Written by Sam Prager
Photographed by Bethany Reid.
Nestled in a shopping center on the edge of Germantown, Las Tortugas Deli Mexicana is one of the most critically acclaimed Mexican restaurants in the South. However, the cuisine the father and son duo have offered for the past 16 years isn’t what comes to mind when most Memphians think of Mexican food.
Pepe Magallanes started the restaurant in 2002 after a brief retirement. Though Magallanes didn’t come from a professional culinary background, he says that cooking in Mexico is a central part of life. Passion and pride for his heritage led him to open Las Tortugas.
Forty-five years ago, Magallanes started down a path that would eventually lead him from running a government-contracted mining company in Mexico City to serving authentic Mexican fare in a Memphis suburb.
Chicken Tortilla Soup
Chipotle Salsa, Carrots, Corn, Green Peas, Tomatoes, Onions, Lime Juice
Las Tortugas is a quaint-looking restaurant off Germantown Parkway on the edge of the Wolf River. It’s small and discreet, but clean and polished. The walls are filled with photographs of the family skydiving and racing motorcycles, news clippings from magazines that have featured them, personal notes, and photos of a young Pepe, including one with Muhammed Ali.
Until recently Magallanes had been an avid sky diver, motorcyclist, world traveler, mountain climber and all-around daredevil. Pepe retired some of the passions as he reached his 70s, passions he says he had since he was a young man in Mexico. Magallanes boasts he didn’t even have his first beer until he was 28 because it would have interfered with him waking up early enough to go skydiving.
However, Pepe is an advocate for hard work, and he’s still in the restaurants every day. Magallanes, originally from Mexico City, worked for his father’s mining company since he was a child.
“I had dropped out of school at 17 and was working very hard for him at his company. So at 23 I told him I had really thought about it and was like ‘You know. I think I need to go to college.’ He put his wallet on the table and said ‘Go.’ So I went to Monterey College. Monterey Tech. There I met my wife of the past 45 years now. About a month before we got married my father died,” remembers Pepe. “So, we took over the business and continued it for many years. We were doing all the production for the government of Mexico City. All of the materials for the roads, the highways and freeways. We ended up getting out of it because the government contracts were taking too long to pay us. We kept the business, but eventually my wife had developed asthma and we moved to Memphis together.”
The family moved to Memphis in 1980. However, Pepe still ran the company and routinely visited Mexico to work. In 2000 Pepe sold the company and decided to retire. He and his wife sold their house in Collierville and moved to Naples, Florida. Before he knew it, Pepe was itching to get back to work.
“I was old enough to retire I guess. I was 55 then. We lived there one year and we felt like we weren’t doing anything. I asked my wife if she wanted to come back because I wanted to open a little restaurant to show the people what they were missing,” says Pepe. “I wanted to show them what real Mexican cuisine was. What you actually eat in Mexico.”
In 2001 the duo came back to Memphis and bought another house. They eventually started looking for a little place to open the restaurant.
One of the questions Pepe has gotten asked the most is, “Why Germantown?”
“I opened the restaurant with the interest of sharing with people what they’d been missing. I wanted to show them what real Mexican cuisine was. What you actually eat in Mexico.”
“We chose Germantown simply because I lived in Collierville. It was a matter of not inconveniencing myself so much since I opened it up as a hobby. I know it sounds pretentious, but that’s why I did it,” says Pepe. “I opened the restaurant with the interest of sharing with people what they’d been missing.”
Those who have been to Las Tortugas have probably witnessed the Magallanes spiel, which has been a staple for almost every first-timer at the restaurant.
“Ever since we opened the restaurant, which was more than 16 years ago now, we give new people a spiel. Here’s the spiel. We’re a totally different restaurant with the name Mexican on it. We, without putting anybody down, don’t identify with the Mexican food that’s generally done in the United States, which is typically more of an Americanized version,” explains Pepe. “The reality of Mexican food is it’s nothing but delicacies. It doesn’t matter if your poor, middle-class, or wealthy. Everybody eats delicious food. It’s a passion of the country.”
The menu at Las Tortugas is absent of any of the typical Americanized-Mexican decor or fare. No burritos, fajitas, rice and beans, sour cream, or ground beef.
“We don’t have what Americans think is Mexican. In the northern part of Mexico it got a little mixed between Mexico and Texas, California and Arizona,” says Pepe. “Some of those items came from the northern part of Mexico on the border, but when you go to Mexico City you’re not going to find any flour tortillas. It seems to me that many restaurants base their fare around these ingredients without telling you that they’re bad for you.”
Though Pepe himself is a purist when it comes to the culture’s cuisine, he avoids putting any other business owners down and never mentions the names of restaurants he believes have lost their way. He also notes that the problem isn’t just with Mexican food, but food in general.
“I don’t want to be critical of other people from Mexico who have their own businesses. Most people try to do their best, just as we do. But, if you notice a difference between one cuisine and another, it’s up to you to decide what’s going on. Why is it this way here and this way there,” explains Pepe. “The problem with a lot of restaurants here is as society developed the technology, the food loses authenticity. It’s become quicker and cheaper. I’m not talking just about Mexican food, but food in general. We don’t do it cheaper or quicker, we do it right.”
