The Big Reach of Little Hands

Katherine Gregor - July/August 2006

As a clearinghouse for Latino cultural and political concerns, to say nothing of its down-home Mexican, Central American, and Tex-Mex cooking, Las Manitas Avenue Café has become a main part of Austin's quirky warp and weave.

Can a lone cafe embody a city's complex soul? If so, in Austin, Texas, that would be Las Manitas Avenue Café, a funky beloved downtown Mexican breakfast-and-lunch restaurant. For 25 years, Las Manitas has epitomized the artsy, libertarian, left-listing spirit that's served as Austin's beacon during its rapid growth, a success story that's now threatened by the success it helped engender.

Ask a local to describe Las Manitas and you'll hear some variation on this: "It's so Austin." Located on Congress Avenue, the city's grand boulevard that culminates at the Texas Capitol building, Las Manitas is multicultural, authentic, and laid-back, Austin itself contained by four walls. In a town whose rallying cry is "Keep Austin Weird," this place is doing its part. The menu is interior Mexican and Central American, today's diners mostly hip Anglos. Its changing art exhibits showcase emerging Hispanic artists with a leftist political bent. The owners, sisters Lidia and Cynthia Pérez, are Chicana activists engaged in a sociocultural dialogue with their bipartisan crowd—think former governor Ann Richards wisecracking booths away from Karen Hughes, President George W. Bush's propper-upper and apple polisher.

The food isn't artful or delicate, just delicious in a Tex-Mex hometown diner kind of way. Alongside archetypical tacos—ground beef, carne guisada (beef stew), chicken stew, black bean—and fajitas and chalupas, the menu features regional interpretations left over from the many Mexican and Central American cooks who've passed through Las Manitas' kitchen. These can be found mostly during lunch, when rotating enchilada and soup specials sound like a trip down the Pan-American highway: enchiladas de aguacate (avocado); enchiladas Zacatecanas (poblano chiles/Monterey Jack/sour cream in a flour tortilla); enchiladas de mole, its sauce rich and mysterious with cocoa, chiles, and spices; caldo de lima (chicken broth zinged with fresh lime juice); and sopa de Tarasca, dusky with cascabel chiles. The popular breakfast, which draws hordes starting daily at 7 a.m., includes huevos motulenos (fried eggs on black beans over a corn tortilla) and migas con queso (eggs scrambled with corn tortillas)—both dishes topped with cheddar cheese and ranchero sauce—and chilaquiles verdes (crispy corn tortilla strips topped with Monterey Jack cheese and green tomatillo sauce).

Yet it's the coffee shop ambience and eclectic crowd—some 450 on a typical weekday, nearly 600 on weekends—that set Las Manitas apart. Cups of cinnamon coffee or afternoon Shiner Bocks lubricate the daylong chatter. Mornings, the long narrow storefront space with nine booths, six squeezed-in tables, and 16 counter stools is a traffic jam of businesspeople, downtown lawyers, politicos, Austin's eclectic community of creative types, investors, University of Texas students, construction workers, and more than the occasional family. Part of the "Austin-tacious" fun is spotting regulars like Texas Monthly editor Evan Smith and former mayor Kirk Watson, actor Owen Wilson, or Austin musicians like singer/songwriters Sam Shepherd and James McMurtry, who often eats lunch with his father, Larry, the novelist/screenwriter. The restaurant's busiest month is March, when black-clad hipsters attending SXSW, the city's renowned South by Southwest music/film/interactive festivals, swarm Austin.

It's become a ritual to walk through the kitchen, necessary to reach the restrooms or the rear patio with its long picnic tables that seat larger parties. Diners enjoy glimpsing the restaurant's inner workings as they pass through the cocina, deliciously fragrant with chiles and just-made corn tortillas. There's no celebrity chef on display, just the reassuring, homey intimacy of witnessing the avocados being sliced and tomatoes chopped, the grandmotherly woman patting out masa balls for the ancient iron tortilla press, the dishes being washed.

