A man comes home after a long day. His wife then hits him in the back of the head with a frying pan. He clutches his head in pain asking her, “Honey why? Why did you do that?” She answers, “When I was doing your laundry I found a receipt in your pocket with a woman’s name on it.” He responds, “That’s why you hit me? Honey, Mary-Ann is a horse I bet on. That’s the receipt for my bet.” She accepts that and apologizes and they make up. Next week the same thing happens. He comes home and is struck in the back of his head with a frying pan. The husband asks, “AGAIN? You hit me in the head with a frying pan again, why?!” The wife looks at him and says, “Your horse called.”
Believe it or not, in the 50s and 60s (long before my time), wives bashing their husbands on their heads with frying pans passed for humor. Banner Graphic confirms this gallows humor trend: “The image of an angry woman hitting her uncooperative husband over the head with a frying pan is usually a cartoonishly laughing matter. After all, it’s a staple of comic strips, Ma and Pa Kettle movies and cartoons where the outline of the victim’s face is usually left forged in the misshapen skillet as birds and stars encircle his head.” As a husband, I’m grateful spousal abuse no longer makes for good entertainment–at least not since Hillary threw household furniture at Bill.
Even a 98-pound wife wielding an ordinary frying pan would scare the tar out of her husband. Fortunately when my Kim sees a frying pan, she wants to cook something not hit me over the head with it . You can imagine her sense of wonder in seeing the 300-pound cast iron skillet hanging overhead as we stepped into The Skillet which self-glossses as “Las Vegas NM’s #1 Gastropub.” She entertained hopes of buying a new skillet or six to add to the 6,000 hanging on our pot rack. Alas, there were no utilitarian skillets for sale at The Skillet, a restaurant Desiree Aguilar, my friend and former colleague at the University of New Mexico, has been selling me on for a long time now. She assured me there’s nothing in Las Vegas like it. Desiree is not prone to hyperbole or understatement. You can take what she says to the bank.
At first glance, The Skillet looks like just another long-in-the-tooth building and indeed, it is that. The Skillet resides in a renovated limestone building built in 1924, originally known as “The Teichert Wool Warehouse.” It’s when you step inside The Skillet that you’ll wonder if this colorful menagerie of immersive art doubling as a gastropub was misplaced by culinary gods who intended it for Las Vegas, Nevada. Seriously, there’s so much to see everywhere you turn. A number of rentable electric scooters parked in front of The Skillet may be indicative of the demographic which most appreciates this avant garde eatery. Though many of the diners lined up to place their orders were Highland University students, more geriatrically advanced diners like me will feel right at home, too.
When you step into The Skillet you’ll be tempted to gaze (likely in awe and surprise) at the avant garde art on the walls. Do so at your own peril. Queues form quickly and savvy diners may jump ahead of you in line because they already have favorites. One of the restaurant’s highly energetic servers will direct newcomers to a menu posted on a wooden support beam. After perusing–a process that will undoubtedly include changing your mind several times on what to order–the unique menu, you’ll place your order at the multihued tile counter. Having placed your order, you’re now free to study the art on the walls.
Much of the artwork festooning the walls was created by owners Isaac (a Las Vegas native) and Shawna Sandoval. Not surprisingly both attended art school at Fort Hays State University in Kansas. It was a friend’s challenge not a proffesor’s assignment that prompted Isaac to fashion “the world’s largest skillet,” the 300-pound cast iron pan with a diameter of more than three-feet. The pan wasn’t just the envy of any every smithy in the west; the Sandovals actually started preparing and sharing meals on the sizeable skillet, feeding much of the university’s populace. Their green chile quesadilla which fed hundreds was a huge hit and for many of the students, an introduction to New Mexico’s sacrosanct chile.
If you’re wondering whether Isaac is related to Charlie Sandoval, the larger-than-life proprietor of Charlie’s Spic & Span, you’d be spot on. Isaac is scion of Charlie and the chile certainly doesn’t fall far from its vine. Isaac has his dad’s creativity, having worked at Charlie’s before pursuing his education in Kansas. Today, Isaac art creations festoon the walls at his dad’s restaurant. Charlie is a major investor in The Skillet and serves as business mentor for the budding enterprise. Before launching The Skillet in 2012, Isaac and Shawna operated a food truck which garnered such a significant following that the restaurant often sees overflow crowds.
