When I first posted my Best Mexican Restaurant In Tucson competition on my TucsonCitizen.com blog in early January 2012, I got a lot of comments. Seems everyone here has his own favorite. But I had dined at most of the suggested contenders and found them lacking in something: margaritas, enchiladas, chips & salsa, service ... something.
(Note to you fans of Mi Nidito. You can read my review here and understand why it is not in the running.)
Tucson has a lot of Mexican restaurants and not all are worthy of a second visit. Knowing which ones are best is most important when you have visitors from out-of-town. After all, you don’t want to be embarrassed by taking them to one that they aren’t going to rave about.
With our extended family here over the Christmas (2011) holiday, it was a perfect time to compare Mexican restaurants for our Southern Arizona Guide viewers. As a reviewer, I generally try to involve many people in my dining excursions so that I can get a variety of opinions. I think this approach provides our viewers with a broader, more nuanced review. We all have different preferences when it comes to food and drink.
I’ve long since lost track of the number of people who have asked me which is the best Mexican restaurant in Tucson. I usually direct them to one of three: El Charro Cafe on Court Street; Cafe Poca Cosa on Pennington; or Theresa’s Mosaic Café. I sometimes joke that Mosaic Café at Silverbell & Grant is the best Mexican restaurant hidden behind a McDonald’s.
Over the years, I have dined at all three many times and all are very good. But which one is best? The Quest-For-The-Best became one of our fun family goals for the holidays.
El Charro Downtown (Only)
Before half the family scattered immediately after Christmas Day, we all went to El Charro downtown on Court Street, in part because we wanted to be able to walk the few blocks to the Tucson Museum of Art to see the newest exhibits. Our TMA always has great exhibits.
For those of you who don’t know, El Charro Cafe' on Court Street in the historic district is the oldest continually operated family restaurant in the United States – 1922. It has been praised in the New York Times and many other national publications so many times, I’m sure the family has lost track.
In recent years, El Charro has opened several other restaurant by the same name. The same name does not mean that you will have the same excellent experience. Because dozens of people have warned us away from the new ones, I will not include them in a review because I hate having to write negative reviews.
Location, Location, Location
In any competition for the best Mexican restaurant in Tucson, El Charro Cafe' on Court Street has a serious advantage. It’s located within a few blocks of the most historic section of Tucson. Within easy walking distance are the Tucson Museum of Art, including the restored, historic Corbett House; El Presidio de Tucson – the original 1776 Spanish fort; Old Town Artisans; and several other worthwhile attractions with in 7 blocks, such as the restored Train Depot and Transportation Museum; and the Arizona Historical Society’s excellent little museum about Tucson’s history in the Wells Fargo Bank building on Stone.
On this website, I also have several videos I created featuring most of these places in the Historic District. Browse the list here.
To Be Seated In The Basement Or On The Front Porch?
As we were a large group, I assumed El Charro would seat us in the basement of the old house because that is what they did a few years ago. While it’s hard to imagine, the basement provides a pleasant dining atmosphere. Nevertheless, they seated us on the front porch and, thankfully, just below the heater. (Yes, even Tucson can be chilly in the holiday season.)
So Many Items To Review
When reviewing Mexican restaurants, there are many aspects to consider. The main dishes of course, but also the chips, salsa, guacamole’ and, most importantly, the margaritas.
Bowls of fresh chips & salsa arrived immediately and automatically as befits any first-rate Mexican restaurant. Then we ordered drinks. Some ordered coffee, some ordered iced tea. Our two teenage grandsons, Jon & Morgan, ordered just water with a lemon wedge. Middle daughter, Paige, ordered a margarita with 1800 tequila. I ordered a margarita with just the plain ol’ ordinary tequila.
I have always liked El Charro’s regular margaritas, but when Paige’s 1800 arrived I just had to have a taste. Without question, hers was better. When our meals came I ordered one of those – as I will do from now on and forever. Wow!
It was at that point that I made a mental note that El Charro’s bartender mixes several unique “hand-made” margaritas, and that as a professional, in the near future, I will have to sample each one (perhaps several times).
We then ordered Tia Monica’s especial guacamole’ appetizer, now world famous. Excellent! We all agreed that El Charro’s guacamole’ is the best ever. With fresh chips right out of the oven, El Charro’s special guacamole’ is, in my experience, unsurpassed.
The Main Course
Then came the main dishes, most with El Charro’s famous carne seca (spiced beef dried on the premises) and lots of delicious cheeses. El Charro’s lunch menu is extensive and we took full advantage – enchiladas, tacos, burritos, tamales, mole’ con pollo (chicken), tostados; with rice, frijoles, and either corn or flour tortillas. In short, a feast, and one that was sure to set back my diet several pounds.
Even though ours was a large group and it was their very busy lunch hour, the service was only slightly slower than usual, but otherwise efficient and friendly.
Everyone gave El Charro very high marks. The question now was, “Can El Charro be beat?” At that moment, as we were leaving to walk down to the Art Museum, no one in our family held out any hope for the other two contenders.
El Charro Cafe
311 N Court Ave, Downtown Tucson
Next, we visit Theresa's Mosaic Cafe'.
For Dining reviews of the Best Dining in Southern Arizona visit us here.