Take a bite out of gentrification, eat at El Sombrero

Photo by Clayton Patterson At El Sombrero, from left, Chico — the husband of Josephina Diaz, who co-owns the restaurant with her brother, Palmerio Fabian — Chico’s niece Stephane Fabian and Regina Bartkoff.

Photo by Clayton Patterson
At El Sombrero, from left, Chico — the husband of Josephina Diaz, who co-owns the restaurant with her brother, Palmerio Fabian — Chico’s niece Stephane Fabian and Regina Bartkoff.

BY CLAYTON PATTERSON  |  What is the smartest, easiest, most pleasant way to stop a 7-Eleven, Starbucks, Dunkin’ Donuts, or another cookie-cutter corporate business from renting the 108 Stanton St. location? Easy. Eat there. Support the business.

El Sombrero (The Hat) is on the verge of extinction, simply because the ever-increasing cost of living on the Lower East Side has purged the community of local long-term residents, and the tourists, students and trendy visitors do not seem to have a taste for an authentic L.E.S. Hispanic restaurant.

In the mid-1980s Jose Suriel opened El Sombrero. Jose, Dominican, thought he could attract more customers with a Mexican menu rather than serve home-cooked Dominican. He hired a qualified Mexican cook and he was ready to go. The customers were divided between local Hispanics and creative types who could safely navigate the area.

In those days the territory between Houston and Stanton Sts. was an open-air drug market. But if you minded your own business and kept the focus on where you were going, you were fine. Once in the restaurant, you had to maintain the same attitude: You’re there to eat, to enjoy yourself, and keep your concentration on your food, otherwise your nosy vibe and wandering eye could be picked up on the radar of one of the ever-present gangsters. Starting with, “What are you looking at?” it could quickly slide from there.

By 1987 El Sombrero’s clientele started to change and Jose cleverly hired Casandra Mele. Casandra lived on Clinton St., was one of Nick Zedd’s and Richard Kern’s “Films Of Transgression” actresses and went by Casandra Stark. Having a streetwise artist/waitress who spoke a little Spanish turned out to be a workable idea. Six months later, Jose hired Regina Bartkoff. To get the job, Regina dyed her hair back, faked a little laughable Spanglish and she got the job. Regina has been working there ever since.

In 1990 Jose sold the business to Palmerio Fabian, his nephew, and Josephina Diaz, his niece, and moved back to D.R. The same family has owned the restaurant since that time. Over the years Regina has waited on Jim Jarmusch, Kate Moss, Liv Taylor, Dr. John, Joe Coleman, Julian Schnabel, Lady Gaga, Diane Sawyer, Rosie Perez and Larry “Ratso” Sloman. But it was mostly neighborhood people. Since she lived and worked in the area, Regina knew the drug dealers, their mothers and grandmothers, and the artists. For the most part, everyone mixed and got along.

She does remember one time one frat boy came in and tried to play one of the local dealers. Big mistake. Regina realized what was happening, scolded the guy, and then walked him out of the neighborhood. The homeboys asked her what was up with that, but let the slight slide.

By 2001 gentrification had eaten away much of El Sombrero’s customer base. On just their Ludlow block alone gone is Amy Downs Hats, Mary Adams’s dress shop, The Alleged Gallery, Aaron Beall’s Toda Con Nada theater, the bodega, the pillow man.

All priced out of business.

Yes, it is easy to save this business: No protests, no camping out — just eat there. Simple. Safe. Fun. Good, inexpensive food. Classic Lower East Side flavor. And saving the community. What more do you want from the L.E.S.?

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16 Responses to Take a bite out of gentrification, eat at El Sombrero

  1. I went there a long time ago, it was ok but im Chicano, grew up in Westside San Antonio.

    Now that you mention it, i will stop there n eat.

    My favorite was when the Mexican ladies would set up by the basketball courts.btw.Forsyth

    & Chrystie. Gorditas made with handmade tortillas for one dollar.

    • clayton patterson

      The food there now is Dominicans cooking Mexican. A little different. And yes the Mexican ladies were there with the Sunday soccer games- before the basketball games were there. I am not sure there are many Mexicans living in this part of the LES now. There were families on Stanton between Christie and Bowery, as well as, on Ludlow between Houston and Stanton. I used to take photos of the youths in front of my door. I have not seen them in awhile. They have probably been forced out.

  2. A restaurant with good, affordable ethnic food in Manhattan? I didn't know they existed…figured everything was replaced by $25 burger joints serving suburban pussies with no pallets.

    This place is doomed. NY blows so hard now that it reminds me of DC – filled with the type of people whose first question is always this: "What do you do [for a living]?"

    If you've moved to Manhattan in the last 15 years or so, I have a request: leavue. Go back to where you came from. You have some nerve using phrases like "bridge and tunnel" when people from Queens and Staten Island are actual New Yorkers and you're some twat from Connecticut. You're ignorant to our culture, our city, and everything that made Manhattan what it is. You and your lowbrow suburban tastes have turned the island into a shopping mall. You know a city has gone to shit when people like you decide you like it.

    • west village29

      You write like a person who has been left behind, is quite bitter about it, and may benefit from a dictionary. Manhattan has turned into to what it is, like it or not, and if you want to go back 20 years Detroit or Philadelphia are in close reach.

