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Monday, September 14, 2009

Restaurant Notes: Madison's El Vaquero Gets New Furniture

O.K., you're looking at that headline and thinking, "This is news?"

Well, when I walk into the only Mexican restaurant in Madison, South Dakota, and see this, yes, new furniture is news:

El Vaquero's new decor. Click photo for larger image... if this much color won't crash your computer!

When we walked into El Vaquero for supper Saturday night, my aesthetic heart did backflips. Gone are the old rundown Uncle Ed's Café/Second Street Diner 1970s-era booths and tables. El Vaquero now has a completely new decor, an explosion of color that says, "¡Holá! ¡Bienvenidos! Eat and enjoy!"

First two booths you'll see when you walk in the door at El Vaquero.

The new booths, tables, and lamps say quite a bit about the restaurant and the owners. Anyone who has seen my paintings (or my clothes from high school) knows that I love bold, fearless color and lots of it. El Vaquero's new decor is no safe, Midwestern choice. El Vaquero's owners want to be surrounded by vistas, stories, and every color of the rainbow. Some might say it's too busy, with too many clashing colors, but I find the unique images on each booth rich and vibrant... just like life.

The new decor also shouts permanence. For its first couple years, El Vaquero made do with what it inherited from the old diner. It felt like a rental property, a cheap, secondhand space inhabited but not really owned by the inhabitants. This is no cheap, anonymous furniture that could be left behind for the next owner. The new decor, right down to the EL VAQUERO engraved boldly into the booth backs, exults "This place is ours! We're making it! We're staying!"

El Vaquero must be making it: this furniture looks like it cost money. For too many diners and other businesses in Madison and throughout our somewhat impoverished (financially and aesthetically) state, decor is an afterthought: get some plain tables and chairs on discount, tack up some John Green prints, good enough.

El Vaquero's owners are no aesthetic buckaroos. Their new furniture isn't a throwaway decision made on the basis of a fire sale at some mass-production cheapo restaurant supplier. I could be mistaken, but each booth appears to be hand-carved and hand-painted wood, with different scenes on the fronts, backs, and sides. The pieces come from Lacandona in Jalisco, México, showing the owners were willing to pay a premium for authenticity on top of color and craftsmanship.

Detail on El Vaquero chair backs: sweet birds of paradise... and prosperity?

I hope the owners of El Vaquero won't catch heck for not buying their furniture locally the way Madisonites can catch heck for not buying nice American cars at Prostrollo's. Tom Kommes from Montgomery's* was there Saturday night, and when I asked if the store planned to carry any of Lacandona's home line, he sounded skeptical. Of course he would: most Midwesterners would never dare put anything this colorful in their homes or businesses.

And that's precisely why I love the new decor at El Vaquero. This unique and brilliant Mexican furniture immensely improves the restaurant culture of our fair city. Nowhere else in Madison or Lake County can you find anything like this vivid visual dining experience. El Vaquero makes Nicky's, the closest thing in most Madison minds to fine dining, look like a windowless dungeon.

Oh yeah, and the food is darn good. A hundred entrees on the biggest menu in town, most under $10. I took Scott Parsley's recommendation (after he gave me heck for my snarky East River coverage) and had the #62, enchilada with grilled shrimp—total yum! I'd keep eating there even if they just painted the interior beige and put out folding chairs. But when El Vaquero can satiate both my gastronomic and aesthetic appetites, I'm that much more inclined to recommend the place to all my friends.

Ring the dinner bell; El Vaquero is in!

*I'd link to Montgomery Furniture, but Google keeps telling me their website may harm my computer. Clark! Call tech support!


  1. This is a place we hit every time we come to town. Great authentic Mexican food, and now a bright colorful dining room. I'm excited about my next trip to Madison.

  2. I liked this place too! It is funny, but some of the places I miss most in South Dakota are the foreign food places: Sushi Masa, Taste of India, El Vaquero, Guadalajara's...George's Pizza (that counts, right?).

  3. Lamb pizza at George's—heck yeah, Joe!

    Joe and Nick, keep bringing your business! We'll feed you right! :-D

  4. Great food! Am anxious to stop in and see the new decor - think I'd better wear my sunglasses! This is my favorite restaurant in Madison, and I hope the business is here forever.

  5. Jill Gabreau2/18/2010 4:40 AM

    Hi! My name is Jill Gabreau, I'm an ex-Newyorker living in Europe, and my artistic heart did flipflops, too, when I (accidentally) discovered that beautiful furniture in your post. No sunglasses for me! The sculpture is amazing. Unfortunately, the link to the shop that sells it, or the crafts company that makes it is no longer valid. Could you possibly update it? Though I have no plans to visit SD, I admit I regret it!

  6. Thanks for the note, Jill! The Lacandona folks apparently revamped their webpage. I've updated the links; try them again, let me know if they work for you!

  7. Hola que tal mi nombre es:
    Héctor Becerra
    Encargado de Ventas Lacandona

    Los invito a nuestar pagina web www.muebleslacandona.com
    Encontrara fotografias de nuestros muebles.

    o al correo:


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