Is there no end to the burst of restaurant openings by the Martinez family?
The trio of Fernando, wife Christina and cousin Yaniel has become a perpetual opening machine, adding four restaurants (Guaca Mole, Mussel & Burger Bar, Cena and El Taco Luchador) to the Louisville scene in two years. Yet even on the soft-opening night of Coconut Beach Cerveza & Tacos (2787 S. Floyd St.) — their third this year alone — as its first patrons indulged in some of the best bargain-priced Mexican food in town, Fernando Martinez dropped this nugget of info as casually as if discussing the next day’s weather.
“We’re going to open an arepas place there in late November,” he said calmly.
“There” is the recently vacated Papalinos Pizza site at 947 Baxter Ave., just down the street from El Taco Luchador at 938 Baxter.
Ten minutes before, I’d joked with Christina Martinez about “the next one opening in about a week, right?” and she smiled and rolled her eyes. I thought I read something in her expression, an effort to hide her thoughts on opening yet another place, so I dismissed it.
Only to have her hubby share it as part of our conversation about the closing of Papalinos, the popular pizza shop created by Allan Rosenberg, now Martinez’s chef de cuisine at Cena.
“I know. Crazy, right?” he said grinning slightly. And wearily. The day had been a long one, as opening days always are. “It was too good to pass up. We want to be there.”
And introduce Louisvillians to arepas, the hearty cornmeal cake staple of Venezuela, Christina’s homeland. Commonly, the circular, pan-fried cakes are stuffed with cheeses, meats, veggies and eggs, then fried again or baked. Other times those same ingredients are served open-faced, like a Mexican salbute. It’s grab-and-go food akin to Mexican tacos and American hamburgers, and it’s really good.
“Nobody else is doing it, and we know we can,” Fernando Martinez said.
Especially within the small Papalinos space, a location surrounded by incredible foot traffic and a mostly young clientele seeking fresh, authentic convenience food served affordably. Just like at the uber busy El Taco Luchador.
“I would bet anything that (El Taco Luchador’s) sales per square foot are higher than any restaurant in the city,” Martinez said. “It’s really doing well.”
So why not duplicate that elsewhere in the city?
“That’s not fun for me, doing the same thing over and over,” Martinez said. “I’m sure we could do well with more of them … I don’t know. Maybe we should.”
And we pray they do.
Until then, the Martinezes have Coconut Beach to deal with. The cavernous space, most recently home to Tailgaters, is located directly in the shadow of Papa John’s Cardinal Stadium. (Viewed last night, softly lit and without the noise of crowds, The House that Jurich Built is a truly impressive sight.) But according to Martinez, events at the stadium and the crowds they’ll bring are mere bonuses in their business plan, whose core strategy is to take over distressed locations with new concepts. Day-to-day sales, to nearby U of L students especially, will be the mainstay.
“We’re selling eight different tacos for $2 each. You can’t beat that around here,” said Martinez.
It’s noteworthy to mention that “around here” includes Senor Iguana’s on the other side of the stadium and the always solid Santa Fe a few blocks away on Third Street. “We want it to be affordable for them.”
The whole menu (not yet available online), whose most expensive item (skirt steak) is $12, is just that. Most items can be had for $7 or less. Price points for burritos and tortas are perfectly positioned for the neighborhood, and portions are ample.
Hours are 11 a.m.-9 p.m., Monday-Friday. On weekends, it’ll open as a dance club.
No kidding. It is a multipurpose space.
Martinez showed me the laser-lighted room behind a scrim cordoning it off from the dining room. It’s huge.
“We’ve got requests to do special parties here already,” he said. “You should come see the dancing.”
I told him I may “come see” the dancing someday, but to not expect me to join in. (God didn’t give me the rhythm gene, so I admire those who did get it.)
“It’s a lot of fun,” he added. “I think we’re going to do well here.”
Just as they have everywhere else.