With a craving for Mexican, limited budget, and no patience for the line at Chipotle, I walked around Green Street until I stumbled upon El Charro. As soon as my friend and I walked in on that cold Tuesday evening, we were warmly greeted by two of the waiters. They told us to have a seat wherever we liked, which left us with many options considering we were the only customers in the restaurant. We chose the booth below the flat screen, which prompted the waiter to fetch the remote and try to find something we would want to watch. He landed on Teen Mom 2, which was perhaps his attempt at appealing to two college girls. After he left the remote at our table, we immediately changed it to the Olympics. Despite the initial strangeness of television choice, I felt as though I was hanging out at a friend’s house, watching some TV and relaxing.
As I skimmed through the menu, I had the great pleasure of snacking on the chips and salsa that were brought to our table. The salsa was very mild, but wasn’t lacking in flavor. It tasted incredibly fresh, with a slight citrus bite. The consistency was very thin, having only small pieces of tomato and onion in it. The perfectly salted chips were fried and crispy — these were no Tostito’s.
The menu had a large variety of classic Mexican dishes. There were tacos and burritos, and tamales and nachos. Most of the dishes had a choice of steak, chicken, pastor, or vegetables. The entrees ranged from about $6.99 to $9.99. In addition, the menu included a breakfast section, weekend specials, and a kids menu.
We decided to order some queso to start. The waiter asked us how spicy we wanted it, which was nice since customers don’t normally have an option. We decided that we would like it just a little spicy and that’s precisely how it came. The consistency was thin, which seemed to be a common theme around El Charro. I had to be quick at getting the chip from the queso bowl and into my mouth because the liquidy cheese liked to roll off the chip and drip everywhere. However, I had no problem shoveling these chips into my mouth, as they were quite delicious. The cheese was a very light color and balanced with just the right amount of jalapeño kick. It definitely made me excited for the rest of the meal, as it was obvious that the chefs at El Charro knew what they were doing.
I ordered the quesadilla El Charro. When it arrived at the table, I was very impressed by the presentation. The quesadilla was laid out in a neat row of vertical slivers next to a heaping pile of rice, with lettuce, tomatoes, and sour cream along the edge. There were small lime wedges on the side as well. This was a beautiful plate of a generous amount of food. I was a little surprised by the contents of the quesadilla. Amongst the pieces of chicken were a fairly large amount of chopped tomatoes and chopped onions, but the part that surprised me was the amount of cheese — or lack thereof. There was only a small amount of melted cheese on the inside of one half the quesadilla. Personally, I enjoy a bit more cheese in my quesadilla. However, the onion flavor kept the quesadilla from being bland. The chicken was grilled and unseasoned, and the chopped tomatoes and onions were also unseasoned. The rice was very tasty and tomato-y. It also had hints of onion in it. In addition, the rice was cooked well, leaving it with the right amount of moisture. It tasted especially good when I poured some leftover queso on top.
My friend ordered the steak fajita. As with the quesadilla, the fajita came on a nicely arranged plate, although we were expecting it would come on a sizzling skillet. We then realized that maybe that’s just a silly American thing done at places like Chili’s. But this fajita didn’t need any sort of showy display of hissing meat; the flavors spoke for themselves. The plate was an explosion of steak, diced tomatoes, peppers, onions, and shredded cheese, all atop a bed of rice. The tortillas were neatly rolled to the side and wrapped in paper. Like my dish, there was also a pile of lettuce, tomatoes, sour cream, and lime wedges. The meat itself was cooked to perfection and was neither too chewy nor too undercooked. It definitely tasted like good quality meat. The freshness of the vegetables was apparent and there was a good meat to vegetable ratio. The fajitas were only a little spicy from a small amount of seasoning on the steak. This was balanced by the sweetness of the green peppers. Also, a squeeze from the lime wedges added a refreshing hint of tartness. The tortillas were more grainy than fluffy. For those who want to kick it up a notch, the chefs could make this dish as spicy as you wish.
After finishing about a third of my meal, I was stuffed. Yet, I still caught myself nibbling on the leftover chips and salsa because they were that good. Apparently, I wasn’t the only one who felt this strongly about them because during the time I was there, there were two occasions of a man coming in just to eat chips and salsa and then leaving. I may just have to do this someday.
In addition to being a restaurant, El Charro is also part grocery store. There is an enormous wall of all sorts of spices, along with items such as chips and sauces. They also have fresh cheeses, tortillas, cilantro, tomatoes, and deli meats. El Charro is definitely a great place to go if you’re looking to make your own Mexican food.
I would surely recommend El Charro to anyone looking for some quality Mexican food. The prices are very reasonable and there is a large variety on the menu. Also, the staff treats you as if you are an old friend and provide great service. As for as atmosphere goes, this place isn’t anything special; it’s definitely laidback and casual.
With other Mexican options on campus, especially Maize which is right across the street, it seems to me that El Charro gets overlooked. Perhaps it is the subpar décor. Whatever the case, El Charro is still definitely worth a shot. They have half price tacos on Wednesday, which evidently draws in many students and the whole place becomes very busy. So, either go on Wednesday when it’s hoppin’, or on a weeknight and, if you’re lucky, you may just get free rein of their flat screen. Either way, you can’t lose.
El Charro is located at 55 East Green Street, Champaign, and is open Monday through Saturday, 9 a.m. to 9 p.m., and Sunday, 9 a.m. to 7 p.m.