Her Tex-Mex cooking is from deep in the heart of Texas
Amanda Escamilla is on a mission to bring authentic Tex-Mex cooking to Boston. The native Texan moved to Boston in the mid-1980s to finish school, studying criminal justice and sociology. Before crafting chalupas and tacos, she worked at Fenway Health’s Violence Recovery Program, working with trauma survivors. Part of her work revolved around recovery through food. “I taught people how to cook instead of buying a 99-cent value meal,” she says. All the while, she waited tables, notably at the now-closed East Coast Grill — where eventually she was allowed to test out her recipes at Sunday brunch. From there, her catering company, Tex Mex Eats, was born. Popular at farmers’ markets, now she has a pop-up in the former Tupelo space in Inman Square, where she’ll serve Frito pie, enchiladas, and homemade tamales until the end of July.
What’s the first restaurant you ever ate at in Boston? A diner in Davis Square that was only open from 12 until 5 in the morning. That’s where I had my first club sandwich. I was coming from south Texas and was hoping for a Whataburger. That’s a fast-food chain in Texas, and they’re very Texan! It’s fresh, delicious, and open late.
What’s one thing you’d like to fix about the restaurant industry here? I’ve been in the business for a long time; I really like this new idea of open-book management. It’s a way of managing your business openly and transparently with your team to build a better business and to work smarter, not harder. . . . It’s more inclusive, collaborative, and social-justice based. In every department in the business, you can make a difference in the bottom line and in people’s lives. If you’re a prep cook, you can be accountable for keeping your waste down. Can you use ingredients in other ways? Think about it all the way through. People feel more invested and responsible, and the product shows. I’d like to see more of it in Boston.
What other restaurants do you visit? Ha! I have a lot of little favorites. It’s like picking your favorite child; it’s hard to do that. Cha Yen Thai Cookery [in Watertown] is really good. They make delicious, fresh, sometimes spicy but not too spicy Thai food. I like Sarma, of course; it’s one of my favorite places when I have more of an occasion. And Frank’s Steak House is family-friendly; I go with my family for a classic place.
What’s your earliest food memory that made you think, ‘I want to work in restaurants?’ I think eating breakfast tacos and the fresh flour tortillas my mom would make. Refried beans were my favorite. I’m doing those at the pop-up, too! And chalupas; here, we call them tostadas. It’s a fried corn tortilla with beans, cheese on top, and with shredded lettuce, tomato, and avocado. And table salsas, just like you’d have salt and pepper.
What’s the worst restaurant experience you’ve ever had? You know, I like to put those away! I think that in general, I don’t know if I can say a place, but I think it’s about cleanliness and a lack of friendliness. I was at a restaurant in Harvard Square, in the basement, and I saw mice playing with each other. Visibly! It was gross. I’m sure tons of people go there. I have to be diplomatic, though.
How could Boston become a better food city? I think there has to be a purpose — what is the purpose behind your actions? I’m fond of understanding the story behind a restaurant. What’s it about? We all want to make money and survive, but there’s got to be more. That’s why I like going to the small, little places and often not to the bigger ones. You like to help out the little guys and gals. More women-owned businesses are important. The food has to be more diverse as well. We need room for people to bring the diversity of who they are. I know a lot of young women coming up who are doing great work at this, and I also think that there should be greater policies supporting these small businesses, such as the business program I was part of. It was a collaboration between CommonWealth Kitchen and Santander, called Cultivate Small Business. That program was incredibly helpful to me in many ways, and we need more of that kind of support from corporations.
Name three adjectives for Boston diners. Oh, my God. I would say happy, wide-eyed, and sometimes curious, if they don’t know what a product is, like at the farmers’ market, which is always nice.
What’s the most overdone trend right now? I’m pretty sure it’s avocado toast for a thousand dollars. C’mon, folks; it’s not caviar.
What type of restaurant is Boston missing? Like the one I’m trying to do in some ways! Authentic Tex-Mex food by people who know what they’re doing. That’s why our catering was born. There was a lack of this food. All of these recipes, including the tamales, was a result of suffering! There was no food [here] like I grew up eating. I had to work with my mom on some of these recipes.
What are you reading? The truth is I don’t have time to read much at all. I like the food magazines that I subscribe to, Spanish ones — and Cook’s Illustrated. I read the Cambridge Chronicle on the regular. Quick reads are the things I have access to. That’s it, my friend, at the moment. I look forward to time to enjoy other things!
How’s your commute? My commute is pretty good. I live in Cambridge, I work in Cambridge, and my kids go to Cambridge public schools. I wish I could bike more often. I’m always loading or unloading something.
What’s the one food you never want to eat again? Ha! Geez. I like a lot of things, but I don’t know if I like liver, for example. I could forever not have that. Or smell it. Nor boiled eggs. I make a potato salad that most people add boiled eggs to, but I will straight-up tell you: [I make] a no-egg potato salad!
What’s your most missed Boston restaurant? I’m not sure. I miss clam shacks in the winter, but that’s a different story.
Who was your most memorable customer? That was, of course, the late Julia Child who came to the East Coast Grill. She came in a couple of times and was incredibly grateful and terrific. I also remember when chef Aarón Sánchez came in, and I was amazed. I’d only seen him on TV! A brown dude like me — that was him! Oh, he’s from West Texas! He could be my cousin! We sent him a comped app. I was pleasantly surprised to meet him in person, but most certainly, Julia Child was my all-time, heartfelt favorite.
If you had to eat your last meal in Boston, what would it be? It’d be New England surf and turf, for sure. I enjoy them at Frank’s quite a bit! Maybe I’m missing out on other places, but I’m pretty loyal. I stick to what I know.