Dreaming Martino's, Dreaming Juárez

Dennis Daily--musician, musicologist and library archivist (@NMSU at the time)--took these photographs at Martino's Restaurant on Sunday March 23, 2003. These waiters, busboys (see note) and chef had served me, my family and friends for years. I have their names in a file somewhere that I cannot find. The last time I was over in Juárez, Martino's was simply a bar that opened at 6pm. I don't go across that late to find out what's going on. The on-going counting of the murdered dead continues to overwhelm the city. This last Sunday was election day. 13 people were killed.  Families are leaving, businesses are closing. But Martino's has always been an important place for me. A piece of the culture and ambiente of El Paso and Juárez. For those of you who don't know Martino's or Juárez, I'm pasting below an article I wrote around the year 2001 for a local magazine. It gives you some gist of what the restaurant and the city used to be. And below that is a sweetly humorous photograph, taken by good friend Michael Wyatt, of the famous parking sign that stood in front of the restaurant.

[NOTE:In a restaurant in Mexico, to get a waiter’s or mesero’s attention, you use the word “Joven” which translates literally as “young man.” I never was comfortable using the word in Mexico, especially at Martino’s. As you can see from Dennis' photographs, these guys were all grace and style and for many years they were my senior. Especially my all-time favorite, a man named Moises II, a Peter Lorre look-alike who retired sometime in the 1990s. So when I wanted another beer or martini, I said “Señor.” Even in speaking with the busboys. I felt more comfortable like that, even though sometimes it took a while for them to realize I was trying to get their attention.]


Things You Can’t Do in Austin or Santa Fe, #3
(Written sometime around 2000-2001)

This is a message to those thirty-something and forty-something and fifty-something paseños who worry themselves silly because they’re not able to spend enough time and money in Santa Fe or Austin:


Walk south along El Paso Street past the Camino Real, the pawnshops, the shoe and clothing stores and the peculiar assortment of other thriving businesses. You will come to a bridge that crosses a river. On the other side of the river the bridge will miraculously unburden itself in another city that exists in another country. This is a foreign city and a foreign country. Indeed, you can go to London or to Paris and you won’t be in a country as foreign to you as the city and country on the other side of that bridge.

If your heart is open, you will be amazed at this journey. It’s like you have walked into a story that Gabriel Garcia Marquez is writing. You remember Gabriel Garcia Marquez, don’t you? You read his books in college. If you didn’t, you should have. Make a note to yourself to buy 100 Years of Solitude the first chance you get.

If you are a little bit waspish, or if you look perhaps like someone who will vote for George Bush, then the people in this foreign city will look at you like you are a foreigner. Trust them. They are right. Suddenly you are a foreigner. It’s like walking through a mirror. That’s okay though. They want you to enter their country because you probably have money in your pocket and credit cards in your wallet. In fact, you might think about giving some of the change you are rattling nervously in your pocket to the indigenous women and children who will greet you with their outstretched hands. These families--the tiny women in the colorful dresses, the men in the white pants and shirts, the children hungry and forlorn--are the Tarahumara. They have fled the Sierra because of the never-ending drought and their fear of the druglords and logging companies who are usurping their homelands.

You might be overcome with sadness, even remorse, seeing the poverty of the Tarahumara. Likewise seeing the poverty of some of the other citizens of this country. Maybe this is why you have forgotten about the Bridge from our country into their country. You didn’t want to look into the heart of such poverty. I can understand that. They can understand that. But give them a quarter. Or even a dollar. It won’t hurt you. It might even help you. Just please don’t sully their proud history by naming a polo club Tarahumara. This would be an arrogant and ugly act.

But this is not the reason you have crossed the Bridge.

You have crossed the Bridge so that you can go eat at a restaurant that is a few blocks further down the street. Don’t bother telling this to the cab drivers who want to take you to the market or to the bullfight or to a girlie show which is only around the corner anyway. Just ignore those guys and walk straight to Martino’s.
Martino’s is waiting for you next to the historic Kentucky Club. You might even want to have a drink at the Kentucky Club before going next door to Martino’s. Fine. The place has a wonderful old-fashion mahogany bar and a long mirror where you can sit on a stool and contemplate the meaning of things. The bartenders serve ice-cold Mexican beer, and they fix a decent and inexpensive drink. The bathrooms sort of stink, but that’s okay as long as you sit toward the window. If you see friends of your sons and daughters--indeed, if you see your sons and daughters--ignore them like you ignored the cab drivers. You are in a foreign country, they are in a foreign country, and you are turning another page of the story written by Gabriel Garcia Marquez.

