Considering how difficult it is to survive in the restaurant business, it’s a miracle when a place lasts 50 years. El Sombrero, at the intersection of M Street and Golden State Highway, is celebrating that anniversary in style next month.
In an odd twist, my companion — a longtime Bakersfield resident — said she’d never been there, with me or anyone else. She’d first heard of the place back in the ‘70s, when I was still in Wisconsin and the Bakersfield dining scene was dominated by Bill Lee’s, Rice Bowl, the various Mexicali restaurants, Lemucchi’s Tam O’Shanter, the Coachlight and La Cabana, which is right across the street from El Sombrero. Turns out, she thought El Sombrero and La Cabana were rivals, and her boyfriend at the time was a big La Cabana guy.
She definitely was impressed by her first visit, more for the comfort and familiarity of what she received on her combination plate — taco/enchilada/tamale ($11.50) — than for any innovation coming out of the kitchen. She based her order on a passionate pitch she overheard from a woman waiting with us near the front door. This woman had a need for an El Sombrero taco. Now.
All tacos and enchiladas on the combination plates can be filled with ground or shredded beef, chicken or chile verde. She guessed ground beef would be good and got chicken on the tamale and enchilada. The home-style execution was impressive, as was the beautiful simplicity and subtle charm of the spice mix. It was one of those meals that immediately inspired a request for a repeat visit soon.
Others are already on board with that sentiment. The place, small and packed, has worn booths that wear their age proudly. There is no lobby to speak of, only two seats at the bar, and on the weekend night we visited, we counted ourselves lucky to get seated within 15 minutes of arrival. After we finished, I noted the many folks waiting for tables, looking on in a pleading way, as if they’d do anything to get our seat.
I also picked my dinner off the combination plate list, though I went for the chile verde chimichangas ($12). Good and bad. I loved the crisp and grease- free the exterior but was discombobulated by the pork inside, expecting the usual chunks with evident green sauce. It was a drier variety than I was used to, almost like carnitas, and not particularly spicy. I had to think about it a lot. Was I just thrown because it wasn’t what I expected? I enjoyed it — it was just so different from what I’ve been served elsewhere.
A friend who got the carnitas said the dish arrives in slices rather than in chunks or shredded, so the kitchen’s individuality/boldness may extend to other items. The guacamole served with my chimi was creamy rather than the trendy chunky style. And both plates included the kind of soupy, throwback refried beans and Spanish rice that is the same as it always was, which is why the regulars keep coming.
My companion even liked the salsa with the chips, noting some old-school Mexican restaurants serve something that comes across as glorified tomato juice, but not this: simple with some cilantro and onions, but not too hot.
The margarita on the rocks that I ordered had an appealing golden color and was not too tart.
El Sombrero has a huge staff, it seems, for such a small restaurant but the way to survive for 50 years is to turn those tables, especially as long as a steady stream of customers are waiting to be fed. They seem to recognize all the regulars but don’t discriminate against newcomers. If you order a beer, they bring it in a bottle with a chilled glass hanging upside down on the bottle’s neck.
Near the door is a bulletin board for customers and a lot of plaques showing youth sports teams they’ve sponsored over the years. The most charming plaque is one featuring photos of owner Ramiro G. Gonzalez in 1970, 1990 and 2000 with either a daughter, granddaughter or great-granddaughter. The emphasis on family is really a big part of the charm. They treat customers like that, inspiring the loyalty that keeps them coming in.
We noticed a large party wearing Highland baseball jackets celebrating someone’s birthday. At some point, the staff put the ceremonial sombrero on that customer’s head and sang “Happy Birthday.” Some nearby tables joined in. It’s that kind of place.
Any reflection on El Sombrero would not be complete without noting the recent death of waitress Marcy Camacho, who worked there for 42 years, knew everybody and treated all the regulars like royalty. The Californian did a fine story after her passing, and I certainly think the staff will continue to emulate her hospitable spirit.
Here’s to the next 50 years for “The Hat.”