The apple will fall under the apple tree, goes a Greek proverb. That’s only half the story when it comes to explaining how two generations in, Greek restaurateurs are turning out some of the most popular New Mexican cuisine in Santa Fe. From Tia Sophia’s breakfast burritos to sopaipillas at the Plaza Café, red chile at Atrisco Café & Bar to Tomasita’s tamales, Greek-owned establishments have helped keep classic norteño food on the town’s culinary map.
How exactly did the Greeks conquer Santa Fe? In recent conversations with Tomasita’s founder Georgia Maryol, her son George Gundrey (who now runs Tomasita’s and Atrisco), Tia Sophia’s owner Nick Maryol, and Plaza Café owner Daniel Razatos, a fascinating oral history emerged. It’s a classic American tale about a few immigrants who found jobs at diners, adopted the tried-and-true recipes of their Hispanic neighbors and cooks, then invested decades of Hellenistic hard work into serving up New Mexican comfort food.
In the 1930s, Tomasita’s founder Georgia Maryol’s parents came to the Southwest from the village of Kalloni on Lesbos. Her father Tony first sought his fortune in Santa Fe, where his relatives ran the Faith Café on San Francisco Street. “It’s where Evangelos is now,” said Georgia, who is seventy-nine.
Her mother, Sophia Maryol, served American diner fare — fried chicken and meatloaf — at the Central Café on Route 66 in Albuquerque during the ’40s, ’50s, and up until her retirement in 1972. Sophia’s six children grew up working in the café, including Georgia, the oldest, and her brother Jim, who eventually founded Tia Sophia’s. The family’s neighbors in the Atrisco barrio provided Georgia’s first taste of the food that would eventually spawn several of her own restaurants. “They were all Hispanic, and they all cooked New Mexican food. Red and green chile and homemade tortillas. And when we’d come home from school with our friends, we’d go over to their aunt’s house and she’d have a homemade flour tortilla with red chile in it and potatoes,” she remembered. “And boy, it was the greatest thing in the world.”
Georgia and her son George Gundrey, who is fifty, explained the tight family networks that helped immigrants settle in New Mexico. “A lot of those people came to work in the mines, in places like Dawson and Silver City,” she said. “They stayed in New Mexico and opened their own businesses.” Gundrey added, “And from a little group of Greeks or Italians who came to work in the mines, they actually went and recruited in Greece and Italy. And then once there’s a few people here, then they communicate with their relatives, and that’s how they ended up here. Five Greeks showed up to work in the mines, then there were 20 of them, and then ...”
“Fifty years later, there’s five hundred Greeks!” his mother said, laughing.
One day in the early ’70s, Georgia stopped in for lunch at a hole-in-the-wall on Hickox Street (now the site of the Tune-Up Café). The food took her right back to the Atrisco barrio. “I said, Who made this food? And it was Tomasita [Leyba] who was cooking in the kitchen.”
In a history of Tomasita’s published on the restaurant’s website, the restaurateur writes, “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.” Georgia bought the café from its owner, who had suffered a bad accident and was unable to pay his debts. Leyba hailed from a village in San Miguel County, and her kitchen prowess and recipes came with the restaurant, along with her sister-in-law and fellow chef LaLa Tapia.
Over on San Francisco Street around the same time in the mid-’70s, Georgia’s brother Jim and his wife Ann were trying to figure out what to name their new diner. In homage to Jim’s hardworking mother, they settled on Tia Sophia’s.
“My dad would run it five days out of the week, my mom would run it five days out of the week, and they would give each other one day off,” said Nick Maryol, the current owner-operator of Tia Sophia’s. “The Greek attitude is that [the owner] has to be in your restaurant all the time if it’s open.”
Nick’s branch of the family, too, were savvy enough not to mess with the traditions of their Hispanic cooks. Tia Sophia’s red and green chile recipes come straight from Jenny and Connie Aragon (a pair of sisters Nick called “puras norteñas nativas”). Nick went to work at age six, bussing tables with his cousin George, who is three years older. The two helped themselves to half-eaten plates of French fries whenever they could. As teenagers, they mounted Dungeons and Dragons campaigns in the back halls of the family restaurant.
