On any given evening in the well-equipped kitchen of Old Martina's Hall at 4140 State Road 68, Ranchos de Taos, Chef John Lamendola is expertly preparing food from one of the most eclectic menus in Taos: "burgers, ribs and beets." He calls the new food offerings "creatively challenging, a fusion of all fresh ingredients and ribs that are off the chain. It's the way we select the meat, marinate it, rub it, and cook it so it is moist and juicy and falls right off the bone."
One of the various burger options includes a Ramen burger, Asian-inspired, from freshly ground meat glazed with teriyaki sauce, topped with red onion, between a fresh bun made of ramen noodles. Chef Lamendola said craft and international beers are on the menu that are an excellent match with the burgers and ribs. Santa Fe Pale Ale, for example, is described "as full-bodied while asserting its American origin with a healthy nose resplendent with Cascade, Cluster and Willamette hops.
German Andechs is also on the menu, brewed at the Andechs monastery by the Benedictine monks of St. Boniface in Munich and Andechs. Another good burger pairing is the Blue Moon Belgian White, loved for its subtle sweetness and citrusy flavor," added Lamendola.
In fact, Martina's has something for everyone, including vegan and vegetarian options, steaks, seafood and salads. In keeping with the "burgers, ribs and beets," theme, a beet carpaccio is offered with greens and goat cheese, drizzled with a pomegranate dressing, the recipe for which remains top secret.
A favorite burger of general manager Sebastian Walther's is the pulled beef burger, a juicy, sweet and spicy beef patty topped with crispy prawns and onions. He said the prawns take the burger to another level. "Divine" is a common post-consumption phrase he has heard from diners.
Walther, who took the leadership position a few months ago, said Martina Gebhardt, the owner of OMH, tasked him with a very specific mission: "to build the soul of the restaurant with well-executed soul food and make it easy and approachable. She [Gebhardt] made this investment for the people of Taos; it's a gift to the community."
Walther visited Taos in November 2017 to develop a strategy. Naturally, he went to every food venue in town and absorbed the unique culture.
He said, "Taos is a small, beautiful town with a very special community. We don't want to focus on tourism. We want something successful all year." What he thought OMH needed was a clear identity and prices adjusted so that no dish is over $20, putting the gourmet burgers in a mid-range around $10 - $14 with a generous side dish included.
Walther said he sees OMH as a place where locals can go every day. "We want to find our spot, not compete with other burger joints in town, but rather offer something different, an upscale approach to food, all homemade, locally sourced and affordable."
He added, "we needed to find a way to match all the love and money Martina put into the building."
The restaurant and hall is practically a town institution and certainly one of its most notable places. The venue's website describes the history of the building, formerly known as The Old Martínez Hall, and its newly renovated interior that includes well-preserved vigas spanning above the lengths of its thick adobe walls.
The rich and colorful musical history includes classic acts, such as Taj Mahal, Abraxas and Ricky Nelson. Many locals still remember Dennis Hopper's wild parties and the El Padrino bar, owned for generations by the Martínez family.
Walther was born into hospitality, literally. His father managed a hotel in Chicago, in which Walther was born.
He is well acquainted with the world of five-star restaurants, having risen through the ranks of The Mandarin Oriental, one of the most prestigious hotel chains in the world.
His most recent job was as the restaurant and bar manager of the Mandarin Oriental, in Munich, Germany. Walther loves the challenge of good customer service, from managing the staff to taking care of customers.
He said, "You've got to make the dining experience fun for the 10-year-old and then be respectful to the 75-year-old couple. I like working with people of any kind."
He said he found his calling in the restaurant business because he loves food. "I would drive three hours for a restaurant experience, and I love cooking ... giving people a good time."
He added that his approach to managing his staff is to focus on their unique personalities. "All my life I tell my team to be the way you are. Everyone is special. Guests feel it if you give your team back-up to be who they are." He continued, "customer service is all about attention, read body language, know what your guest wants to order before they do."
Chef Lamendola added, "If you use good ingredients, that is half the battle." Lamendola owned and managed restaurants in Taos. He moved to Florida for a few years and then returned two years ago.
Ultimately, Walther sees the hall being brought back to life with more events. There are movie and dinner nights planned, Sunday brunch with kids' movies playing in the hall, and Friday and Saturday dances with different kinds of music: country, and western, Spanish and hip-hop. Lunch hours are planned for late spring and summer, and the menu will expand to meet popular demand and celebrate local seasonal produce.
For more information or reservations, call (575) 758-3003 or visit oldmartinashall.com.