WHAT PEOPLE LOVE ABOUT NANCY’S SILVER CAFÉ is what they—and their relatives—have always loved about it. Generations return to the downtown Silver City spot for made-to-order tacos, from-scratch sopaipillas, red chile sauce over huevos, and roast beef sandwiches. “Maybe it’s like coming home,” says owner Dora Wooten.
Perhaps next time they come, the café’s facade will have changed, thanks to a $40,000 grant from the National Trust for Historic Preservation. But the food will taste as good as it has for 53 years. “It’s outlasted every other restaurant,” says café regular Nancy Cliff, who wrote the grant proposal. “The Hispanics go there for Anglo food, and the Anglos go there for Hispanic food.”
Nancy’s Silver Café has been handed down through Wooten’s family since her mom bought it in 1969 from original owners Carmen and Lorenzo Borrego, who had operated it as Sam’s for 14 years. By 2014, Wooten had retired from 20 years of teaching and taken over the operation, buying her brothers out of the business and the building.
In the last 30 years, nothing has changed, Wooten says. But what might have changed before then, she can’t recall. “You don’t pay attention to things like that.”
The café’s recipes—neither secret nor proprietary—aren’t written down anywhere. Wooten and the cooks prepare each dish “like everyone does,” using ingredients and methods they’ve always used. Wooten buys jalapeños in Hatch and dedicates an entire freezer to storing them for use in salsa. She fries chips made of tortillas from Mi Ranchito, in nearby Bayard. She makes red chile sauce by soaking, blending, and straining dried pods.
Wooten’s focus has been on food. Seeking an exterior renovation grant was “not my idea,” she says. Local historian Susan Barry, who lived behind Nancy’s Silver Café until moving across the street, suggested applying. “I never thought we had a chance,” Wooten says.
The national trust’s Backing Historic Small Restaurants Grant Program targets “recovery amid ongoing challenges related to the pandemic.” Topping the list: rising costs and staff shortages. Wooten handles the former by keeping menu prices low and eating the difference. She copes with the latter by reducing hours and closing during employee absences. “The 24 others who got this grant are facing the same challenges,” Cliff says.
A revamped facade will raise the visibility of the café to a level that matches its vibrant history. The peeling white paint will be stripped; the plaster, patched; the awning, replaced. The sign will be centered where the swamp cooler was once mounted, and new tile will grace the front wall.
The plate-glass windows and the red booths will stay. The smile of Lucy Abalos, who’s been “the waitress” for a decade, will still greet regulars and first-timers alike. The tortillas will be fried into perfect U shapes once a taco has been ordered. The sopaipillas will never be made from a mix.