Note: Several quotes were translated from Spanish into English and edited for clarity and length.
The late gifted chef and storyteller Anthony Bourdain once said: “If you’re a cheap tipper or rude to your server, you are dead to me. You are lower than whale feces.”
This riveting quote perfectly captures the character of the CNN legend. Of all the life lessons he earned whilst traveling to the far corners of the earth, he humbly believed he learned the most important things in life in the restaurant industry. Culinary spots bring people together from all walks of life regardless of ethnicity, religion, ideology or class. The truly remarkable ones are the ones that transcend their menu and build a legacy through multiple generations. They are the ones where patrons bring their children who then grow up and bring their own children and so on and so forth. These are the restaurants where families celebrate milestones, where despite their exhaustion, business owners pour their heart and soul; and where loyal service staff consider customers their friends.
Austin, Texas was once home to several iconic restaurants of this caliber but most were forced to shut down amid skyrocketing rent and other factors that come with running a business in one of the fastest growing and diversifying areas in the country. Amidst the never-ending landscape of change, El Patio Mexican Restaurant remained standing... until now.
The Tex-Mex institution has served the Austin community for over 65 years. Paul, a first-generation Lebanese-American, and MaryAnn Joseph opened the University of Texas area restaurant on January 5, 1954. Their three adult children, David, Renee and Roseann took the helm in the 1980s.
Paul and Mary Ann Joseph, courtesy of El Patio
Among the restaurant’s most loyal employees is my own papi (dad), Jaime Bolaños, a proud naturalized U.S. citizen who migrated from El Salvador shortly before the Civil War of the 1980s. He has poured his heart and soul into ensuring he offers the best quality service to his customers for 39 years beginning at the age of 14.
My dad learned English on the job and took the job out of a desire to “get out of the house” and make his own money. He washed dishes for one year before moving up to busboy two years later. By 1984, he was a full-time waiter.
Even back then, he remembers customers treated him with respect. He recalls mispronouncing “pineapple” once, but quickly corrected himself when a customer’s grin made him realize his pronunciation was a bit off. But that’s the only slightly negative memory he has from the early days. “Even though the work is physically demanding at El Patio, it’s tolerable to work there because we have relationships with our patrons,” he said. “We’re serving our friends.”
He says the feeling is mutual. Many a patron have walked up to the staff and kissed them on the cheek, warmly embraced them or cried while telling them how much they’ll miss their El Patio family.
I’ve been blessed with my father’s resiliency, strong work ethics and high integrity. And it shows. His coworkers, bosses and patrons love hearing about me, especially about my career as a journalist, and getting updates about my brother and sister’s own college and career pursuits. I’ve always been told I’m part of an extended family at El Patio, but that’s never felt more real than this day.
“They know about us. That you graduated from Baylor. They know about Nicole [my sister] and Kris [Kristoffer, my brother] and what they’re up to,” my dad tells me.
Kristoffer has spent the last few weeks helping out at the restaurant to save up money before going back to college in the fall. “They’ve met him and get excited and give him an extra tip just for being my son,” Jaime says with a smile.
He says he has countless regular customers but the ones who stand out the most are the 5-generation families that bring as many as 20 people to eat at a time.
He knows his regulars’ orders by heart. He jokes around with them. El Patio has several high-profile figures on its regular customer list such as former Governor Rick Perry, late former first lady “Lady Bird Johnson” and legendary coaches and football players such as the late Darrell Royal. (My dad got to meet my idol, the late legendary journalist Walter Cronkite before I knew he would one day be one of my professional heroes. It still excites to this day to know he ate at El Patio.)
“We’re dealing with different types of people. From the most poor to the millionaires,” he says. That doesn’t mean there aren’t difficult customers, but the customers who truly value and appreciate him make the job worthwhile. “I’ve learned to have tolerance with people. To be patient with people. You learn that people are complicated. Things aren’t black and white like we tend to think many times,” my dad says.
College students will introduce El Patio to friends and if their friends don’t like the food, the college students will defend the food as if they had cooked it themselves.
