He started cooking in his family's kitchen as a mere boy. A lifetime of success later, he had prepared meals for Presidents Bush and Johnson, introduced Julia Child to Chicken Fried Steak, was featured on Oprah, and generally advanced the cause of Tex-Mex cuisine by preparing incomparable meals for just plain folks like you and me. Today, Matt Martinez smiles beatifically down from on high as an angel, no doubt paying particular attention to his restaurant pride and joys, Matt's El Rancho in Austin where he invented the classic Bob Armstrong Dip to please a Texas Land Commissioner, and Matt's Rancho Martinez, his Lakewood gem, still going strong after all these years. With his recent passing, my lovely wife The Rock Star and I felt that there was no better way to pay tribute than to enjoy brunch at his place, and so we motored down to Lakewood, the delightfully retro city-within-a-city, one recent windy Sunday.
Atmospherically, old-school Tex-Mex places generally fall into two camps: homey and intimate, like dining in someone's kitchen, or ramshackle and rambling (in a good sense) with multiple dining areas. Matt's Rancho Martinez definitely fits the latter profile and adds the extra touch of fiesta with its large banners on the patio and lots of good-times signage. We were showed to one of the metal tables on said patio and began menu perusal, taking special care to anchor napkins and other blowable things so that they would not escape in the brisk breeze.
As far as our meal selections, what can we say? After all, we were paying tribute to one of the greats, and felt that the most proper way to honor him would be to select his signature dishes. At Matt's, this means starting with a cup of his legendary Bob Armstrong Dip, named for the man who showed up at his door in Austin one day and demanded Matt create a special dish for him on the spot. Rich and creamy and not too thick, loaded with ground chuck, guacamole, sour cream, and lots of queso, Matt's version of the now-ubiquitous chain classic layered dip puts all imitators to shame. We would have loved more, but we had other fish to fry. My bride chose the Monster Chicken Fried Steak Tampequeno Style and was presented with a massive slab of very tender meat covered with zesty tomatillo sauce, Monterey Jack cheese and sour cream, and served with rice and borracho beans. After stealing a bite, I understand why Julia Child raved about it, because Matt's dish would do any truckstop proud. For myself, I knew that his chili rellenos had won numerous honors and made my selection accordingly. Matt uses Anaheim rather than Poblano peppers in his rellenos, because Anaheims are slightly milder and will be more of a canvas for the other ingredients in the dish, rather than letting the pepper take center stage. Stuffed with beef and topped with tomatillo, sour cream, mixed cheeses, raisins, and Texas pecans, this version was a lesson in the values of culinary restraint. In one bite, the nuttiness of the pecans were featured, in the next bite the tomatillo shone, and so on. Uniquely tasty, and probably unlike any other chile relleno you've ever had. After such a repast, we felt that Matt's bracing margaritas were the only dessert we needed, and we indulged happily.
Service was quite accomodating, as our charming waitress was careful to inquire whether I wanted all the goodies on my dish (she reported that many people like the raisins and pecans on their relleno, while others don't so she always asked) and made sure to give my wife the total rundown of all the chicken fried steak possibilities. There are two websites for more info: www.thetexmexchef.com will give you all the details of The Man Himself, while the restaurant-specific URL is www.mattsranchmartinez.com.
In sum, I can think of no nicer way to pay a tribute to Matt Martinez and his Tex-Mex legacy than by visiting Matt's Rancho Martinez in lovely Lakewood. Pay your own tribute yourself soon, and remember:
LIFE IS TOO SHORT FOR MEDIOCRE FOOD!!!