25 September, 2022, 23:27

100 years later, El Charro Café shows no signs of slowing down

El Charro Café celebrates its 100th Anniversary this year. As America’s oldest Mexican restaurant continuously run by the same family, El Charro has created a legacy. This long-time success is due to the hard work, passion, and creativity of two very special women: Monica Flin, the founder and Carlotta Flores, her grandniece, who has run El Charro for over 50 of those years.

So much has been written about Monica Flin in the last 100 years since she opened El Charro Café in 1922, that it might be hard to separate the real Flin from the myth. For example, an article in a 1952 Tucson Citizen described her as having a “jolly personality.”

While Dona Monica, as people addressed her back then, was known for a most radiant smile, another newspaper quote seems more fitting. Flin was admired for her “dauntless spirit.”

Flin was a “dynamo”, a “pistol”, a “one-of-a-kind” veritable force of nature, a woman ahead of her time. She spoke her mind, did what she wanted to do, and shared her zest for life with family and friends all during a time when women were supposed to be meek and mild.

El Charro Café

El Charro Café (Photo by Isaac Stockton)

She hunted. She fished. She was known to gather all her nieces and nephews for overnight shopping trips via a train to California. During the height of Prohibition, she’d host card parties for her lady friends and serve liquor in tea cups to fool the Feds.

At Thanksgiving, she would prepare full meals both American-style and Mexican-style for customers, giving everyone a whole turkey.

Stories vary on how many times she was married.

In later years when her knees were weak, she had an “elevator chair” installed between the restaurant and upstairs apartment. The device was the first of its kind in Arizona. At a time when most people start planning their retirement, she fought city hall to help preserve the historic building that housed her restaurant.

El Charro Café

El Charro Café (Photo by Isaac Stockton)

Of course, Tia Monica, as folks call her these days, was also a fabulous cook. She used those talents to open her own business in a time when women didn’t open businesses by themselves. Using her mother’s recipes, she made tamales, tortillas, and even ground her own chili powder from scratch. She’d serve the rabbit and duck she had hunted, too.

An early ad in the August 1929 Official Tucson City & County Guide shows El Charro located at the site where Caruso’s is today. The owner’s name is Mrs. Monica Fernandez. In later ads, Tia Monica uses Flin.

El Charro relocated several times over the years. From the Fourth Avenue location, she moved to the Temple of Music and Arts building and then to the site on Broadway that established El Charro as a bona fide Tucson gem. But during the massive urban renewal in the late 1960s, she was forced to move.

In true Tia Monica style, she fought it but was unsuccessful (although she was able to save the building) and the business had to move. She knew the ideal spot: her old family home on Court Street that her father, Jules Flin, a famous stonemason, had built as the home for his family of eight children. Jules had moved here on a commission to help build the original St. Augustine Cathedral and put down roots here.

Tia Monica has also been credited with creating the first chimichanga when she accidentally dropped a burro into hot oil — yelling the word “chimichanga” in deference to the kids in the kitchen.

El Charro Café

El Charro Café (Photo by Isaac Stockton)

Contrary to other reports this was not done near the time she opened El Charro in 1922. In an interview with Carlotta Flores a couple of years back, she noted remembering being there. She also noted in an article in the Tucson Citizen that chimis were not a regular item on the menu until much later, but were a daily special. Reading the menus from the 1960s backs her story.

Last year, Frank Powers of The Comic Bookmobile, created a coloring book/comic/children’s menu to celebrate the magic moment.

Not long after the move, Tia Monica decided it was time to pass the spatula. Her niece Zarina Dunn, Carlotta’s mother, took charge. But Tia’s shoes were a little too big to fill and the family started talking about closing the business, and that’s when Carlotta came to the rescue.

Carne Seca Burro at El Charro Café on Court Avenue

Carne Seca Burro at El Charro Café on Court Avenue (Credit: Jackie Tran)

On a visit home from Los Angeles where she lived with her husband, Ray Flores, and two toddler boys, she knew immediately that she had to keep the restaurant open. So, the Flores family packed up their life and moved home to El Charro Café.

