“The momentum is picking up, it’s starting to move,” says Felipe Martinez of Felipe’s Tacos. “You can feel it.”
It is a time of change within Martinez’s empire as, after 31 years in business in Midtown Santa Fe, he’ll retire next month following service on Thursday, Dec. 15. After that, a former Felipe’s Tacos cook named Rodrigo Rodriguez will take over the location, and its equipment, for his own venture, Tacos El Charrito, previously a food truck. And though Martinez is quick to point out Rodriguez’s skills in the kitchen—and how he sees a bit of himself in the upcoming chef—it’s still tough to know the menu will change, the vibe will change; for certain Santa Feans, news of Felipe’s Tacos closing will be heartbreaking.
Until then, Martinez tells SFR, emotions are mounting, and his decision to retire is only now starting to sink in.
“These are all little pieces of the puzzle,” he explains. “Life, to me, is dances—mentally, physically, emotionally, spiritually. When I saw the vision of Felipe’s Tacos 30 years ago, when I moved here from Los Angeles, there was this consciousness behind it. It was energetic. It was an energy move, and throughout my life, it’s always been about the energy, the journey.”
The journey, of course, has not all been smooth sailing. Martinez was able to open Felipe’s Tacos with life insurance money he received after his first wife died in November 1990. By the following January, he’d quit his job as a cabinet maker in Los Angeles and moved to Santa Fe with recipes from his mother and grandmother in hand. The first few years, he says, were about teaching Santa Fe what good, clean Mexican food could taste like. Eventually, the city got onboard.
Still, Martinez says, the aftermath of 9/11 was a tense time for the service industry, and he additionally cites the 2008 recession as a particularly troubling period—one that required him to infuse his own money into the business to survive. Martinez estimates it took five years for the restaurant to start breaking even again after ’08, but when COVID-19 rolled around, the forgivable PPP loans he received were roughly in the same ballpark as what he’d spent in 2008. He notices that kind of symmetry more than most, he thinks.
“I didn’t know it in LA, but I’ve since been able to capture it,” Martinez says: “The understanding that life is bigger, greater than we can ever imagine.”
Back when he first opened, Martinez knew he wanted Felipe’s Tacos to be a healthful choice. He hired a nutritionist named Phil Garcia and set about creating a menu that would not only taste great, but not leave diners feeling they’d overindulged. Ask anyone—you can tear through a Felipe’s taco, quesadilla, burrito, menudo, whatever, and you’re not going to feel terrible.
“I had taken culinary classes in Los Angeles, because we were poor and the students got to eat the food, but not knowing that down the road I’d be opening a restaurant on a health-conscious level,” he says. “When I hired [Garcia], I got to learn how nutrition works.”
He’s kept that ethos alive since the start. Felipe’s Tacos has remained a consistent eatery, too—when you order the no-carne burrito, the quesadilla/taco combo, the al pastor burrito grande, you know what you’re getting, how it’s going to taste, the portion sizes. He’s also got one of the cleaner kitchens in all restaurant-dom and an almost rabid fanbase.
So what happens now? How does a longtime restauranteur simply hand the keys over to someone else and walk away clean?
“I want to do a pottery class when I retire,” Martinez says, “but it’s not just about the pottery. Pottery is just some image in your mind until you spin it, shape it. The course has to be pliable for you to mold and shape it, and that’s what I want in the journey of my life. I can be molded, shaped. I’m moving into a great new chapter.”
This will hopefully include more time spent playing golf, or generally enjoying the fruits of his labors. He’d also like to spend more time with his grandchildren, Martinez says, and with his daughters, Emma Rose and Jacqueline, the latter of whom will travel from California with her kids and husband in December for the restaurant’s last days.
“I’ve been hearing my dad talk about it for years, but now that it’s actually weeks away, it’s setting in,” Jacqueline says. “I’m just happy for him, because it’s a big decision to make. And I want to thank all of the customers for their business and support over the last 30 years. They became like family, and I’m so grateful for that because we didn’t have a lot of family in New Mexico.”
Martinez, meanwhile, has been known to tear up lately. Yes, the business required his all for decades, sometimes to the detriment of his personal life. But through it, he explains, he’s been able to build a life and a home.
“You’ve just gotta know when the opportunity is there, when it knocks as it’s knocking for me right now,” he tells SFR. “Sure, my ego can say, ‘You sure you wanna sell?’ but opportunity is telling me it’s the right time. Before my mom passed away several years ago, she told me, ‘Son, you don’t look happy. Sell it. It’s already given you everything.’”
Martinez feels good about Rodriguez, too.
“I knew the energy was there between him and I because he was a good cook, a loyal cook for me for 10 years,” he says. “I thought, give him a good price, let him do his dream. I know how to appreciate people who dedicate themselves; I saw me in him, me from 30 years ago.”
Martinez will start transferring accounts into Rodriguez’s name next week. He’s ordered Mexican-style calendars for customers to purchase for the first time in years. He’ll keep his head down and keep doing the work. Come December, he says, there’s no telling how he’ll feel.
“I know as we get closer the emotions are going to rise. My mom, my dad, my brother, the employees—all of the employees—all of the people who helped me get to this point in time...It takes a community to get you to your destiny, your new chapter. I want to do a lot of things. I want to teach. I want to travel. I’m taking my hands off the steering wheel, though, and I’ll put it to you this way: When I finally go home, when I finally decompress, I want to open the sails on my sailboat and let the winds guide me.”