Chef Chat

Chef Chat, Part 2: Joshua Martinez of The Chicken Ranch

When we finished part 1 of our Chef Chat with Joshua Martinez of The Chicken Ranch, he was describing the collaborative environment at Soma Sushi that allowed him and the other team members to improve the menu and bar offerings. How did he get from there to co-owning The Chicken Ranch? It required three stops: Kata Robata, The Modular food truck and Goro & Gun. Martinez owns The Modular and it still goes out for gigs to this day.

When Martinez started running The Modular, a chef came along and offered to help. That person was Lyle Bento (of the forthcoming Southern Goods restaurant). The duo would form a friendship that survived even after they parted ways to pursue separate career paths.

In Part 2 of this Chef Chat, we pick up just as Martinez is leaving Soma Sushi to take a general manager position at a well-known Houston Japanese restaurant. We'll also learn more about The Modular, why Goro & Gun didn't survive and why Martinez decided to open a fried chicken place.

JM: The time came where they needed a general manager at Kata Robata and I said, "Sure, why not?" They were bringing in Seth Siegel-Gardner [now chef and co-owner of The Pass & Provisions]. It was to be a short stint, but it was substantial enough for me to want to join. I already knew his pedigree and I was like, "Yeah, I want to work with this guy."

EOW: At the time, he was just coming off the Just August pop-up series.

JM: Just to have him around--I could learn so much from him in the kitchen. We came [into Kata Robata] with guns blazing. I think we mortified [chef] Hori at the time. He's like, "What are you doing in my kitchen? What are you doing in my space?" I think we buried the hatchet by now, but it was a lot for him to take on. I looked at the bar program and at how the service was being done. I changed the look of the servers. They were in stuffy black uniforms that I hated. "We should be looking at the color palette of this building. It's beautiful. Let's use that. Let's let the servers not be so noticed and let them meld into the crowd."

EOW: Unobtrusive, which is a more Japanese style of service.

JM: It was a small thing, but we also brought oshibori, the [hand washing] towels to the table. I think Hori had already wanted to do that. We brought a lot of new wines to the program that I thought would work perfectly with both Seth and Hori's food.

There was something in my head that have been going on for seven years--since leaving Austin. I ate at a taco truck and almost died. I was driving one of my scooters down Congress and I picked up tortas at a little taco stand that I loved. I put the two tortoises into my glove box. I was hauling ass going to my house in South Austin and out of nowhere the car comes across three lanes. I have nowhere to go and barrel right into him. I flipped over the car. I don't know how I didn't die. I just thought to jump as high as I could.

The scooter was completely gone. It was just crumpled up on itself. The guy in the car just looks at me and takes off. I'm just left injured on the ground. I've got a bruised heel, I can't feel my leg and think it's broken. Some old man picks me up, helps me with the scooter, moves it to his house, I get on the phone and call my then-girlfriend. "I just got in a horrible accident," and she says, "I'm on the way."

She picks me up, gets me in the car and I say, "I need you to go back to the scooter right now." "For what?" I was like, "It's in the glove box." She's like, "for what?" "Just go. There's two tortas there. I need those tortas."

She's just thinking, "You are the biggest idiot, ever. What in the world?" She gets them for me, I get back to the house and she puts me up on her couch, legs up. She goes, "Do you want to get to the hospital?" Some like, "No, I can't afford going to a hospital and I think it's just bruised, I hope. I'll know in a couple of days."

So, yeah, I ate those tortas because I was thinking, "if I almost died for these, I'm going to eat them."

It got stuck in my head. I thought, "I'm getting the best food out of this little trailer and it's worth dying for."

While I'm working at Kata Robata, I'm seeing a lot of new things I'd never seen before.

EOW: At least not in Houston.

