by Michael Corcoran AAS 2008
There are really two Airport Boulevards. There is the one that’s a good way to get from East Austin to North Austin or vice versa.
But then there’s the Airport Boulevard that’s a destination from the 4900 block to the 5600 block. With the Travis County Tax Office smack dab in the middle, this stretch is as visually unappealing as the rest of the old roadway, with its share of pawn shops and used car lots and 99-cent gimcrack stores. But there are also five great places serving simple, affordable food with character in those seven blocks. Alonzo’s, Tamale House, Stallion Grill, Burger Tex and Quality Seafood are as different from one another as can be, with a clientele equally as diverse.
At Austin’s grittiest culinary corridor, the food comes at you fast and tasty, with as much regard for décor as a hard-boiled novel has. For long sentences. Orders are barked back to kitchens, where you can see the cooks work with the swift, confident hands of veteran blackjack dealers. There is no use for manners, no time for pleasantries: Airport Boulevard is the closest Austin gets to “Cheezborger! Cheezborger! Cheezborger!”
Driving hungry, your mind becomes a menu of possible places to eat, and when I visualize the carne guisada tacos at Tamale House, the half-pound meat pucks at Burger Tex or the fried shrimp and oysters plate at Quality Seafood, I find myself headed down Airport if it’s not too far away and if it’s not Sunday, when the fave five are all closed.
With the 2006 addition of the Stallion Grill at the former 5201 Airport Blvd. location of Gaylord’s Hamburgers and the reformation of Alonzo’s, soon to be renamed Jalapeno Joe’s, Airport is really cooking these days. (Too bad Leo’s Tasty Wings at the corner of 51st Street didn’t make it for long.) And we haven’t even mentioned Mrs. Johnson’s Bakery, serving Hyde Park housewives in their pajamas since 1948, and the Lammes Candies chocolate factory, established in 1885. And you also can get a pretty good taco with cilantro and onions at El Dorado Meat Market (5001 Airport Blvd.) right next to the Tamale House.
This originally was going to be an entire article on the Tamale House No. 3, which has been tackling hangovers and feeding the hip and poor at 5003 Airport Blvd. for 30 years. The headline was going to be “Austin on $5 a Day,” but soon it became obvious that the tag could also apply to Alonzo’s and the Stallion and Burger Tex and even Quality Seafood on Tuesday nights, when the 6-to-9 p.m. happy hour special of $2 seafood tacos and $2 draft beers packs the joint.
It might not have the greatest food (avoid the migas soup, listed on the menu as migas), but the Tamale House has the best story. Once with three locations, the T-House made the front page of this newspaper twice in the 1980s, first in ’84 when founder Moses Vasquez held out on selling Tamale House No. 1 – or more specifically, the 8,000-square-foot tract at Congress Avenue and Cesar Chavez Street where it stood – until developers upped their offer to $1.6 million. A few years later, Vasquez’s daughter Peggy Vasquez, who owned the now defunct No. 2 on Guadalupe Street, and his son Robert Vasquez, who still owns No. 3, got into an infamous “Taco War” with competitors, which drove the price of breakfast tacos down to 49 cents each. During the current taco truce, the scrumptious two-item tortilla-fillers are 85 cents each. They’re made right in front of you because the cramped kitchen ends at the front counter.
This hole in the wall with the heroic kitchen staff, which hasn’t sold tamales for at least 10 years, is one of the last bastions of true Austin soul. It’s like a 1977 punk band that rocks today as raucously as ever.
It’s controlled chaos, except out in the parking lot, where anarchy reigns. Even after Robert Vasquez finally painted lines for parking spaces, everyone just sort of parks wherever. From overhead at lunch time, the lot must look like a handful of magnets thrown up against a refrigerator door.
Because of the parking sitch , you must have a backup plan when you’re headed to the Tamale House. If you’ve got Mexican food on the brain, you can circle back and hit Alonzo’s at 4905 Airport Blvd., a former Tastee Freeze location that’s known for its cheap, Dan’s-quality burgers but just started serving a really good $4.25 plate of enchiladas. Ernest and Grace Duran bought Alonzo’s three years ago and are slowly working through city red tape to refashion the joint as Jalapeno Joe’s (sign approval is pending). They’ve added a spacious wooden patio and plan to eventually serve beer and wine and stay open until 9 p.m.
Great new things are also happening at the Stallion Grill, named after the long-gone comfort food haven on North Lamar Boulevard. Caterer Rick Collier opened the Stallion almost two years ago but sold it in September to first-time restauranteur Steve Hopper, a retired phone company engineer, whose son Chris and daughter-in-law Tabitha are recent graduates of the Cordon Bleu Academy in Las Vegas. The kids can cook, but they also understand their clientele. So although it’s a little strange to see fry cooks wearing white chef smocks with monogrammed names on the Boulevard, the prices are Airport affordable: $3.49 will get you one of the top three cheeseburgers in town, and hearty breakfast plates are all less than $6.
As with the Stallion, Burger Tex (5420 Airport Blvd.) serves fresh-baked buns with its burgers. Originally a steakhouse called Big Tex, this place went burger in 1984, four years after its model, Fuddrucker’s, opened its first location in San Antonio. The “build it yourself” concept is the same, and the burgers and bread are very similar, but what makes Burger Tex more than a less-expensive knockoff is a much-broader menu, including bulkogi, a sweet and salty Korean sliced beef sandwich. And with the omnipresent owner Kibo Yun running the show with such playful energy and the constant shouting of orders ready, Burger Tex has the personality you won’t find at Fudd’s.
If you want to wipe that smile off of Yun’s face, ask him whether he’s affiliated with the Burger Tex locations on Guadalupe Street and East Anderson Lane or the four Burger Tex sites in the Houston area. “They just copied our name,” says Yun, who bought the original Burger Tex eight years ago. Yun’s lone sanctioned franchisee is in Oak Hill.
Anchoring this no-frills food strip is the great Cajun-flavored Quality Seafood (5621 Airport Blvd.), which also has a market where many top chefs shop for the freshest seafood in town.
Quality Seafood, which opened on Airport in 1970, is the only place on the Boulevard where you could bring a first date and still have a second date. It’s where you go if you’re headed to the Tamale House and someone calls you on the cell phone to tell you that your house finally sold. It’s pricey for “Homely Avenue” – with the popular fried Sh-Oyster dinner (three shrimp and six oysters) going for $11.99 – but so worth it.
Even lacking a full Asian option, Airport Boulevard is a gastro-paradise for both noon-sleepers and hardworking folks who get only half an hour for lunch. It’s an eyesore at a time when the eyes are not the part of your body you need to focus on, which is one reason Airport is so much hipper than Austin’s original restaurant row on Barton Springs Road. The blight all around is a special seasoning.
Anyone who’d rather eat at Romeo’s than Quality Seafood, who prefers the Tex-Mex fare and Elvis décor of Chuy’s to the 85-cent sweatshop tacos available at the Tamale House, well, they probably only have the one tattoo.
Frequent Austin visitor Bobby Flay of the Food Network will never tape a show on Airport Boulevard. It’s sadistic to weight watchers, and there’s no easy way to get there from West Lake Hills. The food isn’t piled in the center of the plate with green sprigs sticking out.
But it’s fast and it’s cheap and it’s honest and it fills you up and sends you back out on that hideous thoroughfare with the feeling that, man, Austin’s a pretty cool place if you know where to go.
More Statesman food writing by Michael Corcoran
Austin’s Pizza Renaissance of 2007
Food Trucks Transcend Tacos 2008