Julie Quintana started in the restaurant business at the tender age of 13. She would finish her studies, clean the school from 3 to 5 p.m., and then work at a restaurant in Arboles until 10 p.m.
We lived out in the middle of nowhere, and we were very poor, said Quintana. I remember the minimum wage was $1 per hour. I was paid $6 per hour under the table.
Forty-plus years later, Quintana has served four generations of customers at Julies El Amigo in Ignacio. Although the work is demanding, she said she wouldnt trade it.
El Amigo was founded in Farmington in 1973. It was relocated to Ignacio in 1975, next to a gas station. It expanded to the current location at 355 Goddard Ave. and was run by Julies mother, Inez Quintana, from 1978 to 1990.
When we started here, El Dorado was the only other restaurant, said Quintana. Now theres one on every corner.
Local residents, including many Hispanic families and tribal members, keep coming back for the home-style Mexican comfort food and New Mexico favorites like sopapillas, Navajo tacos and Frito pie. There is a beloved Faverino Special on the menu, named after a husband and wife who always ordered the same dish.
We used to have 20 old farmers who loved to come in and drink coffee and bull****. A lot of them have died. But Ive seen many children grow up here, she said.
Quintana, a welcoming, maternal woman, clearly values family unity. She worked with her mother for many years, and her four children and some of her grandchildren have worked at the restaurant.
All my children know how to cook, said Quintana proudly.
Julies sister and brother-in-law pitched in to renovate a hacienda-style house when the restaurant moved to its current location in 1986. A cousin did the decorating, which includes flowers, paintings and warm-toned walls. A bright mural of St. Francis graces the restaurants exterior entry way.
Longtime employees are treated like family as well. On June 11, a waitress came in for the lunch shift with her hair newly dyed bright red. The teasing banter showed a closeness and affection between Quintana and her staff.
Former employee Patty Wright helped herself to a drink, as if she were in a friends kitchen.
Four generations have come in to eat here said Wright. We come here because we love Julie and we like the food.
Quintana said she makes her own chile, and all the sauces are from scratch. Two cooks have worked for her since 1994.
My food is made daily, and not canned. Its like cooking from home, said Quintana. Her favorite food has been the same since she was little: beans and chile.
The menu features burgers and sandwiches between $7-8. There are classic regional dishes, such as Navajo tacos, Frito pie, sopapillas and fried jalapeños. Mexican entrées include enchiladas, chile relleno, and tamales all smothered in special sauce in the $9-10 range.
Quintana said there was a time she tried doing something else. In 1989, she moved and ran the Pinon Hills restaurant and motel by Navajo Lake for a short time. Eventually, she came back to El Amigo, where she plans to stay.
Im going to keep cooking. I dont plan to retire, she said. This is home.