At high noon, the serving station is bustling with kitchen and waitstaff calling out to each other in rapid-fire Spanish about "mole" and "pollo" and "dos especiales" as they plate and assemble orders. Passing through, three white-shirted downtown suits take a surreptitious, lingering peek. "It makes me feel great to walk through the kitchen here, like I'm part of the family," says one. "I like seeing that everything's so clean and that the people who work here seem happy," adds another, while their friend chimes in: "It's so authentic. Where I'm from in Dallas, we go to eat in the barrio. I don't want to eat at a gringo restaurant. This is the real thing."

But back to that breakfast, which can best be described as an empowering breakfast. When a town's most coveted and beloved meal sets you back as little as $4.40 plus tax (two potato-and-egg tacos with coffee), everyone has access to power. This egalitarianism is inscribed in Las Manitas' DNA. Back in 1981, Lidia and Cynthia Pérez opened the restaurant to provide a gathering place that could help the Hispanic community. Lacking the cash to remove the neon sign from the 1940s Avenue Café, they added it to the restaurant's name. Both women had been active in the Chicano student movement of the 1970s; Cynthia returned to Austin by way of Berkeley and South America, where in Chile she was excited to discover coffeehouse-like peñas that brought artists of various backgrounds together. Rather than working on Latino issues through conventional political channels, she focused on building cultural bridges through food, the arts, and entertainment. Over the decades, the Pérez sisters have opened Las Manitas for after-hours concerts, poetry readings, art shows, and political gatherings. To accommodate evening events and protect family time with their children, they close the restaurant at 4 p.m. weekdays and 2:30 p.m. on weekends. Enlarging their base of impact, they recently opened La Peña two doors down as an art exhibition space that hosts Latino cultural events and helped start Escualita del Alma, an abutting bilingual childcare center, a godsend for their employees, who receive a discount.

Eating a late breakfast of spicy huevos à la Mexicana one Friday is Ruben Ramos, the Grammy Award–winning tejano music legend who reminisces about washing dishes right here at the original Avenue Café back in the late 1950s. The son of migrant workers, Ramos spent his childhood traipsing across Texas with the cotton crop. After years of missing school to help his family pick cotton, a restaurant job that allowed him to start singing and playing music around Austin offered a huge step up.

"The sisters have been good friends to us, to our community," Ramos explains. "They have always lent us their place for events." For example, during the 1997 South by Southwest music festival, Las Manitas hosted an intimate acoustic show by Los Super Seven, an all-star Tex-Mex assemblage that led to a 1998 Grammy Award–winning self-titled album.

"And this year, Cynthia and Lidia were instrumental in setting up our first University of Texas appearance, Los Grandes de la Musica Tejana," adds Ramos. "I love them both for what they do, always helping in some way."

The sisters have always been close. Growing up in San Antonio as the seventh and eighth of nine children, they shared a twin bed. Over 25 years as business partners they've argued and cried together—especially in the hard early years—but maintained a sisterly solidarity even when other partners dropped out. Lidia manages the financial and administrative end; Cynthia handles operations and the kitchen.

"We're the sun and the moon," claims Cynthia. "Libby [Lidia] is cool and noble and honest, and I'm talkative and abrasive and direct. It's a good balance."

While the progressive/activist model of La Peña Cultural Center in Berkeley, California (founded for refugees in the wake of the military coup that overthrew Chile's socialist president Salvatore Allende in 1973), was the conscious inspiration for opening Las Manitas, the sisters have come to realize over the years how deeply the restaurant was influenced by their parents and childhood.

Immigrants from northern Mexico, the Pérez padres first landed work shelling pecans. Despite having only third- and seventh-grade formal educations respectively, Ana Marìa Coronado and Porfirio Pérez valued culture and education and believed firmly that a strong work ethic and self-esteem could produce a better life. Starting in the late 1940s, the Pérez padres ran a neighborhood corner store and Mexican bakery on the west side of San Antonio for some 50 years. Their nine offspring grew up working in the family business. As young girls, las manitas (literally "little hands" but also meaning "sisters," "buddies") started in the bakery, brushing egg-white glaze on gingerbread pigs; as teens, they drove the delivery truck. For the store's meat market, the family produced house-made Mexican sausage, menudo (tripe stew), and barbacoa. Long before civic-funded Mexican-American cultural centers, the neighborhood store served as the community center.

