Tex-mex restaurant El Mercado weathers 34 years of change

opened the original location of the restaurant on South First Street as a Mexican food market.

opened the original location of the restaurant on South First Street as a Mexican food market.

Image description
Mixed grill fajitas
Image description
Tacos al pastor
Image description
Trailer Park Tacos
Tony Villegas, owner of El Mercado, said he remembers the first 15 years of running the Austin Tex-Mex restaurant as the golden era.

El Mercado opened on South First Street in 1985 as a Mexican food market with a small kitchen, where customers could pick up masa or spices and grab something to eat at the counter.

Eventually, customers wanted a place to sit down, and so Villegas and his father, Camilo Villegas, had to clear out some of the shelves to make space. In time, the restaurant swallowed up the market as El Mercado’s expansion continued to an outdoor patio. In those days, Villegas said, business was good for Tex-Mex restaurants in Austin.

“The ‘90s were the mecca,” Villegas said.

Then, around 2011 or 2012, Villegas said the Austin population boom hit, and skyrocketing property values in a changing neighborhood created challenges. Villlegas said four years ago, he paid about $36,000 in annual property taxes at the South original location. This year, that bill was more $100,000.

Land values have made it difficult for El Mercado to break even, according to Villegas. Some longtime Austin staples, such as Threadgill’s, have chosen to close rather than continuing to battle those changes.

But Villegas said he does not have any plans to get out of the restaurant business or to close any of El Mercado’s three locations.

Some of that tendency to hang on may come from his family. Camilo, Villegas said, greeted customers and fixed anything that might break in the restaurant until the day he died in 2007 at age 82, and Tony’s mother, Gudelia Villasana Villegas, drove herself to work at the El Mercado office until her death this August at age 90.

Villegas said he’s still doing his best to follow his parents’ example, and his favorite customer feedback comes from that same ethic.

According to Villegas, when diners say “the owner is always there, and he always cares,” it gives him inspiration to come to work every day.


Navarro Early College High School, pictured here, is one of over 30 Austin ISD schools frozen to transfer students for the coming 2020-21 school year. (Nicholas Cicale/Community Impact Newspaper)
Austin ISD announces 31 schools frozen to transfers for 2020-21 school year

Austin ISD released its list of schools that will not be accepting in-district transfer students for the 2020-21 school year.

Austin Regional Clinic has administered more than 84,000 flu vaccinations to date in 2019.
DATA: Austin Regional Clinic gave thousands of flu tests after Thanksgiving; second spike possible during holidays

Austin Regional Clinic gave more than 4,500 flu tests leading up to Thanksgiving.

Austin Mayor Steve Adler (center), flanked by Assistant City Manager Christopher Shorter and City Attorney Ann Morgan, listen to public testimony on the land development code rewrite Dec. 7. (Christopher Neely/Community Impact Newspaper)
Property owners objecting to Austin’s land development code rewrite sue city for rejecting their protest rights

The lawsuit could hold up the city's approval of its land development code overhaul.

The city of Austin will begin charging a $0.15 per trip regulatory fee on shared mobility vehicles in early 2020. Community Impact Staff
City of Austin will implement a $0.15 regulatory fee on shared mobility rides

The city of Austin will begin charging a $0.15 per trip regulatory fee on shared mobility vehicles, which include electric bikes and scooters, Austin Transportation Director Robert Spillar wrote in a Dec. 10 memo to City Council.

The proposed bridge design is in a wishbone shape and includes a plaza space at the center. (Rendering courtesy city of Austin)
City of Austin reveals wishbone design for new bridge over Longhorn Dam

The city of Austin debuted a design proposal for a new bridge over the Longhorn Dam connecting the Ann and Roy Butler Hike and Bike Trail at a Dec. 10 open house.

Travis County commissioners voted to allow staff to begin contract negotiations for a new women's jail facility at a Dec. 10 meeting. (Courtesy Travis County Sheriff's Office)
Travis County begins contract negotiations for women’s jail facility as overall jail population continues to decline

The county has planned to build a new, separate women’s facility for years, despite some pushback from local activists.

The Microtel Inn and Suites is located in Southeast Austin, only a 4.5-mile drive from the Austin-Bergstrom International Airport. (Courtesy Google Maps)
Zoning concern prevents Austin from moving forward with second conversion of hotel to homeless shelter

Officials have already indicated they are eyeing other hotels and motels for purchase and conversion into homeless shelters.

Block 21 will change ownership. The mixed-use development includes ACL Live at the Moody Theater and the W Austin hotel.
W Austin and ACL Live development will sell for $275 million

The transaction is expected to close in 2020.

When Austin voters approved a $250 million affordable housing bond in 2018, they signed off on using part of that funding to expand a home repair program for low-income residents. Many beneficiaries are seniors.
Affordable housing bond funding helps seniors 'age in place' through home repair program

When Austin voters approved a historic $250 million affordable housing bond in 2018, they signed off on a $28 million investment in home repairs for low-income residents.

Common winter allergies in Texas are caused by pollen from the Ashe juniper—also known as a mountain cedar. The tree is native to the area. (Nicholas Cicale/Community Impact Newspaper)
As pollen counts rise in Central Texas, learn about cedar fever and allergy prevention

As temperatures cool heading into the winter season in Central Texas, pollen counts from Ashe juniper trees begin to climb, causing seasonal allergies referred to locally by residents as “cedar fever.”

Back to top