      • clayton patterson

        Actually I have not been left behind at all. I have a lot going on. I just published a 3 volume anthology– Jews: A People's History of the Lower East Side. Get the books at St. Marks and on Amazon. The books are selling well. Working on other books. I had some young people make a documentary called Captured about Elsa and my life on the LES. I am an organizer of the Wildstyle and Tattoo Messe show in Austria. I am a judge for the Victoria Texas Film Festival. I am working on bring back the Clayton Caps– CLAYTONLES.com Cheryl Dunn has a new documentary coming out called Everybody Street and I am in that. Alan Kaufman in San Francisco and I are working on an award show which will help bring attention to some of the great underground talent that has come out of Downtown NYC and SF. The Taylor Mead article got 87 comments a record for the paper. And today we got a break through, one of our local politicians is going to help with the Taylor situation. I have a major archive to get into order. I am showing the art work of Anthony Dominiguez a NYC homeless artist. Taji Ameen, Jade Katz, and I do pieces for VICE on subjects such as Dominiguez and Mead. I arranged for a friends book opening which is tomorrow. I have plenty going on. And far from bring left behind. If there is an issue with the dictionary speak to the editor.

        I am 65 this year. I have my day in the sun. I am fine. I have plenty going on. But this is not ALL ABOUT ME. It is about those who are being forced out and those who come after me. I am pleased I have been able to help Taylor. There are things we can do. We need to change our politicians. We need to save some opportunities for those who come after us. I have documented this community for more than a couple of decades. I have witnessed the loss of opportunities.

        The greatness that came out of NYC was related to cheap rent and an inexpensive lifestyle. Now it is just about money and pushing people out. What is happening on Ludlow Street and to Taylor is wrong. You don't like my style- fine. I do what I can with what I have. I do not sit on the sidelines. I make things happen.

        check out NO!art.com. if I seem bitter then maybe bitter keeps me going. Medicine is often bitter. Bitter is a fact of life. Better to be bitter and doing than sweet and self satisfied. I am a doer. Bitter or not. I say not. but you say bitter- who cares?

        • PalateNotPallet

          He's not talking to you Clayton. He's responding to Ryan who is complaining about "suburban pussies with no pallets."

      • Yeah. Ryan probably sits on his stoop outside his rent-controlled apartment cursing all the people that live in New York because they had the guts to move here.

        If NY "blows so hard," Ryan, leave. You won't be missed.

  3. That neighborhood is a lost cause. Furthermore, I ate at the hat probably 100 times in the 90's and early 00's, and the food isn't very good. All it had going for it was location and the fact that us cool kids liked divey places back then, but these kids now don't. They want the pretendiest fancy that they can afford.

  4. Seriously, the Hat? Awful food.

  5. Mmmm, yes. I miss those food tables over at S.D. Roosevelt Park.
    Never had that much use for The Hat (the takeout margaritas usually gave me a headache before a high), but I hate to think about what nonsense might replace it.

  6. Gentrification hasn't been all good unfortunately. When great neighborhood places like "The Bean" are literally skunked out of pocket by Starbucks, it leaves a bad taste in one's mouth. Anyway, I miss the rice and beans w gondules that you could get on Saturdays at the very end of Essex St Market. You could always get rice and beans there mind you but on Saturdays they added the gondules. Oh well.

  7. The food was mediocre at best, but I did love the slurpee machine with the margaritas to go. Being able to walk down the street sipping a marg from a paper cup made me feel as though I was in New Orleans–even though the margaritas weren't very good. Does anyone know if they still offer those carryout margaritas?

  8. The only thing the Hat had going for it was the take out frozen margaritas. The food was never that good, really only good for having something in your stomach to enable you to drink more.

    As for the community not being able to support an authentic Hispanic restaurant, please. El Castillo de Jagua has much better food, is much more authentic and is doing quite well on the LES. I would also recommend Cibao on Clinton Street.

    The Hat has a great location, maybe instead of trying to get us to eat mediocre food the writers should encourage the restaurant to update the food. Barrio Chino is a mid priced Mexican on the LES that is always packed.

    • Agreed, El Castillo and Cibao are both quality Dominican food. And if I want Mexican food cooked by Mexicans, I'll go to El Maguey Y La Tuna, or Fonda.

      There's another place on Stanton, El Nuevo Amanacer which, like The Hat, is sort of a mish-mash of Mexican/Dominican/Puerto Rican food. They're OK.

  9. How does eating at The Hat counteract the combined efforts of the city government, bankers, and real estate developers who recently awarded themselves phenomenal tax credits for "improving" the Bowery?

  10. Mr. Patterson, seems like El Sombrero will be hanging its hat any day now. Lousy margaritas and mediocre food aside, I will be sad to see it go because you could always count on it to be there. Question for you, why are Dunkin Doughnuts, 7 Eleven bad, but Soho House is good? Is it because you get to hang your photos at their Meatpacking location? The Soho House is just as much a cookie cutter chain as the rest of them. At least at 7 Eleven I can get in. I don't want either byt if I had to choose between Dunkin Donuts or a private club fior coked up "wankers" and their Jimmy Choo wearing girlfriends. You ever been to The one in Meatpacking? I have and I promise you Dunkin Donuts is a better. I would believe you cared if you weren't so hypocritical. Save The Hat and support SoHo House at the same time? Save your breath – don't tell me how great you are and how much you do for us minorities, little people. I know you are the great white hope..the white teacher in movies that saves the inner city school. You already told everyone on this message board how much you do and all the other message boards you pop up on. I will base my opinion about how much you care on this article :

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