THE 300-POUND CAST-IRON skillet hanging above the front door of the century-old Taichert Wool Warehouse provides a giant clue as to what awaits inside The Skillet, the fantastical restaurant in Las Vegas.
The madcap menu of this beloved gastropub features dishes such as an Asian-style Orange Chicken Burrito and the Louisiana-inspired Po’boy Shrimp Taco. But fine food and inventive cocktails are only part of the immersive dining experience at this Las Vegas original.
The sprawling interior is jam-packed with gleeful art. A sculpted fish taco ascends amid painted roses and clouds on one wall, while a grinning burro-head sculpture hangs over the bar. It all feels carnivalesque—and the ringmaster is Isaac Sandoval, who grew up in a family of revered local restaurateurs.
“It’s exciting that people find us on their own,” says Sandoval, artist, chef, and owner of The Skillet, which opened as a food truck in 2014 and moved into its brick-and-mortar location in 2017. “They stumble on The Skillet—and stumble on Vegas in general—and say, ‘Here is a cool community.’ We engage every part of the space.”
Every bit of The Skillet is captivating, from the pork belly fried rice and bestselling Green Chile Skillet Burger to the artistic eye candy throughout the interior, the patio, and the happening Chingón Bar, which opened in October 2021 in a renovated trolley barn adjacent to the restaurant. Live music, karaoke, and a sushi bonanza are also on the menu. “Everyone’s so gaga for Taco Tuesday—we do Sushi Tuesday,” says Sandoval, who subverts expectations with inventions including a decadent bacon-and-cream-cheese chile relleno that is sliced and stacked between nori and sushi rice, then topped with tuna.
The chef got his first taste of restaurant work by sweeping floors and doing other chores in a local Dairy Queen, then owned by his parents, Charlie and Elizabeth Sandoval. In 1998, when the couple bought a restaurant that had been a Las Vegas landmark since the 1950s, they turned it into Charlie’s Spic & Span Bakery and Café. It quickly became known as the “meeting, eating, greeting place of Las Vegas.”
Sandoval learned the restaurant ropes at Charlie’s, making tortillas by hand at age 13 and eventually working the line. “I worked in the restaurant all through college,” says Sandoval, who earned a bachelor of fine arts from New Mexico Highlands University, in Las Vegas, and then a master of fine arts from Fort Hays State University, in Hays, Kansas. His education in the family restaurant business seems as formative as the years he spent studying art.
“My dad’s influence is with me every single day,” he says. “The way he runs Charlie’s, the way he built it. Whether it’s dealing with employees or day-to-day operations, every day we have a relationship. He comes over here, he eats and drinks. That’s one of the best things about growing up in a family restaurant—feedback’s present all the time.”
His rambling art studio, next door to The Skillet, occupies a former storage space. It’s packed with paintings, sculptures, and other works in progress, as well as a wood shop and countless tools. He set it up upon returning to Las Vegas with his then partner, artist Shawna Wangseng, following art school and a residency at Six Mile Sculpture Works in Granite City, Illinois. While teaching art at Highlands, overseeing catering at Charlie’s, and taking culinary classes at Luna Community College, Sandoval began cooking up a business plan.
“We started out as a taco place,” Sandoval says. An old Argosy trailer for sale provided the ideal vehicle. Tons of elbow grease later, he and Wangseng transformed the trailer into a food truck. The Skillet was an instant success. “It was slightly different, but accessible for the community,” he says. “Someone from New York could come in and say, ‘Oh wow, this is different,’ and locals could also bring their grandmother and feel comfortable.”
Today, the Skillet draws a steady flow of locals, out-of-towners, and Highlands students, all of whom are eager for what Sandoval describes as comfort food—and for seasonal cocktails that somehow taste like the essence of northern New Mexico, like the High Plains Drifter, a refreshing blend of gin, sage, and lemon.
Sandoval and Wangseng, who have parted ways, have a seven-year-old daughter, Charlotte, who is nicknamed Charlie, after her grandfather. She’s literally following in her father’s footsteps, trailing him around the restaurant as he greets customers and avidly drawing in his studio. She’s a big fan of her dad’s food. “I like the chicken taco because the chicken’s really good,” she says.
Supernatural visitors seem to like the food, too, which is no surprise in a downtown Las Vegas building that dates to 1924. “A few of my cooks in the morning say there’s a little girl,” Sandoval says. “They can hear her puttering around upstairs.” He’s never seen a ghost in the restaurant, but he has sensed otherworldly presences.
“It’s more extraterrestrials that have been here, I think,” he says. Regulars might agree. With the out-of-this-world decor and menu, it seems that even aliens would feel right at home at The Skillet.
“One time, I had some leftovers and heated them in the wok and put them into a tortilla,” Isaac Sandoval says. “It was somewhat of an aha moment. I tried replicating an orange sauce and served it as a burrito off the food truck. It’s been a customer favorite ever since.”
Boneless, skinless chicken thighs work best for this recipe. “For the fried version, I would say the best process would be to dice or slice the chicken thighs, bread them in flour, egg wash, and seasoned breading, and fry in a wok,” Sandoval says. “Using frozen chicken tenders also works perfectly.”
Leftover pistachio syrup can be used to flavor lattes and other coffee drinks and as an ice cream topping.
“I love this dish,” Isaac Sandoval says. “Shawna had the idea for this item, and it has been a crowd favorite since the food-truck days. We use a pressure cooker for most of this process, but it can also be cooked in a slow cooker. This recipe is for the oven.”