Musician Kristen Martinez brings taco pop-up MB Foodhouse to Phoenix | Phoenix New Times

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Moodie Black's Kristen Martinez is back in Phoenix serving ‘new era Tex-Mex’

Noise rap artist Kristen Martinez makes the kitchen her stage at MB Foodhouse.
Moodie Black front-woman Kristen Martinez is back in Phoenix, this time serving Tex-Mex through her pop-up, MB Foodhouse.
Moodie Black front-woman Kristen Martinez is back in Phoenix, this time serving Tex-Mex through her pop-up, MB Foodhouse. Sara Crocker
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Kristen Martinez never felt like she fit into Phoenix’s music scene.

Rather than compromise on her sound or give up, the noise rap artist worked to create her own opportunities in the Valley.

“I had to build my own nights,” recalls Martinez, who performed as KonGeror and fronted the group GAHEDiNDIE, a precursor of her longtime project Moodie Black. "But I wasn’t waiting, I was always making my own things and building."

Now, 15 years after leaving Arizona, Martinez is back and again working to carve out her niche in Phoenix – this time with food. These days, fans can find Martinez dousing crispy taquitos with fiery guajillo sauce and cheese, stuffing handmade flour tortillas with eggs or carnitas and frying wings at her pop-up and food truck business, MB Foodhouse.

Her homecoming is one that Martinez didn't anticipate. In 2009 Martinez left Arizona to live in Minneapolis, Minnesota, and Los Angeles, where she later came out as transgender woman. She initially stayed away from Arizona, finding greater acceptance elsewhere and vowing not to return outside of a tour or to visit her family.

“I feel like people connect with the food better because it’s not as divisive as the music is, it’s not as subjective,” Martinez says, taking a break from prepping before a recent pop-up at Gracie’s Tax Bar. “I’m hoping I can bridge that weird disconnect with Phoenix, of getting them to embrace me through food, because I still feel like I’m this weird outsider with it. I am in a lot of ways with food because I don’t fancy myself a chef. I’m using what my family did and enhancing it.”

click to enlarge A vegan cauliflower taco at MB Foodhouse.
MB Foodhouse's Vegan Death taco is packed with fried cauliflower and guacamole, topped with salsa macha, fried Brussels sprouts, garlic chips, slaw and a Hatch chile-dusted quinoa crumble.
Sara Crocker

MB Foodhouse serves ‘new era Tex-Mex’

Martinez calls MB Foodhouse's menu “new era Tex-Mex,” drawing on comforting dishes from her childhood in El Paso, Texas, family recipes and riffs on classics.

Martinez grew up cooking with her family, and as an adult, she continued to build her skills, first at a taco truck in Los Angeles and then working her way up from prep to a line cook at Minneapolis’ Italian Eatery. MB Foodhouse was born in Minneapolis, first appearing at Moodie Black's Moodhouse Fest in 2019. The pop-up continued during the pandemic.

“I couldn’t tour anymore,” she says. 

But, she concedes the shift to cooking also allowed her to reset after feeling burned out.

“I’d be struggling for 16, 17 years with Moodie Black at that point,” she says. “I felt I was so focused on this thing that I wanted that I was pushing it away. I was so enveloped for so long that I had to get out. The only thing I could think to do was to do something completely different. When I decided to do tacos, in my mind I thought, I’m going to do this because by doing these tacos all this amazing stuff will happen for Moodie Black.”

The ravenous response in Minneapolis caught Martinez off guard. MB Foodhouse quickly grew from pop-ups to a stint at Five Watt Coffee and a residence at the food hall North Loop Galley.

As the pandemic abated, good news came in the music world, too. Iconic Arizona musician, vintner and restaurateur Maynard James Keenan invited Moodie Black to support Pucifer’s summer 2022 tour.

After the tour, Martinez opted to leave the food hall in favor of a trailer that would allow more flexibility. Then, Martinez’s life changed after splitting with her partner of 16 years.

“Once that happened, I just felt like I had to go,” she says.

MB Foodhouse stopped serving in Minneapolis on April 2, and Martinez started her trek back to Arizona, intending to set up shop in Cottonwood, where mentor Keenan’s Merkin Vineyards and restaurant are located. She bottled wine at Merkin while working to get licensed and get her trailer up and running.

“They gave me a lifeline,” she says.

Just as the Foodhouse was ready and she went to unhitch the trailer, “the hitch breaks, rolls down the hill, busts into a bunch of trees, goes halfway down the hill, breaks the water tank … a whole ‘nother disaster immediately,” Martinez says.

Feeling tapped out, she returned to the Valley.

“Being back in Phoenix, it’s been challenging,” she says. “Now I’m just trying to get to a baseline place to get this business going.”
click to enlarge Kristen Martinez of MB Foodhouse.
Kristen Martinez adds guajillo sauce to a pile of just-fried taquitos stuffed with slow-braised beef and potatoes.
Sara Crocker

A menu of childhood favorites, family recipes

Despite the fits and starts, and regularly cooking out of different locations, Martinez says she’s been buoyed by the response to her food.

“It’s a lot of jumping around," she says, but "it’s also what keeps me going because there’s something here."

The menu for MB Foodhouse centers around taquitos inspired by Chico's Tacos, an El Paso-based Mexican fast food spot, and handmade flour tortillas, which hold slow-cooked carnitas, vegan fried cauliflower and “weenie and egg” – a sliced beef hot dog with scrambled egg, cheese and salsa verde.

“Everything I do I make mindfully, by hand,” Martinez says.

She hopes to cultivate the breakfast taco culture in Arizona that's pervasive in Texas. Martinez is likewise infusing smokehouse flavors in her dishes with sauces like a salsa macha barbecue and chicken wings that are brined and smoked before they’re finished in the fryer and tossed with a spicy, sticky tamarind sauce.

“I’m mixing elements of Mexican culture and I’m also part Black, so I wanted to bridge that gap being from the Southwest,” she says.

While Martinez concedes there’s no shortage of taquerias in the Valley, she wants to bring the perspective of El Paso and ingredients like Hatch red chiles.

“I’m trying to reconnect with when I was a kid, between 4 and 5 years old, and those foods and bringing that food here,” she says.
click to enlarge A plate of wings from MB Foodhouse.
MB Foodhouse's wings are brined, smoked and finished in the fryer. Martinez then tosses them in a spicy, sticky tamarind sauce.
Sara Crocker

Where to find MB Foodhouse

Since Martinez returned to the Valley, MB Foodhouse has popped up at breweries, in the kitchen at Gracie’s Tax Bar and at markets like Farm to Mesa. She posts her schedule on MB Foodhouse's website and social media, but Phoenix Beer Co. is her trailer's primary residence.

In addition to the pop-up, Martinez sells tortillas, chips and salsas through her Moodie Box drops, generally announced online monthly. She says it's been a lifeline as she navigated getting the trailer running in Arizona, and provides a way for further-flung fans to support her work.

Martinez sees overlap with her pursuits in the music and culinary worlds.

“It’s just working really hard and believing in what you do and then showing up every single day when no one’s looking,” she says, noting that she's also been working on a new Moodie Black album.

“I have so much more to offer than just tacos,” she says, explaining that she hopes to not only connect with people through food but also her music and her experience as a trans woman.

In the long term, Martinez hopes to have a brick-and-mortar restaurant again, somewhere where she can create a space for people who, like her younger self, may not always feel welcome or understood.

“My ultimate goal is to have my own place so I can give back and be a part of the Phoenix community in a way that I haven’t been able to do yet,” Martinez says.

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