My dad has also taken on the role of mentor to some of the younger staff at El Patio. He says he wants them to take advantage of the opportunities the United States has to offer them. He says some of them don’t have good role models and he takes it upon himself to provide a listening ear or a supportive shoulder.
I’m still in awe of both of my parents for single-handedly putting all three of us through college and never making education an option for us. By instilling in us the importance of education, they gave us one of life’s most precious gifts and one that no one can ever take away from us. This despite the fact my father grew up in a household with five siblings and a single mother who spent most of the time working to make ends meet. (His life back in El Salvador was even tougher.)
My dad says Paul was a father-figure to him. His own father died when Jaime was very young. “We talked about life. The things he did, said and how he behaved made an impression on me. He was a veteran,” Jaime says. “I admired him a lot. He was very good people. He was strict but warm.”
My dad recalls how Paul’s wife MaryAnn would sew the staff’s uniforms when they ripped. Though MaryAnn struggles with her memory these days, she still fondly remembers my dad.
Steve Parker enjoys his last meal at El Patio. He was in line at 6 in the morning to ensure he was one of the first ones through the door. "Best of everything in town. Best food, best service," he says, adding he's been coming to El Patio since he was about 4 or 5 years old. (courtesy of the author)
The Josephs: A reflection
I sat down with David Joseph two hours before the restaurant opened its doors for the last time on August 9. David busily crossed out menu items that would not be available on the last day. Staff came over to the table he was seated at to figure out how much food was needed on this momentous occasion.
David comes from a long line of hard-working people with an unrelenting commitment to quality service. But the long hours have taken a toll on him over the years.
“I’m tired,” he says. He’s ready for the next chapter in his life. “But as someone said the other day, it’s like a wedding and a funeral today,” he remarks.
David’s eyes start welling up as he tells me he’ll miss his patrons and his staff. His extended family for so many years. Without prompting, he begins to share the impact my father had on him throughout what seems like a lifetime. (David was exposed to the family business as a child and did his homework at a corner table.)
“My dad was first-generation American. They would peddle newspapers. It was tough, but the ones out there like your dad made it worthwhile.”
He reminds me that my dad arrived without speaking a word of English. “I was most impressed with how he took the time to learn English and become self-educated,” David shares. “He’s always thinking about other people and doing all the right things.”
His sister Roseann says my dad reminds her of her father. She also felt inclined to share her reflections on my father’s own legacy as one of the longest-standing employees at El Patio. “I see so much of my dad in your dad,” the visibly emotional Roseann says.
Her father Paul was the embodiment of humility. “My dad was humble. Your dad is humble. My dad was compassionate. Your dad is compassionate. My dad had an impeccable work ethic and was a hard worker. Your dad has an impeccable work ethic and is a hard worker. My dad didn’t like to gossip. Your dad doesn’t like to gossip.” She takes a moment and declares: “Your dad is amazing.”
He is. But he’s not the only one. It takes an entire team of loyal staff to make El Patio endearing to the community.
Rosann says her family migrated from Lebanon without knowing English. They had to quickly learn to speak and write in the new language and work their way from the bottom up. “They truly believed in hard work. They were old school in that way,” she recalls. “They knew nothing was going to be handed to them. It was about working hard and being incredibly responsible for your words and actions.”
David said his family were among the pioneers of Tex-Mex cuisine, a fusion of Texan and Mexican food. Their delectable recipes proved profitable and popular. “My dad always taught us to remember the Kiss Method. Keep It Simple Stupid. If something isn’t broken, don’t even try to fix it,” he says.
On the last day of El Patio’s operation, there is a long line of customers forming. Longtime patrons mostly who have been eating at El Patio for 20, 30, 40 and even 50 years. They come from all over the Greater Austin area, from other major metro areas like Dallas, and far off cities like Wichita Falls. Though in the low 90s that morning, Austin has seen triple digit weather in the last few days. Still, loyal patrons are prepared to wait two or three hours in line to savor El Patio’s famous chile con carne enchiladas and other favorites one last time. Many wear baseball caps. Some bring umbrellas to protect them from the sun’s rays. Others even bring coolers with water bottles. And still some bring lawn chairs and show up at 6 in the morning to try to be the first ones through the door. A booth is set up to hand customers water as they wait.
