El Charro

Review by: Jane & Michael Stern

High above the patio in back of restaurant El Charro in Tucson, strips of thin-sliced beef hang in an open metal cage. Suspended on ropes and pulleys, the cage sways in the breeze, wafting a perfume of lemon and garlic marinade into the fresh Arizona air. Carne seca, which is sautéed after it is air-dried, then served in concert with sweet onions, hot chilies, and tomatoes, is one of the not-to-be-missed Tucson taste treats; and of all the restaurants in town that serve it, El Charro has the best.

Opened for business in 1922, this culinary landmark is still operated by the descendants of founder Monica Flin, and still located in its original 1880’s-vintage mission-style home in the Presidio. El Charro’s kitchen uses carne seca as the filling for tacos, burritos, and chimichangas and as the base for one version of Tucson’s unique volcano-shaped Topopo salad. It is a curious contradiction of dry and succulent with a taste best described as meat that has blossomed: glistening mahogany and fairly dripping flavor, rugged but pure pleasure to chew. Once you’ve had it, mere ground beef will never satisfy again.

In addition to interesting good examples of Sonoran Mexican food such as tacos, enchiladas, and chilies rellenos, El Charro offers heritage versions that hark back to the restaurant’s earliest days, such as tacos made with ground beef patties and garnished with peas and radishes, the way Monica Flinn did it 90+ years ago. (It is said that chimichangas were a Monica invention, too.) Also you will find such rarer regional specialties as the enchilada Sonorese (a patty of fried corn meal garnished with chili) and chalupas (small corn meal canoes filled with chile, meat, or chicken and whole beans).

Beyond its wide repertoire of Sonoran Mexican fare, what is most unusual about the kitchen’s repertoire is its insistence on nutritionally enlightened cooking – a rare bent for any Mexican restaurant, but a project that is dear to Carlotta Dunn Flores, grandniece of Monica Flin.

Mrs. Flores is a svelte dynamo who explains, “My dad was Mexican and Irish. He had to have his drink and he had to have his refried beans at every meal.” When her father had a heart attack, doctors prescribed a diet for him that Carlotta recalls as nothing but “boiled, mushy, horrible things, canned asparagus and asparagus water.” Feeling sorry for him, she began to wonder if there wasn’t a better way. That was her inspiration to begin evolving a Mexican cuisine in El Charro’s kitchen that is heart-healthy but every bit as tasty and satisfying as its lard-laden counterpart.

“Now fitness fare is our way of life,” she says. “Even items on the menu that don’t seem like they are diet food are good for you, and you’d never even know it. Chile sauce is made without oil; the almendrado [Mexican custard] is cholesterol-free. I believe it is possible to eat ethnic foods that are part of your culture and that also taste good and are fun to cook. No one ever need be stuck with two lettuce leaves for dinner just because they want to eat low-fat.”

Directions & Hours

11am - 8:30pm
  • Monday: 11:00 AM – 8:30 PM
  • Tuesday: 11:00 AM – 8:30 PM
  • Wednesday: 11:00 AM – 8:30 PM
  • Thursday: 11:00 AM – 8:30 PM
  • Friday: 11:00 AM – 8:30 PM
  • Saturday: 11:00 AM – 8:30 PM
  • Sunday: 11:00 AM – 8:30 PM

What To Eat

Beef Taco

DISH
Tamales

DISH
Carne Seca

DISH
Albondigas Soup

DISH
Cabo Soft Tacos

DISH
Topopo Salad

DISH
Carne Seca

DISH
Chile Relleno

DISH
Original Beef Tacos

DISH
1922 Margarita

DISH

El Charro Recipes

Discuss

What do you think of El Charro?

3 Responses to “El Charro”

bearcuisinenm
Anne Ritchings

September 7th, 2008

Established in 1922 by Monica Flinn, El Charro is a much-loved Tucson institution. On our two visits we sampled several of the mainstays on the menu and we weren’t disappointed by anything we tried.

