El Charro Café Tucson, Arizona

By James Coope  Contributing Editor


El Charro Café has been a staple in Tucson’s local restaurant scene for more than a century. I’ve dined in many places around the world, but it is rare to come across a restaurant with so much history, so many stories and so many accomplishments.

Back in the 1880s, Tucson was home to just over 7,000 people, decades before air conditioning made it easy to live there. One of the residents was Tia Monica Flin, the daughter of Jules Flin, a French stone mason. Jules Flin moved to Tucson to build Tucson’s St. Augustine Cathedral and played a part in building many of the historic buildings in Tucson’s downtown core, including the family’s own home on Court Avenue in 1896, which would eventually become the first El Charro location.

In 1922, an entrepreneurial Tia Monica Flin converted the 1896 family home to what is now – El Charro. Believe it or not, practically everyone alive who has ever lived in or visited Tucson has probably heard of and quite possibly dined at El Charro. It was a restaurant clearly ahead of its time – it was founded and fully operated by a woman, which was groundbreaking in its own right. By 1922, Tucson had almost tripled in size to just over 20,000 residents, and much of what we know of Mexican food today had not even been invented. In fact, El Charro lays claim to the “home of the original chimichanga,” a modern staple of Mexican dishes.

Legend has it that in the early years of the restaurant, Mrs. Flin was frying tacos when she accidentally dropped a burrito in the pan. The burrito drop was indeed a happy accident, as the finished product was a hot and crispy version of the burrito that would later be called the chimichanga. There are some choice words in the Spanish language that start with “ch,” but chimichanga is the equivalent of “thingamajig, a cleaner version of what may have been a different name for the first chimichanga ever created. Ever since, Mrs. Flin has been known as “The Inventor of the Chimichanga.”

El Charro became legendary in large part due to the accidental chimichanga invention, but the establishment has also remained an important part of the Tucson fabric for more than 100 years. El Charro now has three locations in town, a catering business and is the official Mexican food restaurant of the hometown University of Arizona Wildcats. El Charro’s first location on Court Avenue – originally built as the family’s home – remains the flagship location of the restaurant business. Best yet, it’s stayed in the family the entire time, now operated by Mrs. Flin’s grand-niece, Carlotta Flores. El Charro claims to be the nation’s oldest Mexican restaurant in continuous operation by the same family.

Located down the street from Tucson’s high-rise office towers and city administration buildings, the original El Charro is a destination spot for lunch and dinner alike. Plan to make a reservation or expect to wait – it’s not a big place, and it always seems to be busy. Aside from the bright “El Charro” neon sign up front, the original house looks and feels much like it did 100 years ago when the place first opened. There are perhaps four to six tables per room, each with a unique look and feel. The enclosed porch with the metal roof allows you to sip your margarita and watch the world go by outside, while the interior rooms with their vintage pictures on the walls offer a quiet, romantic vibe. Either way, it is hard not to feel at home at El Charro, and that feeling is shared by many. Gourmet Magazine recognized El Charro as “One of America’s 21 Most Legendary Restaurants” in 2008.

In the event you arrive early (or forget to make a reservation), the El Charro bar, located in the back next to a classic cantina-style courtyard, is a great spot to hang out and enjoy one of El Charro’s margaritas and a vast selection of tequilas.

Once seated, the guacamole is always on point – three fresh avocados, diced and mixed with tomatoes, onions and fresh-squeezed lime juice, prepared right next to your table. It’s hard not to order a grilled steak chimichanga. You can order the chimichanga with various styles, from poblano crema to queso style, but I stick with the original chimichanga style, a simple but tasty preparation. While the steak chimichanga is a must-have for any visit to El Charro, there is a lot to choose from on the menu. For beef lovers, the carne seca – strips of beef that have been sun-dried in racks outside and then shredded – is a delicious addition to many dishes at El Charro.

Tucson is well-known for its restaurants and dining – in fact, in 2016, it was named the first U.S. city to be honored by United National Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization with the coveted title of Capital of Gastronomy. There have been many restaurants and concepts that have come to Tucson over the past 101 years, but none come as consistently recommended and represent Tucson more than El Charro.

Next time your travels take you to southern Arizona, be sure to stop by the old house on Court Avenue for a meal you won’t forget!