend your dollar there to help them kind of keep these traditions alive.

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