Handing off the Reins
Mayo, Cotija Cheese, Powder Chile, Pecante
About three years into opening Pepe handed off the ropes to his son Jonathan, who is there almost every day.
“Jonathon is even more passionate than I am and has been cooking since he was 8-years-old. He’s an amazing cook, incredible,” says Pepe. “He is freaky about doing everything perfect. He has owned this restaurant now for the past 13 years. I was always here because I had nothing else to do”
Pepe brags on his son and rightfully so. Jonathan has made a name for himself in the culinary world, even under his father’s larger-than-life shadow. Jonathan has been invited to the James Beard House to cook alongside other Memphis chefs including Kelly English, Andrew Ticer and Michael Hudman. He’s cooked at English’s Le Bon Appetit alongside many nationally recognized chefs, and has been featured multiple notable food publications.
However, Pepe shares some of the wisdom he told his son when he passed over the reigns.
“When Jonathan acquired the restaurant from me I said, ‘Don’t look at the profit side of it. Look at what your going to give the customer.’ It’s like a train. The caboose is the profit, but you need to be at the front steering the train. Not chasing the caboose,” says Pepe. “Your return is coming right behind it. If you constantly keep your eyes on the back of the caboose you might crash the whole train. Keep an eye on the engine, and when you get to the station then check on the rewards.”
Pepe explains that owning a restaurant is not only hard work, but that you have to have passion for food and care about the customers to succeed. Everything is fresh in Las Tortugas and it is obvious when you taste that food.
“When it comes to Mexican food, if the owner doesn’t go to the stores themself and get everything fresh they’re already at a disadvantage to the quality and healthy nature of fresh food. Everything is hand-picked in just regular stores. In this restaurant everything is fresh. Jonathan goes to the store and buys everything fresh every morning. From lettuce to filet mignon to shrimp to avocados” explains Pepe. “I’m not talking about, ‘Hey we ran out of tomatoes! We’ve got to go to Walmart.’ No. We go to the store and farmers markets every morning to get everything we need. No Sysco [a prominent commercial food distributor], nothing frozen, nothing premade. Food is more expensive to buy it that way because you’re not buying from a big supplier, but you’ve got to do it so you can offer the best. I’m not trying to put anyone down. We just do it differently. How it’s supposed to be done. We do it the old-fashioned way. This is why we’ve become so popular among people who like and appreciate good food. I opened the restaurant as a matter of pride for our heritage. Because of that, we did the best that could be done.”
The level of care and pride in the Magallanes’ food can be seen in anything from the king crab torta to the guacamole, which uses avocados that Jonathan ripens in a climate controlled room.
“If you’re going to get mangos or avocados, you have to get them before they ripen. We ripen them here. Jonathan knows how to ripen them perfectly. He’s always interchanging hot or cool. He buys avocados sometimes three to five days before they’re perfect,” says Pepe. “It’s a lot of work and a lot of love. The reason anybody is in this business is because they love what they do.”
Memphis and the Nature of Man
King Crab Torta
Tomato, Cilantro, Avocado, Chipo-Mayo,
Pepe has now been in Memphis for more than half of his life, and calls the city home. He likes Memphis, he says, because it is everything Mexico City, which is larger than New York City, is not.
He adds that Memphis is relaxing, the people are nice, the traffic is good and there are a lot of opportunities for people here. However he notes that Memphis is on the uprise and coming back from what he describes as a dormant state of culinary excellence.
“I’ve been in Memphis for 39 years. For a long time there was only Chez Philippe and a few other fine-dining restaurants, but they have become much more prevalent in the past six or seven years. It’s become much more cosmopolitan oriented and the quality has gone up. I’m talking fine-dining, a-la-carte,” describes Pepe. “For a while Memphis was in a dormant state of culinary excellence. There wasn’t a lot of mobility from the bigger metropolitan areas like California or New York, and there weren’t a lot of immigrants coming from other countries here either.”
Pepe avoids politics at the restaurant, though you can tell there has been some politically motivated instances before by the notes he has left on the windows next to the cashier’s booth. Pepes personal philosophy is that very few people truly have hate in their heart.
"Very few people can truly sit down and tell you ‘I hate a certain group of people’ and truly mean it. People might have hate on their mouth, but not in their heart," says Pepe."
“I don’t have feelings of any kind because someone is blue, green, yellow or whatever. What makes you a person is who you are and to me that’s it. Very few people can truly sit down and tell you ‘I hate a certain group of people’ and truly mean it. Maybe 1%, but that’s my take. A very small percentage of people are truly bigots with hate in their heart. People might have it on their mouth, but not in their heart. That’s the way I approach things mostly. Feelings about different people should be getting better and becoming more compassionate, and most of all you should teach the children to pick it up where you’re leaving off,” says Pepe. “The nature of man should be to better yourself all of the time.
Whether it’s in your relationship, your economic position, your education, philosophically. You should be constantly striving toward getting better. You should think ‘How can I get better?’ And you should enjoy getting better. I’m not saying I’m the perfect example of that, but we should all try.”
While Jonathan owns Las Tortugas in Germantown, Pepe owns and runs the new Las Tortugas Deli Mexicana, which opened in 2017, off Poplar and Massey in East Memphis.
“You’ve never eaten the food we have here,” he smiles. “Unless you’ve eaten it here!”