Time–and the woke movement–haven’t left Las Vegas, New Mexico behind. It may seem that way when you hear locals–even Highlands University students–frequent usage of the term “the spic.” They’re not using the term in a derogatory manner to refer to someone of Hispanic descent. They’re using it as a term of endearment for Charlie’s Spic & Span, probably the most popular restaurant in Las Vegas. Everywhere else “the spic” may be a derogatory term, but not in Las Vegas–at least when talking about Charlie’s Spic & Span, one of New Mexico’s most beloved and venerable restaurants.
If you’ve never visited Charlie’s Spic & Span, you’re undoubtedly curious as to why it acquired its unusual name. The “Charlie’s” name on the marquee is for owner Charlie Sandoval while “Spic & Span” refers to the fact that this building once housed a Laundromat. Though Charlie is peripatetic presence at his eponymous restaurant, should he be away during your visit you could once see a chalk drawing of his countenance behind the counter (our server told us Charlie had it taken down because “he’s vain.”) It’s just one of many intriguing points of interest in a restaurant frequented by every governor and candidate for state political office practically since the days when Doc Holliday hung his shingle in the city.
Even Charlie’s exterior facade belies conventions. There’s an enormous éclair atop the restaurant’s name. You’ve never seen such a colossal éclair–at least unless you’ve peruse the pastries under the glass cases near the front counter. Charlie’s not only specializes in Northern New Mexican foods prepared fresh daily, but some of the very best (and generously sized) pastries in New Mexico–biscochitos, cream filled long johns, donuts, cinnamon buns, brownies and so much more. Several hundred tortillas are prepared on a daily basis. You can purchase them by the dozen.
Sensory overload might be an apt description for what you’ll experience if you try to take in everything when you set foot inside Charlie’s. Not only will the enticing aromas of sheer deliciousness waft toward you, there’s literally something to see everywhere you turn. Charlie’s is awash in color, none of that monochrome adobe you find all over the Land of Enchantment. Tin ceilings, distressed wood floors, formica floors and much larger than life-sized paintings and plaster casts of donuts. There’s even a large three-dimensional painting of a woman covered in whipped cream from Herb Alpert’s Whipped Cream & Other Delights. Dishes are multi-hued as are tables and even seating. It’s a veritable rainbow of color at Charlie’s.
Desiree Aguilar, my friend and former colleague at the University of New Mexico grew up in Las Vegas. We frequently compared notes on growing up in Northern New Mexico. We also debated which of us grew up in the most quintessentially sleepy town: Las Vegas or Peñasco. She usually won those debates. Las Vegas wasn’t always so genteel. Historian Ralph Emerson Twitchell once described Las Vegas as far less savory: “Without exception, there was no town that harbored a more disreputable gang of desperadoes and outlaws than did Las Vegas.” He wasn’t describing the Las Vegas in Nevada. He essentially said Las Vegas, New Mexico was worse than Dodge City, more notorious than Tombstone.
During our visit in June, 2023, my Kim and I didn’t see any hint of lawlessness (except for one miscreant wearing a New York Giants shirt). Guests of all stripes were enjoying their meals while solving the world’s ills. Is it any wonder Charlie’s calls itself the “meeting, eating, greeting place of Las Vegas.” It’s an apt description. There’s an attitude about dining at Charlie’s. Step inside and it’s as if your cares melt away and your only interests are in feeding yourself–but only enough so that you can enjoy a pastry or six from the beautiful pastry case.
Desiree won another debate. Las Vegas has much better New Mexican food than Peñasco if you count only restaurants (I still contend that Peñasco’s home cooks are superior). Study the drool-worthy menu and you’ll find more temptations than a lecherous old man uncovers at a nudist colony. Breakfast is served all day long and the restaurant closes at 4PM every day of the week (characteristic of its “sleepy town” vibe, you won’t find any restaurant in Vegas serving late into the night). Charlie’s breakfast menu features breakfast plates, specialty plates, skillets, burritos or “stuffies” (stuffed sopaipillas), omelets and so much more. The lunch menu has everything from salads to soup, fajitas to burgers and all your other favorites.
