Fans of The Skillet, get ready to chow down on old favorites and new menu items. The food truck with an attitude and funky decor is now a 90-seat restaurant and bar. The new digs will be open soon in the old wool warehouse on 12th Street. Radical decor and a trendy ambiance invite diners to sit awhile. Part of the renovation included the installation of an all new kitchen and overhaul of the electrical wiring. Through the construction and revitalization of the building, owner/operators Isaac and Shawna Sandoval oversaw the process and put their unique stamp on the eatery. As talented artists the Sandovals have created an experiential dining space in a fast-casual setting. They expect the restaurant will be open by the end of the month. In this Q&A, the couple talks about bringing their vision to life.
ORP: How did the ambiance and décor of The Skillet develop?
Isaac: We approached the design of The Skillet as an art installation. We used the time we had during construction to make works of art for the restaurant. Shawna and I are both artists. We have different approaches to making art. A lot of how things turned out were a product of us working together. We also had a great crew of assistants and other artist working with us to execute our vision. We worked together to create an immersive art environment. We wanted to create a space that was different, a place where people could sit and interact with artworks without being in a high-pressure situation that I think sometimes happens when visiting a museum or gallery. Some of the art was built with specific intent to the space, and some was made, and then the space was built around it. The tile work on the bar, for instance, was an idea Shawna had to take some of the design from the food truck into the restaurant. Meanwhile, the eight-foot donkey bust that I made over the course of a couple of weeks, had no specific place in the building until we finally put it up. Really, the whole processes of making the art was quite fluid. One project would influence another, and it seems to have become a new body of artwork itself.
Shawna: Our background in the arts informs much of what we were able to create in the business. The overall design is a total collaboration between us. We tend to make decisions as we go, coming up with design solutions on the fly, or in other instances, taking time to plan out larger components. The goal for the overall feel of the place was to create something aesthetically pleasing with an enjoyable ambiance, but also something with a bit of an edge that makes looking around at the artwork part of the experience.
OPR: Your food from The Skillet Rolling Kitchen was along the lines of fusion cuisine rather than typical Northern New Mexico foods. Talk about how you developed the menu in the new restaurant.
Isaac: Northern New Mexican food is – in itself – a fusion food. Chile sauce often contains a roux, which is a French technique, and dishes that we call “Spanish” are Mexican. There was a time not too long ago, that we were part of Mexico. Northern New Mexican food was very much influenced by Mexican food but it is a different cuisine than American-Mexican (Tex Mex), and to paint the cuisine of Mexico with a broad brush would be like saying all American food is a cheese burger. There is something specific and special about the type of food that is prepared in the area.
My background in cooking is Northern New Mexican food. I love to eat and try new foods/ingredients. Because of my background, I know that you can put pretty much anything in a tortilla and it has the potential to be awesome. When planning our menu, we wanted something different, but relatable. Shawna and I really wanted a fun menu, that wasn’t too fussy or would take too long. Most of the items from our food truck menu will still be available, along with new burritos and an appetizer menu. Our menu has items guests will be able to share over a beer or get a fast bite.
Shawna: We wanted to stick with many of the same menu items offered at our food truck because it is the food that helped us develop our customer base to begin with. We are keeping the fast-casual aspect of the menu knowing our customers appreciated that they could get in and out quickly at lunch with a satisfying meal. We are expanding the menu quite a bit to include more appetizers, salads, and burrito creations with new flavor combinations.
ORP: Will it change seasonally or as you are inspired as chef?
Isaac: As a food truck, we tried to keep our regular menu items while integrating new or different items throughout the year. Once we get settled with the restaurant we plan on doing regular daily specials, and offer something different. For instance, every Friday we might have a chicken fried steak with coleslaw and Mac and cheese special but it might be wrapped into a burrito. At this point it’s hard to say, I am too excited. I think with having a bigger kitchen than the food truck kitchen, the possibilities really grow.
ORP: What advice did you get from your entrepreneurial parents that gives you confidence about opening your own place?
