» Great Tacos: Ham and Egg, Mendez Cafe
» Taqueria Report: Mendez Cafe, 201 Bartholomew Ave.
Delores Mendez rolls out little balls of dough into discs and tosses them on the griddle — a routine she’s practiced on the same griddle for 31 years. Outside the kitchen, in the small and packed dining room of Mendez Cafe on the Southside, servers carry plates of enchiladas, fajitas and tacos to customers who recognize and greet one another as they walk in.
On a wall in the back are several photographs of a baseball team that Mendez’s husband and co-owner Lupe Mendez played on for nine years. A small picture of the Virgin Mary hangs by the ticket holder in the kitchen.
“You have to like what you do,” Mendez said as she began to separate more balls of tortilla dough from a larger mass.
In June 1986, when Delores and Lupe Mendez bought the property at 201 Bartholomew Ave., they didn’t have any experience cooking professionally. When they bought the restaurant, they planned on Delores Mendez’s sister to cook the food and her family to be the staff.
The building was in bad shape: The ceiling was caved in and the floors desperately needed to be replaced.
“It was horrible,” Delores Mendez said.
The Mendezes took out a loan and put thousands of dollars into repairing the building and getting it ready for business. Then, her sister suddenly lost interest in the business, and the Mendezes were left with a restaurant they couldn’t afford to quit and had no idea how to run.
“I really thought I was just going to shut it down and that would be the end of that story.”
She didn’t know where to turn, so she went to church. There, she met Sister Angele, the principal of Saint Margaret Mary Church & School. Mendez said Sister Angele encouraged her to stick with the business a little longer.
She began developing her own recipes based on the food her mother and grandmother cooked when she was growing up. She slowly started finding workers, and Mendez café began to build its clientele.
“After that happened to me with my sister, I said, ‘From now on, I’m not going to depend on anybody for anything.’ If I have to sweep, mop, wash dishes, I’ll do it,” she said.
Thirty one years later, the Mendezes have built a gathering place for their part of the Southside. They’ve seen children, once brought to the café by their parents, become adults who now bring their own children.
Edward Mendoza has come to the restaurant since he was in high school, when one of his friends worked at the restaurant as a cook.
“It’s that nostalgic, home-cooked type of things that we grew up with,” Mendoza said.
Mendoza said that Delores Mendez’s enchiladas are the must-try dish at the café. Mendez said they’re the place’s best-selling dish.
Mendez said her tacos sell even better than the lunch plates. The carne guisada is the most popular. She said the secret to good carne guisada is finding the right balance of spices — garlic, cumin, chili powder and black pepper, to name a few.
“I just put enough (spices), but not to where it stands out,” she said.
Mendez’s ham and egg taco is another stand-out item. Maple-glazed ham from the local H-E-B is chopped up and fried on the grill before being folded into eggs and delivered in one of Mendez’s fresh tortillas. The ham is so memorable that some regulars substitute slices of it for bacon in their huevos rancheros and other plates.
Mendez said regulars at the restaurant often substitute items or go off-menu. “If people prefer something else, it doesn’t have to be on the menu; we’ll make it for them,” she said.
When you’re a regular at Mendez Café, you start to recognize the faces of other Mendez obsessives. In fact, most of the customers in the restaurant are regulars. You don’t eat Mendez’s tortillas just once.
“We have made friends with our customers,” Delores Mendez said. “They’re not just customers, they’re friends.”
The Mendezes have worked to build not only the community within their walls, but the surrounding area as well. They, along with other business owners in the area, started a neighborhood association shortly after establishing the café, advocating to their council members to improve sidewalks, clean up graffiti and other neighborhood upgrades.
“I feel that I have a lot of important people that come in here,” Mendez said. “Even though it’s just a little restaurant … I feel that the neighborhood should be a nice place for people to come and eat.”
Vanessa Mendez, the Mendez’ youngest daughter, grew up in the café. She started working in the kitchen when she was 12.
“I don’t know any other life,” she said. “This is life to me.”
Now, 33-year-old Mendez brings her young sons to the restaurant sometimes. Her 9-year-old says he wants to work there when he’s older, too. She said she loves getting to know the café’s regulars and hearing their stories.
“I feel like they’ve created something, I don’t know, amazing,” she said.
It’s not always easy to run a beloved café. Delores Mendez said she’s had many issues with staff and customers throughout the decades, but she always finds a way through them.
Her business is “like we say in Spanish, muy celoso — business is jealous,” she said. “If you don’t give it what it needs, it’s going to mess you up.”
Despite those hardships, however, the Mendezes don’t see themselves stopping any time soon.
“I’m not a really good stay-at-home mom,” Delores Mendez said. “I’m that type of person that has to be doing things.”