An Interview with Isaac Sandoval, Owner/Chef,
and Shawna Sandoval, Owner/Operator
Local Hero: Best Restaurant, Greater New Mexico
Photos by Stephanie Cameron
The Skillet team from left to right, bottom row up: Charlotte Sandoval, Talula Lennox, Hannah Lopez, Bailey Simon, Shawna Sandoval, Isaac Sandoval, Taylor Bustamante, Taylor Gallegos, Vicki Guido, Miranda Salazar, Caitlin Nelson, Paul Pino, Weston Tozzi, Jorge Martinez, Ray Jaramillo.
The Skillet is a contemporary New Mexican restaurant and bar specializing in Southwest comfort food. Located in Las Vegas, its building along the Gallinas River dates to 1924 and was formerly a wool warehouse for Teichert’s General Store.
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?
I grew up in the restaurant world. I spent a lot of time as a child at my family’s Dairy Queen. I remember sitting in the booths drawing images of ice cream and other treats. When I was thirteen, I started working for my dad at Charlie’s Bakery and Café making tortillas, which was just a griddle and a press then. I eventually worked as a busser, server, prep cook, and worked the line.
I went to New Mexico Highlands University in Las Vegas, where I met Shawna, and we earned undergraduate degrees in fine art in 2010. In 2013, we received our MFAs in sculpture and painting from Fort Hays State University in western Kansas. While in Kansas, I cast a three-hundred-pound cast-iron skillet. Shawna and I cooked with it as performative art to connect people with art and food. This led to a residency at Six Mile Sculpture Works in Granite City, Illinois. After moving back to New Mexico, I attended Luna Community College, took culinary classes, and ran the catering portion of Charlie’s. Shawna and I built a food truck from an Argosy trailer and ran it for three years before opening our brick-and-mortar restaurant.
You offer some New Mexican classics, but what stands out on your menu is the variety of cultural influences. What’s the origin story behind your favorite fusion dishes?
Our menu is heavily influenced both by the culture of Las Vegas and our work as artists. After moving back from the Midwest, we noticed limited cuisine options in Las Vegas. If we wanted to eat anything other than traditional northern New Mexican cuisine, we would have to drive to Santa Fe. We really wanted to make a restaurant that would attract all types of customers. Our intention is to send out fresh, delicious, and fun food for everyone sitting at the table. I know of people who have made special trips to Santa Fe for the orange chicken from Panda Express, or for Indian. I saw this as an opportunity to offer menu items like the Orange Chicken Burrito. So much of our menu comes from the idea that food can connect us, bring us together, and be wrapped in a tortilla.
What is a local food issue that is important to you? Why?
Everyone talks about eating local, growing local. . . . This topic is different for us than it is for some other communities throughout the state. I think parts of town are food deserts. Everyone should have access to fresh produce and grocery options and not have to travel a long distance. Although there are many restaurants in Las Vegas, the easiest is fast food. I hope that The Skillet can be a place where customers can get wholesome, fresh, and healthy options.
Another issue that is really important is making sure my employees are being paid adequate living wages and have access to proper healthcare. With COVID on all of our minds, I want it to be worth it for employees to work in the restaurant, and we have started to adjust how we operate in order to take care of each other.
You’ve described The Skillet as an immersive art, food, and drink experience. What inspired you to bring art and dining together?
Even before we opened The Skillet, art-making was an important part of our existence. I love making art about food, and Shawna and I have done most of the artwork at Charlie’s. Charlie’s exemplifies how art can inform the experience of a restaurant. When operating the food truck, we parked in front of our studio and probably sold more art directly to customers than in galleries or online. While planning for the opening of The Skillet, we had the time to make all the big sculptures and murals. It is an evolving project. I love the idea that people who might not otherwise have opportunities to experience art “off the pedestals” come in to enjoy the work around them.
What are you doing to keep your spirits up in 2020? What are you looking forward to?
Lots of marijuana and eating tons of our house-made ice cream cake. I’m looking forward to cooking on the outdoor skillet and our new horno outside on the patio.
What do you love about living in Las Vegas?
Living in Las Vegas is special. The diversity of the community goes unnoticed until you start talking to people. We have brilliant people all over town. People look out for each other and support local. So much of it is from another time, the Old West, but after taking a second look, there is so much more than that. People are doing exciting things and thinking about new ideas.
Is there anything else you’d like to share with edible readers?
I’m so grateful for all our crew. They’re really dedicated to working as a team to create the best experience for all of our customers. It’s not the easiest to staff a group of people that care about a place this much. It really makes me proud to see what is happening out here in little Las Vegas.
619 12th Street, Las Vegas, 505-563-0477, giant-skillet.com