by Mark Van Streefkerk
For the last 17 years, Maria and Andres Rodriguez, along with Andres’ brother Daniel, made everyone who frequented El Sombrero feel like family. A favorite destination for many Columbia City residents, El Sombrero was an authentic family Mexican restaurant, with dishes like carne asada, enchiladas, and Borrego and an atmosphere where the whole family could gather for a midweek meal or celebrate birthdays or special events. When the Rodriguez family announced April 25 would be El Sombrero’s last day, devoted customers came out in droves, ordering takeout or dining in at reduced capacity, for one last show of appreciation.
“It was definitely hard. There were a lot of customers that cried,” said Raquel Rodriguez, daughter of Maria and Andres, who worked at the restaurant for 16 years. “We weren’t expecting the amount of customers … and to know that so many loved us and came over to say one last goodbye and have one last meal at El Sombrero — It was great for my parents. I think they just felt really appreciated and felt so loved by the community.”
Fans of El Sombrero will be happy to know the restaurant did not close due to hardships brought on by the pandemic — Raquel noted that the loyal support of the neighborhood sustained them — but simply because husband and wife Andres and Maria are retiring. Andres and Maria co-owned El Sombrero with Andres’ brother Daniel. Andres is 70, and Maria is 65. After a life’s work in the restaurant industry, the couple thought it seemed like a good time to retire. While Columbia City residents will no doubt miss entrees like arroz con pollo, flautas, and tacos, not to mention cocktails like El Loco and specialty margaritas, Andres and Maria will enjoy a bit of leisure, including visiting family in Mexico. “They’ve never been able to go together because of the restaurant,” Raquel explained. “One or the other had to stay. So they finally get to go together.”
Maria and Raquel worked front of house, hosting and serving, while the kitchen was Andres’ domain. “My dad made everything from scratch. I think it was also his way of meditation almost, to be left alone and work on the flavor and the food,” Raquel said.
In 1972, Andres left Jalisco to join some of his brothers in San Francisco, where a cousin had already established a few Mexican restaurants. Starting as a dishwasher, he eventually became a cook. In 1980 he moved to Olympia, where he worked at El Sarape, owned by another family member. In the early ’90s he moved to Seattle and worked at Torero’s, a chain of restaurants launched by an older brother. He opened El Sombrero in Columbia City on Rainier Avenue in 2004. Co-owner Daniel owned two other restaurants, one on Mercer Island also called El Sombrero and a Torero’s in Crossroads Bellevue. Daniel sold both restaurants a couple of years ago as he prepared for his own retirement.
El Sombrero’s old home next to Geraldine’s Counter restaurant will be the new location for Jackalope, a Tex-Mex restaurant. Eater Seattle first reported on Jackalope, an offshoot of Jack’s BBQ, with an opening slated around Labor Day. The new restaurant will be headed by Graham Ayers, the general manager at Jack’s BBQ, also a Columbia City resident and long-time customer of El Sombrero. Raquel said passing the baton off to Ayers and Jackalope felt like a fitting transition for the space.
It’s clear the Rodriguez family restaurant was something special in Columbia City. El Sombrero helped foster connections and conversation, provided a welcoming meal and end-of-day drink, and was a family tradition for many. The Emerald asked several community members to share their favorite El Sombrero memories.
Sarah Freeman was a regular who almost always ordered the chicken nachos. Her favorite El Sombrero memory is when she met Technology Access Foundation co-founder Trish Millines Dziko and Sherry Williams, executive director of operations, there during lunch in 2007. Freeman confessed she was deliberating over who to vote for at the time: Obama or Hillary.
“During that convo, the three of us talked about race, gender, education and more … I admired both [of them] personally and professionally. They were also Black women. The conversation was rich, and let’s just say I knew who I was voting for by the end of lunch,” Freeman said. “The restaurant was more than good nachos. It was a place for good conversations.”
Alex Sharp is another El Sombrero regular who frequented the restaurant since its opening. His go-to dishes were the carne asada, enchiladas, pollo asado, and the tortilla soup. “I used to frequent El Sombrero to celebrate with family as well as by myself. I would often find comfort and solace in a stack of tortillas and sumptuous pollo asado washed down with a massive margarita or two Dos Equis while escaping a bad argument or a tough day at work,” he said. “The staff glowed with kindness and compassion.”
Rachel Pollack and her family ate at El Sombrero every Friday for about six years, although she pointed out they had been going to the restaurant much longer than that tradition. “We spent every single birthday with our kids, friends, and extended family at El Sombrero. Maria, Raquel, and the rest of the staff were like family to us,” Pollack said.
When Pollack’s son was sick in the hospital, the Rodriguez family “really helped us through that stressful time, taking the time to talk at length despite the busy restaurant and making sure we had special foods our son could eat,” she said. After El Sombrero closed, Maria and Raquel visited the Pollacks and gave them homemade flan and presents for the kids. “I was like, ‘We should be making YOU something to thank you for all the good memories you’ve given us!’”
In her interview with the Emerald, Raquel wanted to express thanks and gratitude to El Sombrero’s many customers over the years. Along with the authentic flavors of Jalisco, El Sombrero’s special ingredient was family.
“We’re a family-owned business; we really emphasized that,” Raquel said. “We always made sure to make [customers] feel like family, and they also made us feel like family.”
📸 Featured Image: El Sombrero. (Photo: Alex Garland)
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