Tucson’s El Charro Café: Art and Eats

laughing skeleton, El Charro Cafe, image

A cigar-chomping skeleton greets visitors at El Charro. | Anne Burke

Road Journals Blog—You can hardly toss a tortilla in Tucson, Ariz., without hitting a really terrific Mexican restaurant. One of the best is El Charro Café, owned and operated by three generations of the Flores family since 1922.

To call El Charro a restaurant sells it short. This locals’s favorite is as much a gallery of Mexican folk art as it is a food destination.

Under soaring ceilings, a warren of cozy rooms have walls painted gaily in orange, lavender, and lime, and crowded with metallic crosses, vintage vaquero sombreros, and paintings of the saints.

A Day of the Dead skeleton wearing a top hat and chomping on a cigar laughs off el muerte and all that might hasten it: “Another pitcher of margaritas? It’s not going to kill you!” Our Lady of Guadalupe, eyes cast down, presses her palms together, as if to pray that you enjoy your trio of hot steaming tamales. Her entreaty is thoroughly unnecessary; this Mexican comfort food is delicious.

When the weather is nice, ask for a table in the patio, under the big acacia tree and the strings of Mexican beer flags. The centerpiece is a fountain cleverly decorated with sombreros of oxidized copper and surrounded by tables with colorful, oilcloth coverings.

dish of three tamales at El Charro Cafe, image

Order the trio of tasty tamales at El Charro. | Anne Burke

El Charro is well-known for its carne seca, the marinated, dried beef that is a classic of Sonoran-style cuisine.

In the old days, owner Monica Flin would dry her beef strips on a clothesline in a storage shed. Today, write authors Jane and Michael Stern in “The El Charro Café Cookbook,” Flin’s grandniece, Carlotta Flores, puts her beef in a metal mesh cage that is suspended high above the patio to take advantage of the hot desert sun. The thoroughly dried meat is then shredded and flash-grilled with green chile, tomato and onions.

El Charro has expanded to several locations, but first-timers should start with the flagship restaurant in the El Presidio Historic District downtown.

What's your favorite Mexican restaurant?

This blog post was first published in April 2012. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.

Comments

My favorite in Tucson is Cafe Poca Cosa. I live in Portland and travel to Tucson once a year. I would feel cheated if I missed out on a meal there during my visit. This is my favorite restaurant anywhere. I'm not even sure there is a close second.