Greg Casar believes in the power of old and new Austin. Ever a politician, the progressive Democratic Congress candidate for TX-35 and former Austin City Council member still frequents politically historic restaurants and champions newer ones that are upholding the city. And he knows that to keep the local food scene growing is by enacting federal and local policies that support restaurant workers’ daily lives.
Despite the changes and challenges Austin’s restaurant scene continues to face, Casar believes in Austin food. “We can be down on ourselves sometimes,” he says, “about the days of music and food loss, but there’s still so much awesome stuff.”
Casar makes it a point to dine at old-school restaurants steeped in political history. East Austin Tex-Mex restaurant Cisco’s is particularly important to Casar, especially given its status as a political haunt. It’s a major part of his Sunday routine, where he orders huevos rancheros and black coffee and chit-chats with his regular server in Spanish.
Another favorite Tex-Mex restaurant of his is Tamale House East. In fact, his plan for Election Night involves his favorite dish. “I knew that, no matter what happened, I was going to order the chipotle migas to my house,” while watching Jordan Peele movies and Moana.
Casar also mentions his love for Austin institution Dan’s Hamburgers, calling it one of his “most frequented” places to eat.
Outside of Casar’s everyday routine, he makes it a point to introduce out-of-towners to Austin restaurant gems. When activist and actor Jane Fonda was in town to campaign for Democratic Railroad Commissioner candidate Luke Warford in October, Casar brought her tacos from Mexican spot Marcelino’s. When Sen. Bernie Sanders attended various rallies in the Austin area in late October, Casar took him to have dinner at Nixta Taqueria.
Casar even went local for his campaign office, making use of the all-day East Riverside cafe Ani’s Day & Night. It’s where he hosted a rally event with Sen. Elizabeth Warren in late February. “Workdays during the campaign would start at six in the morning,” he says. “We could go pretty soon as they open, have coffee, and then our campaign staff could have lunch at the [on-site Caribbean-Latino food truck] Nyam food truck, and then you’re out knocking doors until Sunday, and then folks can have beer.”
Given the uniquely shaped district that Casar is hoping to cover, his campaign treks take him to cities along the southern I-35 corridor straight into San Antonio. In Kyle, he enjoys Mexican bakery Abuelita’s, run by Rio Grande Valley folks, and highlights its pan dulces and tacos.
Casar’s go-to spot in San Marcos is Mexican restaurant Rogelio’s, which feels comforting to Casar. “We could just take a day of meetings and it feels like home,” he says. In San Antonio, it’s Pete’s Tako House, which he likens to Cisco’s and Dan’s as a place where the community dines, from politicians to firefighters.
Austin costs have been rising, from housing to rents to even food, which has been contributing to numerous restaurant closures. “We have to deal with it getting so expensive that you lose the cool places or the folks that live here,” says Casar. He sees the importance and value of building more housing and developments, those bottom-floor anchor spaces need to be affordable and friendly to small businesses.
“We really need tons more housing inside the city instead of pushing everybody out at every level of income,” he says, and by creating more housing and retail, “we stop being a landlord’s market.” Adding more affordable housing will allow the people who contribute to the city to live here.
Another issue Casar feels strongly about is unionization, especially for hospitality workers. He points to efforts by Austin pizza chain Via 313, Starbucks, and the Hilton Austin. He realizes unionizing isn’t easy these days when dealing with employers unwilling to negotiate with workers. Texas is both a right-to-work and at-will employment state. For the former, employers aren’t supposed to hire based on whether an employee is in a union or not, meaning that unions still have to support non-union workers without the benefit of fees. The latter allows employers to fire employees without contracts.
“You should be allowed to organize without any employer influencing one way or the other,” Casar says, noting there is often pushback from employing companies and spreading of misinformation. “My message to those employers: we could see unions as an important partner in setting wages and making sure we take care of our folks. I think they take it too personally.”
“When there are more unionized restaurant workers and hospitality workers, and they win raises, you’re going to see more and more people make that choice,” Casar says. That will encourage other employees to seek out unionization.
Another key issue for Casar is Medicare for all, something he finds particularly important for restaurant workers. “You shouldn’t have whether you live or die based on whether you have a job or not, how many hours you can work, or whether you can afford healthcare,” he says.
“There’s been so much propaganda that creates a tribal instinct against good policies that would actually help both employers and workers,” Casar explains. He wants Austin to thrive by backing beneficial federal and local laws supporting restaurant workers and small businesses. This is part of why Casar is so intentional with the restaurants he frequents.
“Austin’s food is still incredible,” Casar says. “We just need to find a way to let working people be able to live their lives, and they’re going to make amazing food and music, and it’s going to be great. Stop persecuting them for who they love and who they are and stop underpaying people. Then I think Austin’s going to be great.”