Remembering Matt Martinez, Jr.

My former D Magazine colleague Mary Brown Malouf knew Matt Martinez for over 30 years. Currently the food & travel editor at Salt Lake magazine, Mary sends a poignant tribute to Matt Martinez, Jr.

My brother Dave, sister Helen, and I all earned degrees in chiles relleno in Austin during the 70s.

Officially, we earned bachelor’s degrees in Philosophy, Latin, and British History, all subjects sure to lead to fame and fortune. (As you might expect, we’re all in the food business now.) But we spent so much time down on First Street at El Rancho, that we learned a lot more about Mexican food than the passive periphrastic or Rene Descartes, much less Henry IV.

Matt Martinez, Sr., “the king of Mexican food,” standing in front of his youthful Golden Gloves portrait, greeted us at the door of the restaurant his grandfather started after leaving Pancho Villa’s army. His wife Lupe greeted us with a wide smile and a hug like a mom’s. Albert and the oldest waiter moved through the dining room with focused efficiency and we stuffed ourselves with chiles rellenos (beef, with guacamole salad) margaritas, Pearl beer, guacamole enchiladas, and our choice of praline or sherbet.  Sometime during the meal, Matt, Sr. would come by the table. “Doing all right?” is all he would say, and the phrase became a family catchword.

Unobtrusively, sometimes standing in for his dad and sometimes helping out in the rambling dining rooms, was a skinny, sleepy-eyed young man with long sideburns and mod clothes: Matt, Jr.

Each of our reluctant graduations was celebrated with a party in the private room at El Rancho, organized and overseen by Matt, Jr. My sister’s engagement was announced over the Martinez family chiles rellenos. My first marriage ended over the same menu.

We all moved to Dallas; so did Matt, Jr., not so skinny anymore. We sought him out in the depths of Plaza of the Americas, and one of daughter Anna’s first loves was Matt’s salsa, gummed off a tostado.

We followed Matt and his food to the little space on Ferguson Road, to the Oak Lawn Mattito’s, to the little, then the big, space in Lakewood, to No Place, where he developed his own style of Southwestern cooking, including his famous smoked baked potato.  We cured hangovers and homesickness, celebrated homecomings and birthdays at Matt’s. Our children’s high school graduations and our friends’ sons’s bar mitzvah called for meals at Matt’s. Before leaving for California as marriage # 2 was ending, I ate at Rancho Martinez; it was part of coming home when I moved back, years later.

As I devolved into a food writer, I learned to respect Matt’s palate and love of food more and more. I interviewed him, reviewed his restaurants, and photographed him as his food footprint grew. When Julia Child played hooky from her official business in Dallas to go taste Matt’s food, we were as proud as if another sibling had chicken-fried that steak.

In other words, Matt Martinez, Jr.’s table was our family table.

He appears in multiple family celebration photos. His food inspired a family philosophy. (“Do you want red or green sauce?” (with the chile relleno), a server always asked. “A little bit of both,” was always the answer, and it became our solution to most difficult choices.)

Sharing food has been a sacrament since ancient times. Breaking bread—or tortillas—with someone bonded you to that person permanently.

So even though Estella and her children are not related to me, and even though none of them would recognize me if I bumped into them, the death of her husband and their father is like losing part of my family. My family thanks the Martinez family for many happy memories. Matt, su familia es mi familia.