Georgia Maryol’s special relationship with food began at a very early age. The oldest of six children, the founder of Tomasita’s was born into a family of Greek immigrants, who had come to the United States in search of a better life. Raised in the Atrisco barrio in Albuquerque, she was surrounded by families who made their own tortillas and roasted their own green chile. That distinctive smell was familiar throughout the neighborhood and her neighbors were more than happy to share the fruits of their labors. So, in spite of her Greek heritage, it was the New Mexico food that she loved. “Home-made tortillas, stuffed with potatoes and chile. Delicious!” she recalls with a big smile.
When, in 1946, her stepfather opened the Central Café on route 66 in Albuquerque, it effectively became the place where Georgia grew up, especially since the family home, which was physically connected to the restaurant, had no kitchen. So the café kitchen inevitably became the family kitchen, too, and all six children, in turn, worked there from the age of about 6 to 18. “It was standard American fare,” says Georgia. “Hamburgers, meatballs, fried chicken… Back then – we’re talking 1940s now – hamburgers were 20 cents, chicken in a basket 35 cents and coffee just 5 cents. How times have changed!”
Even though the marriage didn’t finally work out, her mother, Sophia, continued to run it and do most of the cooking until she retired in 1972. Every night, at 9 o’clock, she would sit down and count the day’s takings and if the total was less than $70 – the minimum amount she needed to take care of her family – she would stay open until the bars closed, in order to serve the after bar crowd.
Sophia’s work ethic has definitely been instilled into her children. Work hard, give yourself 100% to what you do and treat both staff and customers with equal respect and consideration. And it shows. Tomasita’s has staff members who have been with the restaurant for over 20, 30, even 40 years, and three of her other children have been involved with successful restaurants as well. Georgia’s brother, James, started Tia Sophia’s, her sister Toni ran Diego’s for 19 years and, for 30 odd years, another sister, Eva, was a mainstay at Tomasita’s.
After graduating from high school, Georgia went on to UNM, only to discover that she didn’t really like being a student. She was far more interested in doing, rather than studying, so she left. It wasn’t long before she met her future husband, Richard Gundrey, who was a dance instructor with the Arthur Murray School of Dance at the time. But it wasn’t long before he, too, was drawn into the restaurant business and, after a spell in San Francisco (where their son, James, was born) the couple moved back to Albuquerque to manage the Guitar Grill. From there they returned to Santa Fe, where George, their second son, was born, and opened the Mayflower Café on Don Gaspar Avenue downtown, where Pasqual’s is now.
The two of them eventually split up and sold the business and Georgia went on to work in a number of different restaurants around town. “I did a bit of everything,” she recalls, “and I learned a lot – what to do and, perhaps more importantly, what not to do. And I really liked the people, the action, the lifestyle. I just hate sitting at a desk.”
One day, as luck would have it, she stopped off for a quick bite to eat at a little place on Hickox Street. The bean burrito with chile was so exceptionally good, it brought back memories of her childhood days growing up in the Atrisco barrio. She became a regular visitor, savoring every dish on the menu and, at the same time, getting to know Tomasita Leyba, the feisty little cook who produced such delicious dishes.
When Georgia heard that the owner had suffered a bad accident and was no longer able to run the café, she had the crazy notion of offering to buy it from him, in exchange for taking on his debts. He agreed, Tomasita stayed on, and some much needed practical changes were made, to make the place run more efficiently. Only the food remained the same. Word began to spread, business steadily increased and before too long tourists started to show up. Five years on, the 32 seat café was bursting at the seams. It was time to move.
And that’s when the red brick building in the railyard, that Georgia had been eyeing for a while, became available for lease. With a seating capacity of 80, it was already being used as a restaurant, but was not doing well. She was excited by the opportunity, but others were skeptical, suggesting it was risky, maybe the new location would lose her customers and it could well fail. After agonizing for a while over what to do, Georgia went to Tomasita, who was by now part of the family, to ask for her advice. Her response was simple and direct. “Tell ‘em all to go to hell. Let’s move!”
The rest, as they say, is history. Tomasita’s restaurant has now been in business for over 45 years, during which time the seating capacity has expanded to about 200, the staff has grown from 3 to 83 and the parking lot can now accommodate 110 cars. “I have my mother to thank for that,” say Georgia. “She always used to say, ‘no parking, no business!’
The restaurant’s reputation has also spread far beyond Santa Fe. It has been featured in publications including the New York Times, the Chicago Tribune, Gourmet magazine and the Los Angeles Times, and draws customers from all around the world. It was even closed to the public on one occasion, in order to accommodate Hillary Clinton and her entourage, when she was First Lady.
But the main customer base is still solidly local and Tomasita’s is still very much a family business. Various family members have worked there over the years; Georgia’s nephew, Ignatios, who has been with the restaurant since the mid ‘80s, is a manager, and ownership has now been passed to her son, George, who also owns their sister restaurant, the Atrisco Café.
So the traditional, classic recipes live on and are now a permanent part of Santa Fe’s culinary tradition. And to think it all began with a random encounter with a bean and chile burrito… fate works in mysterious ways.