The now-owners of longtime Tex-Mex restaurant Cisco’s Matt Cisneros and Will Bridges were chatting in the dining room at the back of the East Austin institution when a customer stopped by their table. “I don’t mean to interrupt,” the person said, leaning in, “but I just tried the new coffee, and it’s great stuff.”
It’s a small comment about a minor tweak that Cisco’s new owners — Cisneros, Bridges, Rick McMinn, and Bryan Schneider — have implemented since taking over the historic East 6th Tex-Mex restaurant in 2017. But the new coffee — a custom blend from Texas Coffee Traders — and other changes are all part of a larger evolution meant to both preserve Cisco’s historical importance and to keep it relevant in a rapidly developing neighborhood.
For those who remember a time when East Austin wasn’t associated with $13 cocktails and mixed-use condos, they remember the political significance of Cisco’s, a popular hangout founded in 1950 by Matt’s grandfather, Rudy “Cisco” Cisneros. If something important needed to be signed and the Capitol was too far away, Cisco’s was the place to meet, largely due to Rudy’s knack for attracting all the right people.
“Grandfather was so well connected and really cared about the [political] scene, whether it was lobbying for certain causes or supporting charitable, neighborhood-centric ties,” said Cisneros, recalling how people would stop by to say hello to the affable owner, who always sat in the same chair at his corner table, with a cigar hanging from his mouth. “He wanted to be involved as much as he could because that made him happy.”
After Rudy passed away, Cisneros’s uncle, Clovis, took over the restaurant; while Cisneros occasionally picked up a couple shifts in high school, he wasn’t involved with the business on a regular basis. “I always loved and adored this place, though, and knew that I wanted to be deeper in it at some point,” he said. That point came in 2012, when Clovis put the restaurant up for sale. It took a few years of waiting for the price to come down — then a few more years of negotiations — but the keys were finally turned over to Cisneros and his partners in 2017.
One of those partners is Bridges, an Austin native who grew up coming to Cisco’s with his family, and who has restored and revitalized local institutions like Lambert’s, Antone’s, and Deep Eddy Cabaret. “You don’t go into a place thinking, ‘I’m going to preserve it!’” said Bridges. “That suggests a grand plan. Really it’s just like, let’s figure out how we can make this not go away.”
To satisfy the regulars, newcomers, and staff — some of whom have been working at the restaurant for more than 20 years — change has been both subtle and significant. While keeping menu options the same, almost all of the ingredients were upgraded from grocery store produce to items sourced from local food vendors.
A liquor license has been added, and a new bar menu centered around “reds and oranges” has taken shape: Bloody Marys, screwdrivers, margaritas, and micheladas. Counter seating will soon be installed at the front of the restaurant, where diners can grab a quick bite or drink or watch 6th Street revelers during dinner service — arguably the biggest change to Cisco’s.
Now the hours were extended to 10 p.m. daily, offering the same daytime menu with a few specials (“We want to make fajitas a thing here again,” said Bridges). The red and orange cocktails will also be offered during the evening, and eventually expanded upon with more tequila and mezcal options and original house drinks.
For a restaurant that has operated on daytime-only schedule for more than 70 years, the very concept of dinner — or late-night drinks, for that matter — is a jolt to the comfortable rhythm that has pulsed through these walls. But on a street that has seen craft cocktail bars, upscale restaurants, and high-end shops take over old-school staples, dinner service is now a necessity. In 2019, the gargantuan Plaza Saltillo is scheduled to open on 5th Street — six blocks of retail, entertainment, restaurants, offices, and residential units. Now is the time for Cisco’s to bridge the old with the new.
“As historic as Peter Luger [Steakhouse] is to Brooklyn, Cisco’s is to East Austin,” said Cisneros. “Change is inevitable, but maintaining this restaurant allows people who moved to Austin to attach themselves to something historic and longstanding, not just new.”
So along with the storied biscuits that have been pulled from Cisco’s ovens for the past seven-plus decades, there is new coffee to pair with them. The migas are staying on the menu, though there is now an actual recipe written down for the kitchen, which has made the staff’s lives easier. The Sayers family, along with many other families who have frequented the restaurant, still has their signature table reserved for regular weekend visits; but now they might find live music or something playing on the new jukebox during their meal.
“These projects are a beacon of hope that everything doesn’t have to be torn down and turned into condos,” said Bridges, referring to the restaurant as he finished up one of his favorite dishes to order, the Jessica’s Special (one cheese enchilada, one crispy taco, rice, and beans). “We don’t want these changes to be a quick thing, because we’re setting Cisco’s up for the next ten, twenty, thirty years.
“People love an underdog story and they want to be a part of it,” Bridges concluded.