El Charco is what happens when local lamb barbacoa guru (Paco) from Aqui es Texcoc teams up with the folks who own and operate a small chain of taquerias called Charco de las Ranas in Mexico City. Having eaten at both Aqui es Texcoco and Charco de las Ranas, I was curious to see what their love child would produce. Turns out some pretty decent food.
One of the menu items I had been enthralled with at Charco de las Ranas was their Chicarrón de Queso, a Mexican variant of the Italian frico, only bigger, a lot, lot bigger. A giant handful of cheese goes onto the plancha to melt and develop a crispy, crusty golden underside. With a few deft moves the taquerso would roll it and flip it out onto a plate for service. There's only 1 taquero at Charco in CV but he did a quite respectable version. The cheese was melty and crispy all at once, tho' a little bit oilier than the D.F. version. I'm guessing that may be due to the differences in the cheese used. The Chicarrón comes on an oblong platter with a side of chunky guacamole - think mashed avos enhanced with pico - and is enough to feed 2 people generously. It's a bargain at $4.
The menu is an mix of Queso Fundidos, Alambres, Tacos, Quesadillas, Sopes and a few entree-style plates.
Alambres are, esentially brochettas and come as bistec (steak), pastor (pastor), chuleta (pork chop, chopped), chuleta ahumada (smoked pork chop), costilla (pork rib), pollo (chicken) or chorizo. Accompanying them on the skewer are bell peppers, onions and tocino (bacon). All for $8. We didn't try these, but I probably will on another visit.
Tacos come in the same varieties listed above plus arrachera, another cut of steak. They are on small tortillas and pretty naked; just the meat and the tortilla waiting for the diner to garnish them al gusto (how ever you want) from the condiment tray. There are 4 table sauces, a thin avocado salsa that's a little on the astringent side, a salsa verde with a pleasant bit of heat, a soupy salsa fresca and a spicy, hot salsa rojo. The avocado salsa is forgettable (and I seem to recall it was pretty forgettable in DF as well), the salsa fresca marred by underripe winter tomatoes, but the salsas rojo and verde were quite nice and a good accent to any of the meats. Also included as part of the condiments were lime wedges, radishes, chopped onion, cilantro and chile. Most of the tacos are $2.00 each, the smoked pork chop is $2.10 and the arrachera $3.00. An "order" of tacos is 3 each and most orders are $5.80. Once again the smoke pork chop is $6.00 for 3 and it's going to set you back $8.00 for 3 arrachera tacos.
An interesting feature I can't recall seeing around town is the option to order any of the taco meats by the kilo (2.2 lbs). This is actually pretty common in Mexico (especially at places specializing in carnitas) where you simply order the meat bulk and they bring you baskets of warm corn tortillas, the condiments and everyone at the table digs in.
The potato flautas from Aqui es Texcoco turn up on the menu along with chicken or bean flautas, 3 for $6. All of them are garnished with shredded lettuce, crema, cotija and salsa.
I have always been a sucker for sopes but have been rouitinely disappointed by the ones I've tried here locally. So it was with a bit of trepidation that I actually ordered the sopes and I am so happy to report that they were really good. We had 2 sopes de chuleta (pork chop), 1 with chorizo and 1 al pastor. The masa base was appropriately thick with a crispy outer shell that shattered when bitten, best of all the masa was not a dense leaden mass as is what so often happens to it. Liked the pastor, loved the chuleta, the pork chop being done a la plancha (on the flat top) with seared spots and tender meat. But my favorite hands down was the chorizo. Probably the best chorizo I've had in San Diego. Flavorful, rich, chunky and not greasy. I would eat it in anything in which it is offered. I don't know if it's made in house or something Paco brings across the border or has made to specs here in SD. If you like chorizo and you go to El Charco, try it. 3 sopes per order for $6.25 and you can mix and match, all 3 don't have to be the same.
Quesadillas can be made with any of the meat choices listed above for $2.75. The cheese quesadillas are $2.50 and rajas (roasted chile strips), huitlacoche, mushrooms and calabaza/zucchini are among the choices. A cousin to the quesadilla - the sincronizada - is also offered here. I've also not seen much of this menu item around SD. The sincronizada is ham and cheese sandwiched in a flour tortilla and then griddled until the cheese is ooey, gooey and melty. $2.25 for these.
We didn't try it, but I did notice that Niederfrank's is making a special jamacia sorbet just for El Charco. I'd love to try that :-)
El Charco has only been open about a month and I think they've probably still got a few bugs to work out. The soup and at least 2 of the salsas could have been better. The pastor was good but didn't wow me, I've had better. I'd like to see the flavors developed a little better. But the place is spotless, well lit, the staff friendly and bi-lingual and everything is made to order. Based on how good and how well run Aqui es Texcoco is, I suspect that El Charco will improve as it gets more experience under it's belt.
Is this the best Mexican food in SD, naw. It won't blow you away and it's not a religious experience. It's just some good, well priced Mexican food served by very nice and dedicated people.
El Charo Mexico City Style Tacos is located at 1310 3rd St in Chula Vista. It's basically at the corner of 3rd and Palomar, about 50 ft south of Palomar on the west side of the street. Easy parking.