These days, East Sixth Street is a cacophony of construction, as hotels and high-rise buildings seem to heighten by the hour. But just beyond the barriers and the drone of jackhammers, there is no greater escape than the garden patio of essential Tex-Mex restaurant Tamale House East. The East Sixth Street oasis, with its mosaic-tiled tabletops and trickling fountain, feels worlds away from the changing landscape surrounding it — and serves as a reminder of the fading East Austin of years past.
“I only have to walk to the edge of the parking lot to see that the street is a new landscape,” says Tamale House’s head chef and matriarch, Diane Valera. Along with all the new structures, there are “many missing puzzle pieces that once were small businesses and homes.
“I do indeed feel a little sad and nostalgic,” Valera says, “and also proud of my children and husband for supporting our preservation of our little Tamale House.”
Those newer to Austin may only be familiar with Tamale House East, but Valera comes from a long lineage of cooks who have been feeding Austin since 1958. In fact, one might say her family is to Tex-Mex cuisine what the Mueller family is to barbecue: culinary royalty.
As a lifelong resident of East Austin, Valera has seen more changes than most. She grew up in the Guadalupe neighborhood, adjacent to Texas State Cemetery, where her mother, Carmen Villasana, spent her childhood working in her father’s tortillería. Tony’s Tortillas, which occupied the space now housing Wilder Wood Restaurant on East Seventh Street, distributed tortillas all over the southwest United States throughout the 1940s and 1950s.
Villasana married Moses Vasquez, a musician who — very much in the spirit of old Austin — also dabbled in upholstery work and drove a cab for a company called Two Nickels back when fares actually cost that much. As he toured throughout California, he noticed a lot of fast-food chains on the West Coast and wondered why he couldn’t establish the same kind of business in Texas, but with Mexican food.
Hence, Tamale House. “He wanted to make food that was brought out quickly,” explains Carmen Valera, Diane’s daughter and Villasana’s namesake, “but not ‘fast food’ in the sense that it wasn’t packaged or processed.”
The Vasquez family opened the very first Tamale House on what was known as First Street and Congress Avenue in 1958. The menu had only eight items: bean and cheese tacos, crispy tacos, deluxe crispy tacos, potato and egg tacos, chorizo and egg tacos, chalupas, vegetable guacamole chalupas, and pork tamales. Their five children all helped out from a young age, and proceeded to catch the “restaurant bug.”
First, Peggy Vasquez ran another location of Tamale House near the University of Texas until the mid-1990s. Then Robert “Bobby” Vasquez opened Tamale House No. 3 on Airport Boulevard in 1977 (that restaurant shuttered after Bobby’s death in 2014). Diane Valera would work a shift in the original Tamale House alongside her mother, then head north to Bobby’s restaurant to help in the kitchen while also teaching him their mother’s recipes— the ones still used to craft dishes at Tamale House East today.
“At the heart of it, the methods of cooking the food, the basic recipes — talk about slow cooking,” says Carmen Valera. “There’s nothing that we just open a bag and use. Everything is made by hand.”
Diane Valera graduated from Texas A&M’s business school as one of the only women in her class, and turned down a scholarship at Harvard in order to open her own business. After moving with her husband, Juan Valera-Lema, to his native Peru for four years, she returned with the intention of starting a restaurant that married her Mexican background with his Peruvian roots. Diane opened Mexico Típico on Montopolis Drive in 1984, offering Mexican dishes like migas and enchiladas alongside Peruvian plates like ceviche and papa rellenas.
“We’ve always been a restaurant family,” says Carmen Valera. She recounts how they used the dry goods shelves as bunkbeds at Mexico Típico, “sleep[ing] there next to the beans.”
Meanwhile, as downtown Austin developed, Carmen Villasana sold the original Tamale House for $200 per square foot, which was considered highest paid price per square foot in the city’s history at the time. In turn, she promptly used the money to open another Tamale House on College Avenue in South Austin, where she continued to run the restaurant well into her 70s.
Along with culinary entrepreneurialism, Diane Valera inherited her mom’s knack for real estate. She wanted to remain in her native East Austin, so when the East Sixth Street space now housing Suerte became available, she moved Mexico Tipico there. Across the street was an empty lot with a “for sale” sign, so she also purchased that property, intending to use it as a parking lot for the restaurant.
Instead, her husband, Juan Valera-Lema, designed and built a brand-new restaurant on that lot — where Tamale House East now stands — including the apartment above the restaurant where the Valeras raised their five children and still live today.
“She’s always taken risks and chances,” says Carmen of Diane. “She opened up here before there was much even over here. She’s such an eternal optimist.”
After working in restaurants since she was 14, Diane Valera decided to start a new chapter by getting her real estate license. In 2000, she sold all her cooking supplies, shut down Mexico Típico, and started to rent out the kitchen to different caterers.
“The kitchen never actually went dark,” says Carmen Valera.
But when the second caterer’s lease ran up in 2012, Diane Valera asked the family if she should continue to rent out the space or if they’d like to open a business there themselves. And though her children were already pursuing careers in art, law, and engineering, they jumped at the chance to embark on a new culinary business as a family once again.
They opened Tamale House East during South by Southwest that same year, starting with a simple menu of tacos and tamales. Carmen Valera called her mom insisting that she and her siblings (Juan, Jose, Robert, and Colombina) start small, selling counter-service items from the back of the building, which faces East Fifth Street.
“I wanted my children to learn all facets of the business and I thought it was important that they begin to learn from the bottom up,” says Diane Valera. “I felt that if they learned day by day to work and love the business and care about its development, as a parent does with a child, that the business would become meaningful to them and it would become their baby to love, nurture, and protect.”
One particularly cold day, Carmen recalled her brother Juan picking up the cash register and making the executive decision to move operations inside the still-empty building space. From that day forward, Tamale House East has been a constantly evolving project that is as much a community space as it is a restaurant.
“I feel that many good people, businesses, infrastructure improvements have also occurred,” says Diane Valera, reflecting on the changes in the neighborhood. “Tamale House has had to adapt to a changing new market. Each day is filled with tasks to perform to stay a few steps ahead of all the changes.”
The menu has grown to include plenty of new, original dishes in addition to the family’s traditional recipes. There are one-off tamales with with fillings like grilled shrimp and tamarind and spicy Indonesian-inspired rendang. The restaurant now also boasts of a a full liquor license and a continually expanding bar program. Each Saturday, a live gypsy jazz band plays for the brunch crowd, and on Thursday nights the restaurant lights up with live salsa music and dancing.
Juan is constantly beautifying the outdoor garden and patio, which thrives with lush plants and handcrafted artwork. Carmen and Juan Jr. manage social media and brand development, collaborating on special projects and growing the catering department. Diane is back to running the kitchen, as well as handling inventory and payroll — all while juggling a real estate career. She also recently opened a shop in one corner of the restaurant, where she sells vintage houseware and clothing.
“I knew that someday growth would come to East Austin and that my children must be prepared to protect their baby,” says Diane. “Tamale House became, for our family, a preservation effort and symbol of the many brave families and business — many of which are no longer here — who, against so many odds, established this area into the beautiful, rich cultural treasure that it became.”