The first sign that the new El Sombrero isn’t the Mexican dive that stood on the corner of Ludlow and Stanton for nearly three decades is the neon fedora.
Don’t worry, it doesn’t signify a hipster reboot – it’s the preferred sombrero of new owner Jose Almonte Jr.’s Dominican father, and a nod to the new place’s Latin American influence.
The Hat’s new chef is Ricardo Cardona, previously a personal toque to the Yankees and J.Lo. At $19-$28, his entrees – including tacos stuffed with pan-fried duck confit and a pumpkin-crusted chicken breast with quinoa and corn risotto – are a bit pricier than his predecessor’s.
The soft-opening menu includes appetizers, ceviche, and empanada trios for $9-$12. After the restaurant fully opens this weekend, the expanded menu will offer a wider variety of traditional Mexican food, including flautas and quesadillas. “We need to have those dishes to stay true to the restaurant’s past,” Almonte told us.
Last spring – following the closure of his previous restaurant, Caridad, in the Bronx – Almonte decided to take over El Sombrero and run it just the way it was while getting to know the neighborhood. After seven weeks of steadily losing money, he and his cousin Jose Luis Almonte closed for renovations, as planned. Just as Junior had been warned by his father, whose Chelsea luncheonette he grew up working in, the revamp took months longer than expected.
Last week, however, the revamped El Sombrero finally soft opened with a floor-to-ceiling photo of its predecessor, taken in the late ’80s, on its back wall. On Friday, its second night, Almonte was bouncing around the packed room, explaining to diners why high-end tequila is the perfect accompaniment to the oyster-and-sangrita shooters.
El Sombrero in the ’80s.[/caption]Almonte’s memories of the Hat go beyond the usual nostalgia for to-go margs (though he does remember a time when the line for them stretched out the door). He actually knows the former owners – his family and their family lived in the same area of Santiago, Dominican Republic, and several members of the family were in his uncle’s wedding.
As a tribute to them, Almonte has hung a cluster of framed photos from the ’80s and early ’90s on one of the restaurant’s walls; in them, the proud owners of a successful local institution smile in front of the storefront or stand in front of the kitchen with their arms thrown over each other’s shoulders. Other photos show a group of friends who’ve been coming to El Sombrero on New Year’s Eve every year for the last 25 years.
There’s one last nod to the past: the original frozen margarita machines stand guard on either side of the bar. But they’ve been shined up, and instead of holding sugar slush loaded with bottom-shelf tequila (or moonshine, depending on who you believed), they’ll churn out frozen mojitos, flavored with a variety of fresh fruit purees.
El Sombrero, 108 Stanton St., at Ludlow St., Lower East Side