While the city sleeps, Tomas Martinez is wide awake. By 4 a.m. the day's work has begun at Tacos Tumbras a Tomas, the stall at Grand Central Market he's run for nearly two decades with brothers Manuel and Jesus.
Four in the morning is actually late for Martinez. When the business was new, he came in at 2 a.m. and stayed until 10 or 11 p.m. There were no employees to help in those days; the brothers did everything. Martinez was used to long hours even then. He'd landed his first job at the market in 1972, cooking at Roast To Go, working 10-hour days that started at 5 a.m. He was only 14 at the time, the first of the brothers to come here from Zamora, Michoacán.
See also: Grand Central Market Restaurant Issue
Martinez has seen many changes over the years. Personally, the biggest came in 1995, when the market offered him a space that had become available. Along with his brothers, he grabbed the opportunity and started Tacos Tumbras a Tomas. The stall did so well that in two years they were able to take over the taco stall Ana Maria, which is next to Martinez's old employer, Roast To Go.
Today, customers clog the aisle at Tacos Tumbras, as many as 1,000 a day, Martinez estimates. If you look beyond the dishes of meats, rice and beans displayed in the counter, you can see him on the line like any taquero, moving at top speed as he assembles orders.
The hard work hasn't produced many lines on his face, even though he's now 56 — or dampened the smile beneath his salt-and-pepper mustache. But there have been rough times. Business dropped by 50 percent when the recession hit in 2008. Handling large orders for events and offices helped the stand survive. So did customer loyalty. Martinez managed to soldier on without letting go a single employee.
Recently, he raised the price of a taco from $2.50 to $3, which is still pretty modest when you consider the mound of meat on the plate, with two corn tortillas underneath and two more on the side. It's enough for two king-size tacos, plus fixings such as salsa, onion, cilantro and lime wedges. The increase puts him in line with other stalls at the market: Tacos at Ana Maria and Roast To Go also cost $3.
The most recent change is keeping Tacos Tumbras open for dinner now that the market has extended its hours to 9 p.m. Thursday through Saturday. "It's a long day, but it's better for the market and better for us," Martinez says. "We have to improve the service, improve everything."
Tacos Tumbras built its success on the famous fried pork dish of Michoacán, carnitas. From outside, you can't see the enormous pot in which the meat is cooked, a two-handled, steel vat that copies the copper cazos used in Mexico. There, the cazos are hand-hammered into shape in Santa Clara del Cobre, Michoacán's copper town. Frying the meat in such a cazo gives it a different taste, Martinez says, one unknown to his customers — the Health Department here won't let restaurants use such pots.
The meat is fried in lard, which is purchased in 48-pound boxes. Don't be horrified. The meat comes out juicy, tender, fresh and not a bit greasy. Oil wouldn't give the same effect, Martinez says. What makes the meat so succulent is frying it over low heat for three to four hours. Seasonings are added to the lard, but Martinez won't say what they are. The stall cooks some 300 pounds of boneless pork butt daily, but even after all this time, he's not tired of carnitas. He still goes around town checking other versions.
The stand also specializes in Michoacán-style birria, goat served in a mild red sauce made with California chiles. Boiled for six to seven hours, the meat falls apart in tender shreds, which look much like carnitas. The only difference is the birria has a faint hint of gaminess.
Other meats include carne asada, grilled chicken and carne al pastor. The meats are served five ways — in tacos, tortas and burritos, on tostadas or in combination plates with rice and beans. And there's always an extra tray of carnitas in case you want to take some home.
Martinez is a bit taken aback by new trends in the market. Cheese at $40 a pound and tiny goat ribs at $27 a pound seem a bit stiff for the area, he thinks. Perhaps in a few years the upscale products will fit better, thanks to changing downtown demographics. It's starting to happen already. "We're seeing new customers, more traffic, people we've never seen before," he says. Directly across from his stall is the pickup counter for Olio GCM Wood Fired Pizzeria, which adds even more congestion to the aisle.
Whatever happens, Martinez will make the best of it. He's a fighter — or at least a fight fanatic. Instead of a Virgin of Guadalupe medal or crucifix, the chain around his neck holds a diamond-studded fight glove. In the 1970s, he followed boxing at the old Main Street Gym and then hung out at the Grand Olympic Boxing Stadium, attracting to his stall such stars as Oscar De La Hoya and Julio Cesar Chavez.
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These days Martinez can relax, but only slightly. He'll come to the market from his home in Downey as late as 7:30 a.m. and take off a day or two to spend time with his family. After raising three daughters in a previous marriage, he's now occupied with a 2-year-old son. Little Tomas has the right name to carry on the business, which is not a bad prospect at all.
See also: Grand Central Market Restaurant Issue