On one wall in the main dining room, a colorful mural created by Isaac and Shawna depicts a wide-eyed masked luchador driving a car with a canine companion in the back seat. We’re not artsy enough to comprehend the rest of the mural, but I’ll ask my extraordinary artist friend X. E. Oaks for his impressions. Over the well-appointed bar is the mounted head of a bull. It’s probably papier mache but we didn’t get close enough to determine for sure. The bull does have some interesting anthropomorphic features and reminded my Kim of Fernando, the bovine flower child.
Those of us dining with our four-legged fur babies have a couple options–a sun-shielded patio which continues the restaurant’s artistic theme; and “The Chingón Room.” Chingón, a Mexican term for “a clever person, capable of anything and everything” is a fitting term for the overflow space. The Chingón Room has a full bar, seating for as many as 100 guests and full food service. As with the main dining room, the Chingón Room has something to catch your eyes everywhere you turn. We couldn’t figure out if the bar was circus or carnival themed. Maybe it was something borrowed from Circus Circus in the “other Las Vegas?”
Eye-catching is a great descriptor for the menu, too. It’s certainly a menu you wouldn’t expect in this Las Vegas. Appetizers are a mix of the de rigueur starter favorites such as chips and salsa, chicken wings and nachos, but you’ll also find elote fries, loaded fries and a green chile cheeseburger chimi. Entrees include three “bowls,” each a mishmash of Asian ingredients and foods of other culinary cultures. There are fifteen a la carte tacos on the menu. These are not your mom’s tacos unless she’s as inventive as Rube Goldberg. Four chopped salads are also available, each laden with interesting items–and not just greens. Burgers and sandwiches always warrant consideration–especially considering that in 2021, The Skillet earned the “Special Judges” award at the Green Chile Cheeseburger Smackdown in Santa Fe. Next on the menu are burritos–not your ordinary run-of-the-mill burritos, but creative combinations. You might not have room for dessert, but you can bet post-prandial offerings are just as interesting as the rest of the menu.
You might expect that a menu replete with so many unique offerings would have a universal appeal. Alas, not everyone loves the type of variety within each dish that The Skillet offers. My Chicago born-and-bred bride who grew up with the stereotypical Midwest meat and potatoes diet ordered chicken wings. Yep, chicken wings. Available in quantities of six or twelve and your choice of spicy buffalo sauce, adobo lime, lemon pepper or red chile rub served with ranch dressing, the wings san sauce were too boring for me, but she seemed to enjoy them.
No matter what else you might order, you’ve got to have at least one a la carte taco. My choice was a taco very similar to one über chef Dennis Apodaca used to create at Sophia’s. It may sound like a simple taco, but the interplay of ingredients and flavors builds a complex profile that teases your taste buds. The shrimp and corn taco (pan-seared shrimp, roasted corn, feta cheese, pickled onion, cabbage, chipotle ranch) on one corn tortilla was brimming with ingredients and deliciousness. It’s amazing how feta cheese can counterbalance the sweetness of corn niblets and how the chipotle ranch can sneak in to enliven the shrimp. This is one of the very best tacos I’ve had in many years.
Much as I love green chile cheeseburgers, I wouldn’t be much of a critic if that’s all I ate. So, despite The Skillet’s green chile cheeseburger having earned accolades at Edible New Mexico’s Green Chile Cheeseburger Smackdown, I didn’t order one. It took immense willpower, especially knowing that the day following our visit The Skillet would be participating in “The Battle of the Champs,” a by invitation only competition pitting previous years’ winners of the prestigious competition. You can bet The Skillet was ramping up for the competition by perfecting its sacrosanct burger.
So, just what did your humble blogger order? Would you beleive an orange chicken burrito (spicy orange chicken sauce, fried or grilled chicken, grilled bell peppers, cheese and basmati rice), a melange of Asian flavors on a New Mexican canvas? About as thick as a piece of firewood and overflowing with ingredients, the burrito was quite good. Quite surprising, too. It’s rare that orange chicken’s flavor profile is anything but cloying. This one had real heat. Real flavors, too. Texturally, the orange chicken burrito was balanced. Yellow peppers provided a nice snap of crispness while the Basmati was light, tender and fluffy.
As my friend Desiree told me, The Skillet is a unique restaurant, especially for Las Vegas, New Mexico. Best of all, it’s not just the ambiance that’s unique. That innovative menu has me planning future visits to sample other unique items…but only after I have The Skillet’s green chile cheeseburger.
619 12th Street
Las Vegas, New Mexico
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LATEST VISIT: 8 September 2023
# OF VISITS: 1
BEST BET: Orange Chicken Burrito, Chicken Wings, Shrimp & Corn Taco