by Georgia Maryol
One day in the early seventies my young son James and I stopped into a little café on Hickox Street for a quick bite to eat. I tried a bean burrito with red chile. It was so delicious it reminded me of the Atrisco Barrio in Albuquerque, where I grew up in the forties and fifties. I went to the kitchen to meet the cook.
That was the first time I saw Tomasita Leyba. She was a short and wiry lady with a modern coif, clean apron and straight stance. She appeared to be in her seventies. She was standing over the stove with a cigarette in one hand and stirring whatever was in the pot with the other. I greeted her enthusiastically and complimented her fine cooking. She merely nodded her head with a wry smile and continued her activity.
After that first encounter I visited the café often, trying each dish one after the other. Absolute heaven! It was during this time I heard that the present owner of the café was unable to continue running the business. He had bought it only six months previously from Tomasita’s daughter and son-in-law, Demetro and Predicanda Leyba, and Tomasita had stayed on.
I was at a point in my life where I had no where to go. I was broke, unemployed, and had two children to raise. On a fluke, I went to the owner and offered to assume all of his debts in exchange for the café. An agreement was reached within one day. Lo and behold, I was in business!!
The following day, I went to the café and unlocked the door. To my surprise Tomasita was in the kitchen. She had begun the day’s cooking. Pots were simmering on the stove—warm, inviting—the smells were home. She approached me as she saw me enter and stood there with her arms crossed.
“Are you going to keep me or fire me?!” she bellowed. I stood back, took a deep grateful breath, and looked her in the eye.
“Well, Tomasita, I think I’ll just keep you.”
“Okay,” she said. Thus began a relationship that one rarely experiences in a lifetime.
In the short time that it had taken me to get into business, I had not taken the opportunity to see what I had gotten myself into. The café had very little business. The equipment was run down. The few employees who were there did not know what to do or when to work. The hours were haphazard due to the the previous owner’s condition, and customers did not know when it was opened or closed.
One thing was certain: the food was exquisite. Tomasita always saw to that.
So – Tomasita, LaLa Tapia, who was Tomasita’s sister-in-law, Anthony Moya and I had a meeting, as we were the only employees. We set the hours, 11-9 Monday through Friday, 11-4 on Saturday and closed on Sunday. No exceptions.
Tomasita and LaLa would come in at 8 a.m. and cook. Tortillas, homemade by LaLa’s gentle hands. Red and green chile by Tomasita. Rice with garlic, beans in the pressure cooker and so on. I would come in at 9 a.m. and prep the lettuce, tomatoes, onions, and other condiments, and set up the steam table. Then we would pitch in, the three of us, and wipe the tables, mop the floors, wash the pots and get ready for the lunch rush (what little there was of it). At 3:00 Anthony Moya got out of school and came to work. LaLa and Tomasita went home and Anthony and I ran the little café until 9 p.m. My two sons James and George came into the café after school, did their homework in one of the booths, had their dinner and assisted in washing the dishes, cleaning the toilet, and closing up at 9 p.m.
During this time, things started to happen. On my first day of business, we served 22 people, but as time went by we saw increases—day after day—30 people—35. I went to the Highway Department and put flyers on all the cars—50 people—60 people. A fresh coat of paint on Sunday—65 people—went to the Capitol Building with more flyers—borrowed a thousand dollars and brought a new deep fryer—70 people—80. Soon they were waiting for a table for lunch—90 people—new dishes—more flyers at the PERA Building—the Governor came for lunch—100 people. Tourists started showing up—135 people—not bad for a place that only seats 32! We hired our first waitress and dishwasher.
The hours were set, the consistency affirmed, and the people came. They came in trucks, taxis, Mercedes, bikes, and on foot, and we just kept doing what we were doing, day after day, week after week. We were flying high!
That is how it went for 5 years.
In the meantime, friends and bonds were formed. Each day I spent in those close quarters with Tomasita and LaLa made us a family. We learned from each other and about each other. Tomasita had many relatives, children, grandchildren, nieces, nephews, and many friends. They all affectionately referred to her as “Nani.” They dropped by often to see her, have a bite to eat and wish us well.
There was, and still is today, a mystery about Tomasita. It had to do with her purse and its contents. The purse was enormous, and because of her small size it appeared she was walking around with a giant suitcase. Anytime a niece, nephew, grandchild, or either of my children were around, she would extract from it some small goody—a piece of gum, a candy, a quarter or some treat. I especially remember that purse on one particular day of our Las Vegas, Nevada adventure.
It was decided several years after our tenure at Tomasita’s that a vacation was long overdue. So my mother (known as Tia Sophia) and Tomasita decided that they would like to go to Las Vegas to see Tony Orlando and Dawn. When we arrived at the airport Tomasita informed me that she had never flown before and that we should drive to Las Vegas or we were doomed. She refused to go down the ramp to the plane, so I started to pull her toward the plane by dragging the purse which she would not release. That was the heaviest thing I have ever lifted. We finally had the reluctant Tomasita buckled in, and off we went. It was a beautiful day and we flew over cumulus clouds, not a bump in the sky. Like a child she gazed out the window and kept repeating,
“I don’t believe it. I don’t believe it.”
The captain made an announcement on the speaker:
“Ladies and Gentlemen, I would like to welcome Tomasita on our flight today.”
All of the passengers applauded and she was beaming. After that when a niece or a nephew would drop by the café, she would say, “Let’s go to Denver, we’ll fly, don’t worry, I’ll take care of you.”
Tomasita was a perfectionist in the purest sense. She was organized, neat, and well dressed. Every Friday she collected her pay and headed for the beauty shop to fix her hair. She had astounding peripheral vision. If there was a scrap or a wet spot on the floor it was cleaned immediately. If an employee did a good job, she praised them—if not, they felt her wrath. She was loyal almost beyond reason and expected the same from everybody else. She commanded respect because of the example she set.
In her later years, Tomasita enjoyed sitting at the bar sipping a pina colada and chatting with customers. She would say,
“If you like everything tell your friends. If you don’t, tell me!”
She had a great sense of humor and enjoyed life too.
The day finally came when we had outgrown our little café. The opportunity to lease the red brick building on Guadalupe Street presented itself and I jumped at the chance. During the negotiations the public and the press predicted failure and doom for the move. I was depressed, worried, and afraid. What if I made a mistake and lost our customers?! I went to Tomasita and asked her advice. She said,
“Tell ’em all to go to hell. Let’s move!”
So move we did. The rest is history.
One warm summer day God’s hand took Tomasita. For a long time I couldn’t speak her name without choking up. The grief subsides as time passes and I will always cherish her wisdom and remember the good times we had—and I know I have been blessed.