Longing Con Queso

By Marion Winik  
Photography by Chris Hartlove

I am very far from Austin, and I am having a very bad day. And since I cannot—here in the wilds of South Central Pennsylvania where I have washed up—actually go out and order a plate of enchiladas for lunch, I will put a bean and cheese taco in the microwave and dream of the comfort food I ache for so. For me, yearning for Mexican food is one and the same as longing for Austin. I discovered them at the same moment, fell in love with both simultaneously, and now can hardly tell them apart.

Hot, cheap, easy, fun, smoldering orange with dark red streaks: is that sunset over Lake Travis or a steaming plate of Trudy’s enchiladas? I don’t care, I love both and I need them now.

I left my sheltered life on the East Coast in 1976 and wound up rather quickly at happy hour in a bar near 29th and Guadalupe called the Greenhouse. And while my first-ever frozen drink—a strawberry daiquiri—made a favorable impression on me, the free nachos served with it changed my life. For one thing, I had never had a refried bean or a pinto bean of any kind. I had never seen a corn chip that was not a Frito. And though I had no prior exposure to chiles, jalapeños were like heroin. The first few minutes were a little rough and then it was all over.

As you can imagine, the free nachos at the Greenhouse were nothing special, but, on the other hand, it’s hard to screw up a nacho if you stick to the basic four ingredients (I am no fan of any kind of super-nacho, and I don’t even count the beanless slop served at stadiums and movie concessions). But it was not long before I discovered the nacho that would become, for me, the ne plus ultra. In the Armadillo Beer Garden, nachos were flat, round tostadas with a thin layer of each of the vital ingredients. A plate of three cost $2.25 or so, and I lived on them. At least until I met Joe Manypenny, a sweet Southern fella with blue eyes and a guitar.

Joe Manypenny drove a cab for Roy’s Taxi, where I had a brief career as a dispatcher. As Joe’s girlfriend, I was introduced to many essentials of Austin living—pickup trucks, dogs, cockroaches—but, most importantly, Mexican breakfast at places like El Taquito Chef (then on Waller Street) and Taco Village (also somewhere it isn’t anymore).

El Taquito Chef’s potato-egg tacos, migas and huevos rancheros became a religion to me, and I will tell you right now that no better ranchero sauce—thick with curls of onion and chunks of chiles—has ever been made.  I couldn’t get enough of it, and eventually started ordering an extra bowl of it on the side, maybe two, no matter what else I ate.  

When Joe Manypenny broke my heart and I moved back East, I would jones for El Taquito Chef so badly that a couple of times I drove all the way back to Austin without stopping—white-knuckling the wheel and seeing a ghostly plate of migas floating just ahead of me—until my butt was in the chair and the huevos were on the way.

El Taquito Chef’s closing left a hole in my life that has never been filled, though I came to adore Las Manitas, and Seis Salsas in the early days, and even Manuel’s, where the margaritas could make up for everything else. When my first husband died, the ladies at Las Manitas changed the name of the Friday special he ordered every week—enchiladas camarones—to Tony’s Enchiladas, and I can imagine no finer fate for myself, except that my favorite ranchero sauce is already long gone and I am still here. Am I doomed to outlive everything I love?

Today in Pennsylvania, where my refried beans come from a big-box store and my tortillas from hell, where the jar of Jaime’s Spanish Village garlic salsa that Jim Shahin brought me back from Austin was finished years ago, my day continues to fall apart.  Don’t be surprised if, one day soon, you should happen to see someone who looks a lot like Marion Winik lurking in a dark corner of El Nuevo Leon, slathering queso and guacamole on the pain. Apocalypse without an Old Fashioned Crispy Taco plate seems an unfathomably dark fate.