If only history were always this delicious.
The cream horns, gingerbread men, pecan twists and other
delicacies beckoning from the pastry cases at Lola’s Bake Shop &
Bistro may stir up memories of Vannie Tilden’s Bakery, which once
perfumed the air of Brownsville and Harlingen. If that happens, it’s
because Lola Brown is in the kitchen.
Brown is a baker’s baker who learned her craft at the legendary
Vannie Tilden’s in Harlingen, where she worked for nearly three
decades. Now she’s back in the kitchen as master baker at Lola’s, a
new Palm Boulevard establishment that owner Tony Martinez
essentially built around her — henc
e the name. In one sense it’s a
tribute to Brown and in sense it’s a brilliant marketing strategy,
considering her name recognition around the Valley.
"How often do people go in life and never see their name on a
marquee? There are a lot of unsung heroes out there," Martinez
says. "I had a lady come here all the way from McAllen, once she
heard Lola was baking."
Martinez, a local attorney and property redeve
loper, transformed the Old Cameron County Jail into
lawyers’ offices. And he’s in the progress of renovat
ing the Palm Boulevard Spanky’s, adjacent to Lola’s,
on the corner Martinez owns. He’s dubbed it "La rincon de la paz," or "Corner of Peace."
Brown’s availability is basically the reason Martinez is
in the bakery business. Her longtime employer, the
last remaining Vannie Tilden’s, closed its doors in 2002 in Harlingen (the Brownsville location closed many
years before). Brown then went to work for Sweet Delights Bakery in Harlingen, which also closed.
Martinez got his hands on some of the old bakery equipment, and eventually one of the tenants on the
corner decided not to renew the lease.
So it all made sense: open a bakery. Eventually Brown got wind of Martinez’s plan.
"I didn’t even know about it until (Spanky’s owner
Ron Saenz) told me, ‘Did y
ou know Mr. Martinez is
going to open a bakery and name it Lola’s Bake Shop?’ "
Brown, a petite woman with a sunny disposition, jumped at the chance.
"I’ve been actually disabled for about two years, but I don’t want to give up working," she says. "I want to
keep working part time. I don’t want to stay home and not do anything. This keeps me occupied and keeps
my mind off my troubles."
Lola’s has applied for a beer and wine permit. The bistro part should be up and running by the first week of February, Martinez says, with an emphasis
on healthy, fresh and light lunch items.
Resaca-side tables in the rear let customers commune with the wildlife while nibbling apple turnovers and
sipping organically grown, fair-trade coffee. Martinez plans a boardwalk and pavillion — maybe even a
"I spend a lot of time just dreaming," he says with a laugh.
Rita Eckert, a longtime Brownsville resident who lives near Lola’s, praises Martinez for helping breathe
new life into an old part of town.
"It’s wonderful to see someone investing in Brownsvill
e, and this man walks the walk," she says. "He’s one
of the few. He’s reinvesting in neighborhoods."
As for Lola Brown, she seems happ
y to once again be doing something she’s really good at: making the
rest of us fat. Naturally, she gets a charge out of seeing her own name on the marquee, after so many
years of working under somebody else’s.
"It’s very exciting and I feel very honored," Brown says. "I’ve got to live up to name now."
Lola’s Bake Shop & Bistro is located at 1335 Palm Boulevard. Monday Through Saturday 8:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m.