Above: Nick Maryol shares his passion for New Mexican cuisine at Tia Sophia's. Photo: Kate Russell. 

Nick Maryol started bussing tables at Tia Sophia’s when he was 6. It was as much family obligation as tradition. At the same age, around 1950, Jim Maryol, Nick’s father, was already working the grill while his younger sister waited tables at Central Café, in Albuquerque, the restaurant run by their Greek immigrant mother, Sophia. “He probably figured it was way past time I go to work,” Nick recalls. Since then, Nick has done just about every job—except cook—in the Santa Fe fixture his parents founded in 1975. Nick took over as owner 16 years ago, yet he has changed very little about the West San Francisco Street restaurant where waitress Martha Rotunno coined the phrase “Christmas” to mean both red and green chile. (As Nick’s mother, Ann, tells the story, Rotuno urged waffling customers to “have them both—it’s Christmas.”) Although Jim passed away last July, Nick still feels his dad’s presence and the importance of maintaining his legacy.

I GREW UP IN DOWNTOWN SANTA FE in the seventies. Part of what I feel like I’m doing with this restaurant is creating a connection to a place that doesn’t really exist anymore—the Santa Fe that I remember, back when there was a Sears and a Safeway downtown. Back when cruisin’ the Plaza was a thing everybody did. Back when there were “Plaza rats.”  

When I took over the restaurant, my mantra was: Just don’t screw it up. 

We never tried to be precious here. It’s just home cooking. I feel like I have one of the most honest chiles in town. We don’t add a whole lot—a little bit of garlic, salt, and cornstarch. We’re not trying to challenge anybody’s personhood with the spice levels. There’s no magic ingredients, except the chile itself. It’s a lovely expression of what God intended in the first place. 

Green is definitely much more of a gateway chile. Red is more of a connoisseur’s chile. It’s really a culinary masterpiece. Once you find the taste for red, it’s satisfying in a way that nothing else is. 

I will go on a green kick for two or three months, then I’ll have a Christmas burrito. I’ll take a bite of the red and go, “Oh my gosh, I forgot how good this is.” Then I’ll go on a red kick for like three or four months. 

Dad was always about the importance of work. There’s a spiritual aspect to having fulfilling work that connects you to family. It’s been nothing short of an epiphany for me. I’m just doubly blessed to have this work that grounds me to my family, to my roots, to my father, to New Mexico. That’s what chile is for me—a big hug from your family.

I feel Dad’s love in every green chile, in every plate with chile on it. —As told to Steve Gleydura 

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