INCLINE VILLAGE, Nev. — It was at a party in Michoacán, 316 miles south of his hometown, that Jorge Martinez saw Sylvia for the first time.
Jorge came from the state of Nayarit, one of Mexico’s smallest, known for its Pacific coastline beaches and the seafood dish Ceviche.
“He went to Michoacán for a party,” said his daughter-in-law, Liz Martinez. “That’s how Mexicans are — they see a girl they like, and, well…”
Liz said it was common “back in the times” for a man to see a woman, fall in love, and whisk her away.
And it was many years later at Jorge and Sylvia’s restaurant in Sparks, Nev., that Liz was hired as a waitress. She turned 21 and worked weekends to make extra money.
During a lunch shift, Jorge and Sylvia’s son, Juan, who was working construction at the time, came in to Lupita’s to eat.
“They were my bosses before they became my in-laws,” Liz said with a laugh.
As young newlyweds in Nayarit, Jorge and Sylvia did not return to Michoacán until she became pregnant. The couple then moved to the United States with their first born; Juan was just 30 days old.
The husband and wife worked in many restaurants over the years — 10 years at Mofo’s Pizza and Pasta in Incline, as well as the Hyatt — until they opened Lupita’s Restaurant and Bar in Sparks.
“My dad always wanted a restaurant,” Juan said.
Four years ago, Jorge opened a second location on Mays Boulevard in Incline Village, which is owned and operated by Juan and Liz.
Jorge’s knowledge of Nayarit’s coastal cuisine comes together with Sylvia’s expertise in Michoacán’s traditional salsas and guacamole.
Lupita’s both the seafood and the typical meat dishes from these Mexican states.
Liz says their customers are always pleased with the prices as well. One-dollar tacos, a lunch for under $7, and their famous dish of Tacos Presidente, which comes with homemade tortillas — it’s a generous helping of food.
“A lot of people who knew us in Sparks were excited we opened in town,” Liz said.
After learning the kitchen and customer service from his father, Juan has played with the menu and is now the main chef at Lupita’s in Incline.
“As long as I take out a plate and see it come back empty, it brings a smile to my face,” Juan said.
“Our menu changed because of the clients,” he added. “We had special orders, so I started putting different ideas together. Now we have a kids’ menu; parents like that.”
Much as Sylvia didn’t expect her life would change that night at a party in Michoacán, Liz never expected she’d be running a restaurant in Lake Tahoe.
“I’m the boss but still feel like a waitress,” Liz said. “We’re both young. I’m still learning; the restaurant is little but there are a lot of things to do.”
The local support from clients in the off season help the restaurant stay in business and the summer keeps everyone busy.
“In the summer you wish you were an octopus — there are so many people,” Liz said.
Liz came from Nicaragua at age 15, with the intent to stay three years and learn English. She often teases her husband of how her life is so different than she imagined.
“People assume I’m from Mexico,” she said. “I eat Mexican food all the time, and my daughters are half Mexican.”
And although the accents and much of the slang is different (Juan says “when she talks with her mom, I see the Nicaraguan come out of her”), the language is the same.
Many families, Liz said, come for more than an authentic Mexican meal.
“There are customers that like to practice Spanish,” Liz said.
Some students of the two-way immersion school at Kings Beach Elementary come with their families to greet the waitresses, order food in Spanish, and translate for their parents.
“Parents want them to practice Spanish. So I always say both — ‘good-bye and buenas noches.’”
“As long as I take out a plate and see it come back empty, it brings a smile to my face.”