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Thursday, 13 May 2010

I Hate El Charro Cafe

El Charro Cafe isn't just a handful of restaurants around Tucson. Having started in the 1920's, it's an institution. Hating it makes people look at me funny. Like growing up on Long Island and not being a Billy Joel fan. I'm just an outsider.

But hear me out. Why I hate them goes beyond opinion. I have some interesting facts people should know.

My first trip to legendary El Charro was in 2005 with a then-boyfriend. We sat down, looked at the extensive menu, and ordered an appetizer. The teen waiter apologised that they were out of that. Normally, that's all the waiter says, but there is something bizarrely honest about where I live. He continued, "The factory didn't send us enough of those today."

The factory? We asked him to tell us more. And he did.

He explained that most of the food on the menu is made off-site, somewhere, I guess in some big thing this kid wanted to call a factory (whether it is or isn't, I don't know). It's then delivered to each restaurant, and the food is mostly warmed up and presented.

We were not happy. We ate there anyway. We found it mediocre. We swore to never go back. I'm a great cook, and for what restaurants charge, if I want something defrosted or rewarmed, I can stay home and power up the microwave for a lot less money. For a lot less money, I could cook something really fresh and organic.

I have been back to El Charro twice since, both because friends of mine love it, and like to do special nights for groups of friends there. I love those friends, and hope they're reading this. Love you guys! But in that couple, the husband's parents won't eat at El Charro (the Mom is of Mexican descent).

The first time this couple invited me there, I took a menu over to the manager. I opened it up. I asked him to show me what on the menu will be made fresh for me right there. Hmmmm, he had to think. Salads. The salads are put together fresh. And I think he said some of their dishes with chicken. I guess chicken doesn't freeze and unfreeze well or something. I had a mediocre dinner, and wondered why I go there.

I was there last night. I'm paying for it today, but that's another story. Same fantastic friends, husband's grad school graduation. Super proud of him!! I didn't ask a manager for help. I tried to think of how I could have something made fresh for me, right there. El Charro is famous for their carne seca, so I figured I'd try that. But my plan was to CUSTOMISE my order so they'd have to make it fresh.

I ordered a carne seca quesadilla. For those not in the know, a quesadilla is a Mexican equivalent of a grilled cheese. So you get tortillas with melted cheese, and often some sort of other filling. I asked him to add onions. He told me it already has some onions in it. OK, I asked him to ADD pico de gallo to it. Sure, he said.

When dinner came, I knew I was in trouble. The pico de gallo was on TOP. It was not added and melted in with that cheese. The cheese looked melted. The food was colder than room temperature. The middle was refrigerator cold. Imagine serving someone a refrigerator cold grilled cheese. 

It didn't even taste good. It was incredibly bland. Flavourless tortilla, flavourless cheese, flavourless meat, and this really lame pico on top. I ate it anyway. What else should I do, and I didn't want to draw attention to myself for taking one bite of something and totally freaking hating it. My graduate friend sitting next to me asked me how my dinner was. I told him I refused to answer that question. I didn't want to lie, but I didn't want to start yapping about how bad the food is there... or how his chile relleno was probably made yesterday 100 miles away.

So that's it, I'm done with these people (El Charro, not my awesome friends!). I paid a lot of money to eat something crappy that is making me sick today. I'm sorry to people who think their food is amazing, but I will not eat there ever again. If that is where you are holding your party for something, I will have some chips and guacamole, and I won't order anything else. It's just not worth it.

If you are in Tucson and love Mexican food, head over to newly-renamed La Botana at First and Fort Lowell. It's a bit of a hole in the wall, but the food is so incredibly fresh that you will fall in love. The service is friendly and helpful. They're a really sweet family. They hand-make everything including the chips. Their pico is bursting with flavours, their bean dip is spicy. Their shrimp are so plump and fresh-tasting. Everything there is amazing. That's Mexican food to me. Fave combination over there... get something with their shrimp and poblano peppers.

PS: I now have a habit of going to chain restaurants, and asking them what on the menu is made fresh. I did that at NASCAR Cafe in the Sahara on the Vegas strip. The waiter could only find ONE thing on the menu they would make fresh, and I ordered that. Honestly, it seems awkward, but it's a good question to ask.

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Two words: TACO TRUCK.

well, it does seem that most Mexican food in Tucson sucks. Isn't that an oxymoran? We drive past at least 20 (no padding on this count) Mexican restaurants to go to our favorite Las Cazuelitas. Even then it is only good, not fantastic. I will have to try the place you refer to.

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