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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