Janie Martinez, co-founder of Matt’s El Rancho, the iconic South Austin restaurant, died Saturday night in Austin. She was 90.
Martinez was hospitalized two weeks ago for an illness and died peacefully with family by her side, said her granddaughter Audrey Glickert.
She and her husband, Matt, opened El Rancho — the original name of the restaurant — in 1952 at a rented house at 302 E. First St., about where the Four Seasons is now.
Martinez, who lived through the Great Depression in northern Travis County, learned to cook while helping her widowed mother raise her family. She worried about cooking for a large volume of people, but the restaurant was a success.
Her husband, who died in 2003, told her they couldn’t go wrong because she was the best cook in the land, she told the American-Statesman last year.
The restaurant has since moved to South Lamar Boulevard, but many of Martinez’s recipes remain on the menu.
“She had this amazing ability to nourish the body and nourish the soul,” Glickert said. “She always showed us that food is love and they go hand-in-hand.”
Families would celebrate life events there and Martinez often invited close friends like members of the Daughters of Charity to share a meal.
“Janie has always been a loving, kind, generous, sweet person,” said Sister Gertrude Levy, Martinez’s close friend.
She was happy letting her husband be the face and voice of the restaurant, Glickert said, but after his death, Martinez started sharing her stories and recipes with her granddaughter’s generation.
Among Martinez’s favorite memories were visits from President Lyndon Johnson, who would enter through the back door of the house and stop by the kitchen to say hello and shake her hand.
“She was a storyteller, but she had to be asked for the stories,” Glickert said. “It’s hard to fathom what she has seen being alive for 90 years.”
Glickert said Martinez also loved spending time with her family, especially on Tuesdays — her day off. Meals were times to encourage her loved ones to follow their dreams or to remind them how blessed they were, Glickert said.
“We talked every single night before she would go to bed,” Glickert said. “The love for me and my two daughters came pouring through — that’s what I will miss the very most.”
Levy said that after celebrating her 90th birthday in July, Martinez’s health started to decline. She was too weak to visit the restaurant, Glickert said, but her family would often bring her plates of food from there for a critique.
Levy said that Martinez never complained about her illness. Instead, the conversations would always be about how her family and friends were doing.
“She suffered quietly,” Levy said. “She always ended our conversations with ‘I love you, Sister Gertrude.’ Even when she was sick, she told me that with what little breath she had.”
Martinez is survived by her three daughters, Cecilia Muela, Cathy Kreitz and Gloria Reyna, and “many, many” grandchildren and great-grandchildren, Glickert said.
Funeral arrangements were pending Sunday.