Sunday, January 17, 2010

Hunger Makes the Wolf Leave His Cave*

“The El Charro** Cafe story began with Jules Flin, a young Frenchman and master stones man. Shortly after arriving in Tucson in the 1860's, Flin found himself toiling with chisel and hammer under ceaseless desert sun. He had been hired to create the stone façade for Tucson's San Augustine Church. (The façade still exists - now it graces the entrance of the Arizona Historical Society in Tucson.)

In the late 1890's, Flin built a sturdy home on Court Street, part of the exclusive residential section of Tucson known as Snob Hollow. The house was willed to his daughter Monica and is the fourth and present site of El Charro Café. The high-ceilinged house is made of the black volcanic basalt rock that characterized most of Flin's buildings.

It was Monica who began El Charro Café. The culinary skills she learned in childhood were to afford her a high-profile life as one of Tucson's first businesswomen from the day she opened El Charro Café in 1922. As a young woman, Monica had married and lived in Mexico. When her second husband died, she returned home to Tucson. Borrowing money from a sister, she opened a narrow, one-room restaurant and named it El Charro Café, after the romantic "gentlemen horsemen" known as los charros of Mexico.

In those early days, Monica worked on short-term credit. Very short-term. When a customer arrived, she would dash out the back door and cajole the neighboring Chinese grocer into giving her the provisions she needed. Then she would rush back to her kitchen, prepare the meal, serve it, collect the customer's money and return to the grocer to pay her bill. Somewhere there must have been a profit. Early menus from the 1920s show combination plates costing fifteen cents and a line that reads, "No service for less than 10 cents."

In 1968, Monica moved El Charro to the old family home on Court Street she had inherited, where it stands today. She brought with her the curios, tables and chairs, Mexican picture calendars, murals and saints' pictures (which make up most of our décor today), and most of her employees. She also brought along her father's rifles, which he had used to protect his family against Apaches, and mounted them above the new entrance.” (Excerpts from the café’s web site.)

We learned of El Charro Café through Jane and Michael Stern’s book, Roadfood, and one noon found ourselves in the Presidio area and in need of nourishment. What better time to find out whether the Sterns’ rave review was accurate?

Since the restaurant formerly served as a residence, seating was in a series of small rooms and we were shown to a table in a room that probably held around twenty-five diners. Old hats decorated the walls and ceilings along with a number of paintings of charros – usually accompanied by a beautiful woman.

In one corner, a harp-like instrument hung from the ceiling--over a pleasant-sounding table of four.

We were soon served a basket of house made tortilla chips – still warm – with a red Salsa Picante made with fresh ground Chiletepin (bird’s eye chilies) and a tangy Tomatillo Salsa Verde made with just the right amount of jalapeño.

El Charro Café is known for its carne seca (air-dried beef strips that are rehydrated for serving) that is marinated in lemon and garlic prior to drying. I was going to order the #5 Numero Cinco combo plate—El Charro Carne Seca and a Chile Relleno with rice (arroz) and refried beans (frijoles refritos) and flour or corn tortillas. But then I spied the Chiles Rellenos stuffed with carne seca and served with arroz and frijoles refritos. What could be better?

El Charro isn’t just famous for its carne seca but is also famous for being the birthplace of the chimichanga. While frying her now famous El Charro ground beef tacos, Monica accidentally dropped a burro (burrito) into the frying pan. When the oil splashed up, she was about to lash out with a common Spanish cuss word starting with “Ch.” Because she was with her young nieces and nephews, she changed it to “Chimichanga,” the equivalent of “thingamajig.” USA Today named El Charro Café “The Home of The Chimichanga” and the Carne Seca Chimichanga as one of “The 50 Best Plates in America.” Chuck was tempted by the “USA Chimi with All The Works” - guacamole, pico de charro, sour cream, red and green enchilada sauce, four cheese blend, and arroz y frijoles. Instead, we decided to return some day and share this entrée.

Then he considered the taco platter, but finally settled on the steak tenderloin Half Pound Fajitas El Charro with guacamole, pico de charro salsa, crema, arroz, frijoles refritos, and flour or corn tortillas.

I am never too thrilled with the sides (rice and beans) served at most Mexican restaurants, but El Charro’s was an exception. The rice itself had been seasoned and had a reddish-yellow color and was mixed with peas and carrots. And no sticky clumpy rice here. Each grain separated from the whole. And I usually prefer the mix of puree and whole beans in my frijoles refritos, but this smooth puree was so good that Chuck only was able to scavenge a few forkfuls from my plate.

His fajitas were outstanding. In addition to the typical grilled onions and green peppers, the mélange included grilled al dente green beans, scallions, and orange bell peppers. What made this dish especially spectacular was the way that the marinade formed an intensely flavored crust on many of the steak strips resulting in a little crunch and a depth flavor we have never encountered in this dish.

My chili relleno was no less spectacular. The green chili was medium hot with a thin “eggy” coating and was topped lightly with a rich cheese. It was the carne seca that made this entrée special. When the dried and marinated steak strips were cooked, about ninety-five percent of the meat was softened. The other five percent retained some of the chewier texture and with it a more intense lemon and garlic flavor. This was a new taste experience for me, and one that I enjoyed down to the last mouthful.

I have no idea how authentic the food at El Charro is and noticed that the vast majority of the diners were Anglos like Chuck and I. But I would give El Charro 5.0 Addies, with the hope that we have time for a return visit.

* Monica Flin, remembered this as one of her father's favorite sayings.
** Charro is a term referring to a traditional horseman or buckaroo from Mexico, originating in the regions of what is Northern Mexico. The traditional Mexican charro is known for colorful clothing and participating in coleadero y charreada, a specific type of Mexican rodeo that is the national sport in Mexico.

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