Even at night you can see the carne seca drying in wire cages above the roof at El Charro Café.
Carlotta Flores, the restaurant’s owner and executive chef, insists on it: Each batch of the shredded beef, marinated in a bath of garlic and lemon, must undergo the ritual drying-out, in sunlight by day and in starlight by night.
That’s the way El Charro’s carne seca has been prepared ever since 1922, when the legendary Monica Flin—or Tía Monica, as Flores calls her—founded the restaurant.
“My aunt had drying places for her carne seca, in the back of her old building on Broadway,” Flores says. “As I child I would see it.” And when Flores took over her aunt’s business in 1971, she made sure the tradition continued. “We hang it in the wire cages for 24 to 48 hours.”
Flores’s husband, Raymond, has a different explanation for the custom. The garlic, he says, keeps bad spirits away from the meat.For years, neighbors of the Mexican restaurant in the historic El Presidio neighborhood downtown have rhapsodized about the aroma emanating from the rooftop. And customers likewise rave about the finished dish, which Gourmet magazine once praised as a taste explosion. After the meat’s brought back inside, it’s grilled with green chile, tomato, and onions and served up with guacamole, salsa, calabacitas, rice, and beans.
“People love it,” Carlotta declares. “Some things will always be on the menu. Beef tacos, enchiladas Sonorenses—and carne seca.”
Tucsonans have been flocking to El Charro for those traditional tastes for almost 95 years.
On a warm night last autumn, in a dark corner of downtown, a swarm of hungry diners lined up outside the historic house on 311 N. Court Ave., waiting to get a seat at Tucson’s best-known Mexican restaurant. El Charro is blocks away from the restaurant renaissance on Congress, but it lights up an entire city street. The main Café, ornamented with Mexican hats and calendars and paintings, is in the old Flin family home, a rambling bungalow dating to 1900. An adjoining row of Sonoran adobes house the bar Toma and a charming interior patio.
The hungry customers on the sidewalk chatted convivially as they waited for their shot at Tia’s Topopo Salad (greens enhanced with grilled shrimp or carne seca) or Carlotta’s Reynosa Chicken (grilled breast with cremosa chipotle).
Suddenly Carlotta herself turned up to greet her guests. Dressed in a bright yellow cooking coat, and with her hair hygienically tucked inside a sparkly ball cap, she looked every inch a chef.
“She’s the cooker,” her admiring husband says. “That’s what our kids used to call her.”
Flores, age 70, is the cooker and a lot more in the expanding El Charro empire, where she commands a small army of 500 workers. The latest venture, Charro Steak, is a glamorous downtown steakhouse with a decidedly Mexican twist. Sir Veza’s Taco Garage, a gastropub outside the Tucson Mall, has plenty of TVs and a hybrid menu. Think beer and tequila, burgers with guacamole, and pizza Mexican-style.
Hecho en Vegas, in the distant gambling capital, is a partnership with the MGM hotel and casino. Closer to home are restaurants in Oro Valley and the Tucson Foothills, and a café in Sahuarita. Phoenix’s Sky Harbor Airport has a quick-grab Sir Veza’s, and before long El Charro plans a triumphant return to Tucson International Airport. Then there’s the catering business and a food commissary, a humming commercial kitchen with U.S. Department of Agriculture accreditation. Sourcing foods through Shamrock distributors, the kitchen does food prep for nearly all the Charro operations.
Jules Flin, a skilled stonemason, built a home for his family at 311 N. Court Ave. in the 1900s. Examples of his skilled stonework are still visible in the restaurant.
No wonder Flores is on the go 16 or 17 hours a day. In two weeks of chasing after Flores, I found her one afternoon at Sir Veza’s with her son, Raymon Flores, taste testing possible new carnitas dishes. Days later she greeted El Charro customers deep into a weekend night. And on a weekday lunchtime, she was racing between her commissary, “my cocina grande” as she calls it, and Charro Steak.
Above all else, Carlotta concerns herself with food. El Charro continues to serve up the classic Mexican comida of Sonora and Tucson, but she’s always tweaking the dishes to satisfy contemporary tastes.
“All the recipes I do are gluten-free, and all my roux are gluten-free, made with rice flour instead of wheat,” she says, though customers can opt for wheat tortillas. “We use no antibiotics and no hormones. I got rid of all fructose.”
Up-to-date selections include non-Tía Monica-like offerings like vegan tamales and enchiladas stuffed with veggies.
“The food has to taste good,” Carlotta says. “I’m testing all the time. This is my home. I’m going to eat here. My family, my friends, my customers are going to eat here.”
Raymon, the oldest of the Flores’s three children, calls himself third-generation El Charro. Proud that the business has been run for nearly a century by two women in succession, he and his siblings donated an interactive Mexican food exhibition to the Tucson Children’s Museum. A black-and-white portrait of Monica Flores in her prime, surrounded by paper flowers, presides over the toy foods and grills.
