End of an era: Reflections of late Buda business owner Helen Alcala

Longtime Buda resident Helen Alcala passed away on June  11, 2017. Below is a feature story from July 14, 2005 on her upbringing in Buda and experience as a business owner story. 

By Jen Biundo

There’s something special about the tortillas at Helen’s Casa Alde. At first glance, you’ll see they measure about three times the thickness of a store-bought tortilla, dense and substantial, with rough edges that make each as unique as a rustic snowflake.

After one bite, you realize these sweet, chewy tortillas can hold their own against the drippiest chorizo or most liberal dousing of pico de gallo.

By the time you’ve decimated the breakfast taco snugly contained in one of these homemade tortillas, you can understand why Helen’s Casa Alde has thrived on Main Street for more than 25 years.

Helen Alcala calculates that she’s made about 4 million of those tortillas since July 1980, when she opened Casa Alde with her husband, Pedro “Pete” Alcala. And though Alcala is 81 years old (in 2005), she still rules the kitchen with vigor, rolling out tortillas to a new generation of Buda residents.

Before Helen Alcala opened Casa Alde, the building housed Wyatt and Ada Green Green’s grocery store. Above is the store in 1973. (Hays Free Press file photo)

What’s the secret to running such a successful business?

“I guess it’s just the way we treat customers,” Alcala said. “We know nearly everybody that comes in here. If they’re new, we try to tell them that they’re welcome here, and they should come back. And they do, they do come back. And we have good help, people who really care for their work,”

When pressed, Alcala adds modestly, “Well, everyone says the food is great.”

Like her restaurant, Helen Alcala’s own roots stretch way back in Buda. Her grandfather and father, she said, were the first Mexicans to live in Buda. They arrived in 1913, found work on a local farm, and saved enough money to bring the rest of the Rodriguez family up from Mexico.

“They said it was very hard,” Alcala said. “They said they couldn’t even go out at night – somebody would throw rocks at them. It’s really changed now. When we were growing up it was okay.”

Helen Rodriguez Alcala was born in 1923 in the small community of Goforth, which has since been absorbed into Buda. As the oldest of 10 children, she had to leave school after junior high, as did her younger sister, Cuca Rodriguez, and find work to help support the family.

During World War II, the sisters worked at Buda Grocery, then owned by Gerald and Mary Montague. (Editor’s note: Buda Grocery was located in the building now housing Cleveland’s Restaurant.) Alcala recalls the coffee and sugar shortage during the war. 

Helen Alcala working as a Hays CISD cook 1967. (photo from 1968 Rebel Yearbook)

A photo of the young Helen Rodriguez shows a beautiful young woman with wavy jet black hair, creamy skin and 1940s glamour, gazing bright-eyed into the camera. Buda residents remember her husband, Pedro Alcala, as one of the most dashingly handsome men in town.

The Alcalas married in 1947 and had three children, Ernest, Rene and Linda. Like true Budaites of the middle 1900s, all three were “Doc McCormick babies,” delivered by the beloved Buda family practitioner. Pedro Alcala worked as a handyman and janitor, while Helen Alcala took jobs as a cook, at the Hays School district and then at the Texas School for the Deaf in South Austin.

In 1980, Cuca’s husband, Ezekial DeLeon, lent the Alcalas money to start the restaurant. Casa Alde opened in July 1980. At that time, Helen Alcala was working one week on and one week off at the Texas School for the Deaf. In her alternate weeks off, she would work all seven days at the restaurant. And in the other weeks, she recalled with a laugh, her husband had to learn how to make tortillas.

“I worked for a while like that,” Alcala recalled. “The restaurant wasn’t successful at first. At first we struggled, and thought maybe we’re going to have to close. It was very slow but started picking up. Buda was so small, even when we opened. You knew everyone.”

That persistence paid off. Pedro Alcala died in 1992, leaving his widow a quietly thriving restaurant.

Today, Casa Alde is the oldest eatery on Main Street, and perennially popular, doing a bustling trade on early morning breakfast tacos and overflowing lunch plates.

Helen Alcala displays a freshly-made specialty taco in 2013. (photo by David White)

Though Alcala is 81 (in July 2005), the beauty remains from the intense girl in the 1940s photograph, in her clear skin, bright eyes and slow but graceful movement. Alcala is a quietly gracious hostess in her restaurant, welcoming customers with a soft Spanish accent and wide smile.

Alcala and her son Ernie arrive at 4 a.m. and begin the two-hour process of making the day’s supply of tortillas. Taking dough mixed the night before, Alcala mixed in hot water – as hot as you can stand it, she says – and forms rough balls, which she then rolls into a flat circle with a metal pin and stores in a cooler. Throughout the day, the cooks throw the rolled tortillas on the grill, where they cook brown and bubbly.

Helen Alcala prepping ingredients for tacos for Casa Alde in 2013. (photo by David white)

(Editor’s note: Ernie has died since this story ran. Her son Rene, daughter-in-law Lilian and granddaughter Remy would instead join Helen each morning at the restaurant.)

It may seem like a big task when homemade tortillas are an exception rather than a rule, but Alcala wouldn’t have it any other way.

“Store bought tortillas? We don’t like them,” Alcala says, just a touch primly but with a humoring smile. “If we run out, somebody runs to the back and makes more.”

When asked the secret to the perfect tortillas, Alcala pauses for a moment.

“I don’t know,” Alcala says. “We’re so used to making them, we just make them. The trick is to make them from scratch.”

With business booming from the area’s growth, the Alcalas have cut back on the hours.

Alcala has no intention of retiring any time soon, if ever.

“The work is good for me,” Alcala said. “When I’m home, I lay down a lot. My bones get more tired doing nothing than they do at work.”

After 25 years in the restaurant business, Alcala says without hesitation that she would do it all over again. She’s met so many nice people, she’s had the pride of owning a successful restaurant, and most of all, she’s had the joy of watching people enjoy her cooking.

“My favorite part is when somebody says, ‘This is the best meal I’ve had,’” Alcala says with a beaming smile. “Oh, it makes me feel so good. I really appreciate that.”

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