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.”
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.