“There are three chapters to the El Charro story,” he says. “First, Monica. It’s a grand story about a single woman who was the pioneer. Second, when Carlotta took over. This is when the business prospered.”
And the third chapter?
“We’ve been there. We’ve done that. The question has to be about the test of time. Where are we going next?”
El Charro’s greatest boast is that it gave birth to the chimichanga. Carlotta Flores insists she was present at the delivery.
She was about 7 years old at the time, spending the night with her cousins at an all-girl slumber party at Tía Monica’s. Flin had no children of her own but was devoted to her nieces and nephews. “She was our great-aunt but she was like a grandmother,” Carlotta says. “She was a real Auntie Mame.”
At the party “we were all hungry and she was making ground beef burritos. She had a deep fryer and one of the burritos fell in the oil.”
Flin was angry but, so the story goes, refrained from muttering the Mexican expletive chingada in front of the kids. Instead she blurted out a variant: chimichanga.
El Charro’s greatest boast is that it gave birth to the chimichanga. Carlotta Flores insists she was present at the delivery.
The hungry girls ate the culinary mistake and loved it, and the newly named fried dish immediately made it onto Flin’s menu. “To this day, the chimi is one of my most popular items,” her great-niece says.
The roots of El Charro go even further back in Tucson’s history than this fateful pajama party. The tale begins with a Frenchman, Jules Flin, a skilled stonemason brought to town by Bishop Jean-Baptiste Salpointe. Salpointe was building Tucson’s first Catholic cathedral in the old Plaza de la Mesilla, current site of La Placita, and Flin carved its elegant Romanesque façade and spectacular circular rose window. Flin finished the job in 1883, but the church was demolished in 1936. Flin’s masterpiece was rescued. Today, his portal, rebuilt stone by stone, graces the exterior of the Arizona Historical Society on Second Street.
Flin married a Mexican-born woman of French-Mexican descent, Carlota Brunet (namesake of Carlotta Flores), and the two had a family of eight children. In 1900, Flin built a home for this flock at 311 N. Court Ave. Now on the National Register of Historic Places, the house boasts a fine example of Flin’s stonework at the base of the front porch: a foundation of black volcanic basalt rock, quarried from “A” Mountain.
Monica, the eldest child, born in 1887, spoke a linguistic potpourri of French, Spanish, and English and grew up with a similarly eclectic blend of foods. Living in Mexico for a time, she became an expert in Mexican cuisine. Widowed or divorced (the record is unclear), she returned to Tucson a single woman and supported herself by doing what she knew best: cooking. She opened her first restaurant in 1922, naming it for the precision horse riders of the borderlands.
One early location was on Fourth Avenue, another inside the Temple of Music and Art. Eventually Flin moved the operation to the center of town, to the two-story house on Broadway where the chimichanga was birthed—not far from her father’s old cathedral. Her menu was not strictly Mexican during her heyday in the 1950s and ‘60s.
“She was across the street from the Greyhound Bus Station,” Carlotta says. “Travelers went over to the restaurant, and she had roast beef, lamb, liver and onion, and pies on the menus.”
The kids would go along with Tía Monica as she bought produce from the Chinese grocers who raised crops in the fields along the Santa Cruz River and shopped for gourmet items at the Grand Central Market downtown. There was even a farmers’ market, Carlotta says, behind Jacomé’s department store.
Flin’s good days ended with the urban renewal of the late 1960s. The wrecking balls swung into downtown and smashed more than 260 buildings, destroying historic homes, both grand and humble, stores, restaurants, and even a theater. Flin’s building was spared—it still stands within La Placita—but she was evicted in 1966. She took refuge in her parents’ old family home on Court Avenue and re-established her restaurant there.
But it didn’t thrive. She was old by this time, 79 going on 80. “People took advantage of her,” Carlotta says.
It was time for Chapter 2.
Carlotta was born in 1946, the daughter of Monica’s niece Zarina and William Dunn, a Mexican-born Irishman. By the time Monica’s world had started to crumble, Carlotta was already married, the mother of two baby boys, and living in Los Angeles.
Having grown up around food, Carlotta was doing a little catering—deli meat platters and lasagnas—and her husband was building an electrical engineering business. But family matters called, and she came back home to Tucson in 1971 to get El Charro ready to put on the market.
“When I walked in and saw it, I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t sell it,” she says, shaking her head. Instead of selling El Charro, Carlotta took it over. The family returned to Tucson, and Carlotta hired two cooks who had worked for her aunt, who died soon after the transition. At first, Tucsonans were anxious that Carlotta continue Flin’s exact menu, asking for burgers and fried chicken, but she eventually made a purely Mexican menu.
