An Interview with Charlie Sandoval, Owner/Operator
Local Hero: Best Café, Northern New Mexico
Photos by Stephanie Cameron
Charlie’s Spic & Span Bakery and Café has been a Las Vegas institution since the 1950s. In the early 2000s, the restaurant and bakery was reopened by Charlie and Elizabeth Sandoval. Charlie’s offers New Mexican cuisine, breakfast, and classic pastries. It has been dubbed the “meeting, eating, greeting place of Las Vegas.”
How did you get to where you are now? What’s the backstory, and what was the moment that brought you to your current work?
There were twelve kids in my family; my dad worked for the railroad and my mother raised the kids. I was born in Las Vegas, and I grew up in Rawlins, Wyoming, then moved back to Las Vegas and graduated from West Las Vegas High School. I worked for KFC for seventeen years and worked my way up to the district manager. I ran about fifteen KFCs and Dairy Queens in greater New Mexico and Arizona. In 1994, Elizabeth and I had the opportunity to buy our own Dairy Queen in Las Vegas. We worked the Dairy Queen for five years, until I was approached to buy the Spic & Span in August 1998. At the time, the restaurant had been closed for two years, and there was a visible absence on Douglas Avenue. It was a vast undertaking to reopen the restaurant and make it my own. For the last twenty-one years, I have built the restaurant to be what it is today.
Describe your perfect breakfast.
The perfect breakfast would be coffee, fried eggs on top of Christmas enchiladas, diced papitas, beans, and a fresh tortilla. Maybe also a short stack of pancakes.
What is a local food issue that is important to you? Why?
Keeping foods traditional, and keeping the way of eating I had growing up as valued in today’s culture. The way people eat has changed over the last twenty years. People want different [ways of cooking], but it is essential to preserve the old ways of cooking. Our food tells the story of northern New Mexico, it shows us who we are and where we come from. It is important to understand these things so we can continue to share our way of eating with the youth and [so they] know who they are.
What’s your best-selling dessert, and what’s a dessert you wish people would try more often?
Our cream puff is absolutely the best seller. It has that eye-catching appeal in the display case. I think the unsung hero in our display case is the mincemeat empanadita. It is a traditional northern New Mexican dessert made with minced meat, apple, and piñon. People are sometimes apprehensive about trying it, but they are so delicious.
In normal times, Charlie’s is a vibrant, busy hub in the Las Vegas community. How have you stayed connected during the pandemic, and how’s the atmosphere now?
We are living in crazy times right now. Since reopening after quarantine, we have had to change and adapt to a whole new way of operating. We are still doing dining on a newly built patio and offering take out. My daughter Elizabeth has really stepped up to the plate with the COVID-19 protocol and procedures mandated by the state.
People are really enjoying the new patio. Outdoor eating wasn’t something we ever considered people would enjoy. Now that we see outdoor dining’s potential, it will become a permanent fixture [even when] indoor dining is allowed again.
What do you love about living in Las Vegas?
I like that things are slow, and there is nothing too rushed. There is a nice, slow pace of operation. Vegas is surrounded by a beautiful, mountainous landscape. We have nature at our doorstep, and people cherish it. No rush. I like that I am close to my family. I love that family is important to people here. Vegas is a close-knit community. You can really see that people care about their town.
Is there anything else you’d like to share with edible readers?
Come visit Las Vegas—great culture, architecture, and nature. There is a lot of comfort in Las Vegas. We are proud to serve you at Charlie’s, and hope to dine with you soon.
715 Douglas Avenue, Las Vegas, 505-426-1921