If I'm writing about a place or a person, my goal is to never make the blog about me. Like, at all.
In this intro though...I'm gonna make it a bit about me for a sec. If you don't mind. I'll keep it brief. I promise.
This article should have been written months ago. Months. But I only just recently got to it knowing that I wanted to do my part in showcasing the amazing efforts of the Flores family, who own the series of Charro restaurants across Arizona: El Charro, Charro Steak, Charro Del Rey and now Charro Vida, which is a plant focused concept that opened up earlier this year to wide yielding success. When you see the pics I took you can easily see why this place became nearly immediately embraced. The food, as with all the other Charro spots, is inventive and delicious.
I sat with executive chef Gary Hickey about a week or two after it opened. He was so generous with providing me with at least half a dozen dishes that I could photograph and eat. This is the same guy that gave me his bike which, recently, got stolen from our yard one night. Gary is a force to be reckoned with in the Tucson culinary enclave and I am proud to call him a friend.
(here is where I gab about me for a bit)
But this year has been very hard for me. Not as bad as 2014 where my wife and I lost five family members in a matter of a few months, but more personally, and financially, problematic.
As you may or may not know, I was basically forced out of my library day job in February and have had minimal to zero success in finding another job since. Of course I still have the Tucson Weekly, and I did drive a truck for a few months for Ace Hardware, but nothing else has come through concrete. Wrestling with a chemical imbalance my whole life, there were days, weeks, where I really wasn't doing too well. I'd struggle through to turn in an article for the Weekly and then give up writing, among other things, all together after for a bit. When I'd perk up I'd blog or contribute to some writing projects that I have going on but...not really. The book I started should have been done already. I'd just sit and stare at the glowing laptop screen, type a word or two, give up and watch something on Netflix or go back to bed.
Just recently I interviewed for two jobs I thought I had in the bag but both came up negative. I can only take that as a sign as "Shut up Whittaker...and get back to writing!"
So I am done feeling sorry for myself and wallowing in self pity and now all I wanna do it chat about my friend's amazing new restaurant and the contributions they continue to proliferate in our community.
Shall we get on with it?
I say we shall...
It was an absolutely beautiful early spring day when I was invited to come hang out with Gary and Charro Vida owners Ray and Carlotta Flores. The Flores' were busy with a company meeting so Gary served as sole narrator. As we sat outside enjoying the cool breeze before its quick leap into summer jet engine blast furnace, we chatted as servers brought out plate after plate of colorful still life edible performances.
"El Charro's original owner, Monica Flin, migrated to Tucson from France to help build the rose window for Saint Augustine Cathedral," Gary said. "She opened El Charro in nineteen twenty two. The name comes from farmers and ranchers from Salamanca Spain. Charro means cowboy really. Campo Charro is one of the eleven regions in Salamanca and was the inspiration for the restaurant and the food they served. Still is."
El Charro, as you already know, is famous for introducing the world to the chimichanga, which is a deep fried burrito. According to legend, Monica Flin accidentally dropped a burrito in a fryer and was about to yell out "CHINGADA!" or 'fxxk!'. Instead she stopped mid 'chi' and finished it with 'changa' which loosely translated means 'thingamajig'.
The origin of the chimichanga is still being debated today but us Tucson locals know the real truth. It was Monica Flin at the original location of El Charro.
C'mon world. You know this.
|Just a heap pile of yum|
The Flores family took over El Charro in the 1970's as Carlotta is the great grand niece of Monica Flin. Since then, the Flores' have expanded their culinary empire with a steak concept (Charro Steak), a seafood spot (Charro Del Rey) right next door to it on Broadway Ave. in downtown Tucson.
Now we are lucky to have Charro Vida, a well thought out healthy option concept that starts with the essentials such as local produce and choice fats such as olive and rice bran oils along with avocado butter and take it from there. They source their proteins locally, use gluten free grains and separate their fryers, filled with trans fat free oils, to maintain a gluten free cooking environment. Their sea salt comes directly from the Sea of Cortez and use hemp in their line of Hola Hemp tamales.