“My parents taught us about commitment, dedication and loyalty. You treat people like humans and realize they’re vulnerable to mistakes, but you learn to forgive,” David says.
He says a huge factor patrons are eager to wait to get through the doors as long as they have is that they’ve grown up alongside the staff. The staff cherishes them as the patrons cherish them.
Longtime El Patio patrons such as Richard Pinentel (seated at left) overjoyed to see former employee Benny Rodriguez (At far left). Pinentel, along with friends Pat Foster, Mike Foster and Bill Talley have been dining at El Patio since 1969 while attending the University of Texas at Austin. (courtesy of the author)
Back inside, Cristian Flores, a second-year student at the University of Texas at Austin takes a breather before the long day ahead. He’s worked at the restaurant for more than 5 years, following in the footsteps of his father Amando.
The entire restaurant is enveloped with the delicious and soon-to-be nostalgic aroma of Tex-Mex delights. At El Patio, every dish is made fresh to order and the team strives to live by its motto of “only the best” every day. The cooks prepare the meals with 90/10 taco meat and freshly diced chicken meat topped with Land O’Lakes cheese daily. The taco shells are made in house, while the flour tortillas and crispy chips are made specialty for the restaurant by local vendors. The Tex-Mex staple hand-rolled enchiladas are mouthwatering and made fresh to order like abuelitas make them back at home.
Cristian acknowledges service is a noble job but he aspired for a profession that could open more doors for him. He says as a first-generation Mexican college student, he didn’t have anyone in his family to help him navigate the college application process so he confided in my dad. “He’s the only one I tell about my life. I feel comfortable telling him,” Cristian remarks. “He helps me out.”
My dad continues checking in on Cristian now that’s he’s attending university. The young man says his time working at El Patio has taught him how to interact with people from all walks of life and how to build long-lasting relationships. These are skills he can carry with him wherever his eventual career takes him.
Manuel Castillo has been working at El Patio for an impressive 42 years. He also migrated from El Salvador and works as a busboy and in food preparation. “I’ll miss the bosses, my coworkers and the patrons. They came to eat here as if they were among family,” he says.
Roland Bustillo, who started working at El Patio in 1980 when he was 14 years old, remembers when Paul picked him up from his house as a teenager so he could make it to work. “He was like a father to me,” Roland says. “And Mrs. Joseph was like a second mother to me.” He recalls when they congratulated him for getting his driver’s license. Then when he injured his ankle it was Mrs. Joseph who encouraged him to see a foot specialist.
Then there’s Jaime Arriola, who has dedicated 35 years of his life, beginning at age 20 to El Patio. Like the others, he gets visibly emotional when he realizes the enormity of this day. “The bosses never saw us as employees. They always saw us as family,” he says. “The clients never saw us as servers. We were their friends.”
Echoing some of my dad’s own thoughts, he says working in service has taught him patience and to listen before speaking. It has taught him integrity and to be tolerant of everyone’s differences. “It has given me a greater love for humanity. I’ve learned to endure the difficult times and to see the beauty in people before the ugly,” he says.
He tears up as he shares how very deeply he’ll miss everyone.
Bittersweet is an understatement for how David will feel the moment he closes the doors for the last time that afternoon. I liken it to a final curtain call. “Tonight as I lock the door, I’ll probably break down crying. It’s going to be tough,” he says.
He says it’ll be tough to not see Jaime Bolaños every day. “Your dad always had my back.”
Perhaps, above all, he is grateful to his patrons. “Thank you, Austin,” David says. “Thank you for the last 65 years you’ve given my family.”
From left, customer Cassie Barnett, my dad Jaime Bolaños, and Barnett's father and customer Steve Parker. Barnett said she's been coming to El Patio since "I was in my mom's belly." (courtesy of the author)