SANTA FE, N.M. — Maria’s New Mexican Kitchen, a mainstay on Santa Fe’s Cordova Road for more than half a century, is becoming part of Gerald Peters’ local restaurant empire.
Al and Laurie Lucero, who have owned and operated Maria’s for the past 27 years, on Tuesday announced the sale of the restaurant to Peters’ Santa Fe Dining group.
“I can’t think of anyone better to continue the tradition of Maria’s than him,” Al Lucero said in an interview. “He is really committed to the traditions and the community and culture of Santa Fe, and he respects the tradition of Maria’s.”
Lucero said that as soon as he told Peters over lunch that he planned to sell Maria’s, “He said, ‘I’ll buy it’ — just like that.”
“You can say that, when Laurie and I decided to sell, we hand-picked Jerry to have his group take over Maria’s,” Lucero said in a news release announcing the sale.
“I don’t think Jerry Peters gets enough credit for the good he has done for the community — he employs over 800 people in Santa Fe,” Lucero added.
In the release, Jim Hargrove, president of Santa Fe Dining, said, “We are very excited for the opportunity to carry on the 63-year-old legacy of one of Santa Fe’s most loved restaurants.”
Santa Fe Dining owns and operates La Casa Sena, La Cantina, Rio Chama Steak House and the Blue Corn Cafes in Santa Fe and Chama River Brewing in Albuquerque.
Maria and Gilbert Lopez started Maria’s in 1950 at the same spot the restaurant occupies today — 555 W. Cordova, then catty-cornered from the old New Mexico State Prison and before St. Francis Drive, now just down the street, was built. The Lopez family sold Maria’s to Don Hammond, then chief of the New Mexico State Police, who in turn sold to his bartender, Charlie Lopez, who then sold to Peter Gould and Priscilla Hoback, the daughter of Rosalea Murphy, founder of the equally iconic Pink Adobe restaurant on Old Santa Fe Trail.
The Luceros purchased the restaurant from Gould and Hoback in 1985, and have owned Maria’s longer than anyone else. Maria’s employs 50 people, and Lucero said Santa Fe Dining has provided assurances that the current staff will remain.
Hargrove added, “Santa Fe Dining’s goal is to continue innovation and excellence. Much creativity has been nurtured within Maria’s white-washed walls. The Santa Fe restaurant scene faces new opportunities and challenges. Santa Fe Dining expects to play a constructively active role in addressing both.”
Lucero said he and his wife “just kind of decided our energy was just no longer what it should be to run a restaurant this size — it’s almost so successful it’s hard to handle.”
He said Maria’s was “kind of on its heels” when the Luceros bought it, but he brought marketing skills from a career in broadcasting and Laurie had a financial background.
Looking for a hook
Recipes were tweaked, with help from Lucero’s mother. “We decided to make the New Mexico food like I remembered, more traditionally,” he said.
“But we needed a hook,” Lucero added. And it turned out the Luceros came up with two — fajitas and premium tequila.
“I researched fajitas, which were popular everywhere but Santa Fe,” Lucero said. In San Antonio, people were waiting in long lines for the dish, margaritas in hand.
With that in mind, the Luceros decided they needed a full liquor license instead of just a beer and wine permit.
“The timing was important,” Lucero said. “Premium tequila was just coming into its own, and we feel like we helped that to happen.” Maria’s became known for its long menu of tequilas and margaritas.
Lucero said he and his wife will be regular customers at Maria’s in the future. “We hope people will keep coming in and supporting Maria’s,” Lucero said. “We think it’s a Santa Fe institution.”
“We just feel like it’s just time to take a little time off and get some R&R for ourselves.
“And now we can go out to lunch,” he said, “and not always here.”