"When we sat down and planned the menu, we had no idea there was an actual connection between Mediterranean and Mexican diets," Hickey explains. "We have diabetics coming in on a regular basis because they can eat foods that don't involve high fructose corn syrup, because we use stevia and agave instead. Our mole is nut free and we offer fried plantains instead of corn based chips because of certain allergies. Everything on our menu went through countless hours of approach and trial. In the end we are very proud of what we serve here."
As with the other Charro restaurants, you can taste the dedication in each bite. Clean yet very robust flavors overtake in the greatest way possible. The Ahi Tuna Stack nearly reeked of the ocean and was cut with citrus notes, spice from jalapenos and chile harrisa along with crunch from sesame seeds and plantains. The Mesquite Asparagus dish could easily turn any meat monger vegetarian for a spell. A simple notion turned complex by grilling the asparagus with lemon followed by an elderberry reduction, spiced pepitas then topped with Tucson based goat cheese. Absolutely stunning.
Another standout was the Salmon de la Costa, a whimsy of color and olfactory sensation brimming with charred Brussels sprouts, house cured hummus, smoky paprika and a light chimichurri featuring toothsome pepitas.
All of it, so good.
|Stack it up!|
The design and logo for Charro Vida was a deeply conceptualized as well. You can see it above in my banner shot at the top.
"It derived from the buttons the Charros made and wore," Gary informs. "They were these intricate buttons they wore on their jackets or as a necklace, passed down from generations. The Charro Vida logo has twelve dots and hints of hearts which mimic the rose window. In the center is the agave plant which is one of the most resilient plants out there. They survive in the desert for years, you can make clothes out of it, and best of all, tequila is derived from the agave. The whole design pays homage to Monica and Jules Flin and the jewelry worn by the Campo Charros. So there is a rich history with everything you see, and eat, here at Charro Vida."
And its exactly that well thought out pulchritude that makes the Flores family and chefs such as Gary Hickey a Tucson treasure. You aren't just eating delicious food here, you're taking in a multitude of traditions and memory, all done with care and a forward thinking, intelligent means to the cuisine. Charro Vida is the kind of joint where your fussy vegan friends can find culinary solace, along with that carnivorous lot that is hesitant to try anything "new" or "interesting" because the short ribs and carne asada here are insanely good.
As we sat and talked, while I ate and took pictures, Gary told me he is working on a dessert menu with his pastry chef.
"He made these gluten and dairy free churros that were out of this world," beams Hickey. "They are really difficult to make so we are working it all out trying to make it work. We had the daughter of a friend try one because due to several allergies she has never had a real churro. She took a bite and told us that it was the best churro she ever had. We all laughed because it was her first. Its because of people like her and moments like that makes us do what we do. Which is to make people happy."
I know I'm always happy when I'm in any of the various Charro restaurants. Charro Vida is a near revelation though. With this blog I can give you an idea what you are in store for when you visit. It's best to just get out and get in there.
You'll be happy that you did.
A big thank you to Carlotta, Ray and Sasha Flores for continuing letting me stop by, take pics, hang out and eat your amazing food. You kids rule.
And cheers to my buddy Gary Hickey for carrying out the Flores' vision and for being a culinary badass. Sorry those stupid ass monkeys stole the bike you gave me. It was fun up till then!
Apologies to everyone for not posting this much, much earlier. Now that summer is over and the Halloween decorations are up I'm easing my way out of a months long, introspective man-baby slump. I tend to forget how fun and distracting writing is. Especially when its about good friends and good food such as this.
Oh yeah, and Charro Vida has a full bar. The house margarita is flippin' off the wall. Trust me here.
Camera, Typing and Feeling Honored
"Metal" Mark Whittaker
As Autumn Begins, 2019