You Have to Get Over the Border and Into Bertha’s Bakery for an Authentic Taste of Mexico
By Matt Crosslin
(originally published in the December 2004 issue of U Monthly Magazine)
Ah, Mexican food. Where would the Waco economy be without it? Some people call Waco the “Buckle of the Bible Belt.” I’d say that it also qualifies as the “Buckle of the Burrito Belt”—that is, if there was such a thing as a burrito belt.
Bertha’s Bakery & Restaurant serves excellent Mexican food, but their specialty is Mexican pastries. They make their bakery items fresh daily—usually starting around 2 am. They sell a wide assortment of pastries: sugar cookies, bread with sweet potato filling, cinnamon bread with cheesecake or cream cheese inside, bread with cake in it, even sandwich bread. Soft, fresh, and sweet goodness awaits anyone who partakes of these treats. But my goal in visiting Bertha’s the first time was to find something different than the usual Tex-Mex served at a majority of Waco restaurants.
Believe it or not, I’ve actually been to a Mexican food restaurant in India. They couldn’t afford to import the correct spices, so they had to use curry for everything. They also couldn’t afford lettuce, so my chicken curry burrito came stuffed with shredded cabbage. So much for the saying “you can’t mess up Mexican food.”
Now I use a lot more caution when trying a new Mexican food place. You never know—those guys from India may have decided to start a franchise.
Bertha’s Bakery is a small building that you’ve probably driven by many times and never noticed. It’s just off of that “killer curve” on 25th Street in front of the old 25th Street Theatre. The next time you go that way, take a quick glance away from that clueless driver in front of you that seems oblivious to the fact that the road is about to take a wild shift and you’ll see it.
My wife and I tried out Bertha’s for lunch. The front room of Bertha’s is where they sell the bakery items. It’s a small room packed with all of the tempting goodies previously mentioned. After a few moments of drooling, we remembered our original mission and pried ourselves away.
The restaurant portion of Bertha’s is in a larger room in the back decorated with several Mexican murals of Aztec warriors and landscapes. We picked a table and started munching on chips and salsa. I don’t know who invented the idea of serving chips and salsa at Mexican food restaurants, but thank God for that person. I couldn’t quite tell why, but there was something different about the salsa. It was spiced a little differently than I am used to, which made it taste fantastic.
My wife ordered a fajita burrito, and I went for my usual favorite— carne guisada. As we were waiting for our meal, we reminisced about college Spanish classes. We don’t normally do that because that was a very stressful time for me. The atmosphere of the restaurant just had that nostalgic feel to it that makes you want to think back. Well, that and the TV set was playing one of those Mexican soap operas that Spanish instructors seem to love to inflict upon their classes. There is nothing worse than trying to learn a language from a crying actress speaking at Warp Factor 9.
Our food was served promptly, so the reminiscing ended and we dug in. Everything we ate exceeded our expectations in taste and size (my wife’s burrito was over a foot long). In fact, I ended up enjoying Bertha’s for lunch and dinner thanks to the generous portion sizes. The carne guisada was so tasty I had a hard time putting the fork down when I was full. My meal came with one flour tortilla. I know what you’re thinking—that’s a rip-off. But you should’ve seen the size of this tortilla! It must have been the big brother to the one they wrapped my wife’s monster burrito in. The burrito was as good as the carne guisada. I know, because I ate half of it for dinner.
While we were eating, I noticed the same subtle differences in our meals that I noticed in the salsa. Something in the spices tasted different. In fact, it seemed like there was spice in some places that Tex-Mex is usually devoid of any. That settled it—I had to talk to the owner and get to the bottom of this.
Bertha’s is a family owned and operated business. Bertha is not only the namesake of the bakery, but also the owner. “She owns 95%; I do the other 5,” her husband Manuel told me with a mischievous smile. Her husband, children, and sister-in-law all work at her restaurant. Her daughter even sells corn-on-the-cob from a cart in front of the store on the weekends.
Bertha’s husband was able to confirm what I was thinking all along—their food is more authentic Mexican than Tex-Mex. This means that the food has more spice to it. “It will be very hot.” Manuel says. “You have to know that before you order it.” In fact, Bertha told us “I used to work at a restaurant in Mexico—for five years!” All of the food at her restaurant comes from family recipes.
The history of Bertha’s follows your basic “American dream” story. They bought a small bakery at another location and went into business six years ago. They soon needed more room and moved into the current location, where they also decided to add a restaurant. Manuel can pretty much sum up the attitude you feel while you’re there: “we really appreciate the people who visit us. They are what this is all about.”
Since Mexican pastries are the specialty at Bertha’s, my wife and I decided to get a variety of sugar cookies to enjoy later that day. They easily had over 30 different types for sale when I was there. Conchas are the top seller, but “they are all delicious” according to Bertha. Everyone in the room smiled and agreed. The cookies were all very soft and tasty (and, not surprisingly, large). If you want some, you better not drag your feet because they sell out daily.
All of this for some of the best prices I’ve seen in a while. The monster size burritos are $2.75 each. Plates cost between $5.50 and $8. Pastries are three for $1.25.
And there were no chicken curry cabbage burritos on the menu —always a good sign.
2418 Grim Ave., 254-755-7123
Bakery hours: 7 am – 8:30 pm daily, except Tuesday;
7 am – 3 pm on Tuesdays
Restaurant hours: 7 am – 3 pm daily, except Tuesday;
7 am – 2 pm on Tuesdays
To go hours: 3 pm – 6 pm daily, except Tuesday
Personal checks are accepted.