July 2016

Tacos With a Twist

Casa Del Matador Will Put the “Ole” in Downtown Summerlin

By Jason Harris


It’s scorching on this Sunday afternoon. I’ve been summoned to a secret location. One suburban street turns into the next before I arrive at my destination, an upmarket house in Summerlin. This is one of the better Airbnb options in the area, I imagine. I leave my windows cracked, get out of my car and walk through the sweltering heat to knock on the front door.

Two publicists greet me. Behind them stands a cadre of kitchen pros, including at least three chefs and a chief mixologist. The public relations team is local; for the rest of the crew, this Airbnb will be their home for the next few weeks until the highly anticipated opening of the American-Mexican restaurant Casa Del Matador in Downtown Summerlin. On this particular day, too much construction stands between me and a close-up look at the restaurant space.

Carne Asada Torta

In the living room, two large chairs and a comfy sofa envelop a lovely coffee table. On the tabletop sit my first tastes of Casa Del Matador – two types of salsa, and then some chips, guacamole, black bean dip, escabeche and one other item.

Co-founder Zak Melang told me on the phone a couple of days earlier this is not Mexican food South of the Border-style. “We’re far from being authentic,” he acknowledged. “We’ve taken a lot of those Mexican flavors, but we put kind of our own twist on it. And it’s worked for us so far.”

Melang, with his slow deliberation and drawl, is right. None of this tastes like your favorite taco truck or hole in the wall burrito joint fare. But what the Matador brand presents is tasty. I like a bit more heat on my salsas, but compensation comes in the form of delicious black bean dip swirled with habañero, garlic crema, tomatillo salsa and green onion. And while the escabeche – think Latin-inspired pickled vegetables – isn’t as acidic as those chasing authenticity might desire, I get it.

This is the perfect type of Mexican food for Downtown Summerlin. Let’s call it “gringo Mexican,” in the best sense of the term, of course. These are crowd-pleasing tastes put together by a group of industry veterans. Melang says he and his wife and business partner Nathan Opper have a similar food philosophy: “All being bartenders, we thought we had a good handle on what people wanted. We wanted to create a really warm atmosphere. We wanted to create some great food with a really good value. We try to make the Matadors (there are restaurants and bars under the Casa and Matador banners in other cities) and everything we do comfortable.”

And comfortable is the key word here.

That’s not to say foodies won’t find their gems, too. That last dish on the table is the one that caught my attention. Chipotle mushrooms are worth ordering over and over again at just about any restaurant. The mushrooms are sautéed then hard-seared, giving a textural duality. The fungi take on all the flavors they are blasted with – Mexican oregano, guajillo, chipotle and ancho chiles, white wine, butter and cotija cheese. It’s the kind of veggie that makes you forget about meat.

With each taste, I’m starting to understand more about the Matador brand. Founded in 2004, the original Matador opened in Seattle’s historic Ballard area. Melang figures he looked at more than 100 potential locations before finding one that was just right. It was a bar first, with some quality grub second. That means it was 21 and over since day one. People came for the variety of tequilas, the value items at happy hour, the unique design and the relaxed vibe.

But the concept took off far beyond what the owners had imagined. By 2005, they had opened their second Matador Bar in Seattle. And with each new opening, the owners heard from customers: It’d be great if we could bring our kids.

With nearly a dozen locations now, Melang and his team have separated the Matadors from the Casas. The Matador is a bar first, and Casa is a restaurant with no age restrictions.

So Casa Del Matador seems a natural fit for Downtown Summerlin, and just the right time for Melang and his colleagues to invade the Las Vegas market. When I mention that some restaurants in the 22-month-old outdoor mall already have failed, Melang ponders for a moment: “There is no formula for great success,” he says finally. “You go out there and put your best foot forward, and you do what you think you could do. On the other hand, I would say that we’re extremely confident in what we do. If given the chance by our guests, we think we can win them over. We do the best job we possibly can. ... (After trying the restaurant) I feel confident that people will return.”

A selection of Casa Del Matador Margaritas


Melang drew on his construction background in building the first Matadors from the ground up. That means bar, tables, tiling – he did it all. His focus was always design; Opper handled the food. Everything serves a purpose in the design of the rooms. The bar’s half-moon shape enables groups of people to talk to each other. The tiles and lighting fixtures are from different regions in Mexico, where Melang has been traveling since age 8. Right now, he lives in Sayulita, a village 45 minutes north of Puerto Vallarta, with his wife and two children. While his kids enjoy being members of their immersion school’s surf team, Pops is consulting custom tile and light fixture makers throughout the country so he can give his restaurants and bars a distinctive and true look.

While Melang and company had no control over the exterior at Casa Del Matador in Downtown Summerlin, they did make sure to get everything else known to the brand in the building. The fire pit that usually sits in the middle of their establishments has been moved to the side. Artistic custom bull skulls are getting the attention of Blue Buddha Tattoo and local artist Susan Privman-Goldstein and will hang throughout this Matador. “I’m really proud of the way it’s turning out,” Melang says. “It’s not a carbon copy (of the others), but you can tell they are siblings.”

We’re at the dining room table at the Airbnb residence. Tom Small, chief operations & culinary officer of Opper Melang Restaurants, says 128 tequilas will be available opening day at this Casa Del Matador, with more to come over time. On Tequila Tuesdays, he says, patrons can expect half off every brand, including all 17 mezcals and the Class Azul Ultra. On any other night, that last one would be $250 a shot.

All three of the entrees I try are delightful. Braised beef shoulder tacos are as tender (four hours of cooking will do that) as you’d want. The beef is slathered with ancho chile sauce and topped with avocado salsa, pico de gallo and cotija cheese. Its noticeable sweetness comes from being braised in Coke. Grilled carne asada is straight down the middle, and there’s nothing wrong with that when the meat’s cooked to perfection. Guajillo chile sauce, garlic crema and pico de gallo finish this taco off. If Small has his way, Casa Del Matador will be selling these as “street tacos” during the Downtown Summerlin farmers market, and he and his team will have a huge hit on their hands.

Small says Casa Del Matador regulars love the shredded chicken enchiladas. To me, they’re homey and delicious, and I’d happily scarf a few more down if they were offered.

But then there’s so much more I’ve yet to taste. And so many tequilas to sample, and custom lighting fixtures to see. All this definitely makes Casa Del Matador and a trip to Downtown Summerlin necessary once the restaurant opens.

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