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Feeding Austin's Belly, and Its Soul

Maria Corbalan "I was always laid-back, and from the get-go, that was how I ran my restaurant. Thank God, people loved it and stuck around."


Maria Corbalan and her restaurant, Taco Xpress, subscribe to the "Keep Austin Weird" state of mind.

Though Argentinian, Corbalan long ago decided to base her successful business on what the people want: Mexican food. Corbalan didn't open her popular restaurant because she's a foodie; she opened it because she was looking for a business that would succeed — unlike the convenience store and gift shop she tried before.

She decided on Mexican food for equally practical reasons. "Argentinian food is very expensive to make and I was very broke," she says. "And it's best to make what the country is used to."

It was a wise decision, and not only did Corbalan's food catch on, but the free, creative spirit she brought to the restaurant was a magnet for customers. "I was always laid-back, and from the get-go, that was how I ran my restaurant," Corbalan says. "Thank God, people loved it and stuck around." All around the restaurant are photos of Corbalan with celebrities who have paid a visit: Dan Rather, Rachael Ray, Dennis Quaid, Charlie Sexton and many more.

On Sundays, Taco Xpress becomes "Hippie Church" — gospel music, flowing clothes, tie-dye and dancing, if the spirit moves you. "Everybody knows each other. Lots of musicians come in," says Corbalan. "You can come by yourself and feel good. People express themselves. I'm the first one in there with them. I dance, and when it's hot I throw water. I'm a wild little puppy. You feel loved, you have friends there, you look forward to Sunday. It's beautiful."

When her business was new, Corbalan's spirit felt trapped by its demands. "I've always been a traveler, and I was freaking out because I'd become a slave," she says. But now, with the business established and her friend Fernando Ezeta handling day-to-day operations, Corbalan can spend more time in her dream house — a Mexican-style hacienda with a courtyard — hanging out with her Yorkshire terrier and military macaw.

"I'm an indoor girl now," Corbalan says. "I'm not crazy to go out anymore. I like to be in my beautiful home, doing oil paintings and making jewelry. I love having people over to play cards, lay by the pool."

Corbalan also enjoys rummaging around in Goodwill and South Austin's vintage stores, perhaps finding treasures to turn into jewelry to wear or sell. "Sometimes I invite other artists and they bring whatever they do and we set up in the side of the restaurant," she says. "I even sold one of my paintings — I was very excited."

For a quick getaway, Corbalan will hop into her RV and tool down to Port Aransas, where she has friends. She'll park right on the beach and kick back. "If you want to mingle, you can mingle. If not, you can just take it easy."

Corbalan still works hard, but not so hard that she can't enjoy life. She's been approached about franchising Taco Xpress, but decided against it. "Life is too short. I don't want to work all the time. I've got what I need. I'm not greedy."

Check out Maria's Austin.