Johnny Martinez operates a landmark restaurant on the Mother Road.

Johnny Martinez is a third-generation restaurateur whose family has been in the business since 1927. Rumor has it that Martinez inspired Rudolfo Anaya’s character the Vitamin Kid in the novel Bless Me Ultima; the two were friends and neighbors when growing up in their hometown of Santa Rosa, two hours east of Albuquerque off I-40. As owner of the Comet II Drive In & Restaurant, Martinez has seen many businesses along Route 66 come and go, but he’s keeping the neon on today. 

I grew up in the restaurant business. Santa Rosa had Highway 66 going through town. When we got bypassed in ’72, business got real bad. A lot of people didn’t survive the bypass, but we did. When big companies came into town, like the truck stops and McDonald’s, that left even fewer of us. 

Santa Rosa The Comet II

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The Comet was originally the Mucho Burger when it opened in 1952. It sits along Route 66 where the Santa Rosa townsite started. We originally bought it in 1956. The restaurant became the Comet II in 1961 when I took it over. It used to be a drive-in restaurant—a lot of locals still call it that—but it burned down in 1984. I rebuilt it, did away with the drive-in, and made it a sit-down restaurant. I added the neon. I’m one of the only ones in Santa Rosa along Route 66 to have neon. 

We still have a connection to Route 66. The Route 66 Auto Museum displays about 20 classic cars. Many of them belong to a local. [Owner James “Bozo” Cordova founded and oversees the museum that features a rotating lineup of privately owned cars from other collectors and Cordova’s own fleet, including a custom 1947 Chevy COE (cab over engine) truck that he restored.]

I’ve been cooking all my life, except for when I was in the Korean War. I learned a lot about cooking from my dad. All the recipes are in my head. I’m still learning today. I watch a lot of the cooking channels. Eating habits have changed a lot since I started. I have to keep learning. 

We serve New Mexican food. One of the most popular menu items is an enchilada with a steak on it and fries. Most of the dishes have chile. I remind customers on the menu, “Chile has attained an almost religious status in Santa Rosa and New Mexico. We eat chile on everything from burritos to steak to pizza and even ice cream.” 

Natillas [a custard] comes with every meal except sandwiches—or if you’re a local, you always get natillas no matter what you order. The Travel Channel featured us on a show called 101 More Amazing Places to Chowdown.

Santa Rosa Comet II

I’m 88 and I still cook every day. I’ve been blessed with good health; otherwise, I still wouldn’t be working at this age. I love going out and talking to people. The menu even says, “Making and keeping friends is my most important purpose.”

Santa Rosa is a friendly village with 3,300 people in it—and a couple old farts like me. The locals have kept the Comet alive. It’s tradition to eat here. My dad fed the grandpas. I fed the dads, and now I’m feeding my grandkids. My son is getting ready to take over the restaurant to feed the next generation.

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