Joe's Bakery and Coffee Shop in East Austin Texas
Joe's Bakery and Coffee Shop in East Austin, Texas opens at 6:00 in the morning seven days a week. On weekdays it closes at 2:30 in the afternoon; on weekends 3:00. One shift. Joe’s employs around twenty-five people. One waitress has been there for almost forty years. In the fifty-six years they’ve been in business they’ve had six cooks.
Joe Avila started the bakery with his wife, Pauline. His daughters, Rose Ann and Carolina, had been helping Joe run it for years. Joe passed away from lung cancer in 2010, leaving a great sadness for this close family. Today his daughters and granddaughter, Regina Estrada, and sometimes still Pauline, manage all. Over the years the restaurant has become less bakery and more great Tex-Mex cuisine that locals revere.
I walked into Joe’s Bakery and Coffee Shop around 1:00 on a Friday afternoon; I stepped into the low roar of casual lunchtime conversation, clattering dishes, and the high-vitality trumpets of piped-in Mariachi music. Yellowing photos featuring four generations of Avila family and faded letters of distinction hung from the walls all the way around the dining room. One vacant booth had been saved for me. I had written to Estrada (Joe’s granddaughter) to ask if she would talk to me about her family, the business, and what exactly is Tex Mex.
Over a ravishing plate of chicken quesadillas made with homemade tortillas, satiny refried beans, freshly made guacamole and salsa, I bonded with the flow of customers coming and going, nodding bueno dios to the staff. If I lived in Austin I, too, would be a regular. I, too, would come every week for these quesadillas, or for a serious bowl of menudo, or a shining plate of huevos rancheros.
Regina Estrada crossed the room to meet me from the bakery with a wide smile and the instantly engaging energy of a good politician or an even better restaurant owner, and she was wearing an “Eat Tacos and Vote” T-shirt she designed herself.
“Voting is my biggest thing,” Estrada said. A political science graduate of Texas State, she told me that on election day 2016 she had quietly offered a free taco to any customer who came in wearing an “I voted” sticker. Estrada, 38 and the mother of two elementary-age daughters, is the bridge between centuries for Joe’s Bakery and Cafe.
“I am a 3rd generation American of Mexican descent, but I’m also third generation Texan, so there’s a lot going on. Until you’ve been immersed in the Texan culture, until you’ve been immersed in tex mex food, you really don’t get it.”
“Tex Mex is like its own culture. Its own language, its own food, its own baking,” Estrada said. “It’s a world - if you’re not born and raised in it you don’t get it. The new politically correct thing to say is everyone’s Latino. Well, what is to be that? What are you? I’ve always thought that we are Mexican-American, but as I’ve grown up I’ve realized it is an education process, not only for myself but also for people who were not born and raised in Texas, and don’t understand the dynamics.” Estrada repeated, “Tex-Mex is really a culture unto itself.”
The Joe’s Bakery story starts in 1935, when Sophia and Florentino De La O, Estrada’s great-grandparents, were baking traditional Mexican breads known as pan dulces out of their home just down the street. But Florentino was also working in American bakeries in Austin; he was making Pan de Heuvo for sale from his home and he was making American doughnuts outside the home. This fusion of cultures is exactly where Tex Mex happens, Estrada says.
“Depending on where you go in Texas - El Paso, Laredo, San Antonio, Austin - there’s fundamentally going to be the same baked goods but there all going to have different names. We bake “Pan De Huevo” in our restaurant and that’s all I’ve ever heard, but in other places they call them ‘Conchas.’”
Pan de Huevo, or Concha, are the round loaves of fluffy bread with a cookie crust top, often tinted, and hatched with broad distinguishing lines.
Estrada’s grandfather, Joe, Florentino’s stepson, grew up watching his parents baking, and wanted nothing else but to own his own bakery, too. With the help first of his brother (His young wife, Pauline, had a good job working for a local grocery chain, HEB, which she wasn’t interested in leaving at first.) Joe opened Joe’s Bakery with his parents’ recipes - that blend of Mexican pan dulces and American commercial baking. It was immediately a success, so Joe added coffee. Then people encouraged him to add food.
“What are we going to serve?” Joe asked, according to Estrada. At that point Pauline decided to join her husband, and, with his mother, they began developing the family recipes for the restaurant. One thing was certain for Joe the baker: “we’re going to do homemade flour tortillas because I’m already making the bread dough.”
Flour tortillas are almost non-existent in Mexican cuisine, but when you’re a Mexican American baking in Austin, Texas, and you’re already getting up at 3:00 in the morning to make a white flour dough, your tortillas are white flour, too. This is how cuisines get created: the imperative of efficiency and making-do.
I asked Estrada which dishes were classically Tex Mex, this blend of Mexican and American foods created when families like hers crossed the border into Texas years ago.
“Huevos rancheros, refried beans - flour tortillas are very Tex-Mex! Menudo - the way it is made here. In Mexico they eat Posole (a hominy stew), but here we make menudo, which is the tripe, cooked in the spices, and then hominy is added.”
