Tradition is important at El Charro Cafe. Founded in 1922, it claims to be the oldest Mexican restaurant in the United States that’s been continually operated by the same family. In that time, generations of chefs have passed down and perfected some seriously delicious recipes. The most important of these menu items can be seen drying in a dangling cage outside the restaurant every day.
The dangling delicacy is El Charro’s carne seca. The jerky-like product starts as thinly sliced beef that gets marinated in garlic and lemon juice, then hoisted in the metal cage for a day’s worth of drying in the hot Sonoran sun. After baking further in an oven, the hard beef is then shredded into pillowy mounds of meat that adorn dishes ranging from tacos to enchiladas to cheese crisps.
Long before it was a Tucson icon, El Charro was the brainchild of a stonemason’s daughter. Jules Flin came to Tucson from France after he was commissioned to build the city’s Saint Augustine cathedral in the late 19th century. There, he met and married Carlota Brunet, who was of Mexican and French descent, and the couple had several children. But despite the holy overtones of Flin’s occupation, his daughter, Monica, didn’t exactly grow up to be the pious, quiet type. Carlotta Flores, Monica’s great-niece and Charro’s current executive chef, told Biz Tucson that her great-aunt was a chainsmoker who “drank martinis from a teapot while playing card games during Prohibition.” That insatiability also applied to food. After briefly living in Mexico, Monica fell in love with the country’s cuisine. When she returned north of the border, she opened a restaurant and named it El Charro, a term for a Mexican horseman.
The restaurant had a slow start and, during a particularly difficult period, Flin had to relocate into the family home, which her father had built in 1896. This is the current site of El Charro’s downtown branch on Court Avenue, and its oldest location. It retains some decorations brought over from the original restaurant as well as stone fixtures designed by Jules Flin himself. The spot became so successful, it spawned three additional locations in Arizona and one honorary “location” under the sea. Although they don’t serve the restaurant’s menu, the U.S.S. Tucson submarine wanted to pay tribute to one of its namesake city’s most historic eateries. Its galley is officially named “El Charro Down Under.”