April 22nd is going to be the opening day of the newest of the Casa Blanca restaurant chain, right on the north side of the Square at 208 W. Market Street. Having a vibrantly painted, friendly and comfortable place to get delicious and reasonably priced Mexican food is always a good thing, but knowing the back story of the Martinez family makes it all the better.
The Martinez brothers, Gabriel, Elias and Hector are the embodiment of what makes America as the land of opportunity so exceptional. They were born in Guadalajara, Jalisco, Mexico, and Gabriel was the first to come to the States in 1987. There was a family from their city that had started a restaurant in Tennessee, and Gabriel “cut his teeth” on the restaurant business there. He started as a dishwasher, then a waiter, and now is the proud owner/partner of the seventh of their restaurants.
Gabriel first partnered as an owner with folks other than his brothers, and his first restaurant was in Fayetteville, TN. That restaurant was sold, the partnership dissolved, and with his brothers and wife, Gina, he opened their “flagship” Alabama restaurant on Hwy 72 in Athens in the Lindsay Center. Other locations have included Pulaski, Madison, Browns Ferry, Bailey Cove, University Drive and Rogersville.
There is even a touch of romance in the Martinez story, as Gina and Gabriel met while working in a restaurant, married 17 years ago, and the rest, as they say, is history. They have three children, Katelyn, 15, Cruz, 12 and Christian, 10. Hector and his wife Myriam have 3 kids, too, Sebastian, 6, Hector, 3, and one on the way. Elias so far is the confirmed bachelor of the family that spoils all the kids.
I nearly always have fun doing interviews for advertorials, but this one was so enjoyable that I really didn’t want to let them get back to the busy work of getting the restaurant ready to open, let alone make myself meet newspaper deadlines. The love amongst the family is palpable, the laughter came easily, and I genuinely felt that I had new friends. We laughed about life in Mexico, and they were all ears about some of our adventures while living in the middle of the cartel in Juarez. But something that Gina said truly warmed my heart. “Never have I seen a family work so well together,” and “Mama,” (the Martinez’ mother, who visits as often as she can,) calls Gina “her gringa.” Working with family sometimes can be tough, so, yes, I “went there,” and asked her how they do with resolving conflict. In front of her hubby and brothers-in-law, she said, “Gabriel is good at communicating, and they just talk things through until things are worked out.” I know this might sound strange, but I think food tastes better when it’s cooked with love, and I believe that is exactly the case with the food and the ambience at Casa Blanca.
OK, on to the question of food. “There are a zillion Mexican restaurants in Alabama,” I said, “why should I come to you?” Gabriel answered first. “We have proven that we are successful business people, and we offer the best food, prices, atmosphere and service. We ‘push’ our employees to give the best service.”
The others talked about the need to change things up, make the menu unique and flavorful, and everyone agreed that Gabriel makes the best salsas. They have five different styles of fajitas. They have quesadillas with grilled pineapple, a chicken breast with mango salsa and a cucumber salad.
Elias and Gabriel are particularly proud of their “healthy, lo-cal” offerings, which, they admitted, are “unusual.” Another thing that is unusual, particularly in a recession, is how well the business is going. Most restaurants fail, and if they succeed, the margin of profit is slim. However, the Martinez family is very pleased to announce that they are going to open another restaurant in Decatur, and this one will be the first in the Casa Blanca line that will be built from the ground up. They purchased land on 6th Avenue right before the Beltline, and hope to open in a year.
So, if you are interested in Mexican fare born out of a successful family affair, be sure to come out on April 22nd and cheer the Martinez family on as they prove once again that there is no place like America, and nothing like Mexican food.
Casa Blanca Athens
208 W Market Street
Athens, AL 35611
Sun-Thur 11-9, Fri, Sat, 11-10
By: Ali Elizabeth Turner