Even during a pandemic, Tune Up Café is hopping. On a recent Friday night, diners ate on the patio of the popular Hickox Street establishment, bundled in winter coats, while others waited inside for takeout. The recently enlarged dining room, mostly empty of tables, makes keeping one’s social distance easy, while still affording everyone a good view of the new pie case. Among other tempting items, there was a lemon-curd coconut cake that’s known as one of the finest gluten-free desserts in town. Behind the counter, owner Jesus Rivera, 48, was making a basil pesto pizza in Tune Up’s brand-new pizza oven.
Tune Up food isn’t gourmet, nor is it diner fare. It’s more like getting invited to eat at your friend’s house, whose mom or dad cooks so well that it seems impossible they don’t own a restaurant. Rivera’s mother was such a cook, he says, and he learned from her.
Rivera started in restaurants as a dishwasher, after emigrating to Santa Fe from El Salvador in the late 1990s. He opened Tune Up in 2008 to immediate success, at first concentrating on El Salvadoran and New Mexican food. Now, dinner at Tune Up might start with a cup of Thai coconut soup or calamari from the extensive specials menu, followed by one of the house specialties — lamb barbacoa tacos, for instance, or flank steak pupusas.
Guy Fieri, host of the Food Network’s Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives, visited Tune Up the year after they opened, and issued one of his highest compliments: The pupusas are “on-point” residents of his favorite location, Flavor Town.
Pasatiempo talked to Rivera about recent renovations at the restaurant, and how things are going during the pandemic.
Pasatiempo: You started remodeling last winter, around the time everything shut down.
Jesus Rivera: We have pizzas now, and the kitchen is totally in the back now.
Pasa: Is it a wood-burning oven?
JR: It’s gas, but it’s like a kiva. It cooks like wood.
Pasa: Was putting in a pizza oven the reason for the renovation?
JR: Yeah, I planned that with the architect, to put the kitchen in the back and put in the pizza oven. We’ve had that plan for maybe four years. It’s nice now. We didn’t have a lot of space in the kitchen.
Pasa: What was your vision when you first opened? What kind of restaurant did you want to run?
Rivera: In the beginning, I was thinking it was a little Mexican, a little New Mexican, and Salvadoran. But then, after that, I think I can create some pastas. I didn’t want to think just one kind of food. I wanted to think what was possible. For me, it’s the point to make different kinds of food from everywhere. Sometimes, I make a special, the Moroccan stew. To have a choice.
Pasa: How did you start cooking in restaurants?
JR: I started washing dishes. I was always curious to help with the prep, and sometimes cook. But I was still washing dishes. But I always wanted to learn more steps, so I always try. To do what I want to do, I had to work at new places. Washing dishes was okay, but I wanted to learn some more. My cooking, I learned here mostly.
Pasa: Your training has been at your own restaurant?
JR: Yeah. I just experiment with new dishes. Now, because of how it is, I don’t create a new menu. I’m waiting when we come back to being more normal, when people can be inside and not just on the patio. But we have heaters. And we’re doing takeout.
Pasa: Are you surviving?
JR: You know, we are surviving. We have less employees because we don’t need so many now. It’s a new experience. It’s almost a year. We have not had this situation in my generation, so this is something new for everybody.
Pasa: Has it changed the way you look at your business?
JR: I order less stuff, only what I need. Maybe make less specials for that reason, because I don’t want to waste food.
Pasa: What are some of the dishes that you’ve been thinking about for the future?
JR: Lately, I’ve been thinking about lasagna. And now I have the pizza oven, I want to make crispy duck in it for dinner.
Pasa: What kind of pizzas are you making? Are these New York-style pies? Chicago deep dish? California thin crust?
JR: We have pepperoni pizza, Pizza Margherita. I have a shrimp pizza, and basil pesto. It’s 12 inches, with little tiny crust. I like the thin crust.
Pasa: Finally, you’re known for having a large dessert menu, with a good selection of gluten-free items. Did you add those because people started asking for them?
JR: We started making them because there’s a lot of people who are gluten-free, and we needed to make more choices, so we added more. People are happy, and it tastes good. ◀