Regina Estrada opens up about traditions in the new normal.
by Kristi Willis, Photo of Huevos Rancheros by Robert Strickland, family photo by Sarah Siller Photography.
Regina Estrada isn’t just a restaurateur. She’s the caretaker of an Austin institution. As the granddaughter of Joe and Paula Avila, founders of Joe’s Bakery, Estrada works every day to stay true to the roots of her family and the legacy of their East Austin cafe. Over their almost 60 years in business, Joe’s Bakery has become well known for their heaping breakfast plates of huevos rancheros and migas, as well as arguably the best carne guisada in town.
Each of those tasty dishes comes with an extra side, a strong sense of community from decades of investing in their East Austin neighbors. “It’s not just about being a business. We are very community driven,” says Estrada. “My grandparents were hard at work in the restaurant and didn’t have time to volunteer, so they sponsored baseball or softball teams and other local groups.”
Even though she grew up in the restaurant, Estrada didn’t really understand how ingrained they were in the community until she started working with her family full time after college. Her mother, Rose Ann Maciel, encouraged her to make changes in the business, but Estrada understood that with so much history, she needed to be mindful of how those changes impacted the restaurant, as well as their neighbors and friends.
Estrada made a point to seek advice from venerable community leaders who were also regular customers, like Senator Gonzalo Barrientos, Travis County Commissioner Richard Moya, Constable Maria Canchola and Mayor Pro Tem John Treviño. With their guidance, she started raising money for the Oswaldo A.B./Cantu Pan American Recreation Center Thanksgiving Dinner around 2012. Then she looked at how she could give more to neighborhood schools. Over time, the things Estrada was passionate about became linked to Joe’s Bakery.
But there were limits to what Estrada was willing to change. “At the end of the day this was my grandparents’ blood, sweat and tears. I always ask myself how am I staying true to that dream,” says Estrada. “If I can check off those boxes, then it’s a good decision.”
Some of the choices, like serving beer or alcohol, would add to profits but be in direct conflict with her grandparents’ vision, so they remain alcohol free. Joe’s Bakery is also still closed on Mondays, a respite for their team and the day the extended Avila family has dinner together.
“There’s no separating work and family. My mom and I work together and she lives next door,” says Estrada. “My grandmother still gives me advice, and it’s very much a family affair.”
The closeness of their family makes it easier to weather the challenges of running a restaurant for almost six decades. The trials of COVID-19 have been yet another set of obstacles they overcame together. On Tuesday, March 17, 2020, Joe’s Bakery shut down the dining room an hour early to adhere to the City of Austin order for restaurants to move to takeout only. The next day Estrada had to find a way to take care of her family, her employees and her customers in the midst of a global pandemic.
“I walked into the empty restaurant, with the lights off, and I asked myself how we were going to make this work,” says Estrada. She started digging through their supplies and created plans to transform Joe’s Bakery into a drive-thru.
“I started grabbing baskets, table numbers and chalk. I called one of my employees to come help me make a video and we filmed how it was going to work for our customers,” says Estrada. “We already had a steady takeout business, but I had to figure out how to set up ordering outside. We turned each parking spot into a table number, and we moved the host stand to the parking lot. We were back at work on Thursday.”
The most challenging part was helping her team learn a new way to serve alongside new safety procedures. She also had to find a way to protect her higher risk, older employees, some of whom have been with the restaurant for more than 50 years.
“Everyone wears gloves and masks, and we ask customers to do the same even when they are in the cars,” says Estrada. “We divided the servers into teams—one works outside with the customers, and the other packages food and brings it to their outside partner. We made it work.”
Estrada and her team are looking forward to the day they can serve customers in the dining room again, but they don’t want to rush it. “We miss visiting with our customers, but we have to keep everyone safe. That’s the most important thing right now, to keep our family safe.”
That family extends well beyond Estrada’s relations and includes thousands of employees, customers and neighbors who consider Joe’s Bakery home.
Joe’s Bakery Huevos Rancheros
Recipe courtesy of Paula Forbes and The Austin Cookbook: Recipes and Stories from Deep in the Heart of Texas.
Huevos rancheros: eggs how you want ’em, topped with ranchero sauce, served with tortillas on the side. Joe’s adds beans to the plate, as well as a couple pieces of their famous crispy, lightly floured bacon, so I recommend you do the same. This recipe calls for sunny-side-up eggs, but if you prefer scrambled, go for it.
1 tablespoon vegetable oil
Salt and black pepper, to taste
½ cup (120 ml) Ranchero Sauce
2 flour tortillas, warmed
1. Heat the oil in a skillet or nonstick pan over medium heat and crack two eggs into it. Lower the heat slightly and cook the eggs until the whites are set but the yolks are still runny, 3 to 5 minutes. Season with salt and pepper.
2. While the eggs are cooking, heat the ranchero sauce in a small pan.
3. To serve, put the eggs on a plate and top with the ranchero sauce. Add the beans and bacon to the plate, and serve with flour tortillas on the side.
Ranchero sauce ingredients
1 tablespoon vegetable oil
1 cup (125 g) finely diced onion
1 cup (100 g) finely diced celery
1 cup (145 g) finely diced green bell pepper
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon ground cumin
2 teaspoons granulated garlic powder
1 can (7 ounces/200 g) green chiles or jalapeños, drained and chopped
1 can (14 ½ ounces/411 g) whole tomatoes
1 can (14 ½ ounces/411 g) crushed tomatoes
1. In a medium pot, heat the oil over medium heat. Add the onion, celery, bell pepper, salt, cumin and garlic powder. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the vegetables are soft, about 10 minutes.
2. Add the chiles, whole and crushed tomatoes and two tomato cans’ worth of water to the pot. Bring to a boil, then reduce to a simmer. Simmer for 40 minutes, stirring to break up the tomatoes; the mixture should be soupy. This will last in the refrigerator for about a week and up to two months in the freezer.