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Restaurant Reviews - Nov 2003

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El Charro                                                 

It is well known that the El Charro Cafe, located in downtown Tucson's El Presidio neighborhood, has been a mainstay of Tucson restaurants for as far back as most of us can remember. In fact, a little research by the staff quickly revealed that the business has actually been owned by the same family since the 1880's, which is certainly some sort of record. Apparently relatives of the French émigrés who started the whole thing still operate it from the converted house (pictured) at 311 N. Court Ave, which was built by their stonemason great grandfather in 1890. 

That's right we said French. 

Anyway, the site has since been deemed a historic building and the purveyors continue to serve fine Mexican food in a quaint if crowded atmosphere. El Charro, along with Mi Nidito and El Menuto, is always one of the places you take visitors from out of town when you want to show them a unique Tucson time and treat them to some delicious southwestern fare. The downtown El Charro also offers a lovely courtyard with a small Bajaesque cantina in the back which has been a great place to hunker down in a dark corner and sip a margarita on a sweltering afternoon or huddle around a chiminea with a spiced wine on a chilly evening. As we mentioned, the restaurant always seems to be quite crowded however, which while being a testimony to the food's quality, often deterred us from paying them a visit. So when we heard they had opened a new store on the east side (that also happened to be offering ten to one airline miles per dollar spent) we hoped that it would be a little less hectic and decided to drop by one Tuesday evening and check them out.

The newest El Charro is in the El Mercado shopping center on the corner of Broadway and Wilmot in a space that seems like it has housed numerous forgettable restaurants over the years. We vaguely remember visiting some of them but can't remember what they were called or even what kind of food they served which effectively supports our statement. One of them may have been some sort of oyster bar. In any event, we noticed as we wandered around looking for the entrance, that outside seating is available at the new El Charro and although it was closed on this night, it wasn't hard to ascertain that it was a far cry in ambiance from it's downtown counterpart. We know this because it is located just off the parking lot next to a busy, belching intersection and skirted by iron bars instead of protective, vine covered adobe. It was too cold to sit outside on this night however and once we had finally located the door and were waiting to be seated at an inside table, we appreciated the colorful decor and pungent aromas that seemed to have made the trip over from the original location. We were buoyed as well by the fact that, although the place seemed to be bustling and alive, there appeared to be plenty of seats still available. We followed our hostess into a dimly lit corner and took a chair. 

Unfortunately, and as seems to be becoming a theme in this space, we quickly realized we were uncomfortable. It was unnaturally warm for one thing and despite plenty of other options, we had been inexplicably seated at a table that couldn't have been more than two feet square on it's surface and in chairs that seemed about half the depth of normal. Tilted forward at a table crowded with condimentia and not big enough to put one's elbows on not to mention crammed into a corner behind two other four tops that had been empty when we passed them but, once filled, left one of us bumped on two sides by the elbows and chair backs of other squirming diners, we grew increasingly pessimistic about the evening's promise. A waitress who proved perky beyond what the circumstances might warrant, had wedged her way over to promptly take a drink order and deliver the standard complimentary chips and salsa which she informed us were "so awesome that I usually eat two or three baskets before dinner myself". The salsa, when sampled, proved adequate and the chips, while not exactly awe inspiring, were sufficient to whet the appetite. We ordered a draft pint of Tecate for four dollars (the same price it seems like we paid for a case of the stuff in Puerto Penasco not so long ago) which arrived sloshed and three quarters full and some ice tea that was deemed "not good."

The fish tacos however were excellent. The menu offered as a new item "three Bahia tacos with grilled white fish" for 9.95 but it was actually six plump tacos in those half size flour tortillas smothered with the Bahia sauce itself and other fillings that made for a delicious wrap. The beef fajitas were also sampled which came with ample sides of beans and rice and a large shell full of a dip like substance that was no doubt concocted from last night's enchiladas but that was quite good all the same. All of the food was tastefully spiced and amply portioned which of course made for quite a challenge given the postage stamp quality of the eating surface. If our sprightly waitress had not been so efficient at clearing away unneeded crockery and condiments, much of our food may have ended up on the floor but we made it through the meal without major mishap and even managed to sample a house margarita or two which tasted fine and enjoy a refill on tea which somehow now had a fruity and much improved quality. 

We left feeling gustatorially satisfied and we wish we could say that the experience overall was a positive one because of the high quality coming out of the kitchen and because, when writing about restaurants, it seems like it should be mostly about the food. Due however almost entirely to the pack-em in situation, we won't be returning to the new El Charro. As everybody knows, there are multiple options for good Mexican food in this town (including the other El Charro) and there is no reason to put up with overly touristy service and ridiculously cramped conditions to get it unless you are also going to have some kind of authentic experience. It's just not worth it. Even a place like Chuy's, for example, has adequate food and most of the locations offer plenty of room to relax and a self serve environment that is worlds more appealing in comparison. To be clear however it wasn't that the El Charro staff that we dealt with was unpleasant in any way and in fact was uniformly youthful, attractive and upbeat so if you're the type of person that likes that kind of rehearsed syrupy repartee and bubbly banter, and don't mind being shoe horned in to receive it, then you'll probably love the place. 

On the drive home we were trying to figure out what the people who did the floor plan were thinking and speculated that perhaps the decorators of the new store figured that since they were doing so well in cramped conditions at the original locale then why not put the same number of seats per square foot in the new place and try to keep the formula working. The difference is of course that there is no charm or history to accompany a dry-walled space in a strip mall which, no matter how tastefully decorated it feels on the inside, is obviously not far removed from the adjacent hair salon and smoothie hut. It seems to us that space is relatively cheap in Tucson and while it's one thing to cram people into a charming stone building built at the turn of the century, it's quite another to ask them to sit smashed against a wall in a sweltering ..... well enough said. Suffice it to say in summation that if you plan ahead and remember to tell the hostess that you are expecting double the amount of people in your party than you actually are and feel in the mood to jostle with adjoining tables and exchange giggly platitudes with a staff brimming with enthusiasm, by all means head to the newer El Charro and enjoy some excellent southwestern cuisine. If not, then one of the forty or fifty other options in town might prove more to your liking.

El Charro Cafe
6310 E. Broadway Blvd.
in El Mercado Plaza
(520) 745-1922
www.elcharrocafe.com

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