Sixty years of sopapillas and salsa
Crowds still pack Downtown institution El Sombrero at lunchtime—and for good reason
Wed, Feb 10, 2010 (1:40 p.m.)
Photo: Beverly Poppe
In 1950, five years before Bob Taylor opened his steakhouse in what was then the middle of nowhere in northwest Las Vegas, and eight years before the Golden Steer appeared on West Sahara, a man named Clemente Griego opened an unassuming Mexican restaurant in a square, squat little Downtown building at 807 Main Street. Griego had been running the place for 14 years when his nephew, Jose E. Aragon, joined him at the stoves.
Before coming to this Las Vegas, Aragon—who hailed from the little town of Antonchico near Las Vegas, New Mexico—had worked at La Placita Dining Rooms in Old Town, Albuquerque, manning the sopapilla station there. In 1970, Aragon bought the restaurant from his uncle, and he has been dazzling us with the city’s best New Mexican/Mexican cuisine ever since.
Yours truly started eating here in the early ’80s when a lawyer/colleague turned me on to Aragon’s superior salsa fresca and smoky, deeply-flavored red-chile salsa. I can still remember the first time I took a bite of the thick, richly spicy, dark-red paste on the end of a fresh fried tortilla chip. My jaw dropped the way it does when something transformative is placed in my mouth—not enough to lose the food being chewed mind you, but enough to create a look of awe and wonder. Before you could say, “dos cervezas, por favor,” I was hooked. By my rough estimate, I’ve eaten at El Sombrero three or four times a year now for more than 25 years.
That’s nothing compared to some regulars. Some folks come for lunch every day, and dozens more wouldn’t think of going a week without one of Aragon’s beef or chicken burritos (enchilada-style), or a satisfying plate of huevos rancheros or con chorizo, served with a pile of moist, fresh tortillas.
As good as those are, it’s when Aragon goes back to his New Mexican roots that his food really shines. His pork chile verde and beef chile Colorado, served either in big bowls or ladled over burritos, will take you straight to the New Mexican hills or downtown Albuquerque—where every lunch counter or roadside diner proudly makes these stews from scratch daily to celebrate the chile bounty all around them. New Mexican green chile always reminds me of lemony-hot vegetables, while the red tastes of both earth and spicy fruit. Aragon’s repertoire breaks no new ground with these ingredients (his menu has been set in stone since the ’70s), but he is as faithful to them as any New Mexican classicist can be.
Classics? Let’s talk menudo—the version here is magnificent. Nothing takes the winter chill (or a hangover) away better, and El Sombrero’s version is tender with chunks of honeycomb tripe and posole (hominy)—deeply satisfying with every sip.
After a big bowl gets your brow sweating, finish with some fine flan, or our favorite: sopapillas. If you’ve had these in other restaurants (especially in Vegas) and think you know what they are, all we can say is, you don’t know from sopapillas. Jose knows from sopapillas! (Remember, he cut his teeth making them.) Five bucks gets four of these flaky, lighter-than-air, hollowed-out quadrangles delivered to your table, ready to be deflated with pats of melting butter and a slathering of honey. I suggest tearing off a corner and putting the condiments inside these puffed-up beauties; just be prepared to start weeping with joy as you eat them.
As legendary as El Sombrero is, it may not be here forever. When the economy tanked two years ago, the restaurant closed for dinner on all nights except Friday and Saturday. (At lunch, the 60-seat room is always packed, so go early.) Aragon is in his 60s now, and who can blame him for wanting to ride into a sopapilla sunset? But whatever he does with this restaurant (or the property it sits on) will not diminish the delicious effect he has had on people’s lives for over four decades. El Sombrero is one of the greatest eating places Las Vegas has ever had, or ever will have. We shall not see its like, or the dedication of a man named Aragon, again.