If you’re in the mood for Mexican food, there are numerous choices around town. But do you ever wonder why the customers at these restaurants are all American and the only Mexicans you see are the ones serving you? So where do Mexicans like to eat when they go out? Apparently they like to gather at at El Charro, a little taco joint and grocery store on Green Street that makes no attempt to cater to American tastes.


If you’ve been to Mexico, you may have noticed that a “real” Mexican restaurant serves a lot other dishes than our typical “Tex-Mex” restaurants on this side of the border. Well, El Charro is no Tex-Mex joint. Walking into El Charro is almost like crossing the border — as soon as you enter, you’ll notice the colors are little brighter, the music a little louder and the people a little friendlier. That’s because the owners are right there behind the counter cooking for you. In fact, if you order the guacamole, they’ll peel the avocado and mash it up just for you (sometimes it’s a little on the chunky side, but that’s the way I like it).

Weekends are the best time to go. El Charro usually has a few specials not on the regular weekday menu. Their carnitas (slow roasted pork) draws crowds on weekends. Well-seasoned and very tender, the chopped chunks of pork are moist and succulent, ready to be wrapped in tacos and doused with hot sauce. The best part is the chewy and crispy skin, which I’m sure is not good for my cholesterol level, but I could not resist. Be careful, this stuff is so addicting that after downing a whole platter, I decided to ordered a pound to go for later.

 

On a recent visit, I also tried the menudo (beef tripe soup), a spicy and delicious broth loaded with giant chunks of very tender beef stomach. Served with a generous side of fresh cilantro and chopped onion which I immediately dumped into the steaming bowl, one can easily travel back to Mexico just through the aroma. This is peasant food at its best.

If you order the tacos, be prepared to order at least six. They’re small compared to what you get elsewhere, but then again, this is exactly what you would get if you ordered tacos at a Mexican road-side taco stand. Wash it all down with some exotic Mexican sodas (choose from tamarind, mango, pineapple and other flavors) and you’ve just gone on a mini-vacation.

 

For an authentic Mexican treat, head over to El Charro. And while you’re there, feel free to stock up on exotic spices and chorizo sausage from their butcher shop. Be sure to check out their bulletin boards as this is also a great place to find out about upcoming Mexican bands who are touring through the Midwest — many of them stop in town and play a gig at Lava on Bradley Avenue.

El Charro Mexican Grocery Store & Taqueria
55 E. Green St., Champaign, Ill.
(217) 337-6647