15 June 2023: My undisputed favorite dish at Charlie’s is the three combo enchiladas (ground beef, chicken, carne adovada) served “Christmas” style with a fried egg on top. Typical of any dish at Charlie’s, plating is generous…an understatement. In addition to the three rolled enchiladas, the plate includes beans and Spanish rice. Charlie’s version of Spanish rice is among the very few in New Mexico I actually like. It’s moist and delicious, blanketed in white and yellow shredded cheese. The beans are similarly adorned and even more flavorful than the rice. Neither red nor green chile are especially piquant, but they both have enough heat to get your attention. The carne adovada is luscious with fruity undertones discernible on the red chile in which the pork is marinated. Not surprisingly I could finish only about half the platter. It made for wonderful leftovers.
15 June 2023: My Kim loves the sweet and savory combination plates that define some breakfast platter. She found one called a special sweet stack that includes two eggs, bacon or sausage and a stack of pancakes or French toast. Charlie’s pancakes are nearly the size of truck tires. They’re griddled greatness, fluffy golden orbs just beckoning for warm syrup and melting butter. They’re reminiscent of the pancakes that graced the hearth of home in Peñasco. There’s nothing like bacon to counterbalance the sweetness of pancakes drenched in syrup. This plate is the epitome of comfort food fullness.
You can’t leave Charlie’s without taking pastries home with you. It may not seem fair that Charlie’s not only serves some of the very best New Mexican food in the state, but also some of the very best donuts. Yes, donuts! They’re absolutely fabulous! My Kim’s favorites are glazed donuts which, by the way, are the most popular donut in New Mexico. Glazed donuts are addictive when they’re made right–when fat and sugar coalesce to appease our inherent need for sweet flavors. Charlie’s glazed donuts should be the poster child for glazed donuts. Even the following day they are fresh and delicious.
The May, 2023 edition of New Mexico Magazine showcased roadside diners, downtown drive-ins, ancestral haciendas and mom-and-pop cafes who have treated their guests like family for generations. In a feature titled “Viva La Cocina!” the article profiled iconic restaurants throughout the Land of Enchantment including Charlie’s. Charlie’s advise when you visit his restaurant: “The secret to everything is the tortillas.” The thick, fluffy flour disks are based on his mother’s recipe. Whether you order one hot and buttered during your visit or you take home a dozen or more, you won’t find any better in New Mexico. (Score another point for Desiree).
9 September 2023: In the Deep South, a “Meat and Three” meal is a fixed-price offering where a customer selects one meat (commonly including fried chicken, country-fried steak, meatloaf, pork chops, and country ham) and three side dishes. In New Mexico, the pairing of New Mexico’s two official state vegetables–green chile and pinto beans— constitutes two of the three. The third, of course, is a flour tortilla with which to scoop up spoonfuls of the first two. It’s a classic home meal–simple and absolutely delicious. Not all New Mexicans restaurants offer this terrific trio and not all do well. Charlie’s does. The bowl is not quite pho-bowl sized, but it’s big enough to serve as a whole meal (especially if you have a donut (or four) with the bowl of beans and chile. The green chile is sufficiently piquant to earn this fire-eater’s respect. The beans have a creamy and soft texture and that wonderful earthy flavor New Mexicans love like no other.
This Hispanic encounters one and all to visit “The Spic” in the sleepy town of Las Vegas. Spend the night at the historic Plaza Hotel or the Castaneda Hotel for a hint of what life (without the lawlessness) might have been like when this was THE Las Vegas. By the way, Charlie’s Spic & Span is undoubtedly the reason for the fabled “freshman fifteen.” Charlie’s is within easy walking distance of Highland University.
Charlie’s Spic & Span
715 Douglas Avenue
Las Vegas, New Mexico
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LATEST VISIT: 9 September 2023
# OF VISITS: 6
BEST BET: Enchiladas Combination, Special Sweet Stack, Donuts, Bowl of Beans