Despite the grueling demands of operating a 24/7 business while raising nine kids, Señora Pérez, now 93, made time to help her neighbors. "My mother knew everybody," says Cynthia. "She was the neighborhood interpreter, translator, and writer of letters. She gave people food on credit, like to the migrant worker families who could only afford to pay her back when they returned to San Antonio after following the crops. She helped people get money orders, get their American citizenship, and became godmother to many children in our neighborhood.

"We hated all that hard work growing up and all that extra work helping other people!" Cynthia laughs. "We went to college and swore we would never do such hard work again, that we'd never run a store or a restaurant like our parents. When I was about 12 and my mother wanted to teach me to cook our traditional Mexican dishes, I told her I wasn't interested.

"But now we've turned into the epitome of what our parents were!" she chuckles. "I guess you have to reach a certain level of maturity to appreciate what was going on in your own damn house."

As owners, the sisters have mentored their employees over the decades, much as they were by their parents. Calling a restaurant job "an entry-level position for life," they encourage their Spanish-speaking employees to work their way up and out, to conceive and pursue dreams. As Cynthia puts it: "I don't just hire people, I try to empower them."

With an activist stance that echoes their mother's dictate to "help our people," the sisters take special satisfaction in providing opportunities for first-generation Americans. While they often hire unskilled young people, "We don't let them stay as dishwashers," Lidia asserts. "We're always coaching them, teaching them, promoting them up the line. I do a lot of formal training in management skills." New hires are paired with experienced staff to learn the ropes. Kitchen workers are made waiters to help them improve their English and build confidence. Staff members are encouraged to go to college.

"I tell them: you can be a worker, a manager, or an owner. Take your pick," says Cynthia. "Make a vision for how you want to spend your life."

All waitstaff wear a T-shirt bearing the collegiate-like crest of the "University of Rice and Beans." Its inspiration came from Cynthia's young daughter, Alma, who, on seeing a sign for Houston's prestigious Rice University, asked, "That's all they have there—rice? No beans?" The sisters love to talk about restaurant graduates like Felix Fuentes, a former cashier who went on to Stanford University and University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School of Business. "We have lots of those success stories," says Cynthia. "This is a hard place to work, and I'm a hardnose with them, but now they come back and thank me."

"Nobody has embodied Austin's brand of grassroots activism better—with grace, determination, and consistency, against all odds, for so many years—than Cynthia and Lidia," asserts Chula Reynolds, a Las Manitas regular. "They've created a perfect mix of the whole Austin scene, from bankers to bohemians, existing in harmony for a brief moment in time, united by tortillas! For the authenticity of the Austin experience, there's just no comparison."

"You always see well-known businesspeople here, the politicos and the style makers," adds her dining companion, Sophia Colier. "More deals, the deals that have built Austin, have been cut in this place than anywhere else."

But even as downtown Austin booms, Las Manitas is threatened by the very prosperity that's been forged in its Naugahyde booths. The restaurant's landlord is selling out to developers, who plan to raze the old single-story storefronts that house Las Manitas, the day-care center, and Tesoros (a folk art and indigenous crafts store next door) to put up a modern skyscraper.

Architect Robert F. Smith ("their oldest living customer") muses over a possible solution as he eats fresh corn tortillas sprinkled with salt. "Ninety percent of people don't know how sublime these are eaten hot—try ordering them frescas," he recommends. Smith is harboring a plan to help the sisters replicate the Las Manitas interior two doors down, if necessary, in the building that currently houses La Peña. Because it's owned by the sisters and is protected by a historic designation, it may offer a safe haven.

Still, the impending loss of Las Manitas Avenue Café troubles the civic conscience. What does it say about Austin—about progress—when a town allows the restaurant that embodies its best self to be demolished?

"People and companies want to come here because Austin is a special city, because it's original and authentic," says Cynthia. "People aren't coming here for high-rises. We're a mecca of talents. But when you sell yourself to the highest bidder, don't you lose the character and integrity that attracted people in the first place?"

Like so many sociopolitical issues aired in the restaurant, it's a question that invites serious discussion. Perhaps over enchiladas washed down with limonadas, some Las Manitas patrons will hit upon the answer.

Austin-based Katherine Gregor, a former Texas Monthly editor and contributor to ARTnews, writes about art, travel, food, and culture.