chef's table

BIG FLAVORS, SMALL DINER
Meet the Mexican food masters at Carlillos Cocina in Sparks.

WRITTEN BY SANDRA MACIAS
PHOTOS BY SHEA EVANS

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Carlillos Cocina occupies the old Landrum’s building on Rock Boulevard in Sparks

Behind the counter at Carlillos Cocina, a dance of multitasking perfection is taking place. At the grill, the restaurant’s owner, Carlos Martinez, toasts a poblano chile while tending a sunny-side-up egg. Head chef Billy Trigueros flips sizzling chicken in a skillet and scoops flesh from a fresh avocado. Martinez’s cousin Sergio Nava, weaving through the space behind them, carries a stack of clean plates before pivoting to clear the counter of dirty ones.

This hole-in-the-wall diner in Sparks holds a reputation for serving the best Mexican restaurant around. It consistently earns five-star Yelp ratings and has a bevy of local fans. Its location dates back to the early ’80s, when it was home to the Sparks location of locally beloved Landrum’s. Though Reno’s Landrum’s dated back to 1947, the Sparks location was short-lived when the company folded in 1986. Since then, the building had gone through three or four owners before Martinez took over seven years ago. A faded Landrum’s sign still stands in the restaurant’s miniature parking lot. 

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Carlos Martinez, owner/chef of Carlillos Cocina, adds finishing touches to dishes before they are delivered to guests

“It’s there because of history,” Martinez says, respectfully. 

Despite its sign, Carlillos is now a destination for many, some of whom come from as far away as the Bay Area or Minnesota seeking delicious food and a convivial atmosphere. Sitting on a stool here is a communal experience. Even while busy cooking, head of the kitchen and chef Trigueros and boss/chef Martinez greet you with a friendly “Hola!” Whether you’re a first timer, a regular, or a tourist, you’ll be welcomed. All 25 stools may be occupied, with people standing behind you with more lined up out the door (a common occurrence on Saturdays), and even then it’s a happy confab. 

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El Rodeo is two enchiladas (chicken or beef) with cheese, topped with two eggs

Keeping it fresh daily

Because of limited cold storage, Martinez says, “Everything is fresh every day; nothing is frozen.” 

His day starts early, hitting stores and wholesalers to buy fresh produce and meat. Early prep starts at the diner, too. Freshly cooked beans simmer on the stove; freshly prepared rice keeps warm in the oven. Other checked-off kitchen tasks include fresh sauces and salsas, house-made chorizo, marinated pork al pastor, and Mexican drinks, such as rice horchata. All is ready when the doors open at 7 a.m.

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With Martinez at the helm, Carlillos’ kitchen is a well-oiled machine turning out dishes made to order

The menu offers Mexican breakfasts, combination plates, tortas, quesadillas, and Carlillos’ specialties, including camarones (shrimp) a la Diabla and steak and eggs, featuring an 8-ounce rib eye. Other bestsellers include the El Rodeo (huevos rancheros with steak or chorizo) and The Marine (a shrimp enchilada dish). Also not to be missed are the fish and shrimp tacos, made with fish from Sierra Gold Seafood in Sparks.

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Combination plate, which includes a chile relleno, carne asada taco, and chicken enchilada 

Working with just two grills, an eight-burner stove, and oven, Martinez and Trigueros make it work. Every dish is made to order. The pork al pastor taco, finished with grilled pineapple, is a delight. Splashed with hot red sauce, it is zingy-sweet and spotlessly greaseless. Another crowd-pleaser, chilaquiles, begins with tortilla pieces toasted on the grill before cheese and the lightest, most delicious tomatillo sauce are added — so tasty and comforting, you’d swear it was made by your abuela’s wise hands. Another popular dish is chiles rellenos. The grilled, cheese-stuffed chile is wrapped in an omelet-like blanket and finished with a flavorful tomato-based sauce. This dish, deliciously fresh and completely free of grease, is far beyond ordinary.

Culinary magic

Martinez learned the essentials of Mexican cuisine while working at El Adobe Café in Reno for 11 years. But always in the back of his mind, he wanted to open his own restaurant.

“I needed to do something else, something for myself,” he says. “So I started thinking with my wife, ‘How about we open a restaurant? Wanna do it?’ And Luisa said, ‘Are you crazy?’” 

Maybe. But he did it, with wife Luisa Carrillo by his side. 

“It was just me and my wife (at first),” Martinez says, “and it was hard.”

And now? Things are good, Martinez says, praising his finely tuned kitchen crew. Without his “people,” he says, he couldn’t do it. As for his wife, whose main job now is tending to their three children, she credits their success to “the magic” in her husband’s culinary hands. 

Sandra Macias, a Reno-based food writer, wonders how Carlillos remained under her radar so long. The Sparks diner has been there for seven years? A best-kept secret, for sure. But now that she’s savvy, on her next visit, she looks forward to trying the fish tacos and the restaurant’s touted country potatoes.

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The Carlillos Cocina crew. From left, Elmer Rosales, Sergio Navam, Luisa Carrillo, Billy Trigueros, and Martinez

Carlillos Cocina
415 S. Rock Blvd., Sparks • 775-351-1274 
Breakfast and lunch served 7 a.m. – 2 p.m. Mon – Fri., 7 a.m. – 1 p.m. Sat., closed Sun.
Catering service is available.

Chiles Rellenos
(courtesy of Carlos Martinez, owner/chef, Carlillos Cocina in Sparks. Serves 4)

This recipe for chiles rellenos does not require frying. Instead, the egg is cooked omelet-style to wrap around the stuffed chile.

4 medium poblano or Anaheim chiles 
½ pound Monterey jack cheese
3 eggs

To roast peppers, leave stalk on — this makes it easier to turn chile when roasting. Roast chiles in preheated heavy skillet or under broiler, turning chiles from time to time, allowing skin to blister and char lightly, taking care to not let them burn. When chiles are charred all over, place them immediately in a plastic bag and close the opening, or in large bowl covered with a kitchen towel. Leave chiles to sweat 10 to 15 minutes.

While chiles sweat, cut jack cheese into 4 (2-ounce) rectangular-shaped portions and set aside. 

Remove one chile at a time, then peel off skin. Leaving stem and stem’s base intact, slit chile down one side; remove seeds and veins with fingers or a small knife — if using a knife, take care not to damage chile flesh. Slit sides of chiles and slip one portion of cheese inside each. Set aside. (Use immediately or store in refrigerator overnight.)

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F, and place prepared chiles rellenos on a sheet pan and place in oven to warm. 

In small bowl, separate eggs, save one yolk. Whisk whites until fluffy; add yolk and whisk until blended. Coat small, non-stick frying pan with canola or vegetable oil. Pour ¼ cup of egg mixture into pan; let mixture set, then flip over to set other side.

Remove 1 stuffed chile from oven; place on egg omelet, then wrap omelet around chile. Return finished chile relleno to oven and repeat procedure with other three chiles. 

Prepare ranchero sauce (recipe below), then finish chiles rellenos with ranchero sauce and serve with beans and rice. 

For ranchero sauce

3 medium-sized roma tomatoes
2 teaspoons garlic powder
⅛ teaspoon ground cumin
¼ teaspoon salt
3 tablespoons Knorr chicken-flavored bouillon
3½ cups water
½ cup flour

Quarter tomatoes and place in a blender. Add garlic powder, cumin, and salt. Blend until smooth. In a medium-sized pot, mix water with chicken-flavored bouillon. Add blended tomato mixture, stirring. Heat on medium-high until lightly boiling. Add flour, stirring until blended into liquid. Keep warm until ready to use.

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