Ricky Martinez’s hopes for a new restaurant he will bring to Longview are rooted in the history of the location he has chosen.
Martinez, who founded a now popular group of “Mexicajun” restaurants called Tia Juanita’s Fish Camp, is from Tyler. He grew up in Canton and attended Tyler Junior College. He also knew all about one of Longview’s most famous and traditional restaurants – Johnny Cace’s Seafood and Steak House.
“I was a fan of Johnny Cace,” Martinez said. “I’ve eaten there all my life.”
Now he plans to build one of his restaurants in the former Johnny Cace’s on Marshall Avenue in Longview, with plans to open the restaurant in 2023.
“Hopefully this will be another landmark restaurant,” Martinez said.
The Johnny Cace building has been mostly empty since it closed in 2015 after 66 years in business. Martinez’s decision to relocate due to a desire to settle in Longview came about with a little nudge from District 1 Longview City Councilor Tem Carpenter.
“It’s a great story,” Carpenter said of his involvement.
Martinez opened his first Tia Juanita’s – named after his aunt – in Beaumont in 2014. It then expanded with locations in Lumberton, Jasper (although that location has since burned down), the largest restaurant in Port Arthur, Winnie, Orange and finally Henderson. He has five restaurants within a 25 mile radius of the state’s Golden Triangle.
“They’re all busy all the time,” Martinez said. “People just love that thing.”
Carpenter said his son one day asked to take him and his wife to dinner at Tia Juanita in Henderson.
“I thought, ‘Lord, have mercy. Who’s going to Henderson for dinner?” “
They left anyway, and Carpenter immediately noticed that the parking lot was full.
“As soon as I walked into the actual building, I was blown away by the facility,” said Carpenter. “They have everything from Superman to Betty Boop on the same wall. It looks like someone decorated one of the original chillies that got steroids. Spent 15 or 20 minutes looking at the antiques and parts and pieces. It looks like everything was designed together and it has a lot of throwback furniture. It’s just a unique thing.”
Then he saw oysters being grilled outside on the charcoal grill and 23 margarita machines, a wall full of them, lined the dining room.
“We were finally seated and … the service was good and the food was outstanding,” said Carpenter. “Henderson was lucky.”
While there, he also contacted one of the staff and left him one of his city council business cards. He told the clerk, “If you speak to the owners … we really need to get one of these over to Longview and I’ll help any way I can.”
A few days later, Martinez called him.
Martinez already had Longview on his radar. He also said that locations in Mount Pleasant and Tyler are also possible in the future. Carpenter told him about Johnny Cace’s building and who owns it now. (Dr. Christopher Ihionkhan bought the building after it closed.)
Martinez listened and said he would call Carpenter back. And he did the next day, Carpenter said, recalling Martinez saying, “We’re in.” Martinez recalled thinking, “That would be cool to be with Johnny Cace.”
Carpenter said he helped bring Ihionkhan and Martinez together.
Johnny Cace’s building is more than 14,000 square feet. The building needs repairs as it has been vacant for about seven years. People were in the building, Martinez said, and the copper wire was removed from the structure.
“It’s a big building, which we like,” Martinez said.
Tia Juanita’s menu includes: “appetizers” like fries and queso, alligator bites, shrimp cocktails, and roast Cajun ribs; salads; seafood or chicken sausage gumbo; Oysters on the shell and grilled oysters; a variety of tacos including grilled fish, shrimp, or blackened alligator tacos; and other “Mexicajun” dishes like grilled boudin quesadillas and blackened seafood nachos. Doug Clothier will be the managing partner of Longview, Martinez said.
He described the restaurant’s decor as a “pop art museum setting,” and Martinez said music — from the ’50s to the present day — is an important part of the atmosphere.
“The whole thing is designed to be recognizable,” Martinez said. “You need a few hours to see the whole thing.”
Carpenter said the restaurant chain shared numbers with him that lead him to believe it will be a “home run for Longview” in terms of the sales tax revenue it will generate. He also said he is praying that the restaurant’s investment in the old Johnny Cace’s will help East Marshall Avenue and that the project will “give people some inspiration to help out the old Miles of Smiles.” “