Mexican restaurant in Tucson, but if you Google “best carne seca in Tucson, the name of El Charro appears. And just as I have never seen carne adovado outside of New Mexico, I have never found carne seca outside of the Tucson area.
“Carne seca translates literally to ‘dried meat’. A Sonoran dish indigenous to the Tucson area, it’s generally air-dried, shredded beef ‘jerky’ that has been reconstituted (by adding some sort of liquid base) and prepared in some fashion. There are a few restaurants in the area known for their carne seca, probably most famously El Charro, which purportedly dries their carne seca on the roof at their downtown location, utilizing the punishing Arizona sun to their advantage” (guiltycarnivore.com).
And, in addition to its famed carne seca, El Charro is considered by many to be the birthplace of the chimichanga. Quoting whatscookingamerica.net: “Culinary historians argue about exactly where chimichangas were invented… The strongest claim comes from the El Charro Cafe, the oldest Mexican restaurant in Tucson. Family legend says that Monica Flin, who started the restaurant in 1922, cussed in the kitchen when a burrito flipped into the deep fryer. Because young nieces and nephews were in the kitchen with her, she changed the swear word to ‘chimichanga,’ the Spanish equivalent of ‘thingamagig.’”
El Charro resides in an old house in the historic El Presidio district. You eat in one of multiple small rooms, the largest of which hold about forty diners. The walls are decorated with ironwork and old battered sombreros. (El Charro means “the cowboy.”)
As we walked through one dining room to reach our table, we both noticed diners eating something that resembled pizza. These were El Charro’s cheesecrisps, a menu item I have only seen a few other places (Rock Springs Café in Black Canyon, AZ and Casa de Pico in La Mesa, CA). Well, it wasn’t long until we were munching on the Grilled Green Chile Cheesecrisp--a large flour tortilla forming the crust and topped with cheese and green chiles. The baked tortilla took on the taste and appearance of a cracker-style pizza crust. As good as this was on its own, it was only enhanced by a few dollops of El Charros award-winning Salsa Picante, made with fresh ground Chiletepin (“…a wild chile pepper that grows in parts of Mexico, Arizona, Texas, and New Mexico. It is sometimes called the ‘mother of all peppers,’ because it is thought to be the oldest form in the Capsicum annuum species” [www.eatmorechiles.com]).
We both ordered from the smaller portion lunch menu. Chuck chose the Original “Charro Style” Beef Taco which is described on the menu: “In 1922, when our Great Tia Mónica opened her beloved El Charro Café, there was only one way to truly make a taco: form a ground beef patty, fold it in a tortilla & fry it in a pan. She then topped her delicacy off with fresh greens, peas, radishes, and tomato salsa, just as we still do today!” While I didn’t see any peas or radishes, the crisp corn tortillas did hold ground beef patties. Chuck enjoyed them, but these days I prefer carne asada (Yes, another one of “carne” foods) to ground beef.
The lunch menu had two carne seca choices—a carne seca plate (just the meat) or a carne seca burrito. My choice was the burrito with green enchilada sauce. While the dried beef is reconstituted with liquid, it never reaches the tenderness of, for example, a braised roast. There remains a slightly chewy texture, and if you are lucky, you may encounter a bite or two where the meat more resembles jerky. Some love that. Others don’t. Count me among the former. Also, before drying, the meat is frequently marinated in some form of acid (lime or lemon juice or vinegar) and the finished product still retains a slight tang.
Both of our plates came with seasoned rice containing peas and carrots and refried beans. Both were good, but not remarkable.
El Charro probably isn’t the best Mexican food we have eaten but is one of the few places where I can find carne seca. Still, we probably can’t rate this restaurant any higher than 3.5 Addies.
Before leaving Tucson, we had time for one last visit to the Visitors' Center.
"Is there any attraction that visitors miss while touring the city?" I asked the staff person.
"El Tiradito Shrine" was her quick response,
"the only shrine on the National Register of Historic Places dedicated to a sinner."
With that addendum, we knew we had to visit El Tiradito, "The Castaway," just a couple of blocks from the Convention Center and La Placita Village, home of the Visitors' Center.
There are many stories surrounding El Tiradito. According to the Tucson-Pima Historical Commis-sion, the most popular one dates to the 1870s and involves a gambler who fell in love with the wife of another man. When the woman’s husband found out, he shot the gambler. Reportedly, the people of the community liked the gambler much more than the husband, so they built the shrine to honor his memory.
El Tiradito is also called The Wishing Shrine. Many people believe that if you light a candle and it is still burning the next day, your wish will come true. Visitors also place prayers and letters to lost love ones in cracks and spaces between the bricks in the back wall. Many prayers ask to find one's true love or for broken hearts to be healed.
But the story of how El Tiradito saved Barrio Viejo from being demolished is perhaps more interesting.
The Butterfield Express would have been an east-west expressway through Tucson. The construction was to start after the 1960s Urban Renewal project, which had already destroyed all of the barrios north of Cushing Street to make room for the Tucson Convention Center and La Placita.
To stop this, citizens of the barrio and two other surrounding neighborhoods threatened by the construction formed the El Tiradito Foundation.
El Tiradito Foundation lobbied for the shrine to be placed on the National Register of Historic Places. They knew once the shrine made it on the register, it would be nearly impossible to demolish because of its national recognition.
Saving a neighbor-hood must have been a wish of many residents of the community. (Trista Davis, Indepen-diente, 10/23/11)
(To review the role of Adler, Kitty Humbug, and the Addie rating system, read the November 14, 2011 blog.)