Tribute altar to Gov Ann Richards at Las ManitasI like to find those funky little local restaurants.

Sure, when you’re a lonely traveler who longs for the familiar, I don’t get all snooty about hitting McDonald’s.

Let’s face it, sometimes that is the only way to find a clean bathroom when you have a kid’s diaper to change.

There are also some interesting local menu items that you won’t find at, say, the McDonald’s in Toledo. Check out this great list of worldwide McDonald’s items, like India’s veggie nuggets with masala and chili dipping sauces.

Still, when I turn up an independently-owned local dining place, there’s a real sense of joyful discovery. For example, far from the tacky Duval Street mass of humanity in Key West, Florida, you can get your socks clean done while munching on great Cuban sandwiches at Sandy’s Cafe, because it’s attached to the M&M laundromat. What a deal.

I’m thinking a lot about this “eat local” topic lately because I just wrote “In Tacos Veritas” for CHOW magazine, about the Austin, Texas stalwart Las Manitas Avenue Cafe.

This funky enchilada/taco/migas joint started out in 1979 as a taco pushcart run by the Perez sisters, Cynthia and Lidia. They are very different women, but they have a united vision of good homey Tex-Mex food, served fast in a friendly downtown atmosphere. Says Cynthia, “Lidia is the bills and numbers, and I’m the Communist.” They don’t take “no” for an answer and they are a part of what makes Austin weird.

The Las Manitas Avenue Cafe, Austin Texas.Now, a developer is planning to build a massive Marriott hotel complex on their block of Congress Avenue. Since they’ve only rented the space for Las Manitas, the Perez sisters have no obvious leverage other than the general outrage of an entire community….to say nothing of all the out-of-towners who depend on going there to snarf down migas during South by Southwest (SXSW.)

The good news is that the sisters do own a nearby building, currently housing their La Pena art gallery, and that property may end up as the saving “bolt-hole” for Las Manitas.

Note to self and others: Renting is great, but the sooner you actually own something, the better odds you face against those who might push you around. There’s my capitalist pig/property rights rant of the day.

I won’t get into any more detail here, but I want to issue a clarion call. Go eat at your local joints and support them. Ask around when you visit places, and go eat at their local joints. Help them all to flourish, unless you like always eating at the McDonald’s in Toledo.

Update 4 March 2008: The rest of the story on Las Manitas

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