They don’t make ’em like El Sombrero any more. Every town, hamlet and city in the Southwest used to have one, or a number of them. Little hole-in-the-wall Mexican joints with a cook and a family working away, seven days a week, rolling out tortillas, pureeing chilies and dishing up the food of their homeland for folks of all stripes.
Until good Mexican food got co-opted by the twin forces of mass production and franchising, this was the way most Americans tasted it. Until Glenn Bell popularized the hard taco shell in 1962 (next to the atom bomb, the worst invention in the history of the world*), these mom and pop joints were the standard bearer for tasty, south of the border treats.
Back in the day, Las Vegas had more than one of them. Teresa Aragon, who runs El Sombrero with chef/husband José, told us recently about an 83 year old customer of theirs who was asking if anyone remembers El Tampico on Fremont Street — apparently the most popular Mexican restaurant in town between 1938-1958. The chef/owner was Candelario Beltran — a man who probably deserves credit for being the first true pioneer and popularizer of Mexican food in our humble burg.
Not that there are many folks in their 70s and 80s reading this website, but if you know someone who knows someone who might have a memory or two to share about this iconic place, please put them in touch with us.
And as long as we’re taking a trip down memory lane, José told us another interesting tidbit about his road to being a chef. It seems when he returned from serving in Vietnam in 1970, and went to work in his Uncle Clemente Griego’s restaurant, he started working as a cook and one day headed to a place called the Rustic Inn on East Sahara. At the time it was considered one of the better neighborhood places in Vegas (back when East Sahara had actual neighborhoods), and he remembers thinking to himself, “I want to make food as good at this at the restaurant.”
He’s done better than that, for forty-two years. Hand-made food. Slow-simmered chilies. Incendiary salsas. Right-off-the-griddle tortillas. Superb sopaipillas. These are the things that made Mexican food famous. These days, it’s either Mexican fast food or overblown, ersatz mediocrity (hello Ricardo’s!) that rules the roost — making Mexican food the most bastardized cuisine in the American pantheon of adopted dishes (which is saying a lot), but also, the most popular.
Until we can find out more about El Tampico, we’ll content ourselves to listening to José and Teresa talk about days gone by at their little slice of history on Main Street, with a big platter of huevos con chorizo, and Aragon’s spicy, haunting salsas standing by to remind us what Mexican food used to be…and always was.
807 Main Street
Las Vegas, NV 89101
(Open Monday to Thursday from 11 am to 4 pm, and Fridays and Saturdays until 8 pm.)
* Not only are hard taco shells dangerous to the roof of your mouth and disgusting to taste, they make no sense. The whole enchilada shatters immediately, allowing shards and stuffing to fly willy nilly all over the place, thus making a mockery of the whole raison d’etre of the damn thing and leaving the contents in shambles on your lap. Inexplicably, these things are very popular, which says more about the stupidity of the American eating public than any other example we can think of.