Estrada reinforced just how different and how much the same are the Mexican American experiences.
“My grandparents were all born and raised in Austin, Tex. Spanish is the fluent language in the home. My mother’s mother didn’t speak English at all, but my father’s mother - the one who took over the restaurant - grew up speaking English.” In another Tex-Mex variation, Estrada explains that Joe’s Carne Guisada, their family recipe is made with pork.
“If you go to every other restaurant it will be made with beef. It’s amazing how, even though the stories are together, they are different.”
“What I find interesting,” Estrada says, “are recipes like the barbacoa and chiccirones - they used to be the throwaways, the meat the butcher didn’t want. My dad remembers going to the butcher shop to get the throw-aways. ‘We’re not going to waste,’ he would say. They use pigs feet in the Menudo, too, as a way to utilize these pieces. Now the market has changed. These are commodities. Now we’re paying premium for these meats! To bring it back to national politics - NAFTA - Mexico is one of the biggest exporters of pork.”
And with the tariffs, Estrada says the costs keep going up. “When you go to the grocery store and you’re surprised by your bill,” Estrada says, “that’s what restaurants are facing, too, but we can’t go changing our prices every week.”
The family recipes are all still prepared by the cooks in the restaurant today. Aunt Carolina runs the kitchen, and has been there since she was eighteen..
“We work really really hard to make sure we’re staying true to our recipes,” Estrada says. I asked her about sourcing the tripe for the Menudo, a menu favorite.
“We do business with Sysco,” Estrada said with a sigh, “it’s been a long time in the making, but it has come to the fact that all the tripe in their warehouse is for us. That’s not out of the kindness of their hearts; it’s taken a long time to make sure that we have this supply. It’s not a fluke. Graduating from college at twenty-two, I was coming into an environment when most of the salesmen were men - it’s a male dominated business. A lot of these men would see a young face and, ask to speak to my grandfather. When I was assertive they saw it as bitchiness. Call it what you want, I said, but this is how it’s going to be. If I didn’t put my foot down, people were not going to take me seriously.”
Estrada says that as the business has grown the bakery component has not sustained itself as it once did, although I watched a regular come flying in the door begging for a box of pastries just at closing.
Estrada says it’s very hard to find bakers these days. “To find a true baker is not as easy as it used to be. This is a trade. No one wants to be an electrician or a plumber. They have odd hours. It’s a trade job and the labor force just isn’t there.”
Between the young waitstaff and the kitchen staff she employs, Estrada sees labor issues first hand.
“We have a shortage. There’s a problem. We have people who would do the work, but then you’re getting into immigration, and then you’re in the socio-economics of paying someone who can’t read and can’t write, and has poor communication skills, and you want me to pay them $15 an hour.” Regarding the teen labor, Estrada says, “we have done such a disservice to our youth; they have no skill set, no work ethic, no ability.”
I asked Estrada where she sees solutions.
“I am a firm believer in education. I feel as a parent it’s our job to educate our children and hold them accountable...We need to find our moral compass. Schools are overcrowded. We’re not prioritizing our children’s education.”
Education is a priority throughout Estrada’s family. She attended private high school, and then, as we said, graduated from Texas State University. Estrada’s mother, Rose Ann, decided to get her bachelor’s degree at 36. Estrada’s husband has a very different background.
“He was a migrant farmer growing up as a child. He likes to say, ‘When I was 6 and 7 years old I was picking blueberries. I was driving a tractor by 10.’ My husband is very conservative, with very different values.”
“He’s in banking now. He found his way to Dallas and then, at the age of forty-two he’s about to finish college....My father is his own story, too. His parents were migrant workers as well. Grew up in the segregated south. He put himself through college, graduated from University of Texas in Austin, and was a buyer for a clothing store, and then went into real estate. He’s a real estate broker now.”
Estrada worries about the shift in Austin’s economics. The explosion of new businesses is forcing property taxes to levels unsustainable for many.
“Why are all these small businesses that have been in Austin for 30, 40, 50 years suddenly closing their doors?” Estrada asks. “What are we doing wrong as a city that we’re not helping to sustain these businesses that have grown with our city? Each time the city has a new initiative, I see another small business closing its doors.”
Threadgills, an iconic business here in Austin, is closing because the owner rents the building, and the property taxes for that location have skyrocketed. The owners want to work with the tenant, but it’s a business decision, Estrada said. And, she said, Austin has adopted a number of new ordinances like recycling and composting,
“What I feel is a lot of people have the best of intentions, but until you’ve owned your own business, and really know the obstacles a small business owner faces, you don’t really understand how even these small changes can be hard.”
“To be a small business in America these days,” she said, “you’re in it because it’s your passion, you found your niche and you’re good at it. Or, a more rare story is you’re in it because you have a story to tell.
No matter how many people line up for the migas and carne guisada, Estrada said “bakery” will always be in the name.
“It’s very much a part of our history. It’s where we started.”