Isaac: My parents have been our biggest guidance throughout this whole project. They have years of experience in the industry and are very knowledgeable about restaurants. I have grown up watching them work day in and out, dealing with customers and see how they handle employees in a professional manner. I have worked for my parents for many years now; everything I know, I know because of them.
Shawna: Hard work equals success. It’s a tough business at times, but with owner dedication, the restaurant business can really be rewarding.
ORP: What influenced your decision to expand from the rolling kitchen concept to a brick and mortar restaurant?
Isaac: The major influence was the support we had. We were a food truck for three summers before we decided to fully commit to a restaurant. Every year we were open we grew a larger following and grew slowly, adding new art to the environment, and integrating live music. At the end of the day, we were really at the mercy of Mother Nature. During the monsoon, we would get rained out. In fall, winter could be five minutes away and last until the first week of June. It created an inconsistent schedule that was bad for business. When the opportunity to purchase a liquor license came up, we knew a brick and mortar restaurant and bar would be a good undertaking.
Shawna: We learned a lot about the food business with the food truck and we were ready to scale to something bigger. The new location is the manifestation of our need to see our dreams for our business fulfilled.
ORP: How many do you expect to employ?
Isaac: We will employ bartenders, kitchen staff, cocktail servers, security, and dishwashers, 20-30 in all.
ORP: What is your food philosophy in terms of fresh and locally sourced when possible?
Isaac: In a perfect world everyone would be buying direct from local farmers. In that world, we would be eating green chile, squash, onions, some peppers and beef or lamb. In that same world, we wouldn’t be eating guacamole or sushi. When the food truck was open, we used locally raised eggs, which I loved, but near the end of the summer the chickens had a hard time producing enough eggs for the truck. I try to go to the farmers’ market on a weekly basis and buy what I can, but at the volume our food truck produced we had to outsource. That said, we do prepare most of our dishes from scratch or make them as fresh as possible.
ORP: What appeals to you about being a culinary entrepreneur?
Isaac: I love working with my hands. I love that cutting a case of tomatoes can become a meditation. I love that the situation in a kitchen can go from 0-100 in a matter of minutes. I love the rush of getting long tickets coming out of the printer. I love taking an ingredient and changing it into something completely different.
Shawna: We grew up in the business, Isaac with his family here in Las Vegas. My very first of many restaurant jobs was washing dishes. After graduating college, there was something about the business that kept pulling us back in. We love the challenges and being our own boss. Seeing our vision make people happy, creates a lot of satisfaction for us.
OPR: What are your hours of operation?
Isaac: We will be opening at 11 a.m. ’til close, Monday through Saturday.
ORP: Will reservations be recommended?
Isaac: Our restaurant is a fast-casual environment. We can seat about 90 people in the restaurant and 25 of those seats are at the bar. Outside, our two patios can seat another 50 plus a standing bar. We will be a different dining experience than what some might be used to. Customers order at the counter; we will not have servers. We will have cocktail servers to take drink orders and bring food out. We will also take call-in orders to go. We want The Skillet to be a place where people can get something delicious fast and easy.
ORP: What are examples of specialty drinks you will serve?
Isaac: We have a wide variety of really refreshing margaritas and cocktails. One example of a cocktail we offer is the Red Dawn, made with hibiscus tea, tequila, and grapefruit juice.
ORP: Do you plan to have live music/entertainment?
Isaac: Last year we had a band or musician playing once a week for most of the summer. We are reaching out to local talent, and traveling bands to play throughout the year. If anyone is interested in playing or performing they can email us a sample of their work at Giantskillet@gmail.com or contact us on our website www.giantskillet.com
ORP: What is your anticipated opening day.
Isaac: If everything goes as expected, we will open by the end of the month.
The skinny on The Skillet:
What: The Skillet
Location: 612 12th St., Las Vegas, NM
Facebook: The Skillet: Rolling Kitchen and Catering
Donkey image: Courtesy photo