Two noon-hour diners at the crowded El Sombrero Cafe had just finished their heaping plates of Mexican food when they rose from the table, turned to the busy waitress, and wrapped her in warm hugs.
Teresa Aragon paused between orders at an adjacent booth and smiled. “Yes,” her expression said. “I will miss you, too.” In a moment, Aragon moved on to another table of hungry customers.
Spontaneous outpourings of affection have occurred often in recent days at the diminutive Mexican cafe at 807 S. Main Street as word circulated about its impending closure after more than a half-century in business. On Wednesday, the tables were packed. Longtime patrons alternated bites of enchilada and chile relleno with old Vegas nostalgia and reminiscences of El Sombrero meals past.
With Teresa waiting tables and husband and owner Jose Aragon in the kitchen, El Sombrero has been a family operation from the start. Jose’s uncle opened the cafe in 1950. At 14, Jose came to Las Vegas from Anton Chico, N.M., where chiles are worshiped with religious zeal.
After serving a tour of duty in the Army in Vietnam, Aragon returned to downtown to cook in his uncle’s family’s cafe. With his own recipes and the tenacious energy all small-business owners must possess, Jose eventually bought the place.
“When he came back from the service, he started working there and brought his own ideas,” Teresa says. “He did everything himself, his sauces and meat. He rarely allowed anybody to prepare anything. It is old-fashioned food. We never commercialized our food.”
Its walls festooned with sombreros, a bullfight painting, a photo of Pancho Villa and his men, beer signs and autographed glossies of celebrity customers, it became a lunchtime favorite for locals whether they wore blue collars or a suit and tie. Legendary lawyers such as the late Ralph Denton and Harry Claiborne, casino men Jack Binion and Jackie Gaughan, and Herb Tobman from next door at Western Cab, were regulars. Lunch at El Sombrero was often a “who’s who” of downtown’s movers and shakers.
Denton’s widow, Sara Denton, has been a regular for decades. Teresa and Jose even created a “Sara’s Special” tostada for her that looks hard to resist.
“When Ralph had his law office downtown, we always ate here at least once a week,” Denton recalls.
“Some days Teresa would be the only one waiting on tables. Somehow she always remembered what everybody wanted.”
At another table Realtor Ernie Fregiarro, a customer of “only” 25 years, adds, “The food is always consistently good. Teresa and her family are always friendly and cordial.”
Attorney Richard Harris, a fiercely loyal customer, is already feeling the pangs of withdrawal.
“I found myself at El Sombrero two or three times a week for the last several years,” Harris says. “It’s not only the excellent cuisine, but the warmth of Teresa and Jose and all the family, and the atmosphere that just feels like you’re home. It’s just a wonderful, wonderful place that I’m going to miss terribly.”
The humble cafe on Main Street has drawn its share of stars: Kenny Rogers, Charlie Daniels, the Gatlin Brothers, Suzanne Somers, Debbie Reynolds, and Mickey Rooney among many. But Teresa treated every regular customer like a celebrity.
Truth is, El Sombrero wasn’t just about the frijoles and rice. The chile verde and chile colorado attracted fans from throughout the valley, but those dishes aren’t what gave the place its spice.
Although the cafe was closed on Sundays, Jose would leave home shortly after sunrise and prepare El Sombrero for the coming week. He moved the family into a house near the cafe to be closer to the business. It took a lot of hard work and many sacrifices to make that food taste good.
“He was set in his ways when I met him, and I never tried to change him,” Teresa says. “He wanted to do things the right way. I just went along. When people ask me, ‘Are you a part owner?’ I say, ‘No, I’m just his favorite slave.’ ”
She laughs, pauses to reflect, then adds, “I’m so proud of him, of how hard he’s worked. Now I’m getting all these hugs from customers. He deserves hugs, too, but I’m the one in the front, and he’s in the back. I feel badly.”
Her memories hang in the air like the intoxicating scent of Jose’s sauces. With sons from previous marriages and one from their own, their four boys were raised at the cafe. As toddlers, they grew up around the kitchen, sometimes toying with onions and uncooked rice and beans. When they got older, they went out front and bussed dishes and set tables.
“All the kids worked with us,” Teresa says, and you can almost hear them playing in the kitchen again. “They all grew up there.”
Their sons are men now. Despite their amazing energy, Jose and Teresa Aragon are getting older. And a most dedicated cook and cafe owner deserves a break from a hot stove sometime. At 70, he’s earned a rest. She has, too.
Pausing to consider the possibilities, Teresa says, “I think we’re going to have, finally, weekends.”
John L. Smith’s column appears Sunday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday and Friday. Email him at Smith@reviewjournal.com or call 702-383-0295. Follow him on Twitter @jlnevadasmith.