Carlotta and Ray took over in 1971 with Carlotta cooking and running the daily kitchen work. Ray put his skills to work on the business end. Their youth and love for the El Charro brought needed change while maintaining the spirit of Monica’s decades of work.

One major change was how the signature carne seca was prepared.

El Charro Café

El Charro Café (Photo by Isaac Stockton)

Flin had dried the seasoned beef on clotheslines in a shed in back of the restaurant. As an engineer, Ray designed a cage that sat on the roof. Today’s cage is hoisted with a pulley, making access easy.

The menu took a spin toward more healthful eating, but Carlotta kept the old ways of preparing many of the dishes.

El Charro Café

El Charro Café (Photo by Isaac Stockton)

They modernized the kitchen and rehabbed the dining room without losing the look and feel of the space. In 1992, the Flores’ opened ¡BarToma!, a tequila-focused bar located next door and enclosed the area between the buildings creating a lovely patio. A tiny gift shop, La Tiendita, was also added.

El Charro Café

El Charro Café (Photo by Isaac Stockton)

Catering is a major part of the picture. The menu ranges from Fiesta Trays for smaller groups to a variety of banquet and buffet options for thousands of people. Events can be held at your site or at one of the restaurants.

In 2013, a larger concept in the MGM Hotel Las Vegas called Hecho in Vegas was opened. The restaurant has since closed due to the pandemic.

The Flores’ even coordinated working with the U.S. Navy. The U.S.S. Tucson submarine still serves dishes from El Charro.

Bringing some of her best recipes to home kitchens, Carlotta created Carlotta’s Kitchen, which sells El Charro products. Today, you can also buy their tamales, which can be shipped anywhere.

Carlotta is as much a dynamo as her great aunt. In the early days, she worked the line, acted as the charming hostess, created new recipes, oversaw an expanding staff, raised a family of now three children, and brought the world to El Charro Café’s front door.

Petite in size, she stands out in a crowd. Under her guidance young chefs have blossomed to lead their own kitchens. She supports entrepreneurs of every kind. At food festivals and charity events, you’ll find her there dressed in a brightly colored chef’s jacket serving the crowds. Her cookbook, El Charro Café, The Tastes and Traditions of Tucson, was published in 1998.

Gary Hickey and Carlotta Flores at Charro Steak (Credit: Jackie Tran)

Gary Hickey and Carlotta Flores at Charro Steak (Credit: Jackie Tran)

Carlotta is the heart and soul of this busy food empire. And because of her hard work, the culinary world became aware of this Tucson treasure.

Using many of Carlotta’s recipes. Jane and Michael Stern, known for their column Road Food in Gourmet wrote The Flores Family’s El Charro Café Cookbook as part of their America’s Best Regional Restaurants series in 2002. Additionally, the Sterns, who have eaten all across the country, named El Charro one of “The 10 Best Restaurants in America.”

El Charro has been featured in Bon Appetit, People, Parade, The Smithsonian magazine, as well as The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, and countless other national newspapers.

El Charro Café

El Charro Café (Photo by Isaac Stockton)

But the kudos don’t stop there.

In 2008, Gourmet magazine named El Charro Café one of “America’s 21 Most Influential Restaurants.” USA Today named El Charro’s chimichanga as one of “America’s 50 Plates.” In 2011, Arizona Highways included El Charro in their “50 Best Restaurants in Arizona”, and the restaurant represented Arizona in the annual “Flavor of the Nation in 2017.”

To top it all off, El Charro was a James Beard Foundation Semifinalist for “Outstanding Restaurant” in 2019.

Recently, the city of Tucson renamed the block in front of the downtown restaurant to El Charro Street. And, of course, Carlotta and El Charro were the stars in this season’s Top Chef finale on the Bravo network.

