Taco Flats Opens in Clarksville: Owner Traded Wall Street Dreams to Serve Mom’s Tortillas
When a recession dashed his dreams of being a banker, Simon Madera turned to something simpler, his mother’s handmade flour tortillas
By Aaron Parsley
Photographs by Warren Chang
Simon Madera, the owner and operator of Taco Flats, has a simple philosophy: “We are happy being who we are,” he says. “We try to be what we like and what we know.”
At his restaurant’s new location in Clarksville, which opened on West Lynn Street in October, that means making simple but delicious tacos inspired by his mother’s cooking — starting with her handmade flour tortillas — just like they do at their Burnet Road location, which opened five years ago.
Madera and his mother, Esther Madera, combine the basics of her upbringing on a ranch outside of Zacatecas, Mexico, with his childhood spent in the Rio Grande Valley of Texas.
The foundation for his food is Esther’s flour tortillas, which they make at a rate of 500-700 per day. “From Mexico to South Texas to here,” he says of his mother’s recipe. “That’s what we grew up with.”
As a student at St. Edward’s University in the early 2000s, Madera says he didn’t recognize much of the food at Austin’s upscale Mexican eateries. Later, when he developed the concept for Taco Flats, he decided to spotlight the food he ate growing up.
“We’re not sourcing blue corn from Oaxaca or Mexico City. That’s not who we are. Blue corn has been around for hundreds of years and now it’s become popular in the mainstream tour of Mexican cuisine,” he says. “[Our food] is more peasant food.”
Taco Flats newbies should try the Gringa, Madera says, which comes with melted jack cheese, spit-roasted pork and the traditional pastor toppings – pineapple, onions and cilantro. Another customer favorite is the Pirata, which also comes with grilled jack cheese melted on the signature tortilla but topped with refried black beans, grilled beef fajita meat, grilled onion and cilantro.
Madera is passionate about spit-roasting. “That’s the art of it,” he says of finding the perfect flavor in his meats. “The crispy edges [are key]. Some people like these gooey pastors. I don’t I like that. I like the crispy, chicharron style, where it’s almost burnt.”
Another item on the menu that is worth trying if you’re interested in something different is the Tostada de Atún. “I got the idea at a restaurant in Mexico City called Contra Mar,” he says of the crunchy appetizer that comes with yellowfin tuna, house-made garlic and lime aioli, fried leeks, avocado and habanero sea salt. “It’s my most unique dish,” Madera says of the tostada, which goes for market price. “It’s expensive but you know what you’re going to get.”
Madera never thought he’d follow in the footsteps of his mother, who ran restaurants in McAllen, Texas when he was a kid. He dreamed of being a banker. “I wanted to be on Wall Street,” he says. “I wanted to do some cool stuff.”
After school, he set out to join the banking industry but tough times in the financial industry made it difficult to find employment. “The recession is what made me figure things out,” he says. “Thank God. I’m glad I’m not in that world.”
Without a job, Madera booked a one-way ticket to South America with $7,000 in his pocket and decided to live and travel there for as long as his money lasted. After arriving in Buenos Aires, he found himself in Florianópolis, in the southern Brazilian state of Santa Catarina.
The woman who owned the hostel where he was staying approached him about cooking for her guests. “You must know how to make tacos if you’re Mexican,” he recalls her saying. “I made this basic taco meal for 14 people. I realized how inspired people were and how cool it was that I made this meal … It was just tacos with guacamole, pico de gallo, some roasted salsas. It was the most basic stuff.”
After preparing more tacos for hostel guests, Madera had a new plan that didn’t involve banking or Wall Street. “I wrapped up my trip and from that day I was fixated,” he says of his mission to bring his tacos to Austin.
When Madera opened his first restaurant, he took the name of the original Taco Flats, a popular Austin hangout of the 1970s.
Now in Clarksville with their second location (Simon also runs East Austin bar La Holly), Simon and Esther Madera are busy making tortillas and tacos for their new neighbors.
Serving “peasant food” based on Mexican and South Texas staples may be a far cry from Madera’s dreams of banking on Wall Street. But like his recipes, the mother-and-son duo found success in something simpler and in doing what they know and love.
“I work hard but I got lucky,” Madera says. “You’ve got to work hard to get lucky.”