Cher. Prince. Charo. Elmo. Fabio. All single-monikered phenoms who were so busy making it big performing, getting tickled and flailing their man hair they couldn’t be bothered with a last name. We couldn’t have imagined them with one, anyway.
Vegas has its own A-list of mono-namers, and one of its finest is a homeboy from 28th street Downtown—back when the “d” in Downtown was lowercase, when he says in his sing-songy voice that his neighborhood was “ghet-toe!” He goes by Mingo (last name is Collaso, for you traditionalists). He’s savvy and sassy. His message is that none of you people should be thinking his 32-year-old ass got anything handed to him on his rise to the culinary, entrepreneurial top of the “D”owntown heap. He’s worked for all he’s got (at the side of uncle and business partner George Harris, and chef Roberto Solano). And judging by the success of his restaurants Mundo and Mingo Kitchen & Lounge, the one-name thing is working just fine.
“People think I’m only successful because George gave me things … especially older people,” he scoffs (though deep down you can tell he’s serious). “He never gave me crap. I actually worked for this.”
If Collaso seems a little saucy, he is … and isn’t. In person he’s demonstratively excitable about what pisses him off, like people who take themselves too seriously and poser cities (which, before its Downtown resurgence, he thought Vegas was). But beneath his almost cartoonishly hip exterior—angular glasses and sculpted near-black hair that shines bright from its emerald lowlights—is a humble local. He’s unashamed to admit he grew up poor, he voluntarily coaches students in middle school on what it takes to be successful, and he worked countless jobs to become arguably Las Vegas’ most well-known restaurateur of Latin-American cuisine.
Food was never Collaso’s thing but running businesses was. After working at The Forum Shops at Caesars in high school, a job bounced him to Seattle for a hot Vegas minute before he returned a year later for a run of Strip-centric work, as Hard Rock Hotel manager and Body English promoter. From 2007-09 he and Harris were partners at La Madonna, which sprouted legions of fans for chef and third partner Solano’s inventive mash-ups of old-world Mexican and new American. When the trio had a chance to open Mundo at World Market Center, they jumped at the chance because they knew Downtown was a-changin’.
“We were scared! People still think World Market is closed to the public,” he says. “We would just walk around all day with chips and salsa [to neighboring offices] and say, ‘Hey! We have valet.’ ”
A better lure there may not be. But to keep new clients and concepts rolling in (Mingo Kitchen & Lounge opened this summer), the group depends mostly on one another for introducing peeps to their establishments: Harris is good for the pols and businessmen, and Solano snags anyone with a heartbeat who appreciates outstanding food. Collaso? “Vegas places fail because they don’t have a clear vision of who their market is,” he says. “I try to stay focused on 25-40 young professionals from Downtown … the cool, hip people demographic.”
There are exceptions. “Sometimes I get outside the demographic, and I welcome everyone, but when I have one of those grouchy-ass people …” he says, voice trailing in annoyance.
From the interiors to the logos, Collaso designed his restaurants with his audience in mind. Mundo’s a softer sell with its Moorish, old-world romance. But Mingo is early vampire: no windows, all black and some sparkle here and there. And though it’s a giggle-inducer, some might see Mingo’s menu as scandalous. A social media maven, Collaso uses “colorful” hashtags to holla out the deep-fried Oreo (#fatkid), the Kanye burger (#ImmaLetUFinish) and the grilled mahi mahi taco (#eatmytaco).
“You know I’m gay,” he says, playfully pointing to the taco hashtag, “and we have a lot of gay and lesbian references.”
Yeah, those grouchy-assers might be put off by Collaso’s playfulness. But damn, is it worth missing the Oreos?
This story originally appeared in the latest issue of Vegas/Rated, available here.