- By John Kelso
Chris Alvarado, who these days races Porsches for a living, shares a childhood memory from the old Taco Flats that you’ll never see at the new Taco Flats.
Chris was just a tot. But since his dad Hector owned the joint, little Chris was sitting at the bar. There was a switch on a post. So like any curious 4-year-old, he reached over and hit it.
“What I didn’t know is that it cut off the power to the jukebox,” Chris said.
Whoops. The sudden silence didn’t please the clientele, who might have been digging on Grand Funk Railroad, or more likely, Gary P. Nunn singing about yearning to be home with the armadillo.
“You could hear the groans,” Chris said. “So I skedaddled from the bar and hopped off in the other direction.”
Do you miss the old Taco Flats, the funky spot at 5213 North Lamar Blvd. that attracted counterculture folks, University of Texas students, UT football players and an assortment of beer drinkers looking for a cheap meal? Did you ever dine on the 99-cent “Hobo Plate” — taco meat, beans, rice, a salad, a couple of tortillas and a jalapeno stuck with a toothpick? Remember that infamous sign out front that mocked McDonald’s with the message “Over 2,000 Returned?”
The good news is that Taco Flats is being resurrected, at least in name.
Simon Madera, who owns Triangle Wine and Spirits on North Lamar, is fixing to open a new Taco Flats on Burnet Road in a couple of weeks if all goes well with the permits and remodeling.
But the new version of Taco Flats won’t be as funky as the original. How could it be? Is there a jukebox app? If there is, if might be the closest thing you’ll find to the real thing.
Let’s face it. When the first Taco Flats was an Austin landmark back in the 1970s, the metrosexual had yet to be invented and the laptop sounded like a $5 special at the Yellow Rose.
Madera says the new Taco Flats will serve cocktails and craft beer. The old Taco Flats had cocktails, too — if you brought in a bottle of whiskey in a paper bag and threw in some ginger ale.
The new place won’t even be on the same street. The new address will be 5520 Burnet Road. The new joint, if you could call it a joint, will be decorated with trendy furniture made out of recycled materials, like barn fencing.
The old Taco Flats was made with materials you could recycle, or toss in the trash. Doug English, who played football for the Texas Longhorns, recalls that the walls were so thin that you could throw a bottle through two of them. Although I’m not sure he field-tested that.
English said he loved the place because “it had great Mexican food and what you could call a casual atmosphere.”
Not that the new Taco Flats will start pushing a sushi plate. Madera says he’ll have simple bar food, including tacos, of course. Madera, who is from the Rio Grande Valley, used to run a cafe in McAllen. So he figures he can improve Austin’s Tex-Mex situation.
“We don’t think Austin is very good at making tacos,” he said.
That sounds like a declaration of war to me. Get out the tortillas and start shooting.
By the way, don’t expect to eat for 99 cents at the new Taco Flats. Madera says that Hector, the original owner, gave him one piece of advice: “Make sure you make money off of this because I never did.”
Hector wasn’t kidding. He says he sold the place for $2,000.
Taco Flats had its own unique decorative touches. There was Taco Flats’ unisex bathroom. “Somebody knocked down the wall between the men’s and ladies room so it was just one bathroom,” Hector recalled.
All sorts of big names who weren’t so big back then showed up at Taco Flats, among them Texas music greats Jerry Jeff Walker, Marcia Ball and Johnny Rodriguez. Blaze Foley played at Taco Flats, as did Townes Van Zandt.
Then there were the jalapeno eating contests, which could not be described as dainty. You had an hour to eat all the peppers you could hold down. If you tossed your cookies, you were disqualified. Hector says that former Austin Mayor Carole Keeton McClellan made an appearance.
“Somebody from TV had her eat a jalapeno,” Hector said. “By God, she ate it. She turned ash gray. Then she said, ‘I gotta go,’ and she left. She was funny, that lady. I’ve known her since the 1800s, I think.”
So don’t expect to see that kind of action at the new Taco Flats. We’re not like that around here anymore, darn it.