Art Maestas has the hands of a carpenter.
But it’s the warm welcome in his eyes and smile that are most striking when you walk into his Longmont restaurant, the Santa Fe Coffee & Burrito Company.
He greets regulars with his firm woodworker’s handshake, then returns to the kitchen to use those hands for his new brand of artwork: the recipes for green chile, enchiladas and other New Mexican dishes handed down for generations on his mother’s side of the family.
After decades of carpentry work, the soft-spoken Maestas hung up his saw blades, router bits and chisels in April 2011 to return to his culinary roots, opening a restaurant in the South Main location previously occupied by Swanky Frank’s.
On first glance, the menu appears to feature run-of-the-mill American and Mexican standbys, but the origins of some concoctions stretch back hundreds of years, to the time when Maestas’ family first came to North America from Spain in the 1700s.
He says his father’s side arrived first, in Corpus Christi, Texas, and decided to head north to modern-day New Mexico instead of taking the more well-worn route to Mexico City.
His mother’s family settled in the Santa Fe area, but in the early 1900s, his grandfather decided to head to a more rural area “because he thought Santa Fe was too big,” Maestas says with a laugh. Even the small town of Española north of Santa Fe was deemed “too commercial,” and so they homesteaded in Ponderosa, a tiny northern New Mexico town.
And in the same way the Spanish settlers borrowed from the Native Americans when it came to architecture, using adobe bricks instead of stone, Maestas says his great grandmother probably adopted some ingredients from the Indians in creating the green chile and enchilada sauce that endures today at his restaurant.
While he traces his roots to Spain and northern New Mexico, Maestas is no newcomer to Boulder County. His father moved the family from Ponderosa to Longmont when Art was only 5 years old, in search of better opportunities in the logging business. The young Maestas was educated at the “country school” outside of town — the building that is now the Buddhist Temple at the corner of Pike and Main — and attended high school in Johnstown.
After serving in Vietnam, he returned to Boulder County and dabbled in both construction and the restaurant business. Maestas was a bartender and waiter at the Flatirons Country Club in the early 1970s. During that decade, he was involved in a handful of Boulder restaurants, including Casa Ortez at 15th and Pearl as well as two establishments near Boulder Community Hospital: Arthur’s and Tiffany’s, which is now the Hungry Toad.
But when the partnership in the latter endeavor failed, he turned to carpentry full-time, mostly as a subcontractor on residential projects. Maestas used to stop at Swanky Frank’s on his way to work, and when he heard it was for sale, it reignited his simmering desire to get back into the restaurant business — and his old family recipes.
The opening of the Santa Fe Coffee & Burrito Company allowed him to combine his two loves, since he and relatives remodeled the building themselves. His brother did the stucco on the outside, creating the adobe-like appearance of his New Mexico childhood.
When Maestas learned the recipes from his mother, they weren’t handed down in writing, they were passed along the same way her mother had taught her, and he’s had them in his head ever since. He describes it as “a little bit of this, a little bit of that.”
He hopes to add dinner entrees to his current breakfast/lunch offerings, and he acknowledges that he might have to bump up his cheap prices in response to, of all things, diners’ demands.
“I have customers tell me my prices are too low,” Maestas laughs. “When your own customers tell you to raise your prices, that’s an indication.”
Maestas says he recognizes the parallels between carpentry and cooking — like attention to detail.
“I think I was that way ever since I was little,” he says with a smile. “I must have a little German in me.”
And then there’s the humble, attentive service, which Maestas exudes in spades and passes along to his employees.
“That’s one thing I stress to my staff,” he says as a regular customer seeks him out to say hello. “You have to make people feel like they belong here.”