Calamari is seldom spectacular. If it isn’t the crispy breaded version served with marinara at your neighborhood Italian restaurant or sports bar, it isn’t far from it. While it sounds boring, it usually tastes really good, which is how a favorite becomes a favorite.
El Sombrero Cafe doesn’t do calamari like that. The spicy calamari a la brasa ($13) isn’t breaded or fried. It’s charbroiled, rendering these typically chewy little squid rings tender, smoky and all-out addictive. Inexplicably and marvelously, they’re doused in a sauce of black squid ink infused with habanero and citrus, with a bit of a sofrito-style vegetable dice in the mix. Maybe get two orders. This is big-deal calamari.
This single dish sets the tone for the new revamp of El Sombrero, formerly our stalwart Downtown Mexican restaurant owned by the same family since 1950. New owner and General Manager Irma Aguirre has taken over, hollowed out the shell and created something entirely new and somewhat unexpected, although there are shades of similarity to the other local Mexican restaurants she helped create—La Madonna and Mundo.
The bulky booths and cramped tables are gone. The new Sombrero is a hip, quaint, mirror-drenched little box of loud, laughing diners and rustic, flavorful food. Fresh, jalapeño-speckled guacamole ($7), shredded brisket flautas ($14) and a spinach and mushroom quesadilla ($10) are among the non-squid appetizers that catch the eye. A crisp salad of greens, cucumber, jicama and mango dusted with chile tajin and coated in cilantro-lime vinaigrette is another great start, and you can add chicken, salmon or carne asada to make it a meal.
A unique take on the chile relleno ($18) might be the signature dish so far. This roasted poblano pepper isn’t egg-battered and fried. Instead, it’s filled with creamy chunks of butternut squash and potato and topped with cheese, served with charro beans and a roasted tomato-oregano sauce. The new Sombrero’s flavors are light and bright, even when the dishes get richer as in braised chicken mole semana santa ($16) and the delicious costillitas en salsa verde ($18), braised pork short ribs in tomatillo sauce.
Sure, you can still get a taco here. They’re served in orders of three with your favorite filling, and they’ll even fry ’em up, “Americano Style,” if you want. But this new kitchen crew specializes in grilling, so consider splitting one of the parrilladas platters ($18-$35). Go the veggie route or sample different combinations of carnitas, chicken, chorizo or ribeye, served with rice, beans and grilled vegetables as well as three mouthwatering house-made sauces. This is the unexpected part of the menu, and it shouldn’t be ignored.
Aguirre and her team have taken a classic local restaurant spot and evolved it into something exciting. On December 1, El Sombrero Cafe will begin Saturday and Sunday brunch, already growing and changing an energetic and welcome addition to the Downtown scene. Put it on your must-try list.
El Sombrero Cafe 807 S. Main St., 702-382-9234. Monday-Thursday, 11 a.m.-9 p.m.; Friday & Saturday, 11 a.m.-10 p.m.