When Guy Fieri heard out about a funky dive in Santa Fe, it didn’t take him long to head to town in his 1967 red Camaro and interview Jesus Rivera, the chef and owner of Tune-Up Café, along with his wife and business partner, Charlotte. After opening in March 2008, “Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives” came calling in 2009 and blew the doors to this little restaurant wide open. Since then, the Tune-Up has evolved into a beloved local favorite as well as an international attraction for “Triple D” fans.
This eclectic spot – with an equally eclectic clientele and staff – is situated on Hickox Street off St. Francis Drive. The low-key ambiance, understated interior and exterior and packed parking lot remind you that you are here because of the scratch made food. A native of El Salvador, Rivera says, “We make everything fresh where I come from and for that reason 90% of our menu is scratch made. It’s important to eat fresh foods that make you feel good.” He proudly adds, “Plus, I work with many farmers to source ingredients as I like to support the local agriculture community.” Whether you come for breakfast, lunch, dinner or for weekend brunch, it is the expansive, accessible and impressively diverse menu that keeps customers coming back.
So whether you want a beef, buffalo, vegetable or lamb burger, pizza, tacos, Salvadoran pupusas, Huevos El Salvadorenos, omelette, pancakes, New Mexican enchiladas, pasta or chicken piccata, this quaint eatery promises you won’t leave hungry nor will you drop a C note for a meal. And if you go for breakfast or lunch, you may be hard-pressed to drop an Andrew Jackson per person.
While the diverse menu is the staple reason the Tune-Up continues to be a popular spot, we were entranced by the specials on a recent visit for dinner. Rivera says some of his specials are so adored, he has a list of people he calls when he features their favorite dish. If that’s not customer service, I don’t know what is. Dinner specials include your choice of house salad or Caesar salad.
One of the things Rivera did when business came to a screeching halt during the pandemic was to expand the kitchen and add a pizza oven. Having read many comments online about people’s love for Tune-Up’s pizza, my dining companions and I eagerly sampled the Margarita Pizza ($10.95). And it is good, but it’s not New York pizza, so don’t expect something authentic or heavy. Instead, this pizza is a light and tasty version that makes a perfect appetizer for the table. A soft, thin homemade crust is topped with just enough marinara sauce, mozzarella cheese and minced fresh basil. This pizza goes down easy. Choose from five pizzas on the menu or create your own.
Typically, I only order one thing at Tune-Up – the traditional El Salvadoran Pupusas (two for $9.95 at lunch and one for $6.95 at dinner). Also known as a gordita and arepa in other Latin cultures, a pupusa is a thick, round corn masa pocket that is slit along the top and stuffed with your choice of refried beans, vegetables and cheese, or flank steak and cheese. Served with a side of crispy and vinegary bright pink curtido, this tangy cabbage slaw is an ideal companion to cheesy griddled pupusas. (It’s so good, I order double curtido.)
During this visit, one of my dining companions was enamored by the Chicken Liver ($19.95) special. She admitted, “I don’t want to stink up my kitchen, but I love chicken livers.” Rivera also loves chicken livers, which is why this is on rotation on the special board. This reality made her decision an easy one.
When the entrees were delivered to our table, the runner asked before she placed the plate down, “And who has the chicken livers with bacon?” Bacon? My dining companion does not eat pork and there was no mention of bacon in the description, so this was a surprise. Luckily, the staff happily removed the dish and came back with a fresh chicken liver plate made without bacon. Tender chicken livers are sauteed and cooked in a gravy to make this a hearty dish on a cold night. A side of white rice, sauteed spinach and two big hunks of garlic bread for sopping up the gravy made this rich and comforting dish one that was deeply appreciated by my guest.
My other tablemate fell head over heels for the Fried Chicken ($24.95), another special. Three generous pieces of chicken are fried until golden brown and topped with an earthy mushroom gravy to accompany mashed potatoes and sauteed spinach. Typically, this guy doesn’t clean his plate, but he didn’t leave a morsel behind. Another happy customer and proof that the Tune-Up is running on all cylinders.
With a chalkboard bursting full of incredible specials, I was hooked by the Fish Tacos ($18.95). On this visit, grouper, a substantive white fish that makes exquisite tacos, was the featured fish. Sauteed grouper fingers are topped with a light chipotle sauce, a dusting of thinly sliced cabbage, sprinkle of pico de gallo, a radish slice and cotija cheese. Two substantial tacos were beyond satisfying, and I wasn’t even deterred by the somewhat hard corn tortillas that split. Instead, I went in with a knife and fork. The plate was dressed with a side of perfectly cooked Spanish rice and a colorful saute of zucchini batons, sliced mushrooms, corn and spinach. And I ate every bite.
When you walk into the restaurant and order at the counter for breakfast and lunch (dinner offers table service), you are immediately tempted with a refrigerated glass case packed with homemade desserts.
Made by an employee who has been working at the Tune-Up for more than 13 years, you will find an array of at least 10 different homemade cakes, pies and cookies – all of which are worth the price of admission.
Though it was difficult to zero in on one dessert, it was the Strawberry-Rhubarb Pie with a scoop of vanilla ice cream ($8) that we devoured. A finely balanced combination of fruits and sugar makes this pie a winner, along with a seriously flaky crust that holds up to the wet interior. The ice cream is one of the few items on the menu that is not made in-house, and my guests and I were totally fine with that.
The Tune-Up Café is a bright culinary spot that continues to feed and fuel the community, as well as those who have traveled far and wide. When Guy Fieri pronounced Tune-Up as a restaurant that exemplifies “Triple D,” calling it a “perfect example of what we are looking for,” the rest, as they say, is history. Lucky for us, the food just keeps getting better. And for those of you late night diners, this is one of the few restaurants that remain open until 10 p.m. every night of the week.