Interview: Super Linda's Head Chef, John Martinez, Talks About The Inspiration Behind His Dishes

by Ramya Velury · April 24, 2012

When I first walked up to Super Linda in Tribeca, it looked like a dive diner I would have expected to find on Third Avenue. Much to my surprise, the upstairs proved to be reminiscent of a quaint Caribbean restaurant, and the downstairs, or El Jockey (Super Linda's exclusive lounge), offers two main tables that are compartmentalized in to their own sections, along with a seating area with small tables. The walls are covered in wooden panels and paintings of horses (fitting for its name), and the bar is all lit up in pink lights.

With a charming Australian manager, a welcoming staff, and delicious Latin American fusion food, Super Linda is a little getaway right in Manhattan. I got a chance to catch up with Super Linda's head chef, John Martinez, who talked about the inspiration behind the food and the restaurant. Check out what he had to say...

What inspired the cocktail menu?

"We used a mixologist and they're a lot of fun. They have a rum and tequila base and are inspired by Latin- America."

What's so special about El Jockey?

"The space over-all has a retro feel. It's got a different vibe than most places in New York. I think our space overall as a whole is; it's very open architecturally. As a kid I lived by the border, down in Arizona, and it has that vibe. It is a private venue. The dining rooms mostly functions for large groups but if it's a busy night and we don't have anything booked down here, people will be seated down here. We want to be accommodating. Even the menu is inspired by the decor. We serve appetizers and ceviche, not ribs."

[Inside El Jockey]

Where did the name Super Linda come from?

"Super Linda [laughs]. Richard Ampudia, one of the partners... He's from Mexico City, 'Super' down there is anything that's really cool. It's the ultimate superlative and yeah, he just played around with it. It just came out. Super Linda is like really gorgeous and sexy, ya know? You want to have a place where a lady comes out to dinner she feels sexy; she feels gorgeous. It just came by talking about a sexy place."

Can you talk about each of the dishes we have here today and what inspires them?

"Well the two dishes we have here today they are lunch dishes, since we just picked up on lunch. This one is the Ensalada Picada, which basically translates to a chopped salad with grilled shrimp. For me, ideally, I think the thing that is missed a lot, at least in the states, in consideration of Latin American food, is that everything is really heavy. Everything is like beans, rice, cheese, sour cream... that kind of stuff. It really is locally driven and market driven stuff down there. These are about keeping it light, keeping it fresh. I really like fresh produce and I think it translates naturally within this food."

"The second dish is Baja-style Fish Tacos. A little over a year ago, when I first came on to Super Linda, we took a trip to southern California and the northern part of Baja. This is similar to a fish taco I grew up to, having on the beach, with fresh fish, very lightly battered, mayo. Mayo is great on a fish taco. A little squirt of fresh avocado salsa and salsa verde and pico de gallo. It's just light, bright and a simple, tasty taco."

Is this theme of fresh produce consistent in all of your dishes?

"For the most part, yes. I really don't want to fly the flag of local, sustainable, whatever. I would rather just kind of practice it and do what I can to use what's around. But I'm not going to spend three months selling potatoes and apples because that's all that's here. There's a way of finding a balance and keeping it as fresh as possible and as tasty as possible. I take the Italian philosophy of taking something amazing, preparing it simply and just enjoying it. I think that translates in Latin America too."

What began your career in food? Why did you want to become a chef?

"I come from a big family. My folks were kids when I was born, in their 20s. Friday nights I would get dropped off at my Grandmother's and picked up Saturday afternoon and we would cook. My dad is one of eight and I would have dinner with 20 people a night, until I was about 13 or 14.  I would grate the cheese, clean the shrimp... It was some of my best memories. I have to say, I'm really great at cooking, but I'm really good at eating. Overall I just really love food and that's why I wanted to do it. Once I figured out I couldn't work at the Muppet show, and maybe not as a garbage man, as fun as it looked riding on the back of truck, I've always liked to cook. It was pretty much, Muppet show, garbage man, chef... So I went with chef."

Chef Martinez on his staff...

"A great resource, I think, is my staff; they're great. We're all from different countries and it's like, we were making the ceviche and I make pretty good ceviche. We have a cook and she's from Vera Cruz and she's like,'yeah, back home my father has ceviche.' And I'm like, 'Why are you holding out on me? Show me some stuff.' And it's a really great thing being in this business. There are so many opportunities to learn every day and to learn stuff from your cooks. They teach up and I teach them. We can really share stuff. I really, really love it."

How often does the menu change? I know you aren't seasonal in terms of produce, but do you constantly add new things?

"That's the thing, it's a constant evolution. We're always trying to make stuff better on a daily basis. And it's been a misleading spring. Everyone expects it to be strawberries and asparagus, but the plants are still in the ground. Once there is good stuff available, I won't turn my head to it. I would rather have the ingredients direct me and see what's really good. You kind of taste dishes and let it tell you what it needs."

What's your favorite dish on the menu?

"On the menu right now, I could eat this salad (Ensalda Picada) every day. It's really bright; it's creamy, it's crunchy. The shrimp are great, I love shrimp."

For more information on Super Linda, go HERE.

[The Super Linda staff]

[Unwatermarked photos via]