I ordered the “original” Charro-style taco, which the menu describes as “a legend filled with passion and opinion. 85 years ago, there was only one way to truly make a taco: form a ground beef patty, fold it in a tortilla and fry it in a pan. This is how to do tacos, and if you want a taste of history, give ’em a try.” History never tasted so good!

My dining companion ordered the Cabo soft taco with grilled chicken, which she loved. On our second visit we had the flautas Famosas and the El Charro carne seco and chile relleno. Interestingly, they make their chile rellenos with Anaheim chilies. These don’t have nearly the flavor of the New Mexican green chile, which is exactly the same chile. Apparently, it really does make a difference where the plant is grown. Still, it was a tasty dish, one I would happily order again.

For dessert we shared the pumpkin tamale. What a fantastically rich, decadent dessert.

I would happily return to El Charro.

Reply

Jane & Michael Stern
Steve Godwin

May 6th, 2008

In the old days, El Charro was one of the best places to go in Tucson for Mexican food. But not any more. The Flores family has evidently partnered up with The Metro Restaurant group and sadly, the food has lost a lot of its original flavor and has become much more mainstream American.

On a recent visit, we ordered a topopo – the signature salad – and the waiter asked if we wanted it with raspberry vinaigrette. That may sound just fine to anyone unfamiliar with Tucson cuisine, but for us locals, it’s sacrilege. The salad itself was duded up with all kinds of things that no self-respecting topopo would be wearing, including some little deep-fried crisps that reminded one of the crispy noodles from Chun King chow mein (which were great, mind you — but not here!). The salad tasted OK and the veggies were fresh, but it was more American than Mexican.

El Charro is fine if you’re not looking for a great regional dining experience. But sadly, the new management is trying to make the old restaurant over into a dynasty by watering down the food, opening up more locations and becoming a “brand.” They even have a toll-free number and sell space in their menus to advertisers.

There are so many better and cheaper Mexican restaurants in Tucson. Try El Torero, El Minuto, Casa Molina, or El Guero Canelo. For more upscale dining, you simply can’t beat Cafe Poca Cosa.

Reply

Jane & Michael Stern
Roxie Kellam

January 13th, 2004

We found this restaurant to be highly over rated. The service was indifferent, the food ordinary and way too expensive for it’s ordinary quality. This was by far the most expensive Mexican meal that we had – and not worth it. Perhaps it was once great but it resting on its laurels. One of the dishes was so salty that it approached in-edibility. The chips were ok – thin and salty (kind of par for chips) and the salsa was tasty. The drinks are expensive for Tucson.

We had Carne Seca Topopo and the Three Mole Enchaladas. The Topopo was ok – a bit salty (perhaps to be expected for carne seca). The topopo presentation was fun – a volcano! Best were the carrot, avocado, jicama around the volcano of chopped lettuce with chipotle dressing (ok – could have been tastier – more “dressing” than chipotle flavor)and carne seca. Not appreciated were the batons of boring yellow cheese.

The Three Mole Encaladas – were highly salty, boring sauces (hard to find the flavor with so much salt). Best was the chicken and mole and machaca and enchalada sauce – really bad was the seafood and ??? sauce (was THAT supposed to be garlic – couldn’t tell – something white and gloppy). Cheese and seafood does not go together!!!!!! Well, maybe some white crumbly Mexican cheese but certainly not yellow boring cheese. Speaking of cheese – sooooo much of it – all over the enchaladas – what are you trying to hide??).

In general the food seemed to lack distinctive flavors – muddled would best describe the flavors. (did I mention that the food was oversalted – including the chips!).

The margaritas were ok – not my style (I’m a lime and tequila type – no sweet and sour) – but expensive $7.

The service was indifferent. Not that we waited for the food – we didn’t. In fact we were seated right away and got drinks and ordered right away. But it wasn’t welcoming. Seemed like UA students – who really aren’t interested in the food or making your experience enjoyable.

We would not go back. There are so many better Mexican restaurants in Tucson – better food and less expensive.

Reply

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