Lydia Martinez spends her days laboring in a tidy, aroma-filled restaurant on the eastern edge of downtown. It’s a magical place. It truly is.
It’s the rare destination where nothing changes.
Lydia has worked at Vallejo’s Restaurant, 111 S. Corona St., since her mother, Paula, opened the doors in 1962. In the past 57 years, she’s seen her hometown zoom from 75,000 to 475,000 residents. She’s seen traffic jams invade her once-sleepy city. She’s seen the arrival of dozens of Mexican dining competitors.
Change surrounds her, but she refuses to join this menacing trend.
Most afternoons, Lydia sits in the center of the kitchen in the same spot where Paula once sat. For decades, Paula rested in a doomed gray plastic chair, silently reading her gray Bible. Lydia rests in a black swivel chair, planning and remembering. Her mother loved this restaurant to the depths of her soul. The same love inhabits and dominates Lydia.
She smiles as she remembers the day Paula decided to purchase a small grocery store and transform it into a Mexican restaurant.
“If it works, we’ll stay there,” Paula announced to Lydia. “If it doesn’t, we’ll close it up and forget about it.”
Lydia laughs often, which explains why she’s a bubbly and healthy 83-year-old. She’s laughing now as she considers how wrong she was. Paula was fiercely optimistic about her restaurant’s future. Lydia was quietly doubtful.
Many of us, including Lydia, have been challenged and blessed by a simple life truth:
Mom is always right.
“I can’t believe it,” Lydia says. “I’m still here. I love it.”
The restaurant is thriving. Lydia is helped by a few family members, including son Phillip and brother Dave, but she reigns as the beating heart of Vallejo’s, where she works 65-70 hours a week.
Despite its longevity, Vallejo’s remains somewhat of a Springs secret, largely due to city planners who cut Corona Street off from access to Pikes Peak Avenue. A diner must take a circuitous route that includes a turn on East Cucharras Street and then a left on Corona, where a glass door to good Mexican food beckons.
Jim Clamp, a Springs native, has made this drive for 25 years. He usually orders a small combo with tamale, taco, rice and beans.
“The food is going to be good,” Clamp says. “It’s exceptionally good. It looks like what you get somewhere else, but when you taste it, it’s not. It’s the real home-cooked stuff. Not anything frozen and heated up. It’s the opposite of that. She really knows what she’s doing, and it’s fresh. I like it when it’s bubbling hot on the plate.”
He’s talking at his west-side home about Vallejo’s but wishes he were eating at his favorite restaurant.
“The food is the thing,” he says. “It makes me hungry just talking about it.”
We dwell in an era of copy-cat restaurants. If you enter a typical American dining spot while wearing a blindfold, you might take your first look-around and guess it was one of many franchise establishments. They all look the same.
A few restaurants, improved by age and owned by families, defy this sameness. Lydia enjoys eating at other long-established Colorado restaurants, ones that have stared down bland, look-alike challengers for decades, ones that decline to bend to fads.
“Those little restaurants, wherever you go, are the best,” she says, speaking the truth and nothing but.
She remembers the day Vallejo’s opened in 1962. The minister from her mother’s Apostolic church blessed the fresh business endeavor with a prayer. Paula, a devout Christian, refused to sell alcohol in the restaurant, and Lydia remains true to her wishes.
For 28 years, until 1990, Paula cooked savory meals and pondered the truths found in her gray Bible. When she died at 88, the family talked seriously about closing the restaurant.
Lydia responded with an emphatic no.
“It’s ours,” she said. “It’s mine. I’m staying. I’m not going to break up the restaurant.”
Vallejo’s and Lydia endured. She’s fortunate, and she knows it. She’s spends her days producing joy. For herself, and for others.
“I got all these people hooked on this food,” she says, a gleeful bounce in her voice.
A few years after Paula’s death, someone took a blazing pan of tamales off a burner and, fearing sizzled hands, placed the pan on the first available perch.
It was Paula’s gray plastic chair, which doubled as the restaurant’s throne.
“The chair melted!” Paula says, eyes growing wide.
Soon, a new chair arrived, a black throne where a diligent woman plots the future of a restaurant with a grand past.