Sunday, July 31, 2016
Flavors of Tucson
Whenever I travel to Tucson, there is one place that I always visit. Even if I'm just passing through on my way to somewhere else, I can't resist the pull of this place. It's El Carro Cafe in the historic downtown location. Ever since I first discovered the place, it keeps calling me back.
El Charro Cafe is America's oldest family operated Mexican Restaurant. The restaurant began in 1922 when Monica Flin set into motion a plan to succeed in her home town of Tucson. She was at a bit of low point in her life after her first husband left her and her second husband passed away. It was very hard in the beginning. She operated on what her family calls "very short-term credit". When a customer arrived, she ran next door to the market to get what she needed, ran back and prepared the food, served it and collected her fee and then ran next door to pay the grocer. Back then, dinner only cost fifteen cents.
Her reputation for good food became quickly known and the restaurant started to prosper. The family today describes Monica as a larger than life, even flamboyant figure who wore stylish hats and was accompanied by her pet parrot when she greeted guests. The location of the restaurant changed three times before settling into the old family home that was built by her father just outside of the Spanish Presidio which is located in the downtown area of present-day Tucson.
When Monica retired, she turned the restaurant over to her niece Zarina and Zarina's daughter Carlotta and husband Ray Flores began to operate the restaurant. After Carlotta's father suffered a heart attack and was put on low-fat diet, Carlotta re-worked the family recipes to make everything they serve more heart-healthy while still keeping the strong flavors of its ethnic heritage.
The inside of the restaurant is decorated with a collection of Mexican art and artifacts. And you can tell you are in a historic building from the small dining rooms to the way the floors creak a bit when you walk across the room.
If it's a fine spring or fall day when I visit, I might sit on the patio of Toma, the Mexican-style canteen that is next door to the main restaurant. Toma means "drink" in Spanish and although I've never been to this part of the restaurant in the evenings, I hear it is a very popular place for margaritas and live music!
If I sit on this patio, I can even see the mesh cage where the beef is dried for the restaurants most famous dish, Carne Seca.
The huge strips of beef are marinated in citrus juice, than dried in the hot Arizona sun then shredded and recooked with chilies, tomatoes and onions.
I can assure you, it is delicious. In fact, I rarely get anything else when I'm there and I even manage to bring some home with me so I can make some carne seca tacos at home.
The food is incredibly good and the atmosphere is as historic as it is welcoming. It is a place not to be missed whether staying in Tucson or just passing through.
Just writing this post has made me crave some carne seca. I'll have to schedule a trip to Tucson sometime very soon.