Just a few blocks down from Tia’s, the Plaza Café has been owned by three successive Greek families. Owner Daniel Razatos Jr., who is in his mid-fifties, said the Plaza was established at 54 Lincoln Avenue in 1905 by two immigrant brothers, the Ipiotis. They turned it over to fellow immigrants, the Pomonis, who offered Razatos’ father, Daniel Sr., a job when he came from Kefalonia in the early 1930s. In 1946, he returned from World War II and bought into the restaurant, and by the early ’50s, the Razatos family had become the sole owners of Santa Fe’s oldest restaurant.
The menu of the Plaza Café has evolved along with the family who runs it. A 1951 menu shows a selection of ham, bacon, and Brookfield sausages, all served with eggs (80 cents), along with an omelette of calf’s brains (90 cents), lamb chops on toast ($1.35), and fried calf liver with onions and bacon ($1).
“We didn’t always offer Greek food,” Razatos said. “My dad was only for New Mexican and diner food, and we’d beg him to do Greek food. And he’d go, ‘No, nobody comes to New Mexico to eat Greek food.’ So finally, I remember in ’86, we put the gyro on. And it was a big hit. He was surprised! And so now Greek food has slowly made its way in, and people are more accepting of it.”
Nick Maryol also pointed to several differences between the current Tia Sophia’s menu and that of his parents in the ’70s. “We never had Greek food, but it was more dinery stuff.” He said eventually his parents decided to stick with what their local cooks knew best and streamlined a menu that stuck to norteño classics. “We have been serving the same basic menu since ’82,” he said. “I used to say that my dad invented the breakfast burrito — but he didn’t. You know, New Mexicans have been putting bacon and eggs and potatoes and cheese into tortillas and eating it forever: He was just the first to call it a breakfast burrito and put it on a menu in the ’70s.”
Tia Sophia’s also may have originated another iconic phrase in the annals of New Mexican cuisine. In the ’80s, Nick said, server Martha Ratuño coined the term “Christmas” to refer to the combination of red and green chiles. “She got tired of people hemming and hawing between the red and the green, so she says, ‘Well, get it Christmas.’ ”
Nick’s cousin George Gundrey returned to Santa Fe in the early 2000s from more than a decade spent in the Bay Area, where he said he was influenced by the “foodie explosion.” “You know, New Mexican food was foodie before foodie was cool,” Gundrey said. After he became executive director of the Santa Fe Farmers Market in 2006, he began urging his mother to streamline the ingredients in her kitchen. “I went through everything at Tomasita’s. You know, they were buying dressings. I said, we’re going to make all the dressings from scratch. I just looked at the ingredient labels a lot more, getting as many of the chemicals out as we can. I’m always having this debate about the oil in the deep fryer, like what’s the best oil we can use.”
As the second generation builds on their parents’ success, the story of the red-and-green-chile Greeks marches into another century. At the De Vargas Center in 2009, Gundrey opened the ever-popular Atrisco Café, whose name and menu pay homage to the place where his mother first tasted the norteño food she would come to serve. Last year, Maryol and Gundrey cut the ribbon on Tomasita’s Albuquerque, located in a prominent spot on the Pan-American Freeway. Daniel Razatos Jr.’s siblings Leonard Razatos and Belinda Marshall opened the more spacious Plaza Café Southside on Cerrillos Road in 2003; in 2017, Daniel’s son Justin Salazar unveiled Café Sonder in the old Zia Diner space on Guadalupe Street.
Nick Maryol said Tia Sophia’s is gearing up to introduce a new menu item with a uniquely Northern New Mexico pedigree: a Frito pie, starring the Aragon sisters’ famous red chile. But most of Santa Fe’s Greek restaurateurs agree that it’s hard to mess with success and that any alteration to their recipes or menus would instantly be detected by legions of loyal customers.
“Our menu has not changed in a long time,” said Razatos of the Plaza Café. “That’s part of our success, and it’s also part of our Achilles heel. We can’t change. It’s all the hits. And if you take off one of the hits, it’s like the end of the world.” ◀
Tomasita’s: 500 S. Guadalupe St., 505-983-5721, tomasitas.com
Atrisco Café & Bar: 193 Paseo de Peralta, 505-983-7401, atriscocafe.com
Tia Sophia’s: 210 W. San Francisco St., 505-983-9880, tiasophias.com
Plaza Café: 54 Lincoln Ave., 505-982-1664, plazacafesantafe.com