So it’s time you enter Martino’s.

Before entering, however, peer inside through the big plate glass window. You will notice two things--first, the very neat and semi-elegant motif is bronze with red and white table clothes and huge mirrors, and, second, there are not too many customers inside. In fact, if you look closely, you might notice that there are more waiters inside than there are customers. This always mystifies me. Martino’s is my favorite restaurant and it is never full. Why? Because people like you are not crossing the Bridge to eat there. This is why I have brought you here. I love Martino’s. I want to see the waiters and the busboys and the cooks and the owner making money. I don’t want Martino’s to disappear like Julio’s disappeared.

So don’t be worried about the emptiness. You will enjoy yourself.

Entering Martino’s is a pleasure like an oft-practiced ritual is a pleasure. You push open the glass door and a waiter neatly dressed in a white jacket will be waiting for you. He is glad to see you. He and his colleagues quietly organize your table, they insure that you are comfortable. You soon realize that--no matter how good the food will be--the real pleasure of Martino’s is how the waiters treat you with respect and gentleness. They are never in your face, but they appear miraculously when they are needed. Like they too have read 100 Years of Solitude and they have learned the genuine meaning of service. My favorite is Moises II who looks like Peter Lorre and who first waited on my wife Lee and I in the 70s. But two or three others rival him in the soulful practice of the art of being a waiter.

Now that you are seated at Martino’s, I want to give you some advice

If this is your virgin crossing, don’t worry about the water. It’s bottled water. The ice is from bottled water.
Once you’re beyond the question of water, I recommend you order a martini straight up (derecho) with either Tangueray or Beefeater’s as your gin of choice. Vodka, of course, should not be considered. Although other devotees of Martino’s praise the traditional Margaritas, or the icy exotic drinks of greens or blues, or even the exquisitely cold beers, I believe my recommendation leads you deeper into the mystery that I perceive at Martino’s. The waiter prepares the martini at your table. It is a ceremony worth watching, a sacrament to enjoy, and it’s certainly well worth the 4-bucks you pay for the pleasure. Especially since it’s a double.
Like many restaurants on the other side, the menu at Martino’s is huge, and I have never come close to eating everything. If you want something before dinner, the shrimp and octopus cocktails are good, the escargot (or so says my friend Willivaldo Delgadillo) is delicious. When you’re choosing an entrée, stick with the steaks and fishes. Under no circumstances choose a Mexican dish. They don’t know how to cook Mexican food at Martino’s. Also, stick with the simply prepared foods. Our experience with the paella, for instance, is that it was excellent one visit and lousy the next.

I usually get the chateaubriand cooked on the grill or pan-fried French-style in butter. I order my steak medium-rare, and the chef has never disappointed me. The meat is very tender and very delicious. It rivals any steak served in El Paso. Guaranteed. At $10.95 it’s truly one of the great deals anywhere near our city.
The fishes are a number of different fillets, or whole Black Basses, cooked in a variety of ways. They also have lobster and shrimp dishes. I don’t know anybody who has ever had the lobster. All entrees come with a soup, salad and potato. My favorite soup is the French onion. It’s delicious. Even my snotty New York friends say it’s delicious. But Martino’s has other soups, each with its fans--a hot potato soup and two cold soups, avocado and a gazpacho.

Sadly, the salads are commonplace--iceberg lettuce and tomatoes with the usual suspects for dressings. Oh, well. I eat them and am happy I did. I notice, however, that my friends sometimes don’t eat the salads. I don’t know if they’re worried about getting sick or simply don’t like iceberg lettuce. I never ask.

After dinner, the waiter will offer you a wide selection of deserts ranging from a raging flambé to the traditional flan. Lee and I usually get the flan with a bunch of spoons for everybody. It’s truly rich and delicious. I may even go whole hog and get a good shot of brandy in a snifter and a cup of coffee. Why not, huh?
I hope you enjoy Martino’s. I hope you sit close enough to the big front window so you can watch all the different kinds of people walking by. Doing so is an act of meditation, one that is amplified by the fact that you’re in a foreign country but close to home. The waiters somehow recognize the fact that you are meditating and they leave you alone.

