Every neighborhood needs its spot. What is a neighborhood without a restaurant where you can feel totally at home with a plate of reliably good, unfussy food? A soulless collection of houses, that’s what it is.
The corner of Hampton Road and Illinois Avenue, deep in the heart of Oak Cliff, doesn’t suggest to outsiders the possibility of soul. It’s a busy, dusty interchange of pedestrian-hostile six-lane rivers of traffic. Behind the pickup truck fumes, your eyes alight on any of a dozen signs of commoditized urban sameness: CVS, Wendy’s, Jack in the Box, payday loan predators, chains dedicated to cellphone sales, auto parts, delivery pizza. Two corners of the intersection boast dollar stores.
But this neighborhood has a soul, and the soul is on the southwest corner, next to the Family Dollar. You’ll know, if you arrive before 8 a.m., because every car in the lot is parked in front of one tiny façade. And you’ll know as soon as you walk in the front door of Tia Dora’s Bakery, the kind of place where strangers share tables while they wait for breakfast tacos. Here, the breads and sweets are so plentiful that employees leave rolling carts of them in the middle of the floor.
Tia Dora’s has been at this spot since Aurora Reyes opened it in 1995, and it is still in the same family’s hands. The business’ fortunes have waxed and waned — two other locations opened and closed during that time — but for this area of Oak Cliff, Reyes’ family pastry recipes are as essential a part of breakfast as a cup of coffee. Just ask the Dallas police officer who, a few weeks ago, began inspecting the bakery cases while waiting for his meal.
“What are you doing?” his wife asked, as if ogling shelves of pan dulce is an irrational vice.
His reply sounded bemused. “You can’t go here and not get a pastry.”
To be fair, it can be hard to save room for breakfast dessert. The flour tortillas are made in house, and they are thick and comforting and crisp off the griddle. Breakfast tacos ($2.25) come much larger than the Dallas average — you only need two unless you’re mighty hungry — and feature tender eggs and fillings like machacado, a slightly dried beef that's diced and rolled into the taco and adds crisp texture to every bite.
Even at breakfast time, Tia Dora’s is serving two tacos de guisado (stewed meat), barbacoa ($2.49) and an especially good lengua taco ($2.95) filled with a generous helping of the tender meat mixed with finely diced carrots and onions.
The meaty migas bowl ($7) is a paper plate filled to the edges with scrambled eggs, super-crispy shards of tortilla chips, thumb-sized diced potatoes, bell peppers and a meat of your choice. Skip the generic-tasting sausage offering in favor of machacado or chorizo. Or go for an entirely different plate, the chilaquiles ($6.50), available with salsa rojo or verde and standard or spicy. The just-right scrambled eggs are leopard-spotted with egg whites, and the spicy salsa verde is comfortably hot, a perfect wake-up call. Tia Dora’s refried beans, creamy and thick with a smoky, peppery note like a slab of bacon, round out the plate. These are some of Dallas’ best chilaquiles.
There’s a small selection of lunch items here, too, including enchiladas made to Mexican, rather than Tex-Mex, specifications with tortillas bright red from a quick bath in chile pepper puree ($7.95). The chicken inside is recognizably pulled chicken — not the dried, mealy mush served at some restaurants — and if the enchiladas get a little greasy, it’s the kind of grease that scratches your inner kid’s unhealthy itch.
If you stared down the refried beans and saved room, now is the time to pick up a tray and tongs and begin looking through the cases of breads and desserts. There’s an entire case dedicated solely to cookies of all kinds (60 cents each). Many are unusually buttery and flaky in texture — the M&Ms cookies crumble apart like loose shortbreads. On some days, there are 85-cent bags of hojarascas, the teacake-like cookies with diced walnuts inside and a liberal dusting of cinnamon and sugar on every side. The hojarascas at Tia Dora’s are a little on the plump side, but that’s not a complaint.
Sink your teeth into the crisp pastry twirls that are trenzas (Spanish for braids, $0.85) or grab an almohada, a long rectangle of puff pastry that conceals a thin stripe of lemon cream filling ($1.50). There’s a shelf of churros and even a few rather humble-looking croissants.
Each variety of empanada ($1.10-$1.50) sports a different fruit jam filling and a slightly different look. They look a little bit homemade — bits of jam might ooze out and burn — but that’s part of the charm. And the excellent jams inside — try guava, coconut or pineapple — complete the picture.
In your moment at the cash register, sneak a peak over the cashier’s shoulders into the working kitchen, where employees busily roll and cut new batches of dough and prepare breakfasts to order. (Breakfast usually arrives slowly, but only because the cooks do not cut corners.)
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This baking kitchen is the heart of Tia Dora’s Bakery, the place where all the treats up front are made from scratch. By extension, it’s a good bit more than that. It’s the heart of this stretch of Oak Cliff, where, for more than two decades, the neighborhood has come together for breakfast tacos, migas and tamales. But did you save room for dessert?
Tia Dora’s Bakery, 2478 W. Illinois Ave., 214-333-4254. Open 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. Monday through Saturday and 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. Sunday.