In the kitchen of Felipe's Tacos, founder/owner Felipe Martinez explains the size of the space. It's late afternoon during the slow period following the inevitable daily rush, and this is easily the cleanest restaurant kitchen I've ever seen in my life. Martinez seems tired from the day's labors, but content and present. It's obvious he loves his corner of the world.
"It's compact, but it's effective," Martinez says. "We keep it quick."
The taqueria in the St. Michael's corridor does indeed keep it quick, but they're also relatively unique within a sea of traditional New Mexican eateries. It's how they've managed to remain one of the town's most popular and storied restaurants over the last 26 years; Martinez and his crew celebrated that milestone in February and, for him, it's about the journey.
"When I thought of the concept, which was healthy, health-conscious—this concept was around 50 years ago in Los Angeles," Martinez says. "When I moved here, I focused on raising my daughter as a single parent, but I also saw there was a lack of health-conscious Mexican restaurants, and it was also this new chapter in life."
Martinez' first wife died of cancer shortly before he moved from LA to Santa Fe.
"There was no hesitating," he says of his exodus from Los Angeles following his wife's death. "I was making cabinets then, and I resigned right away and told my daughter we were moving to Santa Fe, New Mexico. You realize when situations like that happen, it's a wake-up call—it gave me such strength to move on and raise my daughter."
Martinez says he felt immediately embraced by the community, but that he still felt something was missing; "I saw the need for healthy Mexican food," he explains.
He'd taken home ec classes in junior high and high school as well as culinary courses at Mount San Antonio College in Walnut, California. "I took all those courses so I could eat," he says, laughing. "But it's what prepped me to understand the different tools, and I started to think if I could ever [open a restaurant], that would be great."
And so, with the help of his wife's life insurance policy, Martinez opened the doors to Felipe's Tacos on February 18, 1991.
"The moment I opened that door, a man came in and ordered a soda, and I never looked back," he says, motioning to the framed dollar from that first sale that hangs above the counter. "Now we're hitting 26 years, and I'm kind of in awe by how quickly time lapsed. … I learned to grow, I learned to be in the moment—I did it all; the peaks and the valleys of the journey, and, y'know, it taught me to keep the ego down and serve."
The first years weren't exactly easy. Martinez says it took time to educate Santa Fe diners about the differences between New Mexican and Mexican food. As it stands, Felipe's Tacos is still the closest thing our city has to Southern California-style Mexican food, though Martinez' menu—which has evolved over the last 26 years—touches on styles from all over.
"They liked the food, but it was different," he says. They'd say, 'How come it's not smothered?' I had to teach the community what the words 'asada' and 'asado' mean—it just means 'char-brolied,' cooked on a grill, but the locals were mistaking it for adovada."
His persistence obviously paid off, and today most everyone loves Felipe's Tacos.
"We've added along the way," Martinez notes. "Different items, different meats; we're now into fish and shrimp and we're doing barbacoa—this juicy shredded beef cooked in a pressure cooker with onions and a little salt and … we let it fall apart. And we keep the broth to use again, and when you're biting into the barbacoa it just falls apart! But we want to keep it healthy, and that's why we also have the al pastor, for example."
Martinez also points to the varying styles of tacos, served both in Mexican and American tradition.
"The Mexican way is just the tortilla and the meat, and it's the salsa that makes everything; throw in a little onion and cilantro and lime juice if you want," he says. "But here people were like, 'Where's the lettuce and tomato?' so we do that, too. Then there are people who want it all, and I say, 'Oh! You want the Chicano!'"
For now, Felipe's Tacos is going strong, though at 61 years old, Martinez does say he's "inching toward retirement." Of course, that doesn't mean he's shutting down tomorrow, next week or even next year. That #2 taco and quesadilla combo plate is safe.
"I've still got some loose ends, but there are options—to keep it going, to close it down and walk away. I'm … looking at all my options," Martinez says. "But I'm wiser. Everything my parents and elders told me is fulfilling itself, and the true essence of life is the now the journey. And this journey, for me, is about serving and being the best I can. I find more fulfillment in that. You're asking me about a quarter of a century, and what's happened? I've grown."