Now's the Time to Go to Cisco's
Have you ever been to Cisco's? I texted my friend Amy as we figured out our brunch plans a few Saturdays back.
No, she replied. Let's go there.
Once Amy said she'd never been, it was a must as far as I was concerned. Especially since she has lived in Austin since she matriculated at UT in 1995.
If you live in Austin, there are certain traditions you must observe. Migas at Cisco's at 1511 E. Sixth St. is a ritual to be performed in honor of the past that made Austin the city it is today.
There was a time when breakfast at Cisco's wasn't just a tradition but simply a fact of life. Whether you were just plain folks or President Lyndon B. Johnson, it's what you did on a regular basis. It was a hub where politicians from the capital and academicians from UT, or musicians, authors, and local titans of industry, whoever you were, mover and shaker to slacker, all found common ground over breakfast plates at the bustling Tex-Mex breakfast and lunch joint.
The dish to eat there is of course the migas. That does require few or no dietary restrictions. Cisco's follows the old-school Texas tradition of cooking with lard (or whatever similar substance they use). Damn the artery-clogging dangers and full speed ahead with forking down their food (which also includes other egg dishes, enchiladas and more). Some things taste so good they're worth the potential risk of a few less days on the planet.
"I have to bring my father here," raved Amy, who for all her cutting-edge modernity as a founding local rollergirl is still a dyed-in-wool made from Brazos bottomland cotton Texas girl by birth.
I can cite any number of other spots whose migas may be richer, more abundant, more suffused with flavorful accents... blessed with culinary qualities that imbue the classic Lone Star dish with its ongoing appeal to local and visiting palettes. Nonetheless there's something about the migas at Cisco's that satisfies every time I've visited since late 1989, when my first serving felt like a revelation to this refugee from the isle of Manhattan.
They've been serving them up since 1948 at their longtime location and have the dish down: nothin' fancy but the right balance of fluffiness and substance, dotted with peppers, served on an oval diner plate, swimming in ranchero sauce with refried beans on the side. Best enjoyed the old-fashioned way with a sausage patty or a slab of smoky fajita meat.
Breakfast comes with warm tortillas and biscuits fresh from the oven that are luscious little clouds of airy baked dough. Split one open and pour on the liquified butter from the old-style squeeze bottle and bite into morning comfort-food heaven.There's no charge if you wolf them all down and request more.
Until he passed away in 1995, owner Rudy "Cisco" Cisneros, whose cigar-chomping visage serves as the eatery's logo, held court at a large table in a corner of the main back dining room. Hosting his friends, visitors, and members of his "Liar's Club" roundtable of storytellers, he played the Austin eminence grise in his later years, a stiff drink most always in front of him. After all, the place's formal name is Cisco's Restaurant Bakery & Bar.
The ambience is no-frills, a bit worn with age, devoid of pretension. The table you eat at just might be older than you are. It could have been occupied by past power brokers making deals that led to the future we are now living. Yes, if its walls could talk.... And in a way, in the middle back dining room, they used to illuminate how pivotal Cisco's was in Austin's culture as the city progressed from retro to metro.
But since my last visit the pictures of LBJ, Walter Cronkite, John Connolly and many other Texas legends, luminaries and celebrities (most prominently Amanda Blake aka Miss Kitty of "Gunsmoke," network TV's longest running series ever) that filled a wall in that room have been removed. Their absence is an omen that seems to signal a change in the winds. The adjacent dining area still has its sign announcing that it's the Jody Conradt Room, named for the winning UT women's basketball coach for some three decades until her 2007 retirement. But the change imbues a shiver of loss as the old Austin fades into the mists of history.
As the revived East Sixth strip on the far side of I-35 crawls closer to Cisco's at the southwest corner of Sixth and Comal, gentrification will likely erase what is for many a genuine cultural and culinary landmark in the not too distant future. In 2010, Cisco's son Clovis put the property up for for $3.8 million, far above market value, but let it be known he'd also entertain serious offers. It seems only a matter of time....
You can't fault the Cisneros family if they do cash in on more than six decades of long, hard days of feeding Austin.
So now is the time to go and eat at Cisco's, either for the first time or to do so again. As Austin American-Statesman columnist John Kelso nailed it not long ago: "If you haven't been to Cisco's, you don't know Austin. You just think you do.
(Home page article photo courtesy of Carlos on Flickr.)