Can’t Go Home Again: Tacos, Grief and Growing Up Without Tamale House

At Tamale House, frat boys and construction workers sat side by side at dirty tables eating 85 cent tacos off styrofoam plates from 6:30 am to 3 pm. Monday through Saturday. A crew of Latina women shouted back and forth about limonada and chorizo on one side of the counter. Customers with cash in hand filled tiny plastic cups with salsa on the other. We were all united by our love of perfectly fried potatoes. Nothing cut through a hangover like the migas with cheese. The restaurant did not actually serve tamales, but they sold very beautiful cupcakes for $1. I never bought one, and now I never will.

Tamale House, the exquisitely grimy one on Airport Boulevard, just closed forever. Owner Bobby Vasquez died in April. Now there’s a whole documentary about it online, but it can’t replace the real thing.

via the Tamale House Facebook page

via the Tamale House Facebook page

My best friend Dana and I went to T-House, as she insisted on calling it, multiple times a month for our last two years at the University of Texas. Right now she lives in Morocco and I live in Nicaragua. It has been hard to be away from Austin for a lot of reasons, but the shuttering of T-House brings into sharp relief just how far from home I am. I don’t know how to say goodbye from here. Perhaps growing up is grieving from afar, accepting realities we can’t see, and learning to let go of what we love and find new things to love instead. If so, I’m not quite grown up yet, because I can’t seem to shake this.

I went to Austin for New Year’s, just seven months after graduation, and it struck me how much had already changed. The wacky toy store on the main campus drag had moved downtown, and the sex shop across the street from it had closed. Where will freshman girls from East Texas buy their first vibrators now? My friends who hadn’t left town took me to new restaurants and bars they had found during their fledgling adulthood. Strangers lived in what had been my home. The girl I loved in May wasn’t speaking to me. I had a wonderful time, but I learned the city wasn’t mine anymore. For my last stop before I hit the interstate back to my parents’ place in Dallas I went to Tamale House and ate my migas with cheese out of my Styrofoam box on the porch. Some things, I assured myself, are constant.

I didn't know this would be my last trip to Tamale House. My friends Jack and Devin got the enchilada plate.

I didn’t know this would be my last trip to Tamale House. My friends Jack and Devin got the enchilada plate.

Until they’re not. That part of Austin is getting trendier, so I won’t be surprised if the building gets new paint and an air conditioner and becomes a boutique ice cream sandwich store. Now, this is not a story of gentrification or Old Austin vs New Austin. The store is closing because Don Vasquez’s children have other careers and he gave them his blessing to let it go. But part of me wishes there were a petition to sign or a letter to write. Sometimes injustice feels easier to respond to than the necessary changes that come with the passing of time. It won’t really feel true until I visit Austin again and drive up Airport and see the empty building next to the Amco insurance building. That’s when I will have to accept that the city where I came out, learned to drink whiskey neat, and got a pretty stellar education is going to keep on keeping on without me.

In Managua I have new haunts, new routines and new foods I insist on eating even though they will kill me (I’m looking at you, street cart burrito mixto). When Dana and I coincide in Austin this summer we’ll go to all the other restaurants we frequented in college and flirt with the baristas at Quack’s 43rd Street Bakery like old times. We’ll consider the possibility of going to the Tamale House on 6th Street owned by the same extended family, but they use real plates there, and we’ll probably lament that it wouldn’t be the same and ditch the idea.  When we drive up Airport Boulevard to get sno cones at Casey’s New Orleans Snowballs and pass Tamale House’s shell, we’ll probably hold hands and speak solemnly of perfect lemonade.

Maybe growing up is actually learning to cherish the things that make us who we are even when we can’t keep them. Maybe there’s hope for me yet.

Avatar of Audrey

Audrey is a Texan living in Managua, Nicaragua. She loves journalism, country dancing and talking to strangers. Follow her on Twitter @audreywhitetx.

Audrey has written 33 articles for us.

13 Comments

  1. Thumb up 5

    Please log in to vote

    I related to this very much. Though my cities are different, the feelings are the same. Now, where to find the new ones?

    And will the love for them never be as intense as for the cities of youth? (I’m not old – but in these moments it sometimes feels as though I were, old and the world gone by)

  2. Thumb up 5

    Please log in to vote

    Reminds me so much of when I was going to school in the Philippines (for HS and college, total 8 years). After I had graduated and made my way back here to the US, there was a two year period where I wasn’t able to visit home. When I finally returned, the city smelled and looked the same but the guts were different. Places I had loved moved or multiplied. There wasn’t that feeling of knowing a hole in a wall secret that served great coffee and gave a good time. It’s weird because I know that I’m relatively young and yet my wife and I always talk like ‘Remember when…..’ and we go on to reminisce about college and a ‘time when things weren’t as complicated’ SIGH. Now I miss home.

  3. Thumb up 0

    Please log in to vote

    I know it’s not the same but the part of the family who run Tamale House East are awesome people and it’s worth a shot! Thanks for writing this, I too grieved the loss of this place and the loss of one last intersection of race, class, etc in a city that is continually more segregated. Tamale House is one of those examples of a place that was more about the culture than the food, bc cheap tacos are great but they can be found anywhere, but nowhere else felt quite so stable. Give the east guys a try, tell them your story, they will love to listen! And the cupcakes are now on the counter there!

Contribute to the conversation...

You must be logged in to post a comment.