JM: Yeah, and I was like, "All right, this is it. I'm going to open a food truck." I went and found a truck and started getting ideas for putting it together. I told Hori what I was going to do and he thought I was nuts. Seth's like, "Go ahead and do it, man. I'm never getting on it, but you should do it." Seth's tenure was up and I was thinking, "Do I stick around here or do I just jump full-forward? Into this?"

For about two months, I was doing both. In between the lunch and dinner shift, I would go and grab the food truck, go to the commissary, get it loaded and get it ready for the shift with a couple of employees. Then, I would go back and work the dinner shift. As soon as Kata's dinner shift was over, I was back cooking on the truck until two in the morning. I was adding a tentative fun on there.

EOW: It also sounds a little insane! (laughs) Sleep? What's that?

JM: Well, you know. You don't need sleep. So, that's how I got on the food truck. A month and a half later, Lyle Bento joined me. He came to help me out at Gay Pride [parade]. We had the truck in front of Anvil and I needed some hands. He jumped on their, and he'd like, "Man, I just left Feast. I've got nothing to do. This is fun."

EOW: Did you know him before?

JM: No. No. Not at all.

EOW: Wow! He just shows up and says, "Hey, I'm here to help."

JM: Yeah, and I was like, "Uh, yeah man!" We got along very well and could work together. We knew each other's space. His strength were my weaknesses and vice versa. So, we decided, "Yeah, let's do it!"

No crazy idea out of my brain was crazy to him. I was like, "Yeah, I like this guy. He doesn't say no to anything!"

So, it was us, one hundred percent, for about a year and a half. Then, Chris Shepherd told me, "Lyle's coming with me. You understand?" I said, "I'm not getting in the way of Lyle. Of course he's going to come with you." Chris and Antoine [Ware] did their [Underbelly] menu on The Modular. it was then to watch those two big dudes on there. It was the first time anyone had seen the Braised Goat and Dumplings.

EOW: And it became Underbelly's signature dish--the only item that's been on the menu since day 1. (Author's note: technically, it's the only savory item that's been on the menu since Day 1. The vinegar pie has also been on the dessert menu since Underbelly opened.)

We had other chefs on the truck. Ricky Craig did his Italian restaurant menu (from his family's prior restaurant, Craiganale's).

EOW: But, you never got Seth on there.

JM: No, I tried! He's look at it and just say, "No." I hope one day--maybe after a couple of Bourbons. Justin Yu of Oxheart got on, but he just made messes on purpose. I was like, "Never mind. Get out."

EOW: "Get out of my truck!"

JM: "Get out of here!" But yeah, it was a lot of fun. And then, friendship ensued and I started talking with Brad [Moore] and Ryan [Rouse] about new projects.

EOW: Of course, you had been parking at Grand Prize [Bar] for a long time and then the City--

JM: Gave us hell.

EOW: And the neighbors in the area kept complaining about the noise, bar, customers and anything they could think of, then the City cracked down on Grand Prize for their unpermited back porch. At some point, the truck couldn't park out front anymore.

JM: Not anymore. So, we decided to go into the kitchen [inside Grand Prize Bar]. we did that quite a bit of time and then started working on the idea of coming downtown with OKRA [Organized Kollaboration on Restaurant Affairs, which includes the groups behind Little Dipper, Charity Saloon and The Pastry War]. We banded together to help develop downtown. [Me, Brad and Ryan] put together Goro [& Gun] and went with that.

EOW: Is the golden age of [gourmet] food trucks over?

JM: Yeah, I'll say it is. I've watched it. The only place that keeps on trucking is Austin and Portland. You can't stop all that food. It just keeps on going. I see it slowing down in Houston, but maybe now that there are more lax regulations and downtown is available we'll see something come from that. The good trucks are still making money. There was just a glut of trucks that came out.

EOW: Obviously, Goro has closed. Do you want to talk about your run there?

JM: Yeah. We had a good run and I think everyone involved saw that food wasn't going to make it in that space. What you do? Do you sit there and watch it die a slow death? At that point, I had already brought the food truck back in full force after going to South By Southwest. I was thinking, "I just want to be on the truck right now again."

