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EL SOMBRERO – Jose Can You See Those Sopapillas!

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Photos: Beverly Poppe

Click here to read today’s review of EL Sombrero in the Las Vegas Weekly, or continue reading after the jump. Fyi: Much to ELV’s relief, the editors of the Weekly have decided to dispense with the awarding of “stars” with these reviews. Whew!

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 building at 807 Main Street in downtown Las Vegas. Griego had been running the place for fourteen years, when his nephew, Jose E. Aragon joined him at the stoves.

Before coming to Las Vegas, Nevada, Aragon, who haled 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 this Las Vegas with its best New Mexican/Mexican cuisine ever since.

Yours truly started eating here in the early 80’s 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 in that way someone’s does when something transformative is placed in their mouth – not enough to lose the food being chewed mind you, but enough to create a look of awe and wonder on your face. Before you could say: “dos cervezas por favor” I was hooked. My rough estimate is I’ve probably eaten here three or four times a year now for over twenty five years.

But that’s nothing compared to some regulars of this downtown institution. There are some folks who come for lunch every day, and dozens more that 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 back to the New Mexican hills or downtown Albuquerque – where every lunch counter or roadside diner is proudly makes these stews from scratch every day to celebrate the chile bounty all around them. New Mexican green chile always reminds me of lemony, hot green 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 seventies), but he is as faithful to them as any New Mexican classicist can be.

Once you start talking classics, you need to talk menudo, and the version here is magnificent. Nothing takes the winter chill (or a hangover) away better, and Aragon’s is tender with chunks of honeycomb tripe and posole (hominy) and deeply satisfying with every sip.

After a big bowl gets your brow sweating, finish with some fine flan, or our favorite: sopapillas.

Sopapillas, a light, flaky dessert to be eaten with generous applications of butter and honey.

Five bucks gets four of these flakey, 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, putting the condiments inside these puffed up beauties, and then 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, he closed for dinner all but Friday and Saturday nights. (At lunch, the 60 seat room is always packed, so go early.) Aragon is in his sixties now and who can blame him for wanting to ride into a sopapilla sunset. But whatever he does with this restaurant will not diminish the delicious effect he has had on people’s lives for over four decades. El Sombrero is one of the great eating places Las Vegas has ever had, or ever will have. We shall not see its like, or the dedication of a man like Jose Aragon, again.

El Sombrero is open for lunch Mon.- Fri. 11:00 AM-4:00 PM, and lunch and dinner Fri.-Sat. from 11:00 AM-9:00 PM.

Lunch: $5.00-$10.00; Dinner: $10.00-$14.00; Desserts: $5.00.

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