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Home Away From Home : Salsa and Santa

December 14, 1989|MICHAEL QUINTANILLA

For 30 years, the Texas taste buds of Richard and Carmen Sanchez have hankered for authentic Tex-Mex Christmas chow: meaty San Antonio tamales; thick, Laredo-like flour tortillas and crunchy bunuelos--a cinnamon-coated pastry the size of a record album--ala Austin style.

"In Texas, everything is big, including our appetites," says Richard Sanchez. Which is why he and his wife--married for 32 years--will be feasting on homemade grub at the Taste of Texas restaurant this holiday season.

But most of all, it's the down--home camaraderie that the Sanchezes come to the Taste for--especially at Christmas.

Since the Covina eatery opened two years ago, restaurateur Nick Martinez has bolstered the spirits of his lonely compadres from the Lone Star state.

From the broke to the broken-hearted, Martinez--known as jolly ol' Nick to regulars--makes everyone feel at home when they can't head home for such Tex-Mex holiday traditions as menudo (a soup made with tripe) or barbacoa (Tex-Mex barbecue) tacos grilled on mesquite.

Decked out in a reindeer antler-adorned baseball cap, the jovial chef talks Texan to all who will listen. Most everyone does. If you're from San Antone--Martinez's hometown--he's got a story about Henry Cisneros, the San Antonio Spurs or Fox Tech High, his alma mater. If you're from parts in between--Corpus Christi, Houston, El Paso, Dallas--there's probably a souvenir on the walls that will bring back merry memories.

From statewide high school T-shirts, banners, posters and baseball caps to videotapes of Dallas Cowboy games--when they were winners--to the 64 Texas-style items on the menu, Martinez will cure homesickness faster than menudo can remedy a hangover.

And he's quick to introduce Texas patrons to each other.

That's how the Sanchezes met Ralph and Aurelia Avila, El Pasoans living in Azusa. A Sunday at the Taste doesn't slip by them.

"This is just like being in Texas," Carman Sanchez says. "Even the music is Tejano." (The culture that combines the best traditions from Latinos born in Texas and Mexico.)

But says her husband, "It's the people on both sides of the counter who make this a home away from home."

Talk like that pleases Martinez, his wife, Pat, and their partner, Roy Talamantez.

"Here, mi casa es su casa ," Martinez says while adjusting his antler cap. "Especially at Christmas. It's salsa and Santa all the way."

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