"Downtown" is a state of mind as well as geography in Tucson, where a resurgent city center blends youthful energy and eco-consciousness with a sense of community and historic heft. It's only fitting that the Flores family, whose downtown presence dates back to the opening of El Charro Cafe in 1922, has transported that state of mind to the Northwest. The latest addition to the Flores Concepts dining group, Charro Vida features a dazzling Mediterranean-meets-Mexico menu that's largely plant based.
Largely, but not entirely, which is part of the restaurant's draw.
Carlotta Flores, chef and matriarch of all things El Charro, called Charro Vida's food "flexitarian," noting that fish, fowl, and meat, including the famed carne seca, are available here too. The dishes also cater to diners with food allergies, as well as to adherents of the keto diet. Care is taken to avoid crossover: All the plant-based dishes are prepared separately from the meat dishes, many on a duo of mesquite grills, and there's even a dedicated gluten-free fryer.
Expanding on his mother's explanation for the restaurant's wide-ranging appeal, Raymon Flores said, "A lot of people who are vegan really appreciate that they can go out with other members of their family or non-vegan friends and know that no one will feel encumbered in their choices. We're here to provide options."
Charro Vida's menu marks a natural progression of cooking practices that, in addressing the Flores family's health issues, have anticipated many current culinary trends. For example, it was her father’s heart condition that inspired Carlotta to create recipes that eschewed lard and cut back on sodium.
Later, as a result of developing lupus, Carlotta perfected many vegan and gluten-free dishes, the latter a natural for corn-based Mexican cuisine. And when son Raymon was diagnosed with cancer, all the restaurants shifted to using grass-fed, antibiotic- and hormone-free beef—not only healthier but also a nod to the family's ranching roots.
Beyond addressing personal health concerns, earth-friendly, sustainable practices have long been key to Carlotta's philosophy. Early on, she was part of a group of culinary pioneers like Janos Wilder and Donna Nordin (of Cafe Terra Cotta fame) who believed in using the fresh, local ingredients of the Southwest and who tried to educate others by example. "Being a teacher through food has been my philosophy for 30 or 40 years," Carlotta said, "although not everyone is aware of what we do."
If Charro Vida doesn't depart from the basic culinary tenets of the other Flores Concept dining rooms, it definitely shifts the menu's emphasis, making the most of nutrient-rich ingredients like nopales, quinoa, and hemp seeds, in addition to fresh greens and nuts. Nor is there stinting on plant-based protein, a major complaint of many vegans, who can here enjoy such south-of-the-border fare as tempeh asada with frijoles campos. And the use of vegan cheese and crema makes a lot of classic Mexican dishes accessible to those with dairy sensitivities – and, with their standout texture and taste, equally appealing to avid devotees of milk products.
Similarly, you'd never know that mesquite flour was substituted for wheat in the superb chocolate churros, served with coconut milk-based whipped cream. Carlotta tells a fond story about her granddaughter, Ellie, who had never before tried this dessert because of her sensitivity to flour and dairy. "When she was able to eat the churros here, her little eyes lit up," Carlotta said.
If all of the different dietary features seem difficult to track in the abstract, don't worry. Servers are well trained to guide first-time guests through the menu, which also has a key that identifies vegan, vegetarian, gluten-free, and keto-friendly dishes.
The most popular – and versatile – of the dishes exclusive to the restaurant are the bowls. The Vida Bowl, for example, tops an assortment of whole grains with avocado, nopalitos, roasted potatoes, and beans with the protein of your choice, ranging from jackfruit carnitas and ahi al pastor to pollo asado and carne seca.
Other specialties unique to Charro Vida include Hola Hemp Mini Chimis, made with vegan queso, chile verde, guacamole, and pico salsa; Sunflower Enchiladas, featuring mole pipian sauce and kale chicharron; and Short Rib Charro Beef, sided by nopales, roasted potatoes, and onions. This last dish is not even available at downtown's Charro Steak, although its kitchen is helmed, like Charro Vida's, by executive chef Gary Hickey.
It may seem strange that two restaurants seemingly at the opposite ends of the culinary spectrum share an executive chef, but vibrant flavors and creative recipes are common denominators at both. Chef Hickey described the process of crafting the menu with Raymon and Carlotta Flores: "We kind of lock ourselves in a room, throw ideas up on a whiteboard and, after looking at the supply chain and market trends, ask, 'Is it viable, is it endearing, will it last?'"
The most important feedback comes from outside that room, however. Hickey said, "We talk to guests every day about what's good, what's working, what's not. The guests are our sounding board."
While the menu is firmly anchored in Mexico, Charro Vida also channels the country's Old World roots. The restaurant resides in a red-tile-roof building in the Spanish village-style Casas Adobe Plaza, fronted by a cheery umbrella-shaded patio and small garden that grows many of the herbs used in the dishes. Inside, a series of airy, light wood-accented rooms have a welcoming Iberian feel.
Olive oil is widely used in food preparation and menu items include the Spanish Lesson appetizer, featuring warm olives, roasted garlic, and Marcona almonds. Two types of sangria and the Spanish Carajillo, a cocktail blending espresso with a vanilla-flavored liqueur from Cartagena, are on the drinks list.
Tapping into the widely touted health benefits associated with Spain's Mediterranean diet, Raymon Flores created a backstory for Charro Vida that links the Mexican cowboys after whom El Charro was named with the original charros of Salamanca, Spain.
The restaurant's logo draws on the intricate artistry of the charro buttons once used in Salamanca to secure the ponchos of the region's famed horsemen. Raymon explained the iconography of the mandala-like symbol designed for the restaurant: "We have the agave, the lifelong plant of the desert; twelve dots, one for each calendar month; and a frame of embedded hearts. We lead with plants in the middle and we do this with heart for our community."
One way that Charro Vida demonstrates the strength of its community commitment is through its first-of-a-kind support for the University of Arizona's Community and School Garden Program. The menu not only incorporates produce grown in the gardens, depending on seasonal availability, but a portion of food sales goes to the program, which has helped failing public schools in the city improve their ranking.
There's a different type of community seen in the conviviality that Charro Vida engenders by the inclusive nature of its fare. The use of plant-based brand JUST Egg and dishes designed around it means that vegan brunchers have a festive place to go on the weekends, replete with potent potables that honor their lifestyle.
In addition to nutrient-rich and high fructose corn syrup-free cocktails—to which a shot of CBD can be added—Raymon said, "We made a big effort to specifically source vegan wines."
"All wines are plant based but some use a filtration process that includes gelatin or fish bladders," he explained. "We started a Wine Wednesday with half-off bottles all day and live music from 5 to 7 to try to get people to know about this program."
It's apparently working and drawing a diverse crowd from different parts of the city. On one of these Wednesdays, chef Hickey reported that he heard a happy diner comment, "Oh this is great. It kind of feels like we're downtown."
Charro Vida, located at 7109 N. Oracle Rd., is open from 11 a.m. - 9 p.m. daily.
For more information, visit charrovida.com.
Edie Jarolim has worn many hats, including a sombrero on a one-too-many-margaritas night. She earned a Ph.D. in American literature from New York University and was a guidebook editor at Fodor’s (Random House) and Frommer’s (Simon & Schuster) in New...