Brian Martinez and his aunt, Linda Martinez, work at their restaurant, Jose's Restaurante Mexicana y Cantina, in Restaurant Row. The extended Martinez family owns another restaurant in Kaimuki, and has been in the business for decades, both in Hawaii and on the mainland.

Only natural

Restaurants are just part
of being a Martinez

By Russ Lynch

Growing up in a big family with parents, grandparents, aunties and cousins who all loved to cook, the Martinez children turned naturally to the restaurant business for their vocation as well as their joy.

Sisters Linda and Yolanda Martinez own Jose's Restaurante Mexicana y Cantina in Restaurant Row. Brothers Richard, Frederick and Mark own Jose's Mexican Restaurant on Koko Head Avenue in Kaimuki, which they opened in 1973.

Family tree Another brother, Joe, had a restaurant on the mainland and the family of Joe's wife, Laura, is also in the business, on the mainland.

"It's in our blood," Linda said. Five brothers and the two sisters have all operated restaurants. Linda and Yolanda's nephews Darren and Brian work at Jose's in Restaurant Row. "There's always somebody from the family on hand," Yolanda said.

"Joe (the oldest) and Laura were offered a chance to come to Hawaii. They jumped at the chance," said Linda. That was in 1966, when the owners of a Mexican restaurant on Kapiolani Boulevard, the Rancho Grande, wanted to retire and sell to someone. Joe and Laura transformed it into La Paloma, which became a landmark restaurant, popular among residents and tourists.

Linda and Yolanda visited Hawaii on vacation and moved to Honolulu in 1969. They already were connected to the restaurant business through their mother and an aunt who opened a restaurant in the El Matador Inn on Wilshire Boulevard in Los Angeles in 1964.

From the time they were small they used to watch their parents and grandparents preparing food. "Grandpa would work all day grinding chiles and spices to make salsas and ingredients for the food," Yolanda said. The girls learned to grind spices at a young age.

"We were raised in San Bernardino, where they have some of the best Mexican restaurants anywhere," Yolanda said. Their grandmother had a restaurant there. The sisters still have hand-written recipes handed down through the family and they are always creating their own, drawing on their extensive experience and trips to see relatives and try out restaurants in California, New Mexico and Mexico.

They remember big brother Joe picking them up in Waikiki in the wee hours of the morning, maybe after the Don Ho show, so they could all go to his restaurant and make flour tortillas, a family specialty.

Six years ago, Linda and Yolanda went out on their own and started a takeout place in downtown Honolulu, Jose's Taqueria at 33 S. King St. The two women live in the same house, see each other every morning and felt they could function more efficiently in their own business than as part of a complex family operation.

At times, the downtown location was not the nicest of areas. It also had the drawback of being in what is essentially a business-only district, where there are no customers around at night or weekends.

They did OK, though, branching out into catering. "Everyone said you need a sit-down place and it would be nice to be able to have a beer or a margarita with the food," Yolanda said. Three years ago the Restaurant Row location became available. An agent called Yolanda, who liked the idea and took off for the mainland to talk it over with Linda. "We called and told him to hold it for us," Linda said.

There was a lot of hard work to be done cleaning up the place and putting in some new equipment. Friends rallied round, often putting in long hours of volunteer labor and eventually with a new decor and new signs, the new Jose's opened in late 1999.

"We love to cook. We learned from Grandmother, Dad and Mom," Yolanda said.

"I don't remember a party or get-together when we didn't have great food. Aunt Esther is almost 80 and she is still learning. Her latest thing is tempura."

Linda said all the family members are good cooks and they learn from each other.

The family is spread out but they get together when they can, usually on the mainland. "The last time was Thanksgiving. We had 22 people together for dinner in Las Vegas," she said. "When we go to California we call ahead and tell our cousins we're coming," to see how many can get together.

When they do meet, it is all about food. "We go to one of the homes and everyone brings pot luck," Linda said. They try each other's favorites.

When they had the Taqueria downtown, they developed new recipes and kept them in a book and they are still adding to it.

Beyond the food, it's fun to be in the restaurant business, Yolanda said. The women have made friends from many walks of life, people they would never have met in other circumstances.

The women are around the restaurant so much it is like home. A three-year-old grandnephew, son of nephew Darren, even thinks it is their home. "I want to go to your house," he tells the women, pointing at the restaurant.

"You have to like to visit with people. We are a very friendly, gregarious family," Yolanda said. Anyone who thinks of restaurant work as drudgery shouldn't be in the business, she said.

The inspiration came from their father, Jose, and their mother, Ina. Jose's mother was from Guanajuato, Mexico, and he was born there and learned gourmet cooking from her. Ina was born in New Mexico. When Yolanda and Linda were young, their mother took them to Albuquerque to visit her aunts and uncles and cousins. They saw chiles growing in the fields and were able to taste the best of them.

Ina taught the girls to make red chile sauce and New Mexico enchiladas. The girls worked for La Paloma restaurants in San Bernardino and La Verne, Calif. In Sacramento, they worked in a restaurant with their brother Bob and sister-in-law Lyn.

Then it was off to Honolulu where they helped out at La Paloma and were involved with their brothers in the conception, opening and operations of Jose's in Kaimuki.

Now the women have had more than two years in their own sit-down restaurant.

"It's nice when you get to know people and when you remember things, what customers like," Linda said. Sometimes the women get to remind a customer that he or she doesn't like sour cream, things like that, she said. It makes the owners feel good and makes the customers feel at home.

Nephew Brian, who manages the Restaurant Row restaurant when Linda and Yolanda are elsewhere, loves the family reunions.

"It's a lot of sharing of recipes and stories at the same time," he said. Brian has his own childhood memories and shared one with Linda and Yolanda. "I was talking to them the other day about the tortillas my grandma used to make. I can still smell them," he said.

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