kim’s kitchen

Make this chocolate sombrero piece

Posted 4/23/24

My friends Joyce Salimeno-Gitlin and her late husband Mel were buzzing down Lake Louise Marie Road in Rock Hill, NY one day in 2018 when they noticed activity at the site of the old Dodge Inn …

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kim’s kitchen

Make this chocolate sombrero piece


My friends Joyce Salimeno-Gitlin and her late husband Mel were buzzing down Lake Louise Marie Road in Rock Hill, NY one day in 2018 when they noticed activity at the site of the old Dodge Inn restaurant. Mel—who had owned and operated restaurants and bars himself for years—was intrigued.

“What do you think is going on over there?” he asked.

Always adventurous, Joyce and Mel decided to stop in and find out. And that’s when they met Luis Cerna.

As it turned out, Luis, his wife Annie Perez and son Brandon had been in the Rock Hill area for more than 20 years. As such, they’d driven past the boarded-up restaurant hundreds of times. And then Luis—who also owns Cerna’s Meat at the Hunt’s Point Meat Market in the Bronx—had a brainwave. Why not open a Tex-Mex restaurant in Rock Hill?

“I wanted to do Tex-Mex,” Luis explains, “because you can have delicious steaks on the menu.”

Excited and enthusiastic, the family purchased the building. Of course, having fallen into disuse for the better part of a decade, the structure needed work—a lot of work.

Rolling up their sleeves, they installed a kitchen made from stainless steel. They overhauled the dining rooms, adding a service bar and covering the walls in bright, beautiful murals. And they added some new stone and a waterfall to go along with the huge, iconic fireplace that remains from the Dodge Inn days.

They redid the main bar area as well. Adding stone to that back wall led to an important discovery.

“This new wall might be too heavy for the floor,” the mason told Luis one day. “You might want to go downstairs and check it out.”

Concerned, Luis went into the basement. While clearing debris, it became obvious to him that there had once been a fire down there. He’d have to add braces for sure, and might also have to redo much of the flooring.

And then—while digging more deeply into the rubble—he unearthed a tiny, doll-sized, straw sombrero, decorated with what looked like dried beans.

“How did this ever get down here?” Luis remembers thinking.

Later, he showed the artifact to Annie and Brandon. Everybody had a good laugh. They brought it home, Brandon tossed it into a drawer, and they all forgot about it.

Meanwhile, time marched on and work on the restaurant progressed. They began to start thinking about names.

“We got on the computer,” Luis explains, “and we compiled a list of 250 names. We narrowed that down to 200. Then, to150. We did like that all the way to 25.”

And that’s when Brandon came into the room carrying the tiny sombrero.

“Dad, do you want this for anything?”

Right then and there, Luis knew that they had their name: El Sombrero.

“It was just meant to be,” he says with a laugh.

It was shortly after that when Joyce and Mel made their surprise visit. While Luis picked Mel’s brain, they learned that Luis and Annie were close to opening up.

“You might like to go see what they’re doing there,” Joyce and Mel told my husband Fleck and me. “It looks beautiful, and it sounds like their food is going to be excellent.”

Of course, as it turns out, they were right.

The menu is based on recipes developed by Luis. They’re steeped in the Tex-Mex tradition. So, you’ll find unique tacos, enchiladas, fajitas, tostadas, guacamole and the like. You’ll also find New York strip steaks, grilled chicken, shrimp dishes, salmon, beef short ribs and the Sombrero Burger. There are a variety of salads, and the appetizers include calamari and chicken tenders. There are daily specials as well, which generally include an osso bucco that Fleck raves about. And, of course, there are the famous, best-selling Sombrero Samplers—for one, two or four—that feature spare ribs, short ribs, skirt steak, chicken, shrimp and spicy sausage—along with rice and beans, guacamole and pico de gallo.

And the drinks are excellent, too. You have a variety of wine and beer, plus there are daily drink specials. There is homemade sangria, margaritas, mojitos and my signature drink, the moquila—a mojito made with tequila.

The people are great. Luis, Annie and Brandon are usually on site, and guests are greeted at the door by Annie like they’re family. The décor is bright and tasteful—including a plastic cactus that sports the doll-sized sombrero—and the kitchen, bar, dining rooms and bathrooms are immaculate.

“The night doesn’t end until the kitchen is clean,” Luis explains. “I’m the inspector!”

Unlike some other places, El Sombrero came through the pandemic and managed to prosper. In addition to doing a brisk take-out business—which continues to this day—Annie and Luis made hundreds of “grab-and-go” meals for folks involved in health care.

And the pandemic, as bad as it was, showed Annie and Luis just how loyal their clientele is. Fleck and I remember picking up an order at the end of April 2020, and Luis marveling that he’d made his monthly expenses. Since reopening in June of that year, El Sombrero has prospered. Luis, Annie, and Brandon are certainly grateful for that.

“The best part of this business is the customers,” Luis says today. “We welcome everyone like it’s their first time. We pay attention to service, atmosphere, food and price. We cook like it’s for our own family.”

That’s why the project this month is the Chocolate Sombrero Piece. We’ve been more-than-regular customers since El Sombrero opened, and I’ve seen how far Luis, Annie and Brandon are willing to go to make sure that the El Sombrero experience is always a quality one. With my food allergies—remember, I’m the cake artist who can’t eat cake—I’m always appreciative when dining establishments let me work the menu a little bit to ensure that I don’t get sick.

As always, have fun with your project. Experiment with different colors and different shapes. Make what you do your own. That’s the meaning of art.

And with Cinco de Mayo coming up soon, maybe take some time to journey out to El Sombrero. And ask for a moquila while you’re there!

Kim M. Simons is an artist, food artist and cake artist. A two-time Food Network champion, Kim also has 11.5 doves on the Sullivan Catskills Dove Trail, with two more in progress. Kim is available to teach classes, both individually and in groups. Visit Kim at

kims kitchen, cake, chocolate, sombrero


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