Next in Line
A third generation of Cisco’s Restaurant & Bakery begins as Matt Cisneros takes his turn at the helm of a historic family business
by Hannah Morrow
Photographs by Leah Muse
Matt Cisneros is fuzzy on the details of the origin of Cisco’s Restaurant & Bakery. He knows his great-grandfather founded a bakery on East Sixth Street sometime in the late ’30s and his grandfather Rudy “Cisco” Cisneros spun off his eponymous institution sometime between 1943 and 1950. Let’s go with 1950, Matt says, but he can’t prove it. “The oldest brick in this building I’ve heard of is 1901, but I can’t prove that either,” the 33-year-old says with a smile.
The validity of these dates is negligible. We don’t need to know them to appreciate Cisco’s as a historic Austin hole in the wall. It wouldn’t change the fact that it’s still owned by the same family and operating in its original location, that teal brick building on the corner of East Sixth and Comal streets. It still serves the same migas and biscuits that Darrell Royal and Lyndon B. Johnson would lunch on regularly, maybe washed down with a bloody mary (Rudy would only charge for the tomato juice, since he never bothered to get a liquor license). And though it’s technically correct that Cisco’s has new owners, Matt is hardly new to his family’s longtime restaurant.
It was unavoidable, he says, that he’d eventually end up involved in the business. “I didn’t know when or how,” he says, sitting at his grandfather’s favorite table. It’s a big, round, clunky thing, with chairs that match only on the basis of worn-in upholstery. “I graduated from college, and I wanted to do a Cisco’s food trailer. That was in the works, but we realized whenever my uncle went to sell the restaurant, there’d be conflict with the owners. Funny enough, I’d be the new owner 12 years later.”
Matt’s uncle Clovis inherited the Tex-Mex café when Rudy passed, in 1995. All was fine and good for a decade or two, with Clovis maintaining the joint’s eccentricities. But running a restaurant, particularly one flagged as iconic, is arduous. In 2012, a headline by beloved Austin American-Statesman columnist John Kelso read, “Cisco’s owner tired of messing with enchiladas 90 hours a week.” Clovis, then 51, had already put in his 40-something years of working at the family restaurant and was ready to retire from rancheros.
By 2016, it was still for sale, albeit at a wishful price. Matt knew he wanted the restaurant but needed help. He found partners in longtime friend and Austin entrepreneur Will Bridges, general contractor Rick McMinn, and real estate investor Bryan Schneider. They agreed on a mission: bringing Cisco’s into the 21st century while maintaining its time-tested traditionalism.
Of the four, Bridges, whom Matt knew from attending Austin High School, is the most familiar with this kind of undertaking. In the past decade, he’s become co-owners of Arlyn Studios, Deep Eddy Cabaret, and Antone’s Nightclub’s newest iteration on Fifth Street. “It was fitting that Bridges has done the save-local-business-type stuff before, because we didn’t want this to be a condo,” Matt says. “And it was a great operational partnership, because his name was tied to doing that and my name is tied to the history.”
Matt met Schneider in college at St. Edward’s University, and McMinn, who is a partner at Hoffbrau Steakhouse and its sister bar, Rustic Tap, is also familiar with running an old-school, family-owned eatery. “It was four people with different expertise and specialties,” Matt says of the group. “It all flows very well.”
The sale became official in 2017 and came at good timing as several of the restaurant’s comrades had succumbed to financial hardship, continuing the streak of tough times for long-standing restaurants around town. El Azteca, which opened on East Seventh in 1963, closed in September 2016. South Austin’s El Gallo closed in January 2017 after 60 years of business. The Cisneros family has long owned both the building and lot on which it sits, insulating them from rent increases. Still, the swelling of costs necessitate new traditions.
“We’re adapting, but we’re not changing anything crazy,” says Matt. They’ve added merchandise, a liquor license, and live music on the first Saturday of each month. They plan on expanding their hours to include dinner and want to start catering. It’s a necessary compromise between old and new Austin, made tricky by the cultural gravity of the restaurant’s past.
In the 1920s, before Rudy’s father opened Sunshine Bakery down the street from what would become Cisco’s, Mexican-Americans were making a home of East Austin. In 1926, Our Lady of Guadalupe Church moved from southwest downtown to East Ninth Street, giving the Hispanic community some sense of permanence. They planted roots and grew in numbers. Race relations remained poor until the 1950s ushered in glimmers of change. Hispanic-owned businesses, primarily restaurants, began to flourish. Cisco’s rose to the forefront of that legacy, due to the authentic fare and Rudy’s celebrity. After all, he chose the Cisco’s logo to be a caricature of his own visage, black frame glasses and cigar included.
It’s the history, the culture and the food. That’s what bridges East and West Austin. It has forever.
“I could never start something and be so vain that I put my face on the outside,” laughs Matt. “But he had the clout to do it, and it worked because he was so well-respected. If walls could talk, the people who have been here.”
For decades, Rudy would seat newcomers in the front diner and regulars in the back rooms. It was a hodgepodge of East Side natives and West Side folks, who gladly made the trek. Before the omnipotent cellular device, politicians would roll into Cisco’s when they needed to make a deal. It was a sure bet that the right signature would be sitting somewhere in the back room, rubbing elbows with celebrities or musicians at the next table.
To this day, most surfaces of the restaurant are layered in photographs, some signed and most faded with age, of those notable patrons; Kevin Costner, Ann Richards, Willem Dafoe, George W. Bush. One image is of Rudy clad in a white robe and clutching a harp, with the title “Restaurateurs’ Guardian Angel.” When you needed an East Side vote, Rudy was your man and Cisco’s was your spot.
Like most members of his family, Matt grew up working in the restaurant, aware of its historic context. “It’s the history, the culture, and the food. That’s what bridges East and West Austin,” he says. “It has forever.”
Now, nearly a century after that teal brick building first opened its doors, its surrounding blocks have drastically changed. And Matt intends on doing his part to keep the restaurant’s corner of East Sixth just as it’s always been: delicious and welcoming to all. “That’s what I wanted to carry on as a tradition and a value system. Everything is going on around us, but we’re not moving. We can adapt to Austin,” says Matt. “An icon and an iconic place get to live.”