“Don’t play with your food.” That’s what we’re warned as children. Reporter Nina Porzucki visits Austin, Texas, where playing with your food has taken on a whole new meaning. (photos: Nina Porzucki)
Meza: “I like the hustle and the bustle of the place. And people coming in and out all of the time. Thank you. Hasta Luego. Thank you man. Appreciate it guys.”
Porzucki: This would be your standard Tex-Mex joint — there’s Tejano music in the background and Mexican pralines for sale — except Juan, has a taste for wordplay. When he opened the restaurant 29 years ago he needed a catchy name. Something that would stand out in Austin, a town with a glut of Mexican restaurants. It needed to be one in a million. No, make that…
Meza: “Juan in a Million. It’s a name that sticks.”
Porzucki: That’s right, Juan, J-U-A-N, in a Million It’s a bilingual pun. By definition, a pun is a form of wordplay that exploits the similar sounds of two words. A bilingual pun plays upon the sounds of two words in two languages. In this case, Juan and One. It’s not just between English and Spanish that restaurant owners are punning.
Hallock: “The Asian restaurants are the ones that are really thick with puns especially thai and wok.”
Porzucki: Gary Hallock is the local authority on all things punny. He organizes the annual O. Henry Pun-off World Championship here in Austin. It’s a verbal battle in which punsters compete for the title of Word Champion. Gary’s a Word Champion himself. I ask him about restaurants that pun bilingually. He pulls out a long handwritten list that he has compiled from around the country.
Porzucki: “Wow, you have quite a list here…”
Hallock: “I printed out a copy…My favorite was Thai Me Up (laugh) and Wok Around the Clock, En-Thai-Sing and Pho Shizzle, that’s P-H-O Shizzle
Porzucki: “That’s a play on sort of rap culture and…”
Hallock: “Right, right, right, that’s trilingual sort of. And I like Hard Wok Café and Thai Tanic.”
Porzucki: It’s true, ethnic cuisine is becoming more and more a part of the mainstream American diet. But according to Gary, some people may need a little more encouragement to try something new.
Hallock: “If you see a weird name that you can’t pronounce or doesn’t mean anything to you, you’ll think that’s a restaurant that’s probably this ethnic or that but if you see one where the owner of the restaurant is playing with the words and seeming to be having a little fun, you might feel a little more comfortable going in.”
Porzucki: Thai Tanic, Hard Wok Café, these names may be fun to say and perhaps, provoke a chuckle or two, but can a clever name really be a successful marketing strategy? For Kristen Studer and Cody Fields, wordplay is integral to marketing their product, empanadas. That is, mmmpanadas. The couple owns Mmmpanada! a food truck selling empanadas to late night Austiners. I caught up with the couple in their kitchen as they mixed up a batch of dough.
Studer: “We decided on a different name that we weren’t all that excited about. It was Papa’s Empanadas Which is fine, you know…but…at our house we have those refrigerator magnets and Cody had spelled out empanada on the refrigerator but we didn’t have an ‘e.’ And then one day … I had just walked by the refrigerator and was like ‘mmmpanada,’ ‘mmmpanana,’ ‘MMMPANADA!’”
Porzucki: The name seems to be working. Kristin and Cody now bake more than 100 dozen empanadas each week..
Porzucki: Back at Juan in a Million, Juan is still at his post near the register greeting guests, smiling and shaking hands. The restaurant is packed. I speak with several customers who seem to agree. While the name is clever, the key to the restaurant’s decades of success according to one longtime patron Alberto Garcia…
Garcia: “It’s Juan, his personality runs this place. Without Juan there wouldn’t be this restaurant.”
Porzucki: He’s right. Without Juan, this would just be one among a million other Tex-Mex joints. A punny name may get you in the door, but as to bringing you back again – well that’s a whole other enchilada.
For The World, I’m Nina Porzucki in Austin.