If you’re a man, I hope you visit the bathroom so can enjoy the old-fashioned pleasure of melting the ice in the urinal.

When you’re done, pay with a credit card because you get a much better rate of exchange. BUT tip the waiter with cash. U.S. dollars. Twenty-percent at least. The staff will have earned that amount easily. Besides, you’ve had a truly wonderful dinner for somewhere around $20 a head. That’s very good for the excellent evening you’ve had.

The waiters will shake your hands as you leave. Go back outside into the noise and the traffic of the night. All sorts of kids will be on the street full with a wild energy that you lost long ago. They might frighten you, they might worry you. That’s okay. You can remember the confusion in your own heart at that age, no? Walk back to the Bridge, poking your head into the stores and into the discos.

I hope you’re full of wonder...

 (Photo  by Michael Wyatt)


John Davis said...

I too dream of Martino's. My last visit must have been in 1985 or so. I remember talking with Mr. Martino, sometime in the 80's. He was very old at the time. I told him how wonderful his restaurant was, and he replied, "The restaruant is not mine, it belongs to my customers." Another part of the charm was always the great respect that the staff has for each other. They were masters of an elegant and secret art.

Kvatch said...

First restaurant I ever wore a suit to. I was maybe 8 or 9 at the time. Went with my parents many times over the years, the last time being in the mid-90's with my wife.

I haven't been to Martino's, nor indeed even across the border to Ciudad Juarez, in at least a decade. I hope they're still going strong despite the horrific situation in Juarez.

Bobby Byrd said...

Sadly, Martino's is no more. One of the cultural losses to our lives with this tragic disease of violence. It all began with poverty--spiced with greed, hatred and delusion. I appreciate your comment and for reading the blog. John Davis too. May the New Year bring peace to Juarez. May Martino's rise again out of the ashes from all this violence. May everyday working people find peace and good wages in Juarez.

Anonymous said...

I'm devastated to learn that Martino's is gone, although it is not surprising what with the violence in Juarez. I was hoping that Martino's would be spared, somehow...My family and I have had wonderful meals and good times there and I'm thankful for the memories.

Anonymous said...

I went for the first time to Martino's in 1965 at the age of 5. My family, from nearby Carlsbad, NM, used to vacation in Jaurez because with 7 people, you could really get a good deal. We would stay at the Camino Real, a very swanky hotel, and there would definitely be a trip or two to Martino's during the week. We would get all dressed up of course, and have a high time out for dinner, first class all the way. Our regular and favorite waiter was Oscar. He later became an owner I believe, along with another one of the long-standing waiters. My sister and I went to boarding school at Radford in El Paso, so whenever our parents came to visit, Martino's was on the list. I loved the little photographer that would come by your table, and take your photo in black and white. he would go to his shop, develop it, and bring you your copies. I don't know how many of the photos we have but they are many and varied throughout the years: like when an aunt of uncle visited, when I made National Honor Society in 1976. When I married we took my husband there...and it was soon his favorite too. the copper water pitchers and charger plates, the little tortilla chips with refried beans and jalapenos, the incredible margaritas, and my favorite dish, paella. In 2007 we took our kids, with two of my brothers to have dinner. Everything was much the same. With all the changes by then, the once flourishing tourist street, with the Kentucky Club next door, was desolate, hardly any shops and not full of laughter as we had known it. But we had one last meal there, said our goodbyes, and took one more black and white photo, digital style, with m children, to try to connect them with one of the happiest memories of our lives.

Ann in Carlsbad

Bobby Byrd said...

Dear Carlsbad Ann, Thanks. The photographer, according to a few of the waiters, was probably Pedro Ruelas Alvarez. He died in the 1990s. I tried to find some of his photos but never could. You can see his photo of Lee and me at http://whitepantiesanddeadfriends.blogspot.com/2009/10/youtubing-lee-me-literary-el-paso.html
I used it in my book The Price of Doing Business in Mexico. Our favorite waiter was Moises II. He made a perfect martini while balancing the tray in his hand.

Anonymous said...

Martino it's now open once again!!!...

They start operations last February 14..i eat today there,and its superb!!

Oscar M.