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The Secret is the Salsa

The Secret is the Salsa

At Las Tortugas, Pepe Magallanes and his son Jonathan bring Fresh Mex to Memphis

In 1999, Jose “Pepe” Magallanes and his two sons, Christian and Jonathan, gathered at an airfield outside of Memphis for an afternoon of skydiving. Pepe had gotten hooked on the sport in his younger days, and when he retired, he convinced his offspring to make it a family affair.

After everyone in their group had jumped from the plane and floated safely to earth, they unstrapped their parachutes to prepare for the next thrill: diving into elaborate platters of chile-spiced fresh seafood salad and other authentic Mexican dishes Pepe had prepared for the outing.

“They were blown away,” Jonathan remembers. “One of the other skydivers asked Dad, ‘If you had a restaurant, is this what you’d serve?’ Until then, cooking had just been a hobby for him. But that got him to thinking, why not?”

Las Tortugas, June/July 2016
Photography by Brandon Dill

As time wore on, and the senior Magallanes grew increasingly restless in retirement, he continued to ponder the possibility. Then he spotted an empty storefront in a strip shopping center in the Memphis suburb of Germantown, Tennessee, and in 2003–despite having never worked in a restaurant–he took a leap of faith and opened Las Tortugas Deli Mexicana.

“My only experience was watching the help in the house where I grew up,” says Pepe. “When I was little, I used to get kicked out of the kitchen for being in the way.  After I left Mexico and could no longer get those foods, I taught myself how to make them. It became my passion project to share what I had been missing with my new friends here in Memphis.”

He knew he would need a business partner.  So he called his son, who was then working in sales for a paint company in Florida, and made a pitch.

“I said to Jonathan, why don’t you come back to Memphis and help me do the best food in the world,” Pepe recalls. “We had no business plan. Zero. But Jonathan had restaurant experience, a world-class education, and such a great love for food and people. We could learn.”

June July 2016
The father-son duo's gregarious personalities undoubtedly contribute to the tiny restaurant's almost cult-like following.

Over the years, the simple menu of home-cooked favorites they started with has expanded, along with the swarms of customers who line up regularly at the counter to order tacos filled with grilled red snapper and avocado slices, fresh ears of corn rolled in spicy lime-spiked mayonnaise and cotija cheese, and icy drinks or “aguas” made with puréed melon and tropical fruits.

Tortas, the other specialty, are sandwiches made on crispy, freshly baked bread loaves called tortugas, which means “turtles,” referring to their dome-topped shape. Among their signature tortas is the De Oreja de Elefante (“elephant ear”), filled with thinly sliced, griddled sirloin and onions, roasted tomato, and roasted poblanos.

The Magallaneses’ efforts have won high critical praise and national press, and respect from the city’s top chefs. In 2014, Jonathan was part of the culinary team that traveled to New York to prepare a Memphis-themed feast at the James Beard House. Pepe attributes their success to “the ingredients and the hands that make it.”

Rather than rely on industrial food distributors for their provisions, Jonathan picks them himself by hand, from local farmers, international markets, and even the neighborhood Wal-Mart.

“We love having the freedom and flexibility to choose what looks good to us,” says Jonathan, who was born in Memphis but has spent ample time south of the border.

“Mexican cuisine is one of the world’s greatest culinary treasures,” he says. “The breadth is inexhaustible.”

His mother, Nancy, a Memphis native, had earned her degree in Spanish and was doing post-graduate work in Mexico when she met and fell for Pepe, a fun-loving businessman with an appetite for big adventure who ran a large mining operation with his brother. For years after they married, the couple lived in Mexico City until Nancy developed health problems due to the heavy pollution. They relocated to her hometown, and Pepe continued to travel back and forth to Mexico City to help run the family business, while making time for other interests like skydiving and motorcycle-racing.  Jonathan–an extreme sports enthusiast himself, having competed in Enduro mountain bike races–spent summers and holidays at his grandmother’s home in Mexico City, where he cultivated a taste for the flavors his dad would try to recreate at home when he couldn’t find them elsewhere.

“I was very blessed in that I got the best of both worlds,” Jonathan says.  “My mother and (maternal) grandmother are both fantastic traditional Southern cooks, and for our day-to-day meals fed us things like pork chops and gravy, casseroles, homemade biscuits, and chess pie. Dad has always loved to entertain, and would cook on the weekends and for special events. He is such a master of seafood. For more than one birthday, he made a veritable feast of indulgence for me and my friends–with shelled lobster, king crab and jumbo Gulf shrimp served over blocks of ice, and spicy guacamole, vegetables, and lots of limes on the side.”

Like his father, Jonathan is self-trained in the culinary arts. But while pursuing a business degree at Kenyon College in Columbus, Ohio, and at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville, he worked as a server in high-end restaurants where he “developed an appreciation for relishing the whole dining experience.” He expanded his Spanish vocabulary–and deepened his palate–while attending classes for a few semesters at Universidad Iberoamericana in Mexico City, and then backpacking with his cousins through Europe before returning to the U.S. to embark in a sales career.

“I think all these experiences dovetailed together to make me a very curious chef,” says Jonathan, an enthusiastic home cook who shares his father’s love of entertaining with friends.

Tostadas de Tinga de Pollo - Two Smoked Chicken With Pulled smoked chicken breast in a chipotle garlic and roasted tomato salsa. Served as two corn tostadas garnished with lettuce, lime, cotija, crema and avocado.
Chicken Tinga Tostadas

The father-son duo’s gregarious personalities undoubtedly contribute to the tiny restaurant’s almost cult-like following.  Several years ago, Jonathan bought the business from his father and he can typically be found at the counter taking orders and patiently explaining menu items to customers more familiar with the ground beef-stuffed burritos and hard-shell tacos that characterize Mexican chains.

On most days, Pepe, now 72, still zooms up on his prized shiny red Viper motorcycle painted with gold flames, ready to pitch in as needed, helping to expedite orders on the kitchen line one minute and chatting up customers the next.

In recent months, he and Jonathan have been preparing for the summer opening of a second Las Tortugas, with a simplified menu focused primarily on tacos. “The menu at the deli has grown into such a beast, it would be hard to recreate it in another location,” Jonathan says.

The idea of extending their footprint beyond Memphis excites him, he admits. Yet much as Jonathan enjoys other cuisines, he’s never had the desire to stray from his own roots as a chef.

“Mexican cuisine is one of the world’s greatest culinary treasures,” he says. “The breadth is inexhaustible.”

Even as they look to the future for other ventures, one thing his dad can guarantee: “We will always refuse to Americanize our food. We don’t put cheese or sour cream on our tacos even if you ask.”

Chicken Tinga Tostadas with Salsa and Crema

Prickly Pear Margarita

Las Tortugas’ Elote (Mexican Street Corn)

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