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'You do have to love it': Diana Vasquez-Valera on why Tamale House has stood the test of time

A photo of Diana Vasquez-Valera, a woman in a black sweater and pink printed skirt, in a restaurant kitchen. She is holding two pans and the kitchen has various ingredients on the stove top.
Courtesy of Tamale House
When asked what makes the food at Tamale House so special, owner Diana Vasquez-Valera said it's a combination of fresh ingredients, joy, love and good music.

In the latest episode of the Tacos of Texas podcast, host Mando Rayo sat down with the current matriarch of Tamale House, Diana Vasquez-Valera. The two of them recounted Vasquez-Valera's memories of making and eating tamales from recipes she has known since childhood.

In 1958, Vasquez-Valera’s parents, Carmen and Mose Vasquez, opened Tamale House on Congress Avenue. The restaurant, with its signature handmade tamales, would become an Austin institution as family members opened other Tamale House locations on the Drag and on Airport Boulevard. In 2012, Vasquez-Valera and her children opened Tamale House East on East Sixth Street.

When asked what makes her food so special, Vasquez-Valera explained that all of her tamales are made fresh from scratch. There are no secret ingredients, but she and her employees always infuse their food with joy, love and good music.

This transcript has been edited lightly for clarity. To hear more from this interview, check out the Tacos of Texas podcast.

On growing up around the Tamale House 

My parents opened the original Tamale House on First and Congress. It's no longer there. I was probably about 12 or 13. They were producing tamales and tacos, and I naturally was curious and wanted to be a part of it. Tamales nowadays are made by machine, but back then they were made by hand.

I do remember so distinctly — it was a party. They were just mixing that masa and slapping it around and laughing and telling jokes. And I said, “Why are they mixing it so much with their hands when they [could] just get a blender or something?” But they never did. It was all by hand.

On what makes the food at Tamale House so special

You really got to get the masa and the ingredients down, and you can only get that with your hands and with some experience. If you put someone in the kitchen that's unhappy and they try to make tamales, they're going to come out hard. They're not going to come out good.

But if you put someone in there [whose] hands are an extension of themselves and they're happy and they can feel — they’re going to mix the masa [differently]. You do have to love it and you have to be proud of it. You don't want to sell anything or even give anything away that is not an extension of yourself.

On making tamales as a group

Even to this day, in my kitchen at the Tamale House on Sixth Street, I have to have music going. And my employees, they're the same way. They're all laughing, having fun at it. Because if you have to think about doing all of these tamales, hundreds of tamales, and just stand in there with no emotion, how boring and how long the day would be. And so it is a party.

And I think that that happens in homes sometimes, because when you make tamales during Christmas, it is a party. Yeah, it is something that brings the family together and friends, and it's something that requires a lot of work. But you don't feel it if you make it a party.

On her family’s decision to open Tamale House East

My children wanted to open the Tamale House and do what my mother did and what I did. But I need to pass to them something more important, which is the tradition and the pride of still being in East Austin and still doing something that my grandmother and her mother did. And if I can impart that feeling, that belief of importance, of value, of preservation, I'm done. I've done my job.

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