Born in Juarez and raised in El Paso, Gabriel Holguin first got the “restaurant bug” washing dishes as a high school student, and cooking to pay the bills while attending University of Texas at El Paso. “One day,” he recalls saying, “I will open my own restaurant.” This straightforward avowal would be deferred almost 20 years, though, before he and his wife, Elizabeth (co-owner, nurse practitioner and Ph.D. candidate), opened The Cellar near Downtown Albuquerque on June 19, 2015. Gabriel lived a lifetime between his declaration and its actualization. He enlisted and served in the Army for 10 years; he did several tours in Iraq, while stationed in upstate New York, where he was also a military police officer. He met Elizabeth in Syracuse, where the two were married. After Gabriel left the service, he noted that Albuquerque was looking for officers, relocated to the Duke City, and served six years with Albuquerque Police Department, with beats in the Valley and Downtown, which is where he happened to notice a building—now home to The Cellar—was for lease. Although there were quite a few other offers on the table for the space, the owner must have been impressed with Gabriel, believing he would bring something positive to the space and neighborhood; he worked out a deal that included ample time for renovation.
Gabriel is clearly a man of determination, which explains how, just about every day for the following 14 months, he awoke early to renovate the 100-year-old building on Lomas (most recently a barber shop), returned home, put on his uniform and went to work as a police officer. “I wasn’t funded,” he states plainly, “so to save money, I built everything inside myself.” Although Gabriel had never done contract work before, some of his uncles in Juarez were carpenters, and he says he got to be pretty handy, using what he’d learned from his family to design and recreate the space according to his vision. (Gabriel’s brother, an electrician, also helped out in the final months of the renovation.)
For Gabriel, one thing was clear––another New Mexican restaurant was not needed in the Land of Enchantment. And so, inspired by the extensive traveling of his Army days (“I was not afraid to try different things,” he says), as well as the copious research and feedback from friends, Gabriel decided on tapas. “I liked how the people socialize with this type of cuisine,” he explains. “I built a long bench along the wall so people can sit together who don’t know each other.” He noted that Americans, at times, are hesitant to sit too close. In Europe, he says, it is common practice to be seated at a table with strangers, and often, restaurant space is communal. There isn’t necessarily a clearly delineated “my space.”
At The Cellar, I noticed almost no one had their phones out (except me taking photos of the food and a few patrons trying to video the flurry of the flamenco dancers), and my husband and I chatted easily with the woman sitting on my left (she insisted I try the chicken wrapped in jamón serrano with a lemon cream sauce, perfectly cooked zucchini and lots of parsley), and those seated at the bar on my right, who recommended the wonderfully refreshing white sangria with peach, mangosteen and freshly squeezed lime to cool us in the early evening heat. We were, all of us, transfixed by the dancers, the sharp clamor of the intricate foot movements in juxtaposition to the graceful, intimate gestures of wrists and hips—such passion and such restraint, without a sheen or drop of sweat to be seen.
In addition to the flamenco dancers who perform every other Wednesday during dinner, Gabriel made efforts to weave other bits of local history throughout his renovation process; for example, both doors are antiques from the 1800s, found and refurbished on antique quests throughout New Mexico and Mexico; and the handle of the white door is an old miner’s pick Gabriel found in the desert of Las Cruces (perhaps a nod to his alma mater’s UTEP Miners). The feel is reminiscent of, well, an Old World Spanish cellar—lots of brick (especially behind the bar), roughly hewn wood beams, wrought-iron stools, artisan tin tiles. It’s a place of comfort, a place of conversation.
The food reflects this sturdiness and simplicity—a simplicity derived from a focus on accessibility. “I didn’t want anything too fancy––I wanted people food,” Holguin explains. “I wanted to make sure there was nothing on the menu where people don’t know what it is, or are afraid to order, or ingredients that are hard for us to find.” Indeed, it’s easy to imagine generations of Spaniards in the countryside, enjoying figs and pancetta, served with goat cheese and drizzled with honey, or jamon serrano with a lovely chunk of manchego and a bottle of Tempranillo or Albarino. Because Andaluz, the only other tapas bar in Albuquerque, is just on the other side of Downtown, comparisons will inevitably be made. Both restaurants, I’d say, are excellent, and they differ in style, as Provence differs from Paris. And now, of course, Burqueños are lucky enough to enjoy both.
Though most small business owners cautioned Gabriel it would be about two years before he’d see a profit, he says the he’s doing all right; his frugality and hard work are paying off as the first year comes to a close. The lunch crowd has been slower to build than he’d like, but there’s been a consistently strong showing for dinner. This, Gabriel confesses, is most likely his fault. “All the while, I’m building the restaurant, thinking, ‘It’s going to be so nice’ in my head, but I didn’t think to market it.”
When I ask about other rough patches in the first year, Gabriel—who is fit, clean-cut, and easy to spot in the restaurant––my husband called him “the Mexican Jean Claude Van Damme”—gives a wry laugh and tells me about the managerial aspect. Used to individual commitments and the responsibilities of the military and APD—not to mention the responsibilities that come with being a father to three little girls—Gabriel finds that managing his employees is his greatest challenge. The demanding workload, attention to detail, and even the financial aspects of entrepreneurship are not at all daunting, but, “It’s different from being a police officer,” he confesses. “It’s a different type of stress, dealing with your employees––you can’t control the customer service––any issue you have, it always goes back on the owner.” Gabriel continues to build not only his skills as a restaurateur but The Cellar itself––expect a patio in the spring of 2017.
It seems essential for a restaurant such as this to be a part of our rich historical and culturally hued landscape. That the Spanish missionaries brought grape vines for the wine in Catholic mass (hence, the Mission grape), planted stone fruits such as plums and peaches—that Albuquerque is a world renown city for flamenco––all of this this is as familiar to us as green chile and oven bread.
The Cellar is located at 1025 Lomas NW in Albuquerque. 505.242.3117. thecellartapas.com.
Story by Emily Beenen