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Photograph by Michael Amsler

Vision quest: Martha Lopez lends a personal touch to the upscale Mexican cuisine at her popular west county establishment.

On Her Own

Sebastopol restaurateur Martha Lopez finds a place to play house

By Marina Wolf

CHEFING is a transient business. There's always a better gig at the new place down the street, better pay in the next town over. Ask around, and you'll be lucky to find a chef who's been in the same place for three years, let alone 35, as Martha Lopez had at her family's restaurant, the popular Old Mexico in Santa Rosa, before opening her own place, Martha's, in Sebastopol.

Lopez is nonchalant about the three and a half decades she spent working and cooking with her family, at the restaurant that their parents opened in 1964, soon after they arrived in the county from Michoacan, Mexico. "I was raised to do this," she says in a rare moment of relaxation on the green-covered patio behind the cozy new space on Main Street. "I had no other choice. It was my father's choice," she says with not a trace of bitterness. "I don't know what else I might have done.

"I have always done this."

Lopez's longtime compliance with her family's wishes might be startling to Anglo-Americans, who usually want to flee the nest long before it's a legal possibility. But to Lopez it's simply the sign of a close family and good household economics. There are six children in the family--"My father had a good source of labor," says Lopez with a chuckle--and all of them are still working in the family restaurant.

All except Martha.

"They're not too happy, none of them," says Lopez with a small shrug. "Because when part of the family leaves, the right hand, you know . . . Because I was one of the oldest, I had more responsibilities. I think the boys will have to pick up some of the duties."

The "boys," as she calls her four brothers affectionately, are all in their 30s, and Lopez is confident that they'll soon fill in the space left by her departure. "They saw what I did," she explains, "as I saw what my father did."

THAT STOVE-SIDE training provided Lopez with a well-rounded education, as far as these things go. Lopez's father did some of everything in the kitchen, and loved it, both at home and in the restaurant. Of course, in Mexico both are often the same place. "There you cook everything in your house, set a table outside, and serve it out like you were at home," she says.

While U.S. health codes prohibit that exact sort of homeliness, the Lopez family did manage to reproduce the same feel at Old Mexico. Everyone was there, all the time. Ever since she'd finished high school and cosmetology school, Lopez had worked like the rest of them: six days a week, 14 to 16 hours a day.

She doesn't complain; it was just part of being in the family.

Lopez hasn't seen her family much since Martha's opened on Nov. 1; neither she nor her family has the time. The most she has to look forward to is the standard set of American family holidays: Christmas, Thanksgiving, Easter. The fact that she owns her own home in Santa Rosa makes the separation that much more complete. She has no husband, as her mother did, to take a shift at the restaurant's stove, and no children to come home after school and help out in the kitchen.

BUT SOME TRADITIONS die hard. Lopez is still working with family: cousin Martha Lobato, who had worked at Old Mexico for 14 years, joined her elder cousin in the Sebastopol venture as hostess and server. Lopez and Lobato are also sharing a home, with Lobato's two grown sons, who do sometimes come in to help on the weekends.

It reproduces the feel of her old family situation, in miniature.

Certainly the work environment has been downsized. "The first two weeks working in the kitchen, I was banging myself on the corners because I was not used to working in such a small place," says Lopez. Small indeed: Martha's will have maybe 17 tables during the summer, when the patio is open. There's half that many now. Old Mexico, on the other hand, seats about 200 people, including those in the party room, for a total of 50 tables or more. "This is nothing; it's like a playhouse for me."

But at least the playhouse is all hers. "I like my independence," Lopez says, folding her hands together firmly. "Working with the family, you have to go by Father's rules, and have people tell you what to do, when you know what to do. Getting to decide for myself was the best thing about leaving."

And it's not just the sun-backed chairs and the arrangement of the condiments in the kitchen that Lopez can decide about. She's got more latitude now to play with the ingredients, which she pulls from both her native Michoacan and her California home.

In a cuisine that, in this country, tends toward steam-table sameness, and in a city that already had one Mexican restaurant per thousand people, the young Martha's restaurant is already serving regulars who appreciate the low price and freshness of Lopez's approach.

"I'm not going to say my food is that different, but it has my own touch, in every plate." She is particularly proud of her salad dressing, a creamy avocado sauce that she says came to her in a dream.

But still, after 35 years, why the sudden decision to strike out on her own? "Well, it was a challenge for me. After working for my family for 35 years, I kind of said, 'I want something else.' I'm 48 years old, so I had to do it while I still had the strength to do something like this on my own."

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From the January 27-February 2, 2000 issue of the Sonoma County Independent.

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