A daughter was born shortly after the move, and the young family juggled running the restaurant with raising three little children.
“I would open the restaurant at 6 in the morning. Ray would take the kids. I’d get them after school. Then Ray had the night shift,” Carlotta says. The Flores offspring grew up in the restaurant, helping out at an early age by wiping the tables (“They thought it was a game,” their father says).
Carlotta’s husband, now 80, says he “had no interest in the restaurant business,” but nevertheless turned his attention to El Charro’s restaurant equipment. He did have one food skill. He’d grown up eating “fabulous” Mexican meals prepared by his mother, and he became the in-house food critic. “I was always a finicky guy,” he says.
By 1980, Carlotta’s careful attention to quality and Raymond’s proselytizing for his wife’s food paid off. El Charro Café began developing a national reputation. One day a reporter with The Los Angeles Times dropped by for a meal, and after eating Carlotta’s food and hearing Raymond’s spiel, he wrote that Tucson was “the Mexican food capital of the world.”
The story went viral before viral was a thing.
“It got syndicated,” says son Ray. “Every Tribune paper in the world ran it.” El Charro quickly began appearing on Top Ten lists throughout the country.
“Now, fast forward, the city has adopted a slogan, ‘The best 23 miles of Mexican food,’” Ray notes. “We said it before everyone else. And we were downtown before everyone else.”
The city center is hopping now, relishing its UNESCO designation as a City of Gastronomy. But the good times follow decades of a downtown downturn, when businesses fled en masse. El Charro Café kept the lights on during the dark years.
“Downtown became desolate,” Carlotta says. “It was a difficult time. We were off the beaten path but we stayed. I stuck it out.”
Tucsonans repaid the family’s loyalty by making El Charro Café a special occasion restaurant, where they celebrated engagements and mourned loved ones. One recent funeral luncheon, Carlotta says, memorialized an elderly man who had long ago proposed to his wife over an El Charro Sonoran meal.
Once their kids grew up, the Floreses began expanding their food empire. Ray readily admits he lacks his mother’s passion for cooking, but he’s tuned in to current trends. He developed the bar Toma, with 100 varieties of tequila.
There’ve been some setbacks. An early stab at a fast casual eatery, Charro Grille, misfired, Ray says, an idea ahead of its time. A popular eastside El Charro lost its lease when it was leveled to make way for a new CVS. And in the age of Yelp, Ray says, a restaurant can stagger if an angry diner spreads his or her rage far and wide online.
Despite the ramp-up in scale since the time of Tía Monica, Ray says, “Our product is still made the way it was 100 years ago, by hand.”
The family has high hopes for the new Charro Steak, in the heart of Tucson’s restaurant district. The décor is Mexican modern, with sheets of hammered copper on the walls, and the menu is contemporary. At lunchtime diners can choose their own mixtas to go with their steak—kale salad, for one, or nopalitos mixed in with classic creamed spinach for another.
For the first time ever, Carlotta has ceded her chef title and hired another chef to run the place. (At her other properties she still retains the title chef.) For Charro Steak she went with veteran chef Gary Hickey. “They have to be great steaks,” Carlotta says, nodding approval of the über-tender skirt cut chosen by Hickey for the lunchtime carne asada.
The new venture’s “story,” says Ray, is the contemporary mantra of “ranch to table.” But the trick is to balance the new ideas in food with the venerable reputation of the mother restaurant. The name of the new place, after all, is Charro Steak, Ray says.
As El Charro nears its 95th anniversary, Carlotta attributes the company’s forward-looking attitude in part to the third generation of the restaurant clan. All three of Carlotta’s children work in the business, Ray as president, brother Marques as the downtown manager, and sister Candace as head of catering, through the family-owned Stillwell House.
“I’m 70 and my husband is 80,” Carlotta says. “The younger members of the family are the force behind us to stay current.”
And it looks like a fourth generation is following the example of the third. On the day that Ray and Carlotta were sampling carnitas at Sir Veza’s, Ray’s wife, Sasha, hurried in with their two kids, Raymon, 7, and Alisandra, 5. Sasha works in real estate but she’d been called in to sub on a missing server’s shift at Sir Veza’s. She left the kids with their dad and they settled into a banquette with a practiced air.
The older child already seemed clued in to his place in the El Charro succession. Extending his hand, he introduced himself.
“I’m Ray,” he said, “And I’m the third one.” ✜
El Charro Café. 311 N. Court Ave. 520.622.1922. ElCharroCafe.com
Charro Steak. 188 E. Broadway Blvd. 520.485.1922. CharroSteak.com
Longtime Tucson Weekly art critic Margaret Regan has often written about Tucson’s history. She is the author of two award-winning books on immigration, Detained and Deported: Stories of Immigrant Families Under Fire and The Death of Josseline: Immigration Stories from the Arizona Borderlands.