Tomas Martinez is the godfather of downtown tacos.
For the past forty-two years he’s been putting meat to tortilla inside Grand Central Market—first at Roast-to-Go, where he started working in 1972 at the age of 14, and later at Tacos Tumbras a Tomas, which he opened under his own name in 1995. He’s also owner of Ana Maria’s, another taco spot inside the market that offers chile rellenos and puffy gorditas.
Martinez is sharp but soft-spoken, distinguished by a wild grey mustache that twirls upward at the corners of his mouth and a gold necklace with a boxing glove medallion that hangs around his neck. These days he’s able to sneak in a few days off work here and there, but for most of his career he arrived at 4 or 5 a.m. to start the morning’s prep. Such is the life of a dedicated taquero.
At Tacos Tumbras a Tomas, over 300lbs of Michoacan-style carnitas are served every day, cooked in a steel drum of boiling lard and seasoned with a secret blend of spices. If that sounds like an overwhelming amount of meat, ordering a single taco makes sense of that number: each $3 taco is piled high with almost a half-pound of meltingly-tender pig, generously dressed with salsa, onions, and cilantro. An extra stack of corn tortillas comes on the side—one taco essentially becomes two or three. This style of taco grande is pretty much specific to Grand Central Market. Each taco vendor in the market serves similarly gargantuan portions, though none seem to be quite as popular as the ones at Tacos Tumbras a Tomas. “We want to make the customer feel like they’re getting plenty,” says Martinez of the famously large portions. “When people feel taken care of, that’s when they return.”
In addition to tacos, you’ll find burritos, quesadillas, tostadas, and tortas—and although carnitas are certainly the house specialty and biggest seller, an array of steam trays meats includes chopped carne asada, chicken, pork al pastor, chicharron en salsa verde, and a few other rotating cuts like trompo (snout) and morcilla (blood sausage).
Since it opened almost two decades ago, Tacos Tumbras a Tomas has been one of the most consistently crowded stands in the market. It’s not uncommon to find the aisle it sits along grid-locked with customers waiting in line, especially during lunch hour. This has remained a constant even as new businesses and a new identity have begun to take root in Grand Central Market, offering everything from cave-aged French cheeses to cold-pressed juice. In Martinez’s case, the market’s surging popularity has meant greater business than ever before, albeit from a slightly different demographic. “It used to be about seventy percent Latino,” he says, “but now it’s a lot more diverse. I’d say it’s around fifty-fifty.”
For a handful of historic vendors, the market’s rapid transition is paying positive dividends: In the coming months Tacos Tumbras a Tomas will undergo its first-ever expansion, taking over a vacant stall next door held previously by La Adelita. The build-out will effectively double the counter space of Tumbras a Tomas, allowing Martinez to expand his work area and kitchen. In addition, the stall’s eye-catching neon sign will receive a restorative facelift and the stand will begin selling beer and wine (hint: micheladas will be on the menu). And although it hasn’t been fully implemented, Martinez says he wouldn’t be surprised if the market—and by extension his stall—eventually stays open for dinner seven days a week (it’s already open until 9 p.m., Thursday through Saturday). “Downtown is growing very quickly,” says Martinez, who hopes to have the expansion project completed by early 2015, “there are big changes of course, but I think they are good changes. It’s exciting.”
The best metaphor, perhaps, might be a recent promo video published on Grand Central Market’s Facebook page. It’s shot via Google Glass, and depicts a first-person view of Martinez deftly assembling a carnitas taco behind the counter, a task he’s gotten down pat after four decades of practice. The future never looked so appetizing.
Taco Tumbras a Tomas, 317 S. Broadway, Downtown, 213-620-1071