Forgotten Cuisines of America, Part 5: Tex-Mex

Greasy, salty, and sumptuous, migas are Austin’s signature dish.

When I was a student at the University of Texas, if I wanted a really cheap meal I’d head downtown to the Tamale House, a shack that teetered at the corner of Congress and First Street, just north of Austin’s Town Lake. Finding such an institution there today would be inconceivable, since the area is now clotted with convention hotels and franchise restaurants aimed at tourists.

My standard order was a dozen tamales, which set me back one dollar. Wrapped in corn husks, the tamales were small, savory, and loaded with greasy ground meat. A dozen made a perfect meal. Sometime in the late 1970s the shack closed, only to reappear in a small commercial space north of the campus on Airport Boulevard. Tamale House is still wildly popular, though paradoxically, they no longer serve tamales. Instead, you can get the ubiquitous breakfast tacos, chalupas, enchilada dinners, huevos rancheros, and migas. Migas are tortilla chips scrambled with eggs, yellow cheese, and ranchero sauce (a salsa focused on tomatoes rather than chiles, but still spicy). This homely concoction is the signature Tex-Mex dish of Austin (San Antonio prefers its puffy tacos, Houston its fajitas), and probably represents a reconfiguration of the Mexican favorite, chilaquiles.

Yet migas are so much more than chilaquiles. Grease, the saltiness of the chips, the rich sumptuousness of fresh eggs, and the quality of the tomatoes add to the flavor, and I still crave migas in far-off New York. On a recent visit to Austin, I found the version served at Tamale House the best: The eggs rendered a bit soupy, the plate tendered with a dab of refried beans and—you’d never find this in Mexico—a charred pile of good home fries. Little gooey islands of salty yellow cheese float among the flocculent eggs.

But other excellent versions vie for my attention while I’m in Austin. In the East Austin barrio on East 6th Street lies Cisco’s, a venerable Mexican-American coffee house founded in the 1950s, and notorious as a hangout for LBJ and his fellow politicians before he became President. Depicted on a sign with a cigar and horn-rimmed glasses like a Mexican-American Groucho Marx, Cisco himself died long ago, but his family is still firmly in charge. The place is known principally for its breakfasts (it closes every day at 3p.m.), including huevos rancheros and breakfast tacos, but the star of the show is its migas. The version at Cisco’s is more austere, a carefully organized mass of tortillas and firm scrambled eggs, arranged on the plate with a sausage patty and splat of refried beans. Most amazing of all, you have your choice of flour tortillas or biscuits, and the biscuits—big yellow bruisers, yet surprisingly light—are every bit as good as biscuits anywhere in the Deep South, their ancestral home. Demonstrating, I suppose, that African-Americans lived alongside Mexican-Americans in East Austin during the crucial era—for Tex-Mex cuisine, at least—of the 1950s. Then, as now, many aging gringos from the better side of the tracks, dressed in suits or cowboy hats and dungarees, came to Cisco’s because the food was so damn good, and the restaurant always welcoming.

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