We were able to part ways amicably. That allowed me to do another thing that was stuck in my head, which brings me to this thing (waves at the interior of The Chicken Ranch). I've always loved fried chicken. I looked at spaces all over the place. I looked at some really shady spaces, I looked at some high-end spaces and then I saw this place.

It was no secret every other restauranteur who has been building and expanding quickly looked at this exact same space, too. There were a lot of people vying for it. I was the only one bullheaded enough to stick it out, negotiate and put something together. The building was ramshackle enough that it looked like the perfect spot for me.

EOW: Right, you're not trying to fancy it up. You're not looking to do "fine dining fried chicken."

JM: Right, you've got other places for that. What I wanted was, "Let's get dirty. Let's eat some fried chicken. Let's drink some beers. Maybe some bubbles if you want to get fancy with it and then get out of here and go home. Have a good time." This place is small enough and quaint enough. It's been a lot of fun.

EOW: What can you tell us about your fried chicken?

JM: It's simple. I spent seven months on the road. By May, I weighed 245 pounds. There's a lot of fried chicken in this body. I tried Coop's. I tried Gus's. I tried Lucy's. I tried Willie Mae's Scotch House. I tried every juke joint shack in Louisiana and Texas. Gas stations. Things that weren't gas stations that looked like I shouldn't go in.

It was [local fried chicken expert and Houston Chowhound] Jay Francis who told me to go to the fried chicken socials at churches during the summer. I went to Schulenburg to a Catholic church. There's a Czech community. I loved it. It was totally Texas. Grand hall where everyone was dancing, another hall where they were doing an auction and in the back were big pots where they were frying the chicken and there were big cages where they'd stack the chicken after they fried it. I talked to these guys and I'm like, "What's the secret?" This one old man says, "There's no secret. Just keep it simple. It's fried chicken. That's it."

So, that's what I have. Buttermilk, time--it's just the amount of time you're brining in your buttermilk. Buttermilk and salt and you brine for as long as you feel like you want to. I came up with about 36 hours after testing small batches 12, 24, 36, 48 and 72 hours. I wanted to see where I needed to be.

EOW: You had to find the sweet spot.

JM: I found 36 is the perfect time.

EOW: Which is significant, because you have to store that chicken somewhere while it's brining and this is not a huge place.

JM: No, and that's the reason we close at 5 o'clock on Sundays. We can only hold so much. Sometimes we'll cut the brining process to a little shorter than 36 hours just to get it out. When we're out, we're out. We sold out at 4 o'clock this last Sunday.

EOW: Are you BYOB?

JM: We are right now. We're building a large space next door and when it's done, we'll have spicy chicken on the menu and somewhere to store our regular fried chicken. Then, we'll be open seven days a week.

EOW: And people can get a free little cup of sparkling wine here, too?

JM: Yeah, if we have it on-hand, although we'll often tell people to stop at Joe's [convenience store] across the street. It's next door to Lei Low. They have an incredible beer selection.

EOW: Other than your fried chicken, what are you most proud of here?

JM: Our collard greens. Our collard greens are phenomenal. And, I have to say, my staff. It's hard to find workers right now because of so many restaurants [in Houston]. I called friends and they came to help. I've got to give it to Karena Zolner . She helped me through the opening. She has a full time job, runs a business and would come in on her day off to help. Her daughter would come in and help. Her good friends are now on my staff. She's the reason I'm sane at this moment.

EOW: Is there anything else you want us to know?

JM: We're not done. There's a lot of stuff left to go. There are more ideas stuck in my head that need to come out. I want this thing to be running one hundred percent. Have I found that yet? No, we're still getting there. We're constantly tweaking things to see what works and see that the consistency is there. But I'm proud of what we have at this moment.

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Phaedra Cook
Contact: Phaedra Cook