El Charro Café

El Charro Café (Photo by Isaac Stockton)

But it isn’t just the restaurant that’s won acclaim.

This year Carlotta was one of Forbes magazine’s “50 Women Over 50” — an honor given to outstanding businesswomen. Just a couple of years ago, in 2019, Chicanos Por La Causa honored her with their “Cause For Change Award.”

Tia Monica was listed as part of Arizona’s Women’s Heritage Trail for her contributions to Arizona history, and in 2021, she was named as one of the “Top 40 Most Influential Cooks” by MSN, along with the likes of Martha Stewart, Rick Bayless, and David Chang.

While the kids have been a part of the scene since they were little, all three play essential roles these days.

Ray Flores Jr., who was recently named one of “America’s Most Influential Restaurant CEO’s” by National Restaurant News readers, is the president of Flores Concepts, the umbrella company that includes the various entities. Younger son Marques Flores oversees the day-to-night operations at the flagship restaurant downtown, and daughter Candance Flores-Carillo is in charge of catering and events, many of which are held at the historic and lovingly refurbished Stillwell House.

Ray Jr. opened the Si Charro! brand (the name of the umbrella company) to other restaurant concepts. Over a period of six years, Si Charro opened six very different concepts without losing that Flores family magic touch. First, in 2016, came Charro Steak, a ranch-to-table restaurant. Two years later, they opened Charro del Rey, an upscale seafood restaurant honoring Ray Sr. It adjoined Charro Steak and the two eventually became one restaurant. In 2019, the plant-centered, Mediterranean-influenced Charro Vida opened in Northwest Tucson at 7109 N. Oracle Rd. There the focus is on vegan/dairy-free dishes although meat lovers can find plenty to choose from.

Bandera Enchiladas at Charro Vida

Bandera Enchiladas at Charro Vida (Credit: Jackie Tran)

Then just prior to the pandemic, the Flores’ partnered with the owner of Barrio Bread, Don Guerra, a James Beard award-winning baker, and opened Barrio Charro at 3699 N. Campbell Ave. The concept is unlike the other restaurants in that it is geared for a quick meal and has Mexican sandwiches and such.

During the early days of Covid restrictions, Ray Flores established the Tucson Restaurant Advisory Council (TRAC), to help restaurants stay open. Working with the Tucson Metro Chamber, TRAC helped restaurant owners through the complexities of the times, from securing masks to loan forgiveness and much more. Few people know that Ray was one of the founding board members of El Rio Clinic, which brought health services to underserved communities. He remains on the board to this day.

2022 saw the opening of The Monica.

Named after Tia Monica who started this empire, although she could never have imagined how far her little business would grow. Located in the heart of downtown, The Monica is truly something different. The restaurant is open for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, offers fast-casual and sit-down service, and has a menu ranging from pizzas on Barrio Bread’s focaccia to steak and smoked salmon toasts.

The Monica

Photo courtesy of The Monica on Facebook

One might wonder how the family has any time left for anything but work, but a family tradition of giving back to the community is a way of life for the Flores’.

The list is long and ongoing but recently Ray Jr., in collaboration with the University of Arizona, began a Children’s Garden, where local school kids can participate in growing and cultivating food for The Monica. He has also started Second Tuesdays where Tucson makers can sell their wares. This will be held at The Monica every second Tuesday of the month.

Also, at the Children’s Museum Tucson, the team created a miniature kitchen and bodega where kids can learn about food and how to make churros.

For the 100th Anniversary, there are numerous celebrations in the works:

El Charro Café is located at 311 N. Court Ave. Plus, there’s a location in Oro Valley at 7725 N. Oracle Rd. and another found at 6910 E. Sunrise Rd. For more info on the contests and everything there is to know about the Si Charro! restaurants, visit sicharro.com.

Rita Connelly is the author of "Lost Restaurants of Tucson," "Historic Restaurants of Tucson," and "